There is no "official"
word yet on when it will happen, but by some estimates America's population will hit
the 300-million mark on Monday. But don't take that as a firm date just yet. The
Census Bureau tells me:

There is no U.S. Census Bureau report or publication
that specifies when the U.S. population will reach 300 million. The
media articles on this topic are based on the Census Bureau's U.S. Population
Clock, which is a short-term projection derived from our most recent round of
national population estimates. For further assistance on this topic, please
contact our Public Information Office ... [at] (301) 763-3030.

The Census Bureau says it will have more about the story maybe today or tomorrow.

See the Census Bureau's population clock. If anybody can nail down the official time, I suspect TV cable networks will put the countdown clock in the lower corner of the screen.

Here are the numbers:

One birth every 7 seconds

One death every 13 seconds

One international migrant (net) every 31 seconds

Net gain of one person every 11 seconds

Click here to see the state-by-state population growth from 1790 to 2000.

The Christian Science Monitor reports:

... Americans are expected to continue to gravitate west and south. Today, the top 10 fastest growing states, cities and metropolitan areas are all in those regions, mostly in the West. In general, the West and South have been growing two to three times as fast as the Northeast and Midwest.

The great American midsection, meanwhile, will continue to empty out.

The Monitor has been running a weekly series leading up to the 300-million mark:

News Angles

Journalists, no doubt, will search for the mythical 300 millionth American. But remember, it might be a baby born at the exact time that the official population estimate rolls over to 300 million or it could be an immigrant entering the United States at that time. Either is possible.

Journalists might also use this occasion to explore issues of growth, sprawl, immigration, conservation and energy consumption. There are other topics highlighted in the newest study [PDF] by The Center for Environment and Population (see Page 8 of the study):

  • Over the past 100 years the U.S. experienced the largest population increase ever in its history, and its population density doubled.
  • Population distribution shifted south and west, and those regions dominated the century's growth.
  • The U.S. went from being primarily rural to urban and suburban, with the proportion of urban residents doubling from 40 percent to 80 percent.
  • "Metropolitanization" (growth in cities and surrounding suburbs) most characterizes the nation's demographic change. By 2000, half of all Americans lived in suburban areas, and 4 out of 5 lived in broader metropolitan areas.
  • Today, America is the third most populous country in the world after China and India, yet represents only 5 percent of the global total. The U.S. population, at about 300 million, doubled since 1950.
  • The South and West are the country's most heavily populated and fastest growing regions, and now contain over half of the entire U.S. population. The Northeast is the most densely populated region.
  • [More than] half of all Americans live within 50 miles of the coast, in just one fifth (17 percent) of its land area. Population density on the coasts is five times that of other parts of the country.
  • Of the nation's ten fastest-growing states, half are in the coastal South and another four are in the driest western areas, making them among the nation's most vulnerable "population-environment" hotspots.

USA Today said in July that the biggest driver of growth is immigration -- legal and illegal.

About 53 percent of the 100 million extra Americans are recent immigrants or their descendants, according to Jeffrey Passel, demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. Without them, the U.S. would have about 250 million people today.

The newcomers have transformed an overwhelmingly white population of largely European descent into a multicultural society that reflects every continent on the globe. Some arrived as war refugees. Most came in search of better opportunities in a country that has strong civil rights and a stable economy. Once here, they had babies, which helped the nation maintain a birthrate that is higher than that of Europe and Japan.

The Boston Globe points out:

The U.S. population passed the 100 million mark in 1915 during World War I. It took 52 more years for the population to grow from 100 million to 200 million.

But it only took 39 years for the U.S. population to grow from 200 million to 300 million. Here are the annual calculations.

Is there a way to know who the 300 millionth person is? In a word, no. But that has not stopped us in the past from anointing somebody anyway. As The New York Times reported early this year:

In 1967, when the population reached 200 million, Life magazine dispatched 23 photographers to locate the baby and devoted a five-page spread to its search. Instead of deciding on a statistically valid symbol of the average American newborn, the magazine chose the one born at precisely the appointed time.

Life immortalized Robert Ken Woo Jr. of Atlanta, whose parents, a computer programmer and a chemical engineer, had immigrated seven years earlier from China. Mr. Woo graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and is a litigator. Now 38, he still lives in Atlanta with his wife, Angie, who is also a lawyer, and their three daughters.

