The Chesapeake Bay is troubled by many things. Manure. Sewage. Pesticides. Oil. Litter. Fertilizer. Sediment. But one source lies behind all of them — us.

According to experts at a recent conference, the growing number of people in the Chesapeake region has thwarted the Bay restoration for decades and might make achieving current cleanup goals impossible.

Most troubling, they said, is the lack of leadership and open discussion about the negative impacts of population growth.

The conference, Growth and the Future of the Chesapeake Bay, took place Jan. 13–14 at Hood College in Frederick, MD. Nearly 200 people from across the region attended the event, which was sponsored by the Bay Journal, Chesapeake Research Consortium, Hood College, Town Creek Foundation and an anonymous private foundation.

The first day of the conference focused on economics (See “Conference shows why endless growth is no longer possible,” May 2015). The second day focused on population.

Nearly 18 million people live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Delaware and the entire District of Columbia. Their numbers are expected to reach 20 million by 2030.

Author and journalist Tom Horton opened the conference with a reminder that population growth was a major concern during the first regional meetings of policy-makers who wanted to clean up the Bay.

Quoting marine researcher J. L. McHugh, who spoke at a 1977 conference, Horton said, “One theme has run like a thread through all of the papers and discussions in this conference…It is an issue that is almost always evaded, and certainly never addressed seriously. Yet this is the root problem of the environment, the basic cause of all the other problems — the human population explosion.”

Yet, after 30 years of Bay restoration efforts, discussions of population growth have faded, and the focus has shifted to minimizing its impact through land use planning and stormwater management. Few groups or policy-makers tackle population growth itself.

The topic of population growth is often avoided because of links to sensitive issues like immigration and reproductive rights. Others believe that slowing or stabilizing population growth is impossible, unethical or a political quagmire that can’t be resolved.

“We have an awful lot of work ahead of us,” Horton said, “particularly on how to talk about population. We’re going to talk about it today, and we’re going to talk about how to talk about it.”

Bill Ryerson, of the Population Institute and the Population Media Center, has worked in approximately 50 countries to change attitudes about reproduction and population.

Ryerson said that he hopes the movement for population stability in the United States can be revived. A stable population leads to higher incomes, he said. It’s also critical for the environment, where increased consumption is demonstrated through stressed water tables and climate change.

“If we achieve the median U.N. projection to 2050 of an additional 2.5 billion people, what does that do to emissions? The answer is, it’s the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet,” Ryerson said.

Effective role models needed

Ryerson compared the use of family planning methods between 1960 and today. In 1960, women who didn’t use birth control often lacked information and access. Today, a woman’s reasons for nonuse are more likely to be that her husband opposes it, her religion opposes it or she has concerns about side effects.

“We can’t solve the population problem with purely the medical model,” Ryerson said. “We need cultural and informational interventions in a human rights context.”

Ryerson’s organization uses television and radio programs to provide fictional stories and role models that promote family planning and safe sex. “Appealing to people with information on the science of climate change or the benefits of small family size is far less effective than emotional inputs such as role modeling,” he said.

Tom Horton took the podium in place of two speakers who were originally slated to discuss immigration.

The appearance of Roy Beck, founder of NumbersUSA and Phil Cafaro, a Colorado State University professor, became a point of pre-conference controversy when a DC-based organization, the Green Latinos, voiced concern.

The Green Latinos said that Beck and Cafaro would present anti-immigrant opinions without a counter voice on the agenda. Conference planners adjusted the agenda to remove Beck and Cafaro and add Ramon Palencia-Calvo, Latino outreach director for the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

For Horton, this demonstrated the problems environmentalists face in discussing population growth.

“Environmentalists can’t avoid immigration if they’re worried about population growth. But how do you do this without seeming to load all environmental ills on immigration or, worse, on immigrants? How do we bring needed ethnic diversity to the Bay restoration without driving needed discussions about population into the shadows?” Horton said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States population grew by about 10 million people between 2010 and 2014. About 40 percent of that growth was due to immigration.

Figures for states in the Chesapeake region during that same period varied.

