Bay Journal

Growing Concern

How can we be 8 million strong or more without weakening the Bay?

  • By Tom Horton on October 01, 2011

This is the first in an occasional series in the Bay Journal.

Can we grow our way to a healthy Chesapeake?

Are continued economic expansion and the population increase needed to fill more jobs and consume more products compatible with a restored and sustainable Bay?

Since World War II, growth has been the policy objective against which all other objectives (like environmental protection) are judged, says historian Andrew Yarrow in "Measuring America-How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness."

Economic growth was "the pot of gold and the rainbow," he quotes Walter Heller, chief economist to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Growth and the wealth it creates remain widely touted as the way to solve unemployment, poverty, overpopulation and environmental degradation, Yarrow wrote.

No wonder that Googling "economic growth is bad" gets a few hundred thousand hits, while "economic growth is good" gets tens of millions.

But after decades of unprecedented economic growth, and even before the current recession, compelling doubts have been emerging about growth's ability to deliver in a world getting more polluted and peopled.

The United States is the world's third most populous nation, after China and India. It is on track to nearly double today's 310 million people by 2100, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed's population doubled in the last 50 years, one reason the estuary still struggles in the fourth decade of a federal-state restoration. Globally, with population hitting 7 billion this fall, an estimated 60 percent of natural systems are in decline, from rain forests to ocean fisheries. The National Academy of Sciences says that extinction rates are running 100 times normal.

And the continued buildup of carbon dioxide from growing human activity has shifted the emphasis with climate change from prevention to adapting and averting catastrophe.

Misgivings about continued growth have engendered a spate of thoughtful books proposing alternatives. Among them: Canadian scientist Peter Victor's "Managing Without Growth"; also "Prosperity Without Growth?" by Tim Jackson of the United Kingdom's Sustainable Development Commission; and former Maryland planning expert Eben Fodor's "Better, Not Bigger - How to take control of urban growth and improve your community."

The discipline of ecological economics, scarcely envisioned when the Bay restoration began in 1983, has spread internationally to research and promote economies that can operate within natural constraints.

More growth is not the way to a better, cleaner Chesapeake or planet, say the ecological economists, whose numbers include the University of Maryland's Herman Daly and former Chesapeake Bay researcher Robert Costanza.

The reason: A global economy that took all of human history to reach $600 billion a year by 1900 now grows that much every two years. To sustain this current, $16-trillion-a-year enterprise takes more natural resources than the Earth can deliver over the long haul; and if the planet's billions succeed in living like Americans, it would take several Earths to sustain that.

Even with greener and more efficient lifestyles and technologies, "it seems unlikely that the world can sustain a doubling of the material economy," says the textbook, "An Introduction to Ecological Economics." Yet the growth plans and aspirations of most nations call for expanding well beyond a doubling. Accompanying that is population growth projected by the United Nations to add 2 billion to 3 billion people.

On the Chesapeake Bay, one way to cast the magnitude of the issue is in increments of 8 million people.

From Capt. John Smith's 1608 exploration of the Bay and settlement of the Jamestown colony, it took close to 350 years for the population of the watershed to reach 8 million.

The Chesapeake by then, in the 1950s, was hardly pristine, but its major systems were functioning and overall environmental quality was good enough to be an unofficial benchmark for the goals of the current restoration.

During the next 50 years as the population grew by another 8 million, the Bay's vital systems - underwater grasses in the shallows and oxygen in the deeps - crashed. And despite a restoration that got under way in earnest in 1987, there has been no broad recovery. Of course, without restoration efforts, the situation would be far worse.

The third 8 million citizens are not here yet; but with the population growing across the watershed by 1.5 million a decade, they will be in about 50 years.

It is important to realize that new people don't just happen. Driven by policy imperatives to grow their economies, every political jurisdiction in the watershed's six states competes to attract new residents.

The coming 8 million present a formidable environmental challenge. To restore the Bay to its 1950s-level, 8-million-person water quality, the pollution from the current 16 million people entering the estuary must be reduced more than 20 percent, a daunting task with no guarantee of success by 2025, the latest deadline.

But then, pollution must be held constant even as population and commercial activity continue growing. In other words, the next 8 million people (and all growth beyond that) must move in with virtually no pollution - or more realistically, pollution from everyone must be reduced massively to offset the impacts of coming millions.

"To do less than no net increase in pollution would be a loser's game," said former Maryland State Sen. Gerald Winegrad, who leads an informal coalition known as Senior Scientists and Policy Makers for Chesapeake Bay.

