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From the Introduction: “Misconceptions”

Think of your earliest childhood memory.

Now hear Paige Latin’s. “I was about two. It was in the washroom of my home, where I lived with my mum and dad. I remember the washroom. It was yellow. I don’t have a face for the man’s body, but I have the body and . . .” Her voice drops off. “He sexually abused me. He was the first of many.” Paige is talking to a score of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds at a secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Her talk is part of a personal campaign to raise awareness about sexual abuse in order to prevent one of its worst consequences: prostitution. She doesn’t intend to, but she is also slowing population growth. A second major consequence of child sexual abuse is a high birthrate.

Think of your father.

Now listen to social worker Charlie Langdon testifying before the legislature in Olympia, Washington. “What’s really sad, Representative Boldt, is that in this state, the last figures show that only 54 percent of fathers are documented. The paternity was only established in 54 percent of births to school-age mothers. So there’s no way to get child support, and that’s one reason so many kids live in poverty.” He doesn’t intend to, but, like Paige Latin, he is slowing population growth. Youth poverty is the single largest cause of high birthrates and early childbearing in North America.

Think of a housing development going in near your hometown.

Now listen to Republican representative Chuck Carpenter in Salem, Oregon. “My constituents have expressed a lot of concerns about growth. Increasingly, they are paying for the additional schools and the infrastructure. Taxpayers should know the true costs” of urban expansion. Carpenter has introduced a bill into Oregon’s legislature requiring a “taxpayer impact statement” for development of rural land. He doesn’t intend to, but he too is slowing population growth. Subsidies to new suburban development artificially lower the price of housing for middle- and upper-class migrants, inducing additional migration.

Paige Latin, Charlie Langdon, and Chuck Carpenter–disparate in most of their life experiences and outlooks–are on the front lines of efforts to slow population growth in the Pacific Northwest and, by extension, North America. And they do not even know it. For reasons entirely their own, they have homed in on three of the seldom-noted roots of population growth: child abuse, child poverty, and subsidies to suburban development. Some people are digging up other roots, too, including the starving of family-planning and abortion services and ill-conceived immigration laws.

Unfortunately, other people are unwittingly speeding population growth, by acting (again, for their own reasons) in ways that reinforce the causes. And many people–most of us, perhaps–hold misconceptions about population and the driving forces behind it. The misconceptions themselves may well be the largest barriers to slowing growth.

These misconceptions include the belief that population growth in developing countries causes most of the world’s environmental problems but that population growth is not an issue in North America. They include the belief that newcomers moving into an area boost the local tax base. They include the belief that most immigrants arrive illegally. They include the belief that family planning is the cure for population growth, wherever it occurs. The misconceptions include the belief that teen parenting is the cause of much poverty in America–that if only teenagers would practice personal responsibility, they would escape poverty for themselves and their children. They include the belief that generous immigration quotas in North America benefit developing nations. And they include the belief that lots of public money goes to the poor through welfare programs while North Americans who are not poor pay their own way.

These misconceptions leave us all misplacing blame. We blame the poor, the young, women, and immigrants for our social ills; we blame poor nations for our planetary woes. We blame too much of population growth on the Third World and blame population growth for too large a share of nature’s and society’s ailments.

Make no mistake: population growth is among the defining challenges of our era. Worldwide, it exacerbates problems ranging from dwindling topsoil to overcrowded classrooms. And widespread public concern about our growing numbers led to the landmark United Nations Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, where the international community made a commitment. It resolved to provide all the world’s women with the means to choose their own reproductive future, thereby establishing the conditions for stabilizing human numbers.

Unfortunately, public concern about population, though wide, is not terribly deep, so this commitment remains largely rhetorical. The heart of the matter is that population growth, like most global problems, is best addressed locally. And local solutions require local knowledge, local actors, and local motives–motives grounded in local values.

So this book, which aims to help slow population growth, examines that growth in one discrete place: the Pacific Northwest bioregion, which stretches from Prince William Sound, Alaska, to the redwood coast of California–along a shoreline once cloaked in nearly continuous rain forests–and spreads inland to headwaters as far east as the continental divide. Defined as the watersheds of rivers flowing into the Pacific through North America’s temperate rain forest zone, this bioregion encompasses the Canadian province of British Columbia and the American states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington plus southeastern Alaska, northwestern California, and western Montana.

With a population of 15 million and a gross regional product exceeding $300 billion, the Pacific Northwest is a natural proving ground for a new, Cairo-inspired approach to population. The Northwest is the most ecologically intact part of the industrial world, and it is home to people who are among the best educated and the most environmentally informed.

This place has the opportunity to demonstrate a population approach that averts growth by activating bedrock North American values: protecting vulnerable individuals while nurturing the health of communities. After all, population is nothing but a four-syllable word for “us.” So policy that addresses population must be built on the foundation of each person’s inherent dignity, worth, and potential. Affirming this principle, Misplaced Blame is about slowing the growth of human numbers by better caring for people, both because that’s the only ethical option and because it’s the only option that can work.

The Pacific Northwest is also a test case of international significance because it has far more than its share of population growth. Regional growth outstrips national and global growth rates. Many longtime northwesterners are disturbed by this silent surge, pained by the incremental losses they have watched come with it: deteriorating air and water quality; crowded streets, parks, and wildlands; and rising housing costs. Yet most northwesterners assume that nothing can be done.

They are mistaken.

Growth would be inevitable were its causes simply the exercise of basic human rights such as reproductive freedom or freedom of movement. But recent growth has not come purely from free choices, consciously made. It has also come from chance, ignorance, and failures in government leadership. Specifically, population growth in the Northwest has five roots: child poverty, child sexual abuse, inadequate family-planning services, subsidies to domestic migration, and ill-guided immigration policy. Attack these roots, weed them out, and growth will slow dramatically.

Already, some signs are heartening. Birthrates have declined during the 1990s across North America. The churning displacement of people and communities that has dominated this century in North America is abating slightly. Mobility is slowing, and more people are putting down roots. International migration into North America has probably peaked and begun to diminish. And these hopeful signs have emerged despite the lack of concerted public attention to population growth. What might be possible if we tried?

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April 13, 1997