A group of respected economists and planners delivered a stark message in Frederick, MD, recently — in a world with finite resources, endless growth is impossible. To restore clean water in the Chesapeake Bay, it’s a fact that must be faced.

Their words were delivered at the conference, Growth and the Future of the Chesapeake Bay, which took place Jan. 13–14 at Hood College.

Nearly 200 people traveled from across the region to attend the conference, which was sponsored by the Bay Journal, Chesapeake Research Consortium, Hood College, Town Creek Foundation and a private donor who wished to remain anonymous.

While countless committees, meetings, conferences and entire organizations have been dedicated to reducing the impacts of growth on the Bay ecosystem, very few have challenged the concept of growth itself.

“Recognizing the impact of population, growth and development was once a centerpiece of the restoration effort, but efforts to think holistically about those issues have been replaced by a preoccupation with ways to simply mitigate some of their impacts,” said Karl Blankenship, executive director of Chesapeake Media Service, which produces the Bay Journal.

This was the first time the nonprofit news organization acted as a lead sponsor for a conference.

“People usually don’t want to talk about growth, because they don’t have an answer. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a forthright discussion of these issues, which is what we wanted to present,” Blankenship said.

The Town Creek Foundation wanted to challenge the accepted wisdom of “sustainable development.”

“A robust approach to sustainability requires problematizing some of the easy assumptions that tend to get made about how effectively technology can continue to facilitate perpetual growth on a finite planet,” said Town Creek’s executive director, Stuart Clarke. “We thought that the conference provided a great opportunity for the Bay restoration community  to grapple with this issue.”

The two-day conference was organized around the dual themes of economic growth and population growth, with 13 speakers, three panel discussions and several sessions of questions and answers with the audience. The agenda included regional experts, as well as speakers from across the nation and abroad, with specialties in the Chesapeake ecosystem, restoration policies, economics, energy, and the impacts of population growth and development.

Flawed assumptions about growth

Bay author and journalist Tom Horton opened the conference by asserting that the Bay cannot be restored without confronting the socially acceptable definitions of growth and the unquestioned faith in its benefits.

“Growth is good. Growth is necessary. Growth is inevitable,” Horton said. “I think these are the greatest, most uncritically accepted and fatally flawed assumptions made by those charged with protecting Chesapeake Bay and the planet.”

The first-day agenda focused on economic perspectives.

“Limits to growth are actually emerging in real time,” said Richard Heinberg, an energy expert with the Post Carbon Institute and author of 12 books including “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” and “Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels.”

“The factors that seem to be constraining economic growth most right now are these: energy, debt and climate,” Heinberg said.

Heinberg’s analysis treats energy as the most important economic driver. “We tend to think that money makes the world go round but, without energy, nothing happens,” he said.

Heinberg explained that the economy boomed with the Industrial Revolution because manufacturing was paired with a boom in the use of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. “It’s as though we discovered a pot of buried treasure and went on a spending spree,” Heinberg said. “But the fossil fuel revolution has a couple of problems.”

The largest, he said, is that fossil fuels are based on nonrenewable, depleting resources that have become more costly and harder to obtain. Oil production has dropped and the costs have increased at a rate of about 10 percent a year. According to Heinberg, extracting oil now consumes nearly as much energy as it produces.

“We inevitably go after the easiest to get, cheapest resources first and save the hard, expensive, dirty stuff for later. Well, now it’s later,” Heinberg said.

Heinberg’s analyses indicate that the production of both “tight oil” and shale gas will begin to decline before the end of this decade. Wind and solar power can help generate electricity, but they aren’t good options for transportation.

Heinberg forecasts a major energy transition that will directly impact the economy and stymie the concept of endless growth — at least in the traditional sense. Energy transitions over recent centuries have added forms of energy, but Heinberg said this one will be different. He forecasts the replacement of conventional fossil fuels with alternate energy sources that have very different characteristics.

“It will be less controllable. We will have less mobility, and our economies will be more localized,” Heinberg said. “We can prepare for this kind of transition, but only if we understand that this is what’s on the horizon. This is what we should be preparing for.”

Impacts of urban growth

Eben Fodor then challenged the idea that growth makes us “better off.” Fodor is a researcher and community planning consultant based in Eugene, OR, and author of “Better, Not Bigger — How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community.”

