Media Editorials and Articles
The following links are to articles about VSP and member published articles and letters to the editor. These writings do not necessarily reflect the opinion of VSP but they are reflective of our diverse concerns about population growth.
Read - While human population grows, wildlife declines - Vermont Digger Commentary - Nov. 5, 2014 - By: George Plumb
Read - Growth offers no solution to poverty - Burlington Free Press article - June 9, 2014
Read - Population group smiles on Vermont’s slowing birth rate - Vermont Digger article
Read - Sustainable population celebration in Burlington - Burlington Free Press article
Read - Voice of Vermont: 'Growth is the problem'
Read - Plumb: True sustainability achievable only with population stabilization, even in Vermont
Read - Solving The "Population Problem"
Read - I Will Replace Myself Once
Read - World On The Edge: How to prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse
Read - Mother Nature Is Not Fooled By Euphemisms
Read - Looking to the Past for Insights Into How to Predict Future Challenges
Read - Sammet: Planet health, woman's health and peace
Read - For the Record: Affirmers and Deniers
Read - The Triple Crises of Civilization
Read - Engage: After 40 years of Earth Day, what has been accomplished?
Read - As Vermont's population booms, we pave paradise and lose our rural values
Read - I Believe: 'We are making it harder and harder for other species to exist' - By: George Plumb
Read - Politics over Science - By: Mark Powell
Read - Developing a Common Platform - By: George Plumb
Read - It's the numbers that Count - By: George Plumb
Read - Land Consumption is Not Sustainable - By: James Andrews
Read - Environment, Economics and Population - By: George Plumb
Read - Was Malthus Just Off Some Years? - By: George Plumb
Read - Is Vermont Disappearing - By: Brian Wallstin
Read - The "P" Word - By: Marc Powell
Read - The Green Grapevine #28 - By: Daniel Hecht
While human population grows, wildlife declines - Vermont Digger
On Oct. 1 it was announced that the World Wildlife Fund had published the Living Planet Index. It revealed that the population of vertebrate species – mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish — on this planet has plummeted by 52 percent just since 1970. Thirty-nine percent of this decline was by terrestrial species and the other 61 percent by water species. At the same time, our own demands on nature are unsustainable and increasing. We need 1.5 Earths to regenerate the natural resources we currently use; we cut trees faster than they mature, harvest more fish than oceans replenish, and emit more carbon into the atmosphere than forests and oceans can absorb.
It is hard to believe that half of the animals on this earth have been destroyed in just the past 44 years, only part of my lifetime and less than the lifetime of many people alive today. During the same period the world populations of human beings have doubled from 3 billion to 7 billion, the U.S. population has increased by 50 percent, from 200 million to 300 million, and Vermont’s population has grown by 25 percent, from 500,000 to 626,000. The announcement briefly made some of the news, but since then it has been totally neglected.
I have noticed a similar decrease in wildlife on my own and surrounding land here in Washington, particular in the bird population but also in other land species as well. This is despite that fact that probably at least 95 percent of this land has remained undeveloped. I often wondered why and assumed that maybe it was because the land cover has changed a little. Although the open land has remained, it is no longer a dairy farm and the forests have matured from a primary cover of first generation younger trees to more mature older trees. Yes, that probably explains the disappearance of the woodcock, the barn swallow and a few others as well, but I could also give a long list of other species such as the red headed woodpecker, blue jay, ruffed grouse, and no more rabbits either.
Clearly something more is going on. Why else would the power lines that used to have all kinds of birds on them during the spring and summer now have practically none? The reason for the disappearance is, of course, human population growth. Approximately 50 percent of the land mass of the Earth has now been converted to development or agriculture to meet the needs of the human species. We are now facing the Sixth Great Extinction with an estimated 50 percent of all species, including flora, fauna and other forms of life to be gone by the end of this century.
“As spiritual people and I assume most of us are spiritual in some form even if not religious, don’t we also have a responsibility to other species?”
Where is our compassion for other species? Don’t other species have as much right to life as we do? Where is our recognition of the “Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part,” that is even the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. What happens to other species could, at some point in the future, certainly affect us. And where is our love of beauty and how does the disappearance of the birds and the sound of the coyote affect our own quality of life? I know it adversely impacts mine.
Next to climate change, the disappearance of species is probably the worst thing that is happening to our environment. Yet the lack of attention being given to this issue is nothing but dismal. It is like we humans are the most important forms of life on Earth and the heck with everything else unless we need it to meet our needs. The Vatican recently said, although they should have said it years ago, that we have a moral responsibility to respond to climate change. As spiritual people and I assume most of us are spiritual in some form even if not religious, don’t we also have a responsibility to other species?
As Peter Sawtelle of Eco Justice Ministries writes: “Morally, spiritually, and practically, this devastation of creation must stop. The integrity of Earth’s ecology must be preserved, or we will not survive.” And two leading climate scientists state: “Unsustainable consumption, population pressure, poverty and environmental degradation are intricately linked, but this is appreciated neither by development economists, nor by national governments who permit GDP growth to trump environmental protection in their policies.”
What to do about it? Maybe it is time for each of us, male or female, to at most replace ourselves only once and if we have already had our children to suggest that they might want to consider doing the same. Nov. 7 is World Vasectomy Day. I had my fix as a young man many years ago because it was a much simpler operation than doing a similar fix in a female body. But also very important is that in addition we need to support our political, environmental, and religious leaders here in Vermont and the U.S. to address not just climate change but the decline of other species as well. They are both interrelated. And neither will be solved by continued population growth, either here in Vermont or any place else on this Earth.
Growth offers no solution to poverty
This year marks the 50 anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “unconditional war on poverty.” For most of that time, and indeed to this day, economists often say that the best way to improve our economy is to grow the population because that creates more consumers and therefore more demand for goods and services including construction of new homes, more shopping places, and larger places for recreation like ski resorts.
It turns out however that growing the population doesn’t decrease poverty. This is well documented in the recently added sixteenth indicator for the world precedent setting What is an Optimal/Sustainable Population for Vermont? report which can be read at www.vspop.org. The indicator shows that even though Vermont’s population has increased by a huge 50 percent since the War on Poverty began in 1964 the poverty level hasn’t decreased at all but has remained approximately the same at 12 percent.
They, and even political leaders, developers and some environmentalist, also usually say that we can grow the economy while protecting the environment which scientific data trends for everything from water pollution to generation of greenhouse gas emissions has proven to be a totally false claim.
While there are several ways to measure economic well being including Gross Domestic Product and median income adjusted for inflation, poverty is the most important measure because, as Aristotle said, “The greatest measure of a society is the way it treats its weakest members.”
The signs of poverty are all around us including the increase in people staying in homeless shelters, the number of Vermonters on food stamps which in June of 2013 was a record high level of over 100,000 or one out of every six persons, the demand in local food shelves, people with signs begging for money, and deteriorated homes in our cities, villages, and countryside.
It’s time for economists and political leaders to stop saying that we have to grow the population in order to grow the economy. Not only does it not reduce poverty levels it also means more people competing for jobs and as a result even lower wages forcing people to work longer hours. When I was just starting out in my professional career in the sixties there were usually only a handful of people at the most applying for any given position. Now, as younger people will verify, it is not at all unusual to have at least a hundred people applying for the same job opening.
The author of the Poverty Indicator in the report is Eben Fodor who is also the author of the book Better not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community. In concluding this indicator Eben states that, “Because there are so many variables it is very difficult to predict what an optimum/sustainable population would be to minimize or eliminate poverty. If we were to go by the historical fact that Vermont’s lowest recorded poverty rate was in 1970, when the population was 444,330, then the optimum population might be lower than it is today. “A stable population level has been shown to have higher levels of individual prosperity, so maintaining a stable and sustainable population appears to be the best bet for minimizing poverty. Our optimum/sustainable population estimate for a steady state economy is a population of 500,000.”
A growth-forever culture with finite resources has been proven to be bad for the environment and long-term sustainability. It is also not good for the economic well being of people.
George Plumb of Washington the executive director of Vermonters for Sustainable Population.
Population group smiles on Vermont’s slowing birth rate - Vermont Digger
The ideal population for Vermont is about 500,000, according to a new report by the group Vermonters for a Sustainable Population. If the state’s fertility and death rates continue their long-term trends, we just might get there.
Even though Vermont’s total population of roughly 626,000 has grown by about 59,000 since 1990, fewer births have been recorded almost every year. The death rate, meanwhile, has remained steady, according to the most recent published data from the Department of Health. The data run through 2009.
