Bay Journal

Region’s environment leaders balk at alternatives to growth

  • By on October 20, 2009

Simply put, Chesapeake Bay's health is driven by all the ways humans around it impact the environment, multiplied by the numbers of humans.

It might seem a no-brainer that to restore the troubled estuary we'd look at both sides of this equation: per capita impacts and how many 'capitas' we can accommodate.

But while environmental groups work hard to reduce the human footprint on air, water and land, most throw in the towel on population growth.

No one argues numbers don't matter. Population in the watershed has doubled to about 17 million in fifty years, and is growing by around 1.7 million every decade.

But here's how our environmental leaders see the situation.

\"What authority gives anyone the tools to control population growth?\" says Chesapeake Bay Foundation vice president Elizabeth Buckman.

\"Using the tools at hand is the best, most promising alternative we have. CBF is concerned about people thinking saving the bay is hopeless unless we reduce growth.\"

\"I would love for Maryland's Smart Growth to really be about no growth, but that doesn't go over well with lawmakers or the public,\" says Brad Heavner, head of Environment Maryland. (Population) is just too far of a stretch for a state group to work on.\"

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, who runs 1000 Friends of Maryland, notes that stabilizing population requires either reduced birth rates, slowing immigration, or both (in the United States, 82 per cent of growth comes from legal and illegal immigrants, and higher than average birth rates in both groups, according to the Pew Research Center).

\"We focus on reducing impacts--pave less, develop less, sprawl less--on solutions that aren't divisive, and that we can move forward on within a year or two. I've never gotten a reasonable answer to how we do that with population,\" she says.

Norm Meadow of the Audubon Society's Chesapeake chapter, says the Citizens' Campaign for the Environment, a coalition of environmental organizations, recently debated adding \"an educational component on population to their ten-year vision, A Common Agenda, \"just something to get people to think about the consequences of growing infinitely.\"

\"I argued for it\", he said, adding \"it's irresponsible to pass the buck to another generation.\" Others, he recalled, called population \"a loser issue,\" or \"not our agenda.\" Meadow doesn't know what happened to the proposal, and emails to the Citizens' Campaign weren't answered.

Meadow says there's a tough political reality to immigration being so large a component of population growth: \"to approach any of Maryland's congressional delegation except Roscoe Bartlett (who usually votes against environmentalists) to restrict immigration is a waste of time.\"

Nationally, The Sierra Club, which went through a divisive internal debate on immigration several years ago, is now \"neutral\" on the subject, and has little to say about U.S. population growth, though its Maryland chapter speaks out frequently in favor of stabilizing population and for pursuing economic prosperity without growth.

The Audubon Society has a statement on its website on the rate and sources of U.S. population growth (306 million now, headed for half a billion Americans by around 2070); but Audubon is not a voice for solutions.

\"To take on population is a constant struggle within your organization and without,\" says Jim Baird, who for years headed the population section of the Izaak Walton League. \"There's a complex of misconceptions around abortion, immigration, reproductive are going to spend a lot of time addressing. By comparison, advocating for locally grown food or green technology is like pixie dust.\"

Baird, now with the American Farmland Trust, says it may be more fruitful to question growth broadly--\"must our economy constantly expand to achieve prosperity? For example; there's lots of evidence the growth model hasn't worked, and it's clearly harming our environment. Ultimately a stable economy leads to a stable population.\"

\"There's a feeling it's somebody else's job...something for the population groups...environmentalists don't know what to do, so they do nothing,\" says Verna Harrison, executive director of the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment.

\"I've always been told that population topics were off limits, beyond our control,\" says Kristin Pauly, who runs the Prince Charitable Trusts, another regional environmental funder.

Maybe the above reasoning would seem more reasonable if the Bay restoration was working after three decades; but it is years behind schedule and still without a clear path leading to restoration.

Over the decades environmentalists recognized important pieces had to be added to the puzzle: stormwater runoff, nitrogen from agriculture and development, air pollution falling on the Bay.

One big piece remains missing. Challenging population and the notion that the economy must grow to prosper is tough, but impossible only if no one is willing to even discuss it. Right now environmentalists are betting they can do just that.

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Columnists are chosen for their unique perspectives, and their views are their own. The Bay Journal News Service seeks out these independent voices to help elevate the dialogue about the environment, and to bring an environmental perspective to personal actions and discussions about public policy.

Bay Journal News Service is supported by the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Town Creek Foundation and an anonymous donar which promote public education about regional conservation efforts. Op-Eds distributed by the Bay Journal News Service do not necessarily reflect the views of those organizations.

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