An analysis

“I thought this was about the Bay, but most of your speakers the first day are talking about the economy?”

This query came in various forms from environmentalists considering the Bay Journal’s Growth and the Chesapeake conference earlier this winter.

But economics was exactly the point of the first Bay agenda ever to challenge the “grow or die” paradigm that rules modern society. Our environmental crisis, from the Chesapeake to the planet, is really an economic crisis.

Growth is good, growth is necessary, growth is inevitable. This mantra is accepted with little analysis. It consigns our “save the Bay” efforts to operating in a framework that requires “no limits” to the human economy and population — an approach that severely limits reducing environmental impacts.

In fact, economic growth no longer delivers for most of us, environmentally or economically; and better alternatives exist. That was the consensus of noted economists, energy experts and planners from the United States and Canada, who were drawn to Hood College.

The economic downturn since the crash of 2008 isn’t a blip that will soon turn up, said Richard Heinberg, energy expert and author of “The End of Growth: Why We Won’t Be Able to Resume Business as Usual.”

Two of the biggest reasons, he said: fossil fuels, principally oil — and consumer debt.

With oil, which has driven economic growth like nothing else, we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit, exploited the cheap and easy sources. With new technologies, we can squeeze plenty more out of shale, tar sands and ultradeep wells in remote oceans; but too expensively to fuel growth as usual. And alternatives like solar, wind, conservation and ethanol can’t repeat oil’s past energy and economic windfall.

The other fuel for economic expansion has been the radical increase of personal debt, to where consumer spending supports 70 percent of the U.S. economy. And that, too, appears to have reached its limits in 2008. Only government debt is still growing.

Heinberg’s low-hanging fruit has its counterpart in the Bay restoration. Sewage treatment has been the major source of cleanup progress to date; but we’ve neared the limits of technology and affordability. Future gains from stormwater and agriculture are likely to be tougher to achieve politically and economically as growth continues.

Herman Daly, the dean of ecological economists, said humans have gone from a world that for most of time was “empty” to one that is in just the last several decades “full.”

It is no longer our ability to build better fishing boats and nets that limits fishing; it is limited fish. It is no longer our ability to generate power that limits us; rather it is the limits of the atmosphere to safely absorb pollution.

Yet we still operate by economic growth principles that evolved in a world relatively empty of humans and their environmental impacts, Daly said.

For example: A panel of Bay region ecologists said that we still try to protect fish by reducing fishing, even as we know the real fish killer is growth of development in watersheds around streams and rivers.

Growth does have economic benefits, but to the influential and politically connected few rather than the many, said planning expert Eben Fodor. He has studied the links between high population growth communities and the average citizen’s prosperity across the nation.

He has found population growth, per se, does little to reduce poverty and unemployment, and that its costs — up to $95,000 borne by taxpayers for providing services to each new single-family home — contribute to reduced per capita income in high-growth regions.

But for bankers, developers, pavers, land speculators and others connected to creating more development, the profits from growth are real — and these interests effectively drive local growth policies.

“Growth simply is not creating prosperity; it is heavily subsidized by taxpayers,” Fodor concluded.

But what about “greener” growth, “smarter” growth and technologies that make us more energy efficient?

This works — to a point — but is outpaced by more growth, said Canadian economist Peter Victor, author of “Managing Without Growth—Slower by Design, not Disaster.”

There’s no evidence that growing greener has come close to divorcing growth from environmental impact, Victor said. To meet current growth targets and reduce CO2 below dangerous levels, he said, would require a virtually impossible, massive and rapid shift from fossil fuels.

Moving away from growth is daunting, but more discussions like the Bay Journal conference are where we start.

In the Bay watershed, there are beginnings of the shift already. Planner Greg Bowen showed how his county, Calvert, MD, dramatically reduced growth through two downzonings. “Economic disaster didn’t happen…land values and security from development for farmers are higher than surrounding counties that didn’t downzone,” he said.

Maryland maintains an alternative to traditional measures of state economic progress. Unlike official measures, the Genuine Progress Index includes environmental and social costs of growth. It is just a start, but is beginning to show the flaws in “grow or die,” economist Elliott Campbell said.

Campbell suggested adding a “growth TMDL” to the Total Maximum Daily Loads that the EPA sets for conventional pollutants to the Bay. “It would measure the load of energy use, population growth…water use,” he said.

The EPA’s Bay Program already requires the states to show how they will offset growth’s impacts on water quality. This accounting for growth is narrow in scope, and a work in progress at best; but something to build on.

Any conference challenging business as usual is easily characterized as radical or unrealistic; but how realistic is the current blind faith that the solution to Bay pollution is faster growth?