The moral of the data: More population growth comes from outside the state than from within.
The trend matches that of the nation. According to reporting by USA Today, the American fertility rate has “slipped below replacement levels.” And close to home, Maine’s Office Office of Policy and Management announced in May that the number of deaths in the state had exceeded the number of births.
A similar reversal might not be a bad thing if it were to happen in Vermont, argues a group of authors and citizens who released “What is an Optimum/Sustainable Population for Vermont?” on Oct. 9. The report synthesizes the perspectives of 15 authors, each of whom contributed a chapter on one of 15 indicators employed to arrive at 500,000 Vermonters as an ideal target.
“I think the report takes a holistic look at population and its effect on different areas of our lives. And I think that’s the goal, to get others to take this holistic look, too.”
Heather Davis, co-author of population report
The report acknowledges it would take decades to meet that goal, and it does not propose extreme actions to get there such as building a “moat” around the state, limiting in-migration or involuntary limits on family size. Its broad purpose is more about priorities.
The 15 indicators are heavily rooted in environmental considerations: biodiversity, ecological footprint, environmental health, forest cover, greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy production and water quality made the ranks. Food self-sufficiency, rural living/working landscape and scenic beauty also were factored in, as well as democracy, happiness, quality of life and spiritual connectedness.
A “steady state economy” indicator finishes the list, although it, too, prioritizes ecological resource management.
“Our economy is dependent on the environment, right?” asked George Plumb, rhetorically. Plumb is the executive director of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population, which released the report. He said the group’s goal was to spark a statewide discussion about the urgency of resource complications related to population growth.
Several recommendations were made for action at the individual, municipal, state and national levels: family planning, limits on development, advancing educational opportunities and adoption of the Genuine Progress Indicator among them.
The report aims to calculate “carrying capacity” in order to “estimate the number of people that can live here so that every Vermonter has access to a life of quality that he can afford.” The mission is not new: It was borrowed from a 1973 “Vermont Population Policy Report” by the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
What would be new is if that approach were employed by state and regional planners. Traditionally, planners anticipate population changes in order to manage major aspects of communities, such as education, service delivery and land use.
The opposite approaches mirror a dichotomy in budgeting: Should a government calculate the amount of money it needs in order to provide desired services, and create a tax and fee structure accordingly? Or should appropriations be determined only after a the taxes and fees are established? Likewise, should society identify an optimum population and organize itself to meet that, or do the best it can to deal with the population it creates?
Jackie Cassino is a regional planner with the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission, and is involved with the Vermont Planners Association. She hadn’t heard of the optimum population report, but she was intrigued by it.
“As professional planners, we don’t take opinions in terms of the optimum number of people,” she said. Planners closely monitor trends, however, to assess whether they’re adequately planning, “in terms of both the sheer numbers and also the demographics like age,” she said.
Take households, for example. “We know from hard data that households sizes are shrinking,” Cassino said. Yet the size of the homes those households live in — they are growing. “It’s pretty shocking,” she said.
According to census data, an average single-family house in 2010 was 2,505 square feet — up more than 50 percent from 1975, she said.
“So that’s important in terms of efficient land use,” Cassino said. “People have a right to build homes in whatever style they want. And as our preferences change, the impact is pretty significant.”
Plumb’s passion about population demonstrates such shifting values. He has three children.
“I’m 76 years old,” Plumb said. “That was before I began to realize there’s a population problem. After the third child, it began to dawn on me a little bit.”
Plumb now advocates a “One or None” guideline that would have each man and woman of childbearing age replace himself and herself with only one child, at the most. That’s not to say one biological child per family, he emphasizes, but one per parent.
Vermont’s aging demographic is a major consideration driving economic development strategies to draw younger adults to the state. And it’s a central concern of many demographers.
“They call it the ‘silver tsunami,’” Cassino said.
Plumb calls it a Ponzi scheme. “It doesn’t work. And it’s not true,” he said. If fewer young people are around to share the burden of an aging population, that will also mean fewer children will take up a different set of resources through education and child rearing, he said.
Plumb seems aware that the group’s message and methodologies might not be embraced by all. But the report’s consultant and one of its authors, Heather Davis, is hopeful their work might resuscitate the population awareness of the 1970s. They plan to distribute the report to legislators and libraries around the state.
“I think the report takes … a holistic look at population and its effect on different areas of our lives,” Davis said. “And I think that’s the goal, to get others to take this holistic look, too.”
Sustainable population celebration in Burlington
Rally at Oakledge Park addresses need to slow growth and help the planet.From: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20130622/NEWS02/306220009/-1/NEWS/Sustainable-population-celebration-Burlington?gcheck=1
To celebrate Vermont's declining population, about 20 people threw a party Saturday at Burlington's Oakledge Park.
Someone brought apple cider. Another person brought some free literature. Jerry Karnas, population director at the Center for Biological Diversity, brought a box of condoms. They came packaged in catchy slogans that encouraged people to cut back on unintended pregnancies to give wildlife more room to procreate.
For instance, “Wrap with care, save the polar bear.”
The tongue-in-cheekiness of the gathering belied the dire consequences of overpopulation, domestic and abroad, that the Vermonters for a Sustainable Population had come to address.
Continual population growth, year over year, century over century, is ultimately unsustainable, they noted, given planet Earth's finite resources and real estate.
And although Vermont's population fell by 581 people from 2011 to 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state's “sustainable” population is likely nearer to 450,000 than the current 626,000, said to George Plumb, the group's secretary and treasurer.
Plumb said the group expects to finish crunching the numbers and send a report to the state's elected officials within a few weeks.
“We're writing a study on 11 different indicators, and each indicator will determine the optimal, or sustainable, population size of Vermont,” Plumb said.
The indicators, he said, range from a population's ecological impact, to that population's degree of democratic representation, to the numbers needed to support a “steady-state economy.”
“I'm sure it's going to be controversial, and people are going to say, 'Oh you're nuts, we need to keep on adding more housing,'” Plumb said. “At least we'll get a figure out there finally on what is a sustainable population size for the state.”
But before you get too excited, consider that in the year Vermont's population declined by 581 people, New Hampshire, to pick a state, grew by five times that number. Texas grew by 425,417 people.
The United States' population on the whole, again, according to census estimates, grew by more than 2.3 million people.
Heck, during the four hours spent celebrating the loss of 581 Vermonters Saturday, the U.S. population grew by nearly twice that number, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's World Population Clock. The world population, according to the same clock, grew by more than 34,500 people.
So, even if Vermont achieves a sustainable population of whatever that might be, who cares? On a global scale, the impact would be negligible.
Lisa Sammet, president of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population, suggested Vermont could “be sort of a tiny model for how it can be done.”
“We had the first civil unions law, and we've been an environmental leader,” Sammet said. “Why can't we be the first model of a sustainable state?”
To curb population growth, Sammet said nations should fund and make readily available birth control. She referred to a report conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggested roughly half of American pregnancies were unintended.
“Try to help women, and give women the power to choose,” Sammet said. “Give them the opportunity to have family planning. You give them access to birth control, and you help them out economically.”
Mark Powell, vice president of the group, pushed for immigration reform to at least halt the population growth in the United States. He cited a study the Pew Research Center conducted in 2008 that suggested the country's population would grow to 438 million in 2050, and that immigrants and their descendants would make up 82 percent of that growth.
If the United States gets its house in order, maybe then it can begin telling other countries what to do, he said.
“If the U.S. were to come out and say, 'Look we realize we over consume, we're trying to consume less, we also are growing our population very quickly, we're going to try to do better about that,'” Powell said. “That's going to be a much better way to go out and offer support in the way of family planning programs, than to say, 'Oh, don't worry about how fast we're growing, you guys have to stop having so many kids.'”
Karnas, of the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Ariz., said he worried a focus on immigration reform would alienate college kids from the cause. He advocated for the building of alliances between groups with interconnected interests like population and climate change.
“This is a long-term structural thing,” Karnas said. “We're going to have to basically create 50 Vermonts.”
Voice of Vermont: 'Growth is the problem'
By George Plumb – November 23rd, 2012
This year, two Vermont-based environmental organizations, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Lake Champlain Committee, are having their 50th anniversary. The modern-day environmental movement began in the sixties and seventies and many other Vermont environmental organizations will be celebrating their 50th or 40th anniversaries in the coming years.
When they celebrate their anniversaries, they will tell of their many accomplishments, but often will not tell the full story of Vermont’s present-day environment. As just one example, in celebrating their 50th a representative of the VNRC claimed, “It is commendable that we’ve found a way to grow our economy while maintaining the health of our environment.”