"He did feel an obligation to do well," Ms. Woo said. "But I think he would have done well, regardless."

This time, like last, the selection is subject to all manner of qualifications, not the least of which is the conceit that the census can measure individuals so precisely as to determine the exact time that the population tops 300 million or, playing the odds, can define the average American newborn.

Newhouse Newspapers reports this snippet:

Reg Murphy, an Atlanta Constitution reporter who later became editor of that paper and others, covered Woo's birth for Life and his first five birthdays for the Constitution.

One year, Woo remembers, a photographer prostrated himself to get a good shot of him on his bicycle. "I am watching this full-grown man in a suit lying down on my driveway." Another year, a photographer appeared at his kindergarten class. "I did not like that at all."

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Gerber Product Co., the baby food manufacturer, asked the U.S. Census Bureau for guidance in anointing a newborn the 300,000,000th American. But it turned out there wasn't much the bureau could do, said spokesman Robert Bernstein, because no one actually counts each new American.

The clock is an estimate based on an algorithm that takes into account births, deaths and immigration. The bureau collects monthly birth and death numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics, Bernstein said. Net immigration is derived from the American Community Survey, an annual polling of several million U.S. residents.

Right now, the formula is one birth per seven seconds, one death per 13 seconds and one net increase in immigrants per 30 seconds. Because the number of deaths has to be subtracted from the number of births, immigration now accounts for about 40 percent of population growth.

The Census Bureau has not forecast the day the milestone will occur, but the algorithm points to Oct. 16.

Newhouse also reports:

America hit 100 million in 1915. It's estimated we'll reach 400 million in 2040.

But most us haven't the foggiest idea how many people inhabit the United States. According to a USA Today/Gallup Poll of 1,002 people in June, 29 percent thought the population was less than 200 million, 19 percent thought it was a billion or more, and 27 percent wouldn't even hazard a guess.

What Does it Mean to Reach the 300-Million Mark?

The Christian Science Monitor raises the question: "What is the environmental effect of 300 million people in America?" It is not all awful news.

In many ways, Americans have mitigated the impact of their increasing presence on the land. Since reaching the 200-million mark back in 1967, they have cut emissions of major air pollutants, banned certain harmful pesticides, and overseen the rebound of several endangered species. Despite using more resources and creating more waste, they've become more energy efficient.

The danger, experts say, is that the U.S. may simply have postponed the day of reckoning. Major environmental problems remain, and some are getting worse -- all of them in one way or another connected to U.S. population growth, which is expected to hit 400 million around mid-century. Some experts put the average American's "ecological footprint" -- the amount of land and water needed to support an individual and absorb his or her waste -- at 24 acres. By that calculation, the long-term "carrying capacity" of the U.S. would sustain less than half of the nation's current population.

"The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world experiencing significant population growth," says Vicky Markham, of the Center for Environment and Population, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization in New Canaan, Conn. "That, combined with America's high rates of resource consumption, results in the largest ... environmental impact [of any nation] in the world."

While the U.S. population grows, many other countries have a declining population at a time when their average age is climbing. That could cause problems as baby boomers retire and there are fewer people of working age to support them.

Look at this Associated Press chart, which shows estimated population gains and losses by 2050:

USA Today says:

For a country that has equated growth with prosperity throughout much of its history, 300 million is prompting soul-searching about everything from the consumption of natural resources and sprawl to border control and traffic jams. The Census Bureau's population clock will hit the momentous number barely a month before midterm elections in which illegal immigration is a volatile issue.

Half of Americans say their communities have grown a lot in the past five years, but more than three-fourths say growth is a minor problem or no problem where they live, according to a USA Today/Gallup Poll taken in early June. Though about a third say growth will become a major issue in their communities, more than half say it will be a major problem for the country as a whole. Almost half attribute population growth to immigrants.

Will We Run Out of Space?

After U.S. population hit 200 million in 1967, Paul Ehrlich gained notoriety with a book called "The Population Bomb," which predicted mass starvation due to population growth.

No such dire warnings accompany the Center for Environment and Population's newest report, released just before we're estimated to hit the 300 million mark. (To download the report, see the left rail of the Center's homepage.)