Fodor said that a short title for his talk could be taken from a bumper sticker he once saw in Oregon that read “Don’t believe everything you think.” That’s because many of the benefits typically associated with growth are not backed with data. The research Fodor has conducted indicates the opposite.

“What are the impacts of urban growth? First of all, this is one of the most systematically understudied fields that I know of,” Fodor said. “You can take obscure and arcane topics and find dozens of papers, if not hundreds of research papers on them. This field is very poorly understood. There’s actually very little information.”

Fodor’s research on the public costs of growth — the capital investments of infrastructure and services supported by taxpayers over the long term — focused on 18 categories of costs in Austin, TX. Considering these costs, along with tax revenue from new homeowners, Fodor estimated the net public cost at $52,000 for each single-family home.

Nationwide, the cost ranges from $25,000 to $95,000. At the low end, this amounts to about $150,000 in public cost for every acre of land newly developed with single-family homes. Fodor said most communities are unaware of these long-term costs. When a full analysis is available before development begins, they often consider other options.

“I have case studies of communities that have done this study, done this analysis, looked at the cost of servicing land and found that it is in fact cheaper to conserve it,” Fodor said.

Fodor has also studied the relationship between population growth and prosperity in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States between 2000 and 2009. He wanted to know if growth was producing more jobs and higher incomes. He searched for existing research on this topic and found little.

“Having searched the entire English language database for studies, worldwide, there were two studies. Now there are three,” Fodor said.

Stable, prosperous communities

Fodor found strong statistical evidence that average per person income decreases by about $2,500 for every 1 percent increase in the population. “If you have a household that has four people, we’re talking about $10,000 less income per each 1 percent of additional growth rate,” Fodor explained.

There was no evidence that growth increased employment during the study period, and poverty levels tended to rise with the growth rate.

On the other hand, areas with slower population growth had bigger gains in income. “Stable communities can be and are prosperous communities, contrary to what we hear about the need for constant growth to pump our economies,” Fodor said. “We need to sort fact from fiction.”

Peter Victor is an economist and professor of environmental studies at York University in Ontario, who wrote the book “Managing without Growth: Slower by Design Not Disaster.” His talk at the conference introduced the concept of ecological economics and questioned whether “green growth” will actually lead to sustainability.

Victor said that the idea of progress once had many measures, but now relates only to the economy. “When philosophers started talking about progress, it was a very broadly based notion,” Victor said. “It wasn’t just material well-being. It was also moral progress, ethical progress and so on. That changed over the years until we ended up with an idea that progress meant nothing more than economic growth.”

The discussion of growth as a policy goal — and the focus on the gross national product to measure it — didn’t begin until the 1950s. Now, consumption and job creation take center stage. According to Victor, the living space per person has increased since 1950 by more than 200 percent.

“You’d think we have enough space to keep the stuff that we’re buying, but no,” Victor said. “Look at the proliferation of off-site storage. It’s absolutely astonishing. We don’t have the space in our massively increased living areas to keep what we own.”

When new factories or businesses open, they emphasize the creation of jobs rather than products. The goods are no longer scarce, Victor said. The jobs are.

Victor suggested that green growth can be a contradiction. It draws on traditional concepts of growth that deplete resources while expecting that the impact on the environment will be reduced. For this to happen, green growth must occur so intensely that it can compete with the increasing size of the economy. That’s not happening.

For a more promising solution, Victor pointed to ecological economics — a framework that measures progress not solely by gross national product, but by a broad view of goods and services, in which the value of natural systems play an equal role.

Herman Daly, emeritus professor at the University of Maryland and a pioneer of ecological economics, expanded on that concept. From this perspective, economics doesn’t dominate. It is a subset of a larger ecosystem. The limits of the natural world come into play.

“The larger system is finite. Materially closed,” Daly said. “The subsystem, the economy, is an open system. It takes in both energy and matter from the ecosystem. It gives out both energy and matter. The amount taken in is the same as the amount given out over some period of time.”

Instead, many people see the environment as a service to the economy. But the amount of “natural capital” remaining, Daley said, has become the limiting factor for growth.

“Our focus of investment in the future needs to shift toward the maintenance of remaining natural capital and its propagation,” Daly said.

