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Dare To Deal With Population Growth
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by Cliff Terry | 2007

Promoting smart growth won’t save us from sprawl and other environmental losses unless we curb population growth.

Smart Growth by itself cannot prevent open space from disappearing, and much else of what we value along with it. We must also curb growth itself. But we, the environmental movement have been far too silent about the issue of population growth.

That was the message of Ed Stennett, former population chair of the Sierra Club’s Maryland Chapter, in a presentation to a Friday Night Forum at the Towson Unitarian Universalist Church in October 2005. Unfortunately, every bit of his message is still just as true today. Here is a drastically condensed version:


The year I was born the population of the U.S. was about 130 million. 56 years later when my granddaughter Katie was born, the population was 270 million. If Katie’s first grandchild is also born 56 years after her birth, the projected population will be 425 million. And 56 years after that, the projected population will be essentially 600 million people. Allowing our population to increase this way absolutely assures our failure to protect our environment.

Smart Growth programs have mitigated the damage done by out-of-control growth. But Smart Growth programs cannot alone prevent open space from disappearing. This is because the amount of developed land varies in proportion to both the population of the region and the per capita land consumption. That is, if either of these two factors increases by 10%, say, and the other is unchanged, 10% more land will be developed.

Thus, any benefit from achieving lower per capita land consumption is only temporary. Unless we stabilize our population, we will eventually lose our open space even with more frugal per capita land use. The difference is only that with more people each using more land, we would lose open space even faster.

If we examine traffic congestion, susceptibility to drought, the precarious state of the Chesapeake Bay, and a number of other environmental concerns, we find that population growth makes each problem worse. But it seems that the more we grow, the less we want to face reality.


It’s Time to Deal with Growth Itself

We in the environmental movement need to acknowledge and address the problems that US population growth poses so that we don’t lead people to falsely conclude that either: a) our population growth is not a major issue or b) nothing can be done about it. So do the news media. They need to stop avoiding the population component in stories about environmental problems. We and the media both need to reject the two widely held misconceptions that:

1. Growth is necessary for prosperity, and

2. Population growth is too hot a topic to discuss.

We unconsciously accept the “growth is good” myth because it is human nature to believe what we are told over and over again. Our indoctrination begins early with high school history textbooks extolling the early expansion of the U.S. But by far the most persistent promoters of the story are those who profit from growth: newspapers, politicians, and business associations.

A 2002 Brookings Institution study of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. determined there was negligible correlation between population growth and personal income growth. Obviously, the total economy of a region increases with population. But for the typical citizen, this does not translate into greater personal prosperity.

As to the second misconception, there is no question that many people consider population growth a hot topic. Negative images pop into people’s minds: images of their procreative freedoms being abridged, racial issues, and emotional debates about immigration. But there was a time when Americans were comfortable discussing the need to stabilize U.S. population. President Nixon spoke of it in speeches, and the Sierra Club even proposed 1990 as the target stabilization date. But today, after increasing our population by nearly 100 million people in just 35 years, environmental organizations and nearly all Americans tiptoe around this elephant in the kitchen.


Speaking Up

Effective environmental lobbying depends on public support. Stabilizing the U.S. population is virtually impossible as long as Americans remain uncomfortable discussing the issue. 

When we read or hear something that promotes population growth or asserts that population growth is inevitable, our job is to speak up—contradict the false assertions. When we see local organizations fighting subsidized growth, our job is to lend support by articulating that growth brings a loss in the quality of life. When we observe environmental organizations pretending that population growth does not necessarily contribute to adverse environmental impact, our job is to protest – let them know that their pretense foretells ultimate failure.

Our society is engaged in a crime against future generations. Most Americans can plead not guilty by reason of ignorance, but not environmentalists. 


Cliff Terry is the Maryland Chapter’s Population Chair.

> 2007 Table of Contents


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