The report's author, Victoria Markham, tells Reuters, "We aren't saying there's too many of us ... We were trying to step back and take a look at the broad picture and at the population trends and the scientific data."

The report finds, according to Reuters:

  • Each American occupies 20 percent more developed land -- housing, schools, shopping and roads -- than 20 years ago.
  • Each American uses three times as much water as the world average; over half the original wetlands in the United States have been lost, mainly due to urban and suburban development and agriculture.
  • Half the continental United States can no longer support its original vegetation; nearly 1,000 plant and animal species are listed by the U.S. government as endangered or threatened, with 85 percent of those due to habitat loss or alteration.
  • The United States consumes nearly 25 percent of the world's energy, though it has only 5 percent of the world's population, and has the highest per capita oil consumption worldwide.
  • Each American produces about 5 pounds (2.3 kilogram) of trash a day, up from about 3 pounds (1.4 kilogram) in 1960; the current rate is about five times that in developing countries.

An upbeat op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times by a Brookings Institution fellow, Gregg Easterbrook, says individuals' fears about running out of oil or elbow room with 300 million neighbors are unfounded. Easterbrook writes:

Nor should we worry about running out of land, at least in the United States. The U.S. is among the world's least-populous nations, with one-eighth the population density of, say, Britain. The "built-up" area of the United States is far smaller than most would guess, with about 7 percent of the U.S. land mass converted to cities, roads and similar uses. Even if you include agriculture as a built-up use (modern high-yield agriculture is far from a natural condition for land), only about one-quarter of the United States has been converted to suit the wishes of people. Subtract the parts of the Rocky Mountains, Southwestern deserts and Alaska that aren't suitable for most kinds of habitation, and there remains plenty of land in the U.S. for substantial future population increases. Some nations -- Bangladesh, China, India and Japan -- already are approaching their usable-land limits. America's lies far in the distance.

What Will We Look Like in 2030?

Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post says:

By 2030 the 65-and-over population will be about 20 percent of the total, up from about 12 percent in 2000, the Census Bureau says. That will involve staggering costs for Social Security and Medicare. Meanwhile, the bureau's projections assume annual immigration of about 1 million, roughly the present level. That will transform the nation's ethnic profile and could reshape its politics and culture. By 2050 Hispanic Americans will be almost 25 percent of the total, double their share in 2000, the Census Bureau projects. Asian Americans also will double their share, to 8 percent, by 2050, while non-Hispanic whites are forecast to drop from 69 to 50 percent. Blacks are projected to stay around 13 to 14 percent.

What 300 Million Means to Plants, Fish and Farmland

Three areas that need our attention as we add more people to this county are biodiversity, protecting fisheries and marine populations and the loss of agricultural land.

The new Center for Environment and Population study said [PDF -- see Pages 8 and 9]:

Biodiversity: About 6,700 known plant and animal species are considered at risk of extinction in the U.S. Almost 1,000 species are listed by the U.S. government as endangered, and 300 as threatened ([more than]twice the number listed a decade ago), mainly (85 percent) from habitat loss and alteration. Half of the continental U.S. can no longer support its original vegetation. The biodiversity decline, called the "sixth mass extinction" in the Earth's history, is for the first time ever being attributed primarily to human activity.

Fisheries and Aquatic Resources: Thirty percent of assessed fish populations in U.S. coastal waters are either overfished or fished unsustainably. A third of all U.S. lakes, a quarter of rivers, all of the Great Lakes and two-thirds of the nation's coastline were under a fish-consumption advisory from pollutants in 2004, many related to mercury contamination. About a third of America's freshwater animal species are "at risk." (Also see U.N. report for world picture.)

Agriculture: Nearly 3,000 acres of U.S. farmland are lost every day to development, with the rate of loss increasing. America's prime farmland was developed 30 percent faster than other rural land in the past two decades.

Numbers USA, a public policy group, put it this way:

The rate of rural land lost to development in the 1990s was about 2.2 million acres per year. If this rate continues to the year 2050 -- when today's toddlers are middle-aged -- the United States will have lost an additional 110 million acres of rural countryside. That's about equal to the combined areas of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Virginia.

Added to the loss of an area equivalent to Maine and New Hampshire, the losses by 2050 will amount to much of the Eastern Seaboard.

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