“…maintaining the health of our environment,” that is not what the scientific environmental trend data show. Depending on what criteria are used, one can claim that some aspects of the environment have been protected, but for the most critical issues in Vermont, ranging from unmitigated sprawl and rural land development to our greenhouse gas emissions, this is certainly not true. In addition to the scientific data, simple observation shows that the Vermont environment has changed for the worse since the population and land-development surge began in the sixties.
And the concept that we can grow forever with finite resources makes no sense. As Richard Heinberg recently said in an interview “Growth is the problem.”
I was very surprised when I read the VNRC statement and wondered how someone from Vermont’s oldest and largest environmental organization could make such a general and inaccurate claim? I then had the “aha!” moment. It all depends on the person or organization’s “frame of reference!”
Is the frame of reference from a person who has lived his or her adult life for 50 years, or more in Vermont or is it from a person who has lived here for a shorter period of time? If fewer years, the person can’t possibly appreciate what Vermont was like before our cities were surrounded by sprawl and rural development.
Is the frame of reference a person who has lived and worked in and close to the natural environment, or is it as a city or suburban dweller who lives on a small parcel of land surrounded by other homes and who only goes into the woods occasionally for a hike or ski? If it is a city or suburban dweller, the individual can’t possibly appreciate what it is like to now have quieter woods and no longer experience the joy of hearing a woodcock before its rapid descent, or a partridge as it beats on a hollow log or not being able to hunt or walk on neighbor’s lands because it is developed or posted as a result of parcelization.
Is the frame of reference a volunteer who has researched and studied the environment for decades, realizes that our ecosystems are in a crisis situation, and speaks and writes the truth no matter the personal consequences, or is it as a paid professional who is very careful about what he or she says because they wouldn’t want to offend any donors?
Is the frame of reference a person who looks at the situation with whole-systems thinking that includes dealing with the causes of the problems or is it as a person who deals only with the symptoms of the problem such as water pollution? If it is a piecemeal ecologist then it is questionable, if the person can truly see the forest through the trees.
Is the frame of reference looking from a distance or is it from up close? If it is from a distance then yes, one can say that Vermont’s mountains still look green and beautiful. But if one drives closely around those mountain one can see that on some sides of those mountains there are small cities with hundreds of housing units and hotels built on steep hillsides and hundreds of acres of land cleared of trees to make room for amenities such as parking lots, golf courses and now even a water park. Similar damage is also true of our rivers, lakes, ponds, and ridgelines.
Is the frame of reference for the words “protecting the environment” just a general term, or is it a reference to a specific piece of land? As a general term it doesn’t mean much. If it refers to specific pieces of land, then it is hard to say we are protecting the environment.
As Vermont professional environmentalists write and speak about their accomplishments, in the coming years I hope they will speak the truth and not just praise their own organization. Not speaking the truth does not truly advance the cause of protecting the environment, although it may protect the organization. Likewise, we can’t just assume that because a person is a representative of an environmental organization they are accurate in their statements. Readers need to ask, “Gee is that really true, is it telling the full story, and what is the writer’s point of reference?”
Plumb: True sustainability achievable only with
population stabilization, even in Vermont
By VTDigger.org – July 6th, 2012
Editor’s note: George Plumb is the executive director of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population and is the author of the 2011 report, “Vermont Environmental Trends: The Population Connection He lives in Washington, Vt.
July 11 is World Population Awareness Day as sponsored by the United Nations. With the world population now over seven billion and well on its way to reaching nine to 10 billion in just a few more decades, we should definitely be aware of the impacts of future population growth on the earth. However, population growth is also a U.S. and Vermont problem. Vermonters should be concerned for the following reasons.
World oil production has peaked and global warming is happening. Without the cheap fossil fuels that now make possible almost all of the food we consume, most of the goods and services we receive and virtually all of our economy, Vermont certainly would not have a sustainable population today.
I estimate that a truly sustainable population size is about two-thirds of the current 626,000, and perhaps even less. This is based on the population size having been only about half of what it is now before cheap fossil fuels enabled our current population growth. Renewable energy will only be able to make up for at the very most three-fourths of our current energy demand and we should maintain our current forest cover as a source of energy, to sequester our carbon and to provide environmental quality.
The average ecological footprint of a U.S. citizen is also about 25 acres, meaning that if we had to depend on our own resources we could accommodate a population of only about 40 percent of our current size.
Quality of life
Vermonters value their rural landscape and small communities. However, that has declined dramatically since the state’s population growth started to rise in the 1960s. Sprawl, traffic congestion, crowded public outdoor recreation spaces, posting of land and real estate prices rising so much that the average Vermonter has difficulty paying for a home, never mind a summer cottage on a lake or a hunting camp as they used to just a few decades ago, have significantly diminished the quality of life for many.
Preserving the environment
According to most scientific data, Vermont’s environment has deteriorated significantly in recent decades. Approximately 200,000 acres of land have been developed (actually in a sense destroyed, because there is no biocapacity left) and Vermont’s forest cover is now in decline for the first time in over a century. For more information on Vermont’s environmental trends one should view the 2008 “Disappearing Vermont” Report and the 2011 Vermont Environmental Trends Report. Both are on the Vermonters for Sustainable Population website.
Population growth is the underlying cause of essentially every one of our environmental problems. It is long past time that we started to deal with the cause of the problems and not just the symptoms, an approach that is clearly not working. At the same time, we must all make a personal effort to purchase more sustainably produced goods and do all that we can to switch to renewable energy.
Because Vermont imports almost 100 percent of everything we use and exports nearly 100 percent of our air pollution we create injustice for people living elsewhere as we take and pollute their resources. Vermont also has a surplus of labor in most sectors, and rising population size depresses incomes and thus increases poverty.
We are part of the world
Our population adds to the world’s population and the world’s problems. We can’t say “Oh, we are only a population of 626,000 compared to the world’s seven billion, so our population size doesn’t matter.” Of course it matters, and to not acknowledge this truth is simply not fair.
Connectivity to the natural environment and other people has much to do with what living in Vermont is about whether we practice a formal religion or not. It is our small population size that really makes Vermont different.
Several different scientific groups and authors have said that population growth is one of the major challenges facing the earth and that; in fact, we are headed for disaster unless we make major changes in how we do things. Among two of the most recent are the following.
The Global Network of Science Academies (IAP), comprised of 105 national science academies, released a statement on population and consumption, which cites population growth and unsustainable consumption together as two of the greatest challenges facing the world.
An interdisciplinary group of 22 scientists, combining paleontological evidence with ecological modeling, has concluded that the earth appears headed toward catastrophic and irreversible environmental changes. Their report, in the June 7 issue of the distinguished journal Nature, describes an exponentially increasing rate of species extinctions, extreme climate fluctuations and other threats that together risk a level of upheaval not seen since the large-scale extinctions 65 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs.
The time to discuss and act on population growth was 40 years ago
In 1973 the Vermont Natural Resources Council published the Population Policy Report, http://www.vspop.org/Popuation_Policy_for_Vermont-1973.pdf which is also on the Vermonters for a Sustainable Population website. It stated: “We must determine Vermont’s carrying capacity, then we must estimate the number of people that can live here so that every Vermonter has access to a life of quality and he can afford. That population would be the optimum population and far below the carrying capacity.” That was recognized almost 40 years ago!
Fortunately, thanks to the outstanding work of a group of Vermonters who have organized Gross National Happiness U.S.A., Vermont is now in the process of adding the Genuine Progress Indicator to supplement the Gross Domestic Product. One of the several indicators being proposed relates to the carrying capacity of Vermont.
The Shumlin administration and our Legislature need to be sure to adopt these indicators for the benefit of quality of life and future sustainability of Vermonters.
Solving the “Population Problem”
Vermonters for Sustainable Population
By George Plumb – December 1, 2011
A prominent Vermont environmental leader recently asked, “So, as always, my question about population is, what are we going to do that has a practical outcome?”
First we need to acknowledge that people, in and of themselves, are not the problem. It is the impact that people have on the environment and society that is the problem and the larger the number of people then the greater that impact is going to be. One person urinating in a brook is not a problem. However the waste from 1,000 people is a problem. The human population of the earth has greatly exceeded its carrying capacity. Some even say that a sustainable human population is only 100 million (www.skil.org) although others say between two billion and five billion also would be, much less than the seven billion we have now and the ten billion we could have by the end of the century if not sooner. Some say that the rapid growth of human population is an even greater problem than global warming because the poverty and suffering resulting from an overpopulated planet is going to happen much sooner than the worst impacts of global warming (Unsustainable population growth trumps all of our other problems. Thursday, July 21, 2011, Los Angeles Times, Author: Ellen Harte, Anne Ehrlich). Vermont is very fortunate to be part of northern New England which still has a lot of undeveloped land although that is disappearing. If U.S. population growth isn’t stabilized soon we could easily become almost totally suburbanized like much of southern New England.