Daly suggested several policy changes that would support a steady-state economy. He introduced the idea of “cap auction trade systems” for basic resources, beginning with fossil fuels, in which the right to access them is auctioned instead of given away. “Capture scarcity rights for the public good,” he said.

Taxing the raw resources more directly could also promote conservation. “Depletion and pollution and resource use are things you want less of. Tax those. Raise our revenue from that,” Daly said.

Daly also recommended a commitment to full-time employment as a policy goal. The Full Employment Bill of 1945 included this goal. “Nowadays that’s just been completely inverted,” Daly said. “Economic growth is the goal. If, in order to attain economic growth we need to sacrifice full employment by automation, by off-shoring or whatever, that’s just the price we pay.”

Brian Czech, president of the Center for the Advancement of Steady-State Economics, also explored an alternative economic framework during a lively lunchtime presentation.

In the afternoon, a panel on nature and growth drove home the ways in which the negative impacts of growth and development outpace efforts to restore the Bay’s ecosystem. Panel participants included Scott Stranko and Jim Uphoff of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Robert Hilderbrand of the University of Maryland, and Dennis Whigham of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Stranko emphasized how quickly urbanization changes the ecology of streams. “The most sensitive species are lost at really low levels of urbanization,” Stranko said. “And that is even when forest buffers are left along the stream and when stormwater ponds are built. It’s usually not enough to protect the most sensitive animals. Bringing back those losses is very difficult if not impossible.”

Aggressive landscape protection

The best hope, according to Stranko, is aggressive landscape protection. “By protection, I mean not developing some areas, not developing some watersheds, leaving them as forested as possible, as rural as possible,” Stranko said.

“It’s always easier and cheaper to conserve than it is to restore our systems,” Hilderbrand said. He compared stream restoration efforts to a Rubik’s cube. “You might be able to get one of those faces of the Rubik’s cube lined up, but everything else is screwed up. You just cannot get everything back to the way it was because we’re fundamentally changing the drivers within the watershed.”

A second panel focused on local-level solutions. Panelists included Greg Bowen, recently retired from the Calvert County, MD, Department of Planning; Elliott Campbell of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources; Tom Olivier of Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population; and Dru Schmidt-Perkins of 1,000 Friends of Maryland.

Bowen discussed the development of transferable development rights and a build-out limit for his county. These and other strategies directed growth to certain limited areas and downzoned hundreds of acres of land outside those areas to limit the potential density of construction.

“Out of that, there wasn’t any economic disaster,” Bowen said. There has been no zoning since town boundaries were drawn in 1983. Land values, including farmland, are higher than those in neighboring counties where downzoning did not take place.

Since 2002, the citizens’ group, Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population has been trying to persuade the community in Albemarle County and Charlottesville, VA, to commit to stabilizing their population. The group has suggested an optimal population of 165,000 people.

Research commissioned by the organization indicates that a land area equal to approximately 3.7 times the size of the Albemarle-Charlotttesvillle landscape is needed to support the existing population of the area.

“Our community has spent a lot of time talking about becoming sustainable, yet the results of this study make clear that even a small city and surrounding community like ours is very much living off the landscapes, the open spaces, of other places,” Olivier said.

The first day of the conference closed with a talk by Rob Dietz, author of “Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a Finite World.” Dietz challenged the audience to imagine a world that abandoned the philosophy of “more” for the philosophy of “enough.”

“Enough jobs, enough income, enough consumption, enough to meet our needs without undermining the life support systems of the planet,” Dietz said.

Dietz agreed that small steps — like adding more solar panels, recycling and energy-efficient cars — are important. But striving for “enough,” rather than more, requires a bigger change.

“Society would be very different. It would be powered down,” Dietz said. “We would have a much tighter focus on community life. Our economic life in trade would need to be scaled back from the global much more toward the local. Our infrastructure would change. Our behavior would change.”

Dietz said that such a fundamental change would at times be messy and inconvenient but promote authentic prosperity beyond the limited measure of gross national product. The crux of the problem, Dietz continued, is finding ways to act.

“It’s a crisis that produces change,” he said. “When that crisis happens, you better be ready to go. You better have the ideas. You better have the organization. You better be there.”

The second day of the conference, which focused on population growth, will be summarized in the June issue of the Bay Journal. For access to PowerPoint presentations from a selection of conference speakers, visit www.bayjournal.com/growthconference.