But is any of that realistic, given the difficulty of just moving the current population's impacts back to the 1950s?

Or must we also rethink growth itself?

In this series, the Bay Journal will examine whether we can reasonably expect a restored Bay in a growth economy. Is growth as good, necessary and inevitable as commonly claimed? Are alternatives possible?

We will examine current strategies, embraced by both government agencies and nonprofit environmental groups that rely almost wholly on reducing peoples' environmental impacts, without regard to how many people there are.

These impacts, running the gamut from sewage and air pollution to development and fishing, are often referred to as our "ecological footprint."

Essentially, the current conceptual model for Bay restoration places most of its bets on cleaner cars, higher sewage technology, renewable energy, cleaner farming; on our ability to reduce our "footprint" so effectively that tangling with the twin taboos of population and economic growth won't be needed.

Population increase, while recognized as a major driver of environmental problems, is not an official concern of the EPA, the lead federal agency on the Bay's restoration. It is treated more like weather, something to be dealt with as it occurs, accommodated as best one can. As a nation, the United States has no population policy.

It's important to remember that the focus of this series on growth in no way invalidates ongoing efforts to reduce one's ecological footprint. Even if all growth ceased, current pollution loads are significantly higher than a healthy Bay can tolerate and would need to be reduced.

A special mention should be made of agriculture. Runoff from farmland and manure is the single largest source of Bay pollution, and none of it appears directly related to human growth. But rising population results in more intense use of the land that feeds us; and increasingly the use of biofuels, like corn-based ethanol, to supply growing human energy needs leads to increased agricultural runoff.

The shortcomings with a footprint-only approach can be seen from some recent analyses that look at the prospects for reducing carbon dioxide, the primary agent in climate change, through lifestyle changes and technology only, as growth continues.

Researchers are finding that in a world of 9 billion people, all aspiring to grow their economies, keeping carbon dioxide within reasonable limits would require almost unimaginably difficult reductions on the "footprint" side.

Around the Chesapeake, we can see something similar to this with forests, which are among the least polluting land uses we know of, and which are in decline. A recent report, Chesapeake Futures, looked at the prospects for forests if every state-of-the-art strategy for protecting them were applied across the Bay watershed (except reducing growth).

The upshot was still additional losses of 200,000 acres of forests. The implication is that working the footprint side of the equation alone, ignoring how many "feet" are present, often adds up to being worse than we are now and less bad than we might have been, but not to restoration.

Even with energy efficiency, an area where the modern growth economy has fostered substantial strides, there is evidence it has only slowed the rate of increase in energy use.

In this series we'll also look at redefining our current measures of economic progress, which count as positive the asphalt purchased to pave a wetland, while failing to subtract the valuable work the wetland did in filtering pollution. Maryland and a few other states are experimenting with ways to value nature better in economic terms.

We'll examine whether growth actually correlates with individual incomes and people's feelings of well-being in many parts of the United States.

It might seem the worst time to question growth, in the depths of what many are calling the Great Recession, with unemployment at high levels and stock markets gyrating downward. In the short term, government has little choice but to try and rev the current economy and get people working again.

But it is also a fertile time for questioning whether the economic growth model conceived more than 60 years ago may have run its useful course; whether its benefits, which we measure and publish in exquisite detail, may no longer outweigh its costs, to nature and to social well-being, which are not nearly so well-accounted for.

Evidence is mounting that it is not working well for the environment or for people's lives. More than a billion people live in extreme poverty, and more than another billion live on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations. In the United States, a majority of citizens appear to be sharing in growth's benefits less and less.

Victor in his 2008 book, "Managing Without Growth," notes that even the modern notion of progress - each generation being better off than the previous one - emerged in Western thought only three or four centuries ago; and the idea that economic growth is the prime directive of government is far more recent: Economics textbooks from the 1930s scarcely mention it, while texts from the 1960s devote chapters to it.

In other words, the way we currently do business, while entrenched, is scarcely something hard-wired in our genetic code.

To be sure, no one has all of the answers to fundamentally changing the "grow or die" economy. It is no accident that the United Kingdom book, "Prosperity Without Growth?" has a question mark in its title. The subject is a debate needing to happen, and needing to happen around the Chesapeake as much as anywhere.

Mathis Wackernagel, a pioneer in developing the concept of measuring our ecological footprint that measures human impacts on the environment puts it this way:

"How can we all live well and live within the means of one planet should be the research question of the 21st century."

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About Tom Horton

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. He is a freelance writer, splitting his time between Baltimore and Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Read more articles by Tom Horton

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