As with any problem there are three things that need to be addressed in order to solve the problem.
The first is to convince people that there is a problem.
The larger problem, of course, is what is happening not only to our environment, but to society as well. We are facing environmental problems that could well result in the demise of civilization as we know it and maybe even humanity itself. These include global warming, the sixth great extinction, dying oceans, the demise of the first entire ecosystem which are the coral reefs, disappearances of our forests, and the list goes on. And it is not only environmental problems, but other societal problems as well, including wars caused largely by fighting for resources, poverty caused by a labor force that greatly exceeds the jobs available, and again the list goes on.
What percent of the population is even fully aware of these problems? My guess is that when it comes to the environmental ones it is less than ten percent. Maybe twenty percent, but I would be surprised at that based on my interaction with everyday citizens. And what percent of the population is concerned enough that it actually gives significant time or money to help address the problems? I would guess much less than five percent. It maybe somewhat larger for social problems because of the more direct impact but it is still a relatively small percent of the population
So we have to begin by making people aware that there are problems. This is the role that the larger environmental and social justice organizations have to play because they have better resources to do it. With 350.org, Occupy Wall Street, and other protests there are some signs that people are beginning to recognize the larger problems.
A major challenge in convincing people that there is a problem seems to be that the majority of people are not moved by facts, logic, and rationality, and long term thinking but by immediate emotions. Therefore in convincing people that there is a problem, what the cause of the problem is, and to take personal action in solving the problem we need to find what appeals to people’s emotions. Vermonters for Sustainable Population has in the past tried to appeal to logic but now we are trying to appeal to emotions by stressing quality of life for ourselves and particularly our children and grand children. Is this what we should be stressing? How can we do it better?
The big question is when do we reach the tipping point? We don’t need to convince everyone that there is a problem, just a certain percentage. For legislative action that is probably somewhere around 50 percent of the population. For personal action it is probably much less. As an example, people are now installing solar hot water and photovoltaic units in increasing numbers because they see that others have done this.
The second is to convince people what the cause of the problem is.
Environmental organizations, for the most part, have just been dealing with the symptoms of our environmental problems. “Oh, we are losing land to development. Let’s establish land trusts and conserve the land” (which my wife and I have done with 140 of our 143 acres). But the land was fine before. It was largely because of population growth that land is being developed. Land trusts, like many environmental organizations, wouldn’t be in business if it weren’t for population growth. This is probably why they never acknowledge the cause of the problems. The same can be said of all of our other problems and the organizations that are trying to solve those problems. Sure, a few things can be dealt with by laws, regulation, and planning, but for the most part these just are not working, as environmental trend data show.
Of course there are many barriers that prevent people from realizing that population growth is the cause of our problems. These include some religions, pro growth economists and developers, politicians who receive their money from pro growth people, and past mistakes by some like supporting eugenics. These barriers need to be confronted.
So this is where Vermonters for Sustainable Population has put most of its energy, just trying to make people aware that there is an underlying cause of our problems. If we don’t acknowledge the cause we are never going to solve the problems as is certainly being proven true. We do this through op eds, our web site, being on radio and TV, speaking at classes, and writings such as the 2008 “Disappearing Vermont?” report and the 2011 “Vermont Environmental Trends: The Population Connection” report. See the reports section of www.vspop.org
The third is to convince people that there are solutions to the problem, that they personally need to work on those solutions, and that those solutions will actually help improve their life and not diminish it.
There are many, many practical solutions that Vermonters for Sustainable Population has worked on.
Working to develop a cultural norm of replacing yourself only once and every child a planned child. Right now in the U.S. 50% of all pregnancies are unplanned and that should be reduced to fewer than 10%. We should also voluntarily have a fertility rate of less than 2.1 so that we can gradually reduce the population to a sustainable size. We have worked on this through the media, encouraging people to take the most powerful living-more-sustainably pledge found via Google, distributing free save a species condoms, and offering our “Replace Once –For the Earth – Save-a-Species” mug.
Advocating for support of family planning services to all people in Vermont, the U.S. and globally. Also, promote better education for women (and men) in underdeveloped countries. Individuals can make contributions personally to a wide variety of state, national, and international organizations. They can also encourage our Vermont congressional delegation to support family planning, and fortunately they have been very good at that.
In the U.S., population growth is driven largely by immigration, which is at record high levels. Immigration will cause 82% of all U.S. population growth between 2005 and 2050. Immigration is a result in large part of overpopulation in other countries forcing people to want to emigrate to the U.S. Yes, we apparently need a guest agricultural worker program in Vermont, but in the U.S. as a whole we don’t need to bring in more people annually than the jobs we create annually, which is what is now happening and is environmentally and economically unsustainable. This is where we really need to work on our congressional delegation, because they still support high immigration levels. Inward-migration should not exceed outward-migration on an annual basis.
Educating people that we need to move to a steady-state economy rather than a growth-forever economy. VSP is the first organization in Vermont to adopt a policy supporting this. Similarly, work on moving from or at least supplementing GDP with another measure of our well being, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator.
VSP welcomes your suggestion on how we can better convince people that there is a problem, the cause of the problem and the solutions to the problem. Please send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For True Sustainability, I Will Replace Myself Only Once – Published in Vermont Woman, Summer 2011, Guest Opinion by George Plumb
The 2010 U.S. Census Bureau reported the U.S. population is now 311 million. When I was born it was about 130 million. It is now predicted that the U.S. will likely have a population of 400 million by 2035 and 600 million by 2070! This exponential population growth in such a short period of time is truly astounding. It is also unsustainable. We are seeing food shortages, wars, and severe environmental damage including climate change as a result. Because of these problems it is estimated that there will be fifty million refugees in the world in the next twenty years.
We began to realize that population growth was a major problem back in the 1970’s and at the time the catch phrase was “stop at two.” Many women in the U.S. did stop at two and some even decided to have only one or none. However, that put all of the responsibility on women. This was not fair. Now, we need a new cultural norm of, “I will replace myself only once.” This puts the responsibility on each one of us whether a man or woman.
To illustrate what “replacement only” means in practical terms if I have a partner and we have a child then each of us has replaced ourselves by only one-half and we are each okay to replace our selves another half with one more child. If we stay partnered then that is it. However if we were to separate and I find a new partner, and that new partner has not had any children, then the new partner would have only one child.
Every child brought into the world, no matter how environmentally sound the parents try to bring that child up or how sustainably that child tries to live as an adult, is going to have a huge ecological impact during the course of their life. I live frugally. I grow some of my own food, buy all the rest of my food at the coop, heat with wood, have a large solar panel, drive a fuel efficient car, never fly in a jet plane or take a cruise, usually vacation no further away than Maine, eat primarily vegetarian and organic, mow my lawn with a battery operated mower, and try to make conscious decisions about every gallon of fuel I use. However, my ecological footprint, meaning the amount of land and water it takes to support me as calculated by www.myfootprint.org, is still 105 acres. If everyone on earth lived the way I do, it would take the equivalent of 2.7 earths to sustain us all.
Replacement only with a wanted, planned, and well nourished child means preparation and readiness. The potential parent knows there will be a likely scenario where there will be an income that will be sufficient to raise that child with a reasonable quality of life, understands that he and she is emotionally mature enough to be a good parent, and is fully committed to being so even if there is an eventual separation.
Deciding how many children to have is no longer just a personal decision. It is now also an ethical decision. Does the right to have as many children as we want trump the right of ours and other people's descendants to have a liveable environment? Does it trump the right of the global community in general to live on a healthy planet? Do those of us now living have any obligations to preserve resources for future generations? Does the human species have any ethical obligations to non-human life-to protect Earth's biodiversity where human overpopulation is now causing the sixth great mass extinction?
The norm of replacement only with every child a planned, wanted, and nourished child needs to be supported through a variety of cultural means. These should include family discussion, sexual education, spiritual growth, welfare and charitable giving, government policy making, and providing appropriate and free contraceptive support as needed.
Making these careful decisions will be good for children as more resources can be devoted to each child in this increasingly competitive and stressful economy. It will also be good for the parents who will time their children according to their income, health, lifestyles, and values. Most importantly, only by stabilizing population size at or below our current level can we achieve true sustainability.
George Plumb is the volunteer executive director of Vermonters for Sustainable Population and co-chair of the New England Coalition for Sustainable Population. He may be reached at email@example.com. To take a strong ten point pledge to live more sustainably go to the website www.vspop.org. He also has a power point talk on Better not Bigger which he gives to community groups.
WORLD ON THE EDGE: HOW TO PREVENT ENVIRONMENTAL AND
By Lester R. Brown
New York: W.W. Norton, xii+240 pp. 2011. ISBN 978-0-393-08029-2.
Both of the earth's two great systems — the social and the ecological — are
inextricably entwined, and together are fast heading toward Armageddon. That is to
say, they are heading there at high speed unless we accept without delay, and
studiously follow, Lester Brown's approach to restructuring the US and global
economies with a massive mobilization at World War II speed. This book (Brown's
latest of several dozen powerful environmental manifestos since 1963) actually
presents for the fifth time his recently advanced "Plan B", which was first published in
2003, and with its earlier revised editions appearing in 2006, 2008, and 2009. His
"Plan B" is so named in order to be in contrast with "business as usual", to which he
refers as "Plan A", the latter inevitably doomed to lead rapidly to the collapse of both
human civilization and the biosphere.
The author was trained as an agricultural scientist and economist (Rutgers,
Maryland, Harvard), has worked for the US Department of Agriculture, in 1974
founded the prestigious Worldwatch Institute, and then in 2001 established the Earth
Policy Institute, his current base of operations.
The various indicators of looming disaster and the approaches to overcoming
them will not be new to readers of Brown's past monographs (or, in fact, to readers of
a number of other authors' comparable texts of recent years). Among those he stresses
are the ever increasing numbers of so-called failing nations [I agree], the globally
unsustainable use of the earth's renewable natural resources [here suggested to have
been occurring since about 1980, but probably since at least a decade earlier], the ever
rising numbers of migrants, often referred to as environmental refugees [a tragedy of
monumental proportions], and of course global warming.
Thus, the real value of this book is not in the presentation of new ideas or
approaches to our global dilemma, but rather in its clarity, succinctness, and — most
of all — in its persuasive message of urgency. It should thus be required reading for
government leaders and politicians worldwide. Indeed, it has been reported
elsewhere that after reading the first (2003) publication of "Plan B", Ted Turner
(founder of CNN) took it upon himself to distribute some 3,500 copies to heads of
state and other key decision makers throughout the world. However, one must
wonder how many read it, let alone took it to heart.
In a nutshell, Brown's "Plan B" calls in the first instance for: (a) population
stabilization primarily via universal access to family planning [an insufficient
approach in my view]; (b) energy efficiency and conservation [of course, but with the
added goal of frugality]; (c) the phasing out of coal [a crucial aim, coal being an
abomination responsible each year for: more human fatalities and illnesses than any
conceivable nuclear power plant accident; incredible terrestrial destruction; and
contaminating the atmosphere with enough greenhouse gases to result in destructive
weather events, extinction of many plants and animals, disastrously rising sea levels,
and other social and environmental calamities]; (d) restoration of forests, soils,
aquifers, and fisheries [so true and so admirable, but far easier said than done];
(e) access to primary education for all, both male and female, and the eradication of
poverty [no argument with this utopian goal]; and (f) no new nuclear power plants,
and the placing of reliance for energy on wind, solar, and geothermal sources [a most
worthy goal despite their own substantial social and environmental impacts, although
far more benign than the fossil fuels now largely used].
To achieve the goals of "Plan B", the author points out that our leaders must
recognize that the challenges to national security today encompass climate change,
population growth, water shortages, failing states, food shortages, unsustainable
exploitation of natural resources, and the like, but that they no longer include military
aggression. That litany of now to be recognized challenges to national security is of
course right on, but the failure to also retain military aggression as one of them is in
my view a rather naive notion. Brown further stresses the need for more sensible
economic policies, including especially full-cost accounting of goods and services,
elimination of fossil-fuel subsidies, and restructured taxation.
As already hinted, this book is written so as to be fully accessible to both the
public and officialdom, being thoroughly readable (for example, unencumbered by
tedious data and scholarly citations — all of which are, however, available on line at
www.earth-policy.org). Having hammered home the message of the seriousness of the
multifarious threats we all face, the author goes on to make it abundantly clear that
those threats are not to some future generation, but already our own future.
So in closing, Brown is manifestly one of the great, and thankfully tireless,
environmentalists of our time. Had we heeded his numerous similar calls for action
over the past four decades or more, there would have been no need for him to do so
yet once again. We can only hope, and perhaps pray, that those who need to will at
last heed this poignant and fully urgent call for action. But I must conclude by
admitting to myself that substantive timely action, if any, will come too little and too late.
Arthur H. Westing
447 Appeared, under the title, A persuasive message of environmental urgency, in the
Language as a tool of deception and self-destruction
As William Catton has observed, language is a double-edged sword. It can be employed to convey clear and accurate information or be an agent of obfuscation and manipulation. Since the tactics of deceit and camouflage are common to a cross section of species, Catton maintains that they must not be necessarily seen as a character flaw but instead be viewed objectively as a sometimes necessary adaptation to confuse predators and prey. As Churchill said, sometimes the truth must be protected by a bodyguard of lies. It is doubtful that the Normandy invasion would have succeeded without the fiendishly deceptive ploy of creating Patton's phantom army. Perhaps the imperatives of group living in an hierarchical arrangement primed the primate brain for deceitful tactics, but in language we have developed a means to deceive even ourselves. Language has become a weapon of mass distraction and destruction. What was a competitive advantage of decisive importance in our ascendance may prove, ironically, to be the agent of our ultimate demise. When we are not using language to practice deceit, we amusing ourselves to extinction by "conjuring fictions with words", as Catton put it, stupefied and inebriated by the opiate of escapist storytelling.
The concept of language as a kind of lens or filter, or even straight-jacket, cannot be over-stated. Wittgenstein said that the limits of language are the limits of one's world. By that token, bilingual or multi-lingual people typically have a broader vision. It is not what we look at, but how we look at it. Objective reality is not a linguistic construct, but how we perceive it is paramount. In filtering reality, language draws a caricature of it, bringing a part of it into sharp focus while blurring the rest. The question then becomes, whose lens are we wearing? What filter are we looking through? And most crucially, how do we remove it?
Orwell made us understand that the purpose of "Newspeak"---the language of the fictional totalitarian society depicted in his "1984", was to rid standard English ("Oldspeak") of all adjectives and unnecessary words so that people would not be able to feel or think in proscribed ways. If one could not describe sadness, one could not feel it, and if there was no word for democracy or justice, one couldn't complain about arbitrary government action. By eliminating words, Newspeak would narrow the range of thoughts. Thus the objectives of contemporary "political correctness" are classically Orwellian. The notion is that if we can't label people or things by potentially harmful terms, then people will desist from thinking of them in those terms. And if politically acceptable euphemisms are substituted and repeated ad nauseam, the brain-transplant will be complete.
It must not be thought that euphemisms are the exclusive weapon of left or right, government or business. In fact, it is my contention that they are most perniciously employed by what may be termed "the growth-management industry", a coalition of environmental NGOs and their corporate benefactors united in a mission to make growth palatable by coating it with the sugary-sweet syrup of oxymorons like 'smart' or 'managed' growth and 'sustainable' or 'green' development. Its purpose, as Catton might phrase it, is to induce in the message-receiver a definition of reality that benefits the message purveyor. And it's working.
It is in the ideology of growthism where euphemistic language presently makes it most incursive and dangerous intervention in the determination of what we perceive to be real. The ideology that economic and population growth is beneficial, necessary and inevitable prevails, to a large extent, because the language which mediates that message, the language of classical economics, has colonized academic forums, radio and television studios and the print media. Consequently the very real prospect of environmental Armageddon is seen by the audience through the same rose-coloured glasses that are worn by the presenters, their writers and researchers, and those whom they interview, tinted by the growthist vocabulary they use to interpret that reality. A stable population is therefore described as "stagnant" and an economic "bust" is never represented as an environmental "boom", while a drop in housing construction is represented as a calamity urgently in need of a fiscal stimulus.
How can we remove their lens? The answer is to substitute our lens for theirs. We have to constantly challenge media terminology and offer our own. We must refuse to allow the enemy to define our predicament and frame the questions. In the meantime, however, the snake-oil salesmen of the growth-management coalition has us buffaloed. Unfortunately for them, however, Mother Nature ain't buyin' it.
Living, breathing human beings must convert energy and consume it to survive. We can call that economic activity any oxymoron we like----sustainable development or smart growth---but deceptive labels can't negate its negative ecological impact. As Derek Jensen observed, "Building houses is destructive. Manufacturing toilet paper is destructive. Printing books is destructive. But there is no reason to stop there. The industrial economy itself is inherently destructive." George Plumb, executive director of Vermonters for Sustainable Population, elaborates. "Land development is really land destruction. First it destroys the land where the development occurs and there is no bio-capacity left. Second, it destroys surrounding land because it requires infrastructure such as driveways, roads, and parking lots. Third, it destroys far away land because it requires all kinds of resources to construct that development and then to maintain it and the people using it for decades." Just who are we conning but ourselves?
In Mother Nature's dictionary the only "smart" growth is the kind that never happened, and the only "smart car" or "green building" is the one never constructed. There is no entry for "eco-cities" because no city can ever be self-sufficient or not rely on external inputs, often imported from far away. All cities draw down resources and generate waste, and the even the construction of "energy-efficient" housing involves structural elements like nails, pipes, bricks, cement, plastic and wiring--and they aren't made from angel dust. If you want to see a city with a small footprint go to the ghost towns of the Wild West.
Mother Nature knows that agriculture of any kind has adverse impacts, most conspicuously in soil depletion and deforestation. She knows that the manufacture of pollution abatement technology, catalytic converters, electric cars, solar panels, wind farms and nuclear power plants with zero CO2 emissions involve intrinsically damaging processes that space does not allow me to enumerate. Mother Nature is a "systems thinker". She looks at the entire life cycle of a product, from resource extraction, through manufacture, transportation and disposal. She is from Missouri. When we tout the marvels of "eco-friendly" technology she replies, "Show me". Then she reminds us of the Jevons Paradox and the Khazoom-Brookes Postulate. In the context of a market economy, more efficient resource use by more efficient technologies, by making inputs cheaper, only provoke more total consumption. Even more efficient land-use strategies, conservation and recycling enable more growth rather than constrain it--unless introduced within the framework of a steady-state economy.. And making "responsible" consumer choices does not challenge the source of waste and pollution---the economic system that fosters and relies upon consumerism and growth. We can and should mitigate our impacts, but we can't eliminate them.
Mother Nature does not want more "green" consumers. She wants fewer consumers. She does not care about our virtuous self-abnegation or personal frugality. She doesn't care about our per capita consumption-it is our aggregate consumption that registers on her scoreboard--the sum total of 'per capitas'. Her advice? Stop growing stupid.
Face it. Mother Nature is not fooled by euphemisms.
By: Tim Murray
| September 19, 2010
Looking to the Past for Insights Into How to Predict Future Challenges
By John F. Rohe
Philanthropy serves two realms: the present and the future. It responds to pressing needs today, and it strives to avert hardships tomorrow.
Tomorrow's uncertain terrain, however, has never been a top priority. Philanthropists can be distracted from future needs by the pressing demands of the present. This is particularly true when a global recession inflicts intense hardship on so many.
For guidance on how to invest in the future, today's philanthropists could look to donors and activists behind the population movement that started in the 1950s and culminated in the 1960s. They foresaw that quality of life today would depend on the success of their efforts to promote family planning.
They recognized the impact of a burgeoning population on ecological balance, a lesson we can profoundly see in today's Gulf of Mexico oil spill-an expression of the colossal consumer demand for energy inflicting damage to a vital ecosystem and national prosperity.
Early population activists, like other future-focused humanitarians, encountered uncertainty, skepticism, and even hostility. As they sought to prevent future harm to the planet, they practiced their charity humbly and expected no personal recognition.
Our quality of life today demonstrates both their successes and their failures.
Although well conceived, and noble, the movement needed more donors and public recognition of population pressures. Wider awareness of the urgency might have enabled yesterday's pound of prevention to have been leveled against today's ton of cure.
What if population activists of the 1950s had stabilized the number of people in the United States near 200 million? At that level, yesterday's strategic philanthropy would have changed the course of history.
The nation would almost be energy independent today. The geopolitical global drama over fossil fuel would not dominate our news. Sustainability would have become an attainable national aspiration.
The United States could lead the world by example. Our soldiers would not be in harm's way on remote oil fields. And a dignified quality of life would be more respectfully balanced with natural surroundings.
America's population numbers have not only failed to stabilize at 200 million but they continue to steeply surge and have now surpassed 300 million. The nation is expected to increase its population size by another 50 percent near mid-century. Notwithstanding conservation strategies, our vulnerability and dependence on dwindling global resources will intensify with a higher population. The goalpost for national conservation retreats under the rush of more consumers.
Resource scarcities in the daily news press upon us with glaring severity. The United States confronts beach closings, water shortages, brimming landfills, congestion, gridlock, infrastructure decay, municipal overflows in rivers, groundwater contamination, airborne toxins, sprawl, emergency-room delays, and dwindling energy reserves, and our national parks are loved to death. In a growth-dominated culture, few people recognize the impact of overpopulation. Meanwhile, concerns of the 1950s population humanitarians are now marching into view with stunning clarity.
Our fragile yet resilient globe can accommodate all of us for a while, but it's showing wear. Over 230,000 people are added to the earth's population every day (that's births minus deaths). In other words, almost one million additional people (net addition) arrive at the world's table every four days.
It would be comforting to inhabit a world and a nation unconstrained by biological limits. Idyllic fantasy, however, is neither strategic nor philanthropic. Thoughtful, investment-minded philanthropists anticipate and strive to reduce the cause of future grief.
With a prod from the world of philanthropy, the United States can responsibly demonstrate sensitivity to the "multiplier" of all environmental degradation. Alternatively, we can ignore the numbers and be guided by the celebrated words of Lewis Carroll, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."
The multiplier driving consumption of resources in the United States remains a function of fertility and migration. The controversial nature of these topics can deter philanthropists. We might attempt to ignore future issues, but the issues will not ignore the future. Today we have become the intended beneficiaries of yesterday's future-oriented humanitarians. As heretics of their day, their foresight endured controversy. Advocates of gender equity in the days of Susan B. Anthony, of civil rights in the age of Lincoln, and of modesty in the age of Galileo were also heretics. Their vindication would await the judgment of history.
Today's loss is a symptom of yesterday's lost prospects. Meanwhile, we can focus on tomorrow's needs now. Environmental threats loom with increasing certainty. The case for compassion, foresight, and strategic philanthropy has never been more compelling.
John F. Rohe is vice president of philanthropy at the Colcom Foundation, in Pittsburgh.
Editor’s note: This oped by Lisa Sammet first appeared in the publication Vermont Woman.
Triple threats to the planet are coming into collision: overpopulation, climate change and peak oil (and actually the depletion of all nonrenewable resources). Continued population growth exacerbates both climate change and resource depletion.
In the 1970s, overpopulation got a lot of press, but then it became a topic few dared to broach. Today, finally, there are people who are speaking out once again on the topic.
Many will say that population is not a problem, that if we all lived like the Tanzanians, the earth could support many more humans. These ideas are false. Though the carbon footprint of the average African is far smaller than other areas of the world, their populations are exceeding the carrying capacity of the land. This is happening all over the world. “Expanding world population has cut the grainland per person in half, from 0.23 hectares in 1950 to 0.10 hectares in 2007.” (Lester Brown, When Population Growth and Resource Availability Collide, Population Press, Spring 2009, p. 14).
Global resource depletion, especially the depletion of oil, will affect the ability for the planet to produce the amount of food it currently has been producing. World food production has been falling for the last few years. Arable land has been taken out of production and developed for human habitation. Industrial, nonorganic agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels, “40% of all agriculture production energy goes into making synthetic fertilizers and pesticides [and] contributes more than 480 tons of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere each year….once on soils, synthetic fertilizers generate over 304 million pounds of GHG emissions annually. (Meredith Niles, www.nationalorganiccoalition.org/NOC_Organic_letter_Final.pdf).
Water is becoming scarce. Tension over water rights can be viewed in the American Southwest, throughout the Middle East, in Africa and between Hindus and Muslims on the Indian continent. Water shortages in dry areas will only increase due to climate change, thereby increasing the possibility of conflict between groups fighting over ever-diminishing water sources. “With India’s population projected to grow from 1.2 billion in 2007 to 1.7 billion in 2050, a collision between rising human numbers and shrinking water supplies seems inevitable.” (Brown)
In a seminal book, Sex and War by Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden (Benbella Books, 2008), the authors demonstrate that women’s reproductive freedom has a connection to developing a peaceful society. Potts, a research biologist and trained obstetrician, shows that empowered women tend to “counterbalance the most chaotic and violent aspects of men’s predisposition for brutal territoriality and team aggression.”
He goes on to say, “Second, and on a still more fundamental level, when women have the choice to control when and how often they have children, they opt increasingly for smaller families, and often start child-bearing later in life. This has important consequences for the size and age structure of human populations, with smaller families and later reproduction leading to stable population size, and the lower ratios of volatile young men, which…..can dramatically decrease the likelihood of violence, raiding and war….reproductive freedom for women is a crucial and necessary precondition for bringing an end to war as we know it.”
Stable populations arise without coercion if three things are provided to women: 1. Easy access to affordable contraception, 2. Education and family planning, 3. Empowerment to make decisions about child-bearing. If these criteria are met, the net effect would be a more stable population, healthier women and children, and a more peaceful society.
The health of the planet would also improve if there were fewer humans using up resources, burning fossil fuels, needing energy, needing food. Humans have treated this planet so long without thought about the other living creatures. Our population has taken over the home and habitat of so many other species, running many to extinction, and making it difficult for others to survive.
July 7, 2010
Unlike the other commentaries in this section this one has not been submitted for publication in the media. However, for those who care about the environment, and life for future generations and indeed all life on earth, it is very important to know what fairly well known1 Vermont people and Vermont environmental organizations have been willing to speak out about the main cause of our environmental problems: a U. S. population that has already exceeded its carrying capacity and yet continues to grow by three million people per year. It is quite impressive how many Vermont journalists, educators, authors and organizations have spoken about the population issue. If you have any corrections or additions to this commentary please send them to George at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those who have spoken up about population without being asked:
Saleem Ali, PhD – Associate Professor of Environmental Planning at UVM and author of the
Book, “Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed, and a Sustainable Future.
Alan Betts – Vermont’s leading climate scientist and past president of the Vt. Academy of
Science and Engineering who regularly writes for the Weekly Planet column in the
Sunday edition of the Times Argus/Rutland Herald.
David Blittersdorf – founder of NRG Systems and now founder and President of AllEarth
Renewables who writes for the View From The Top column of the Green Energy Times
and serves on the board of the VPIRG.
Robert Costanza, PhD – director of the UVM Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and
chief editor of the book, “Ecological Economics.”
Cheryl Fischer – Executive Director, New England Grassroots Environmental Fund
Nat Frothingham – editor of the Montpelier Bridge newspaper.
Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at UVM – in their magazine “Solutions.”
Valerie Esposito, PhD – director of the Champlain College Environmental Policy Program.
Willem Lange – writes the weekly column Yankee Notebook for the Sunday Argus/Herald.
Jon Margolis – writer, political correspondent, and adjunct professor of political science at
Mollie Matteson – Director of the Northeast Office (Richmond) of the Center for Biological
Bill McKibben – head of the 350.org organization and internationally know author including the
book, “Maybe One.”
Nancy Mosher – past President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
Tim Newcomb – internationally famous cartoonist who has done at least two cartoons on
population and the environment and does art work for Vermont environmental
Bill Ryerson – President of the Population Media Center which is based in Shelburne Vermont.
Lisa Sammet – artistic performer, host of concerts, Hardwick librarian and president of VSP.
Paul Schechkel – senior energy analyst for the Vt. Energy Investment Corporation and author
of the “The Home Energy Diet” and writes regularly for the Weekly Planet column.
James Gustave Speth, PhD. - former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment
and author of several books including “The Bridge at the Edge of the World.” He is now
retired to Vermont but still teaches at Vt. Law School and serves on the advisory board of
the Vt. Natural Resources Council.
Carol Tashie – owner of a veggie farm and writes regularly for the Weekly Planet column.
Nancy Taube – author of the book, “Rustle Me up Some Texas” which includes many
references to population growth.
Several national environmental organizations with offices in Vermont including Audubon, Center for Biological Diversity, the Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, and Sierra Club although as far as is known the CBD Regional Director is the only one who has personally spoken out about population growth.
Those who spoke out about population after being asked:
Geof Hewitt – well known Vt. slam poet who wrote the poem “Rabbits.”
Post Carbon Sustainability Network – indirectly by endorsing a steady state economy.
Smart Growth Vermont – added the words “population growth” to their web site as one of the
causes of sprawl.
Transition Vermont – indirectly by adding a group discussion on population growth.
Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas – added a great page on their web site about both
population and consumption.
Those who have refused to speak out even after being asked, in most cases at least a couple of times:
The majority of Vermont’s larger environmental organizations.
It is interesting that so many have spoken out about population growth ranging from every day citizens to internationally famous authors but the great majority of Vermont’s larger environmental organizations, whose purpose after all is to protect the environment, refuse to acknowledge the truth.
I began asking environmental organizations to speak out about population in a land mail letter in 2006. Only one responded to that letter, the Vt. Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. Since that time I have sent other land and email requests just asking them to please simply add the words “population growth” to their web site. I haven’t asked them to do anything about the population issue, or take any position on any aspect of the population issue, just to simply acknowledge the fact some place on their web site as a matter of public education. Again no responses except for Smart Growth Vermont. I have even asked several if I could just come and talk with them personally about the population issue. All but one said no which I find amazing. I’ll bet that if these organizations were to do a survey and ask their members if their organization should acknowledge the fact that population growth is a cause of environmental problems at least 80% of the members would say yes!
To me all of us who care about the environment should be in this together and acknowledge and support the work of each other even if we don’t always agree with what they do or do not do or say. This would seem particularly true in Vermont where we all know each other. Some of us work for large environmental organizations and some for small ones. Some of us get paid for our environmental work and some donate our time. Some of us deal with the causes of environmental problems and some with the results. However, we are all trying to do our best to deal with complex and challenging environmental issues.
However when it comes to main line environmental organizations, “we are all in this together,” clearly does not apply. Although they constantly ask us to attend their events, respond to their action alerts, and donate money, when something is asked of them there is no mutual support. The organizers of the annual Vermont Environmental Conference have refused to give us the opportunity to present a session on population although their staffs are annually on the agenda as speakers. Even when they received a personal invitation from the editor of the Montpelier Bridge, with a follow up phone call, none of these organizations were represented at a free lunch Global Population Speak Out in Montpelier in 2009. And none of the above acknowledged the publication by VSP of Vermont’s most comprehensive environmental report.
The most recent example is the lack of support by paid environmental professionals in taking the most powerful sustainable/green living pledge found on Google and the only one found in Vermont. One would think that paid environmental professionals would jump at the chance to demonstrate their commitment to living more sustainably. However, despite wide spread publicity and in many cases being asked personally to take the pledge, most environmental professionals have neglected or refused to take the pledge. Look at the list. A good number of everyday citizens have taken the pledge but you will see hardly any names of professionals. To me this is really amazing. Imagine how many more people would be taking the pledge if environmental organizations had enthusiastically promoted it.
During the time that many of today’s environmental leaders have been in their current position or similar position the U.S. population has grown by about fifty million people which have been disastrous for the environment. Imagine if instead of wimping out on the population issue as the national organizations did, they said no we are going to stay with it. Imagine how powerful it would have been if they had said to Vermont’s congressional delegation, “Population growth is destroying our environment and you need to be more aware and more proactive on this issue.” Instead they continue to deal with just the symptoms of the problem and not the primary cause and we are seeing the results right in front of our eyes.
The disastrous Gulf oil spill is having a huge environmental and economic impact. Global warming is happening at a faster rate and the results are going to be much more serious than predicted earlier. Both are largely the result of population growth. These warnings will hopefully provide a wakeup call. More and more deep thinkers are writing and talking about the mistaken growth forever concept, be it population or economic. What we are now doing is not working and we need to change the paradigm and that includes stabilizing the size of our population, changing our personal consumption patterns, and changing government policies. Just doing one without the others will not work. The evidence is overwhelming and time for action, particularly by environmental leaders is now. Without their leadership how can we expect the general public and political leaders to make the personal and policy decisions that need to be made?
1I define “fairly well known” as being known beyond the individual’s immediate community.
By: Rev. David Murphy and George Plumb
Published By: Times Argus
Sunday, May 13, 2010
he evidence is overwhelming. We are facing triple crises. Global warming is already happening. We are at or close to being at peak oil (and some say as result peak money) production. We have exceeded our carrying capacity and still adding 3 million people to the U.S. population and eighty million to the earth each year. Between the two of us we have read almost all of the books below and are deeply impressed that so many prominent environmentalists, scientists, spiritual leaders, and educators have written so many books about crisis and collapse in just the last few years.
We urge all who care about the future to read at least one book from each of the categories. In this time of greenwashing by corporations and politicians there is nothing more important that we can do than to be well informed about these issues. If you only have time or motivation to read one book then James Hansen's book, The Storms of my Grandchildren, is a must read. While there are many more books that have been written in each category we have listed what we think are the best four in terms of information and ideas on how to deal with the crises. While the reading may at times be discouraging it will also likely motivate people to action as it has us.
All political, environmental, religious, and social justice leaders and followers need to come together to acknowledge each of these problems and either begin new movements, strengthen existing movements, or a combination of the two, to begin to fulfill our responsibility to the earth and future generations.
The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, James Howard Kunstler, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005
Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers, 2007
Confronting Collapse: The Crisis of Energy and Money in a Post-Peak Oil World, Michael Rupert, Chelsea Green Press, 20092
Transition Handbook, Rob Hopkins, Chelsea Green Press, 2009
Storms of my Grandchildren, James Hansen, Bloombury USA, 2009
Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, Al Gore, Rodale Press, 2009
Earth, Bill McKibben, Times Books, 2010
Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Lester Brown, W.W. Norton Co., 2009
A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge, Laurie Mazur, Island Press, 2010
Growing Pains: A Planet in Distress, Valorie M. Allen, IUniverse Press, 2010
The Population: Fix-Breaking America's Addiction to Population Growth, Edward Hartman, out of print but available through used sources at www.populationfix.com, 2006
More: Population, Nature and What Women Want, Robert Engelman, Island Press, 2008
The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, Gus Speth, Yale University Press, 2008
Threshold: The Crisis of Western Civilization, Thom Hartmann, Viking Press, 2009
Endgame: The Problem Of Civilization, Derrick Jensen, Seven Stories Press, 20061
The Vanishing Face of Gaia: The Final Warning: Enjoy it while you can, James Lovelock, Allen Lane, 2009
Religious point of view
A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency, John Stanley, David R. Lay, and Gyurme Dorje, Wisdom Press, 2008
Love God, Heal Earth: The Ecological Crisis Through the Lens of Faith, Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham, SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2009
Claiming Earth as Common Ground, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, St. Lynn's Press, 2009
A Climate Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, Katherine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley, Hachette Book Group, 2009
Rev. David Murphy is a retired Methodist minister and now lives his life as sustainably as possible. He and his wife Judy operate Splendid Oaks Farm in Montpelier, and are in the process of installing a solar system that will generate most of their electricity. They are the co-chairs of the Central Vermont Post Carbon Sustainability Network.
George Plumb is executive director of Vermonters for Sustainable Population and Chair of the New England Coalition for Sustainable Population. He is a long-time environmental activist and has organized a couple of Central Vermont 350.org actions. He is an active Unitarian Universalist and practices Buddhism.
By: George Plumb
Published By: Burlington Free Press
Sunday, April 18, 2010
2010: 621,760, a 40 percent increase
Number of environmental organizations in Vermont with staff
Number of Vermont colleges and universities with environmental programs
Vermont government expenditures for the environment/percent of state budget
1970: $4,815,019, or 2 percent
2010: $82,304,483, or 1.7 percent
Condition of the environment
1970: There certainly were environmental problems in Vermont. Large-scale land development, including great expansion of ski areas, building of malls and large subdivisions, was just beginning. There also was point-source pollution including untreated wastewater going into our rivers and air pollution from manufacturers. However, the problems largely were local in nature and could be dealt with through environmental regulation such as Act 250 and building sewage-treatment plants.
2010: The health of Vermont environment has become worse.
How do we know this?
We know this anecdotally from the huge increase in the number of environmental organizations and environmental programs at colleges and universities. If the environment were improving, would there be such a great need for the increase in organizations and programs? Unfortunately, although we have more serious environmental problems now than we had then, the percent of state expenditures on the environment has decreased slightly.
More importantly, we know the environment has deteriorated from empirical environmental data showing historic trends. There are three different environmental reports that show a wide variety of data. The most comprehensive is the “Disappearing Vermont?” report published by Vermonters for Sustainable Population. It lists 31 indicators of environmental health, including both objective and quantifiable data and subjective and nonquantifiable measures. Of the 31 indicators, 23 show a decline, two are about the same, and only six have improved, and those only slightly. The other comprehensive reports were published by the Council on the Future of Vermont and the Vermont Community Foundation and show similar results.
Globally the environmental situation is even worse. Global warming, dead seas, clearing of rain forests, collapsing fisheries and loss of biodiversity were not a problem in 1970. Now the Data Center of the Earth Policy Institute documents the many ways the global environment is deteriorating.
Why are our environmental problems becoming so much worse here in Vermont and globally?
The most important cause is population growth. While the Vermont population increased by 177,000 during the past 40 years, the U.S. population increased by 139 million. It continues to grow by about 3 million people a year. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of “Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization,” stated that, “Despite 40 years of Earth Day, our environmental situation has become much worse, and population growth since that time has been a major cause.”
Unfortunately, during these 40 years of trying to solve our environmental problems, we have been dealing primarily with the symptoms and not the cause. It is like dealing with a car that is leaking oil from the engine. If we just keep adding more oil we are dealing only with the symptom, and the underlying cause grows worse. On the other hand, if we fix the engine gasket, the problem stops.
In our environment we are dealing with water pollution by adding and upgrading wastewater-treatment plants. However, that doesn’t stop the silt and other pollution caused by nonpoint-source pollution from developed land. Acre for acre, developed land causes more pollution than agricultural land. And it is more than the environment that is being polluted. Research by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group shows that all Vermont human bodies now have toxic chemicals in them.
When the first Earth Day was held April 22, 1970, population growth was at the top of the agenda. A headline in The Burlington Free Press on April 23 that year read: “Dr. Gray Says Mankind Must Face Problems of Snowballing Population.” Another article detailing the themes at the UVM Earth Day lists “OVERPOPULATION” as the first item.
However, since that time environmental and political leaders have retreated from talking about the population issue. Given that the environmental situation now is so much worse, this is irresponsible to the Earth and to future generations. Our leaders should once again lead us in discussing this issue and what we can do voluntarily to deal with it.
Some argue the root cause is consumption and not population growth. This is not a valid argument. If there were only 25 million people living in the U.S., as there was in 1850, we all could be living highly consumptive lifestyles and driving Hummers around, and our ecological systems could handle both the consumption of resources and the resulting pollution.
Also, there is little evidence that people are willing to lessen significantly their consumptive lifestyles. Even this ardent environmentalist in recent weeks has bought a new laptop computer, purchased my first iPod and driven more than 100 miles round trip to Burlington to teach a class — none of which I really had to do.
Fortunately, with the combination of our increasing environmental problems, food and water shortages already happening, rising awareness of peak oil and our failing economy, people are beginning to realize unsustainable population growth is behind much of this. The human species has exceeded its carrying capacity.
Environmentalists talked about carrying capacity during the first Earth Day, after which we heard little about it. But now it is being discussed again, along with the newer concept of ecological footprint.
While discussing population growth this Earth Day likely will not top the agenda as it did in 1970, we can use this opportunity to begin to reconsider and take action on the cause of our problems and stop the imaginary thinking that only dealing with symptoms is the answer.
Note: The data on population, environmental organizations and college environmental programs at the beginning of this column all are the result of research by the author. Depending on how environmental organizations and programs are defined, the data might vary slightly. There actually are dozens more environmental-type groups such as community conservation commissions, local land trusts, river protection groups, sustainable living networks, etc., but they do not have staff. The state spending data on the environment was provided by the Public Assets Institute. The figure for 1970 is the Environmental Conservation budget, and the figure for 2010 is the Natural Resources Budget.
George Plumb is a longtime volunteer environmental activist and currently is executive director of Vermonters for Sustainable Population. Contact him at email@example.com.
As Vermont's population booms, we pave paradise and lose our rural values
By: Opinion on February 15, 2010
Published By: VTDigger.org
Editor’s note: This commentary is by George Plumb, a long-time volunteer environmental activist and currently serves as executive director of Vermonters for Sustainable Population.
With the U.S. population having grown by over 100 million since 1970 and Vermont’s population by 200,000, the impact on the environment has been profound. We are now facing