Approximately 43 percent of the population gain in Maryland was due to international immigration, 45 percent in Virginia, and 34 percent in Pennsylvania. West Virginia lost population, even when accounting for immigration. Approximately 64 percent of the population change in Delaware was due to immigration, but its urban centers are not in the Chesapeake watershed. The District of Columbia saw the highest percentage of change due to immigration, at 65 percent.

Horton cited Cafaro’s research, which found that immigrants have smaller environmental “footprints” when they first arrive — but their descendants live consumption-based lifestyles of typical U.S. citizens.

According to Horton, immigration reformers like Beck and Cafaro want to reduce illegal immigration and limit legal immigration to about 230,000 people annually.

“In the Chesapeake Bay region, we also have to think about how much we actively try to attract people to move to this region who are already living in other parts of the United States,” Horton said.

How to address immigration?

Ramon Palencia-Calvo of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters said the conservation movement should connect with Latinos, rather than alienate them.

According to Palencia-Calvo, about half a million of the state’s 6 million people are Latino. The immigrants and their children account for about one out 10 registered voters. Latinos strongly support clean water and clean energy. They are concerned about air pollution, exposure to chemicals and pesticides, and they want to protect public lands.

“Although as we all know they might feel [challenged] by many issues that affect the economy, jobs, education and health care, the environment continues consistently to play a very important role in the list of worries and concerns,” he said.

Palencia-Calvo drew applause when he said that political and environmental leaders have so far failed to engage the Latino community.

“We need to resync this relationship, we need to connect with them because we know that they are going to be the next generation of Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts,” he said. “The political power can be very valuable for our objectives. We need to reach out to them and we need to do it now.”

Bob Engelman of the Worldwatch Institute suggested “ground rules” for talking about population. He said ending population growth — instead of stabilizing it — is a more accurate goal. Population always fluctuates, he explained, but exponential growth should stop.

Engelman urged respect for science and intellectual rigor and for evidence that goes against one’s beliefs. “All of us have a tendency to like to see the articles, or the science or whatever that sort of supports our own convictions, but I think we all ought to try to find those things that actually go against our convictions,” he said.

Uncertainty is no reason for silence, Engelman argued. We should pursue questions even when answers aren’t obvious. Instead, many people won’t talk about population because they believe nothing can be done. “That’s a crazy way to approach problems as important as the survival of the Bay watershed or the survival of the planet for our children,” Engelman said.

George Plumb represented Vermonters for a Sustainable Population. Vermont is one of the few states in the nation to have a state-level organization dealing with population.

Plumb’s group worked with 15 researchers to analyze quality of life in Vermont and define population targets that could sustain them. The analysis included environmental indicators as well as less tangible aspects of life, like participation in local government.

“It’s been shown that once the population of a community gets larger, then they tend to do away with town meetings, and they then just vote by ballot. You don’t discuss things, you don’t meet other people, you don’t talk about the issues,” Plumb said.

Plumb said that the definition of a sustainable human population should be based on a politically or geographically defined area, use a framework based only on renewable resources, and consider all parts of the ecosystem, not just the needs of humans.

During lunch, Tom Butler of the Foundation for Deep Ecology emphasized Plumb’s point. Butler’s main message was to “renounce the idea that Earth is a resource colony for humanity.” He reminded the audience that the goal of rethinking economic and population growth should be to care for all of nature, not just the human species. This sets a high standard for discussing how growth might be limited and to what extent.

Nancy Wallace then spoke about the challenges and lessons of population advocacy.

In 1989, Wallace began directing the Sierra Club’s campaign to secure the United States’ share of funding for international work on women’s family planning and reproductive health. Wallace and her team focused much of their effort on lobbying legislators in Washington, DC. They also grappled with objections from women’s groups, Wallace said, that argued that population planning was “fundamentally anti-woman because no one should talk to a woman about the number of children she should have.”

But overall, Wallace noted the absence of obstacles that population activists face today. Objections based on anti-abortion and religious views were minimal. “Immigration was a non-event,” she said. “It was not the kind of very tense issue that we have now.”

The program came to include 200 local population committees around the nation and more than 2,000 volunteers who together secured a substantial increase in federal funding.

“I found that these were the techniques that work on population: Give people something real to do, a goal that’s specific, measurable and familiar. Focus all your activism,” Wallace said.

The conference closed with a panel discussion on using the information presented during the two-day conference to mend the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

The panel, moderated by John Seager of the Population Connection, included Bill Dennison of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; Nick DiPasquale of the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program; Peyton Robertson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Chesapeake Bay Office; Tom Simpson, a longtime Bay region agricultural scientist; and Ann Pesiri Swanson of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

Dennison reviewed the Bay’s annual “report card” to show that some aspects of water quality are improving near urban areas and waters in relatively less populated areas can be highly stressed.

Change in behavior

“We have to think not just about population maps of where people are living but their combined impact, the food that we need to eat, the water that we access and the land that we use to live on,” Dennison said. “It’s that bigger footprint that accounts for the overall status of our ecosystem.”

Peyton Robertson looked to a hopeful future with broader discussions and partnerships. “This not the future of the Bay sitting up here as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I think that with a demographic shift both in youth, in age and diversity of color, we’ll get a lot more creativity.”

Robertson also said that local level solutions deserve more focus.

“To what extent can a regional approach use these lessons learned and apply things regionally? I would say I’m not sure it can,” Robertson said. “I think using rolled-up numbers for watershedwide goals is interesting. It’s interesting as statisticians and scientists, but it’s not compelling. It doesn’t matter to people. We need to talk about our own behavior in terms of what we care about.”

DiPasquale, who said he was speaking for himself and not for the Bay Program, agreed that the Bay restoration effort has struggled to offset the impacts of growth. While there has been some success, he was less optimistic about the future.

“I’m not sure we’re going to have solutions for everything. We’re not going to be able to sustain a population, especially the way we currently live,” he said. “I think we have to challenge the whole notion of our quality of life. People are starting to realize that the accumulation of material goods is a pretty empty life in the end.”

Thoughts about the Bay cleanup are expanding from a focus on environmental science to include lifestyles, choices and diversity. “We have to open up the restoration effort to nontraditional groups and we have to address the concerns that they have,” DiPaquale said.

Swanson of the Chesapeake Bay Commission works on Bay-related policies in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Swanson said that shifting assumptions about economic and population growth is the “outer edge of doable” but still critical to the future of the Bay.

Growth, she said, is stalling progress, and environmental gains have begun to level off. “In fact, in the urban areas, particularly where the largest portions of the population are growing, that’s where you can actually see the reductions now reversing and going up,” Swanson said.

Swanson warned that policy-makers may lose interest. “Progress drives hopefulness and drives lawmakers to do additional things because they can see the impacts of their efforts and the blood that they’ve shed on the general assembly room floors. They’ll stop wanting to do that because they can’t demonstrate progress,” she said.

Swanson also emphasized local level action. “We should really give the local leadership economic training. We should give economists ecological training. We should do it at that local scale,” she said.

Tom Simpson said that the region may fail to meet its 2017 and 2025 cleanup goals for the Bay, even without considering the full impact of population and economic growth. These immediate short-term goals still need attention. “We have to ask, ‘What do we do to reduce the losses that have put the Bay in such bad condition?’ ” he asked.

Simpson also suggested linking population and economic growth with the intense interest in food security. A more stable population could stabilize the demand for food production and make stewardship practices more affordable. Right now, Simpson said, “we can’t afford to do anything that risks production to improve water quality because we must constantly increase yields.”

The panel agreed that it would be a continued struggle to influence lifestyles, population growth and economic assumptions in ways that support a cleaner Bay, even though success depends on it.

Stuart Clark of the Town Creek Foundation, which helped sponsor the conference, said he didn’t expect that this would be immediately possible. But he reminded the audience that large changes do happen, and they have happened in our lifetimes.

“We at the Town Creek Foundation feel it’s our responsibility to at least be part of the process, figuring out how to put in place conditions that may help lead to those changes,” Clark said. “Our support for a conference like this is part of our effort to ensure that, when the opportunity for big changes occurs, these kinds of ideas are in circulation.”

For access to PowerPoint presentations from a selection of conference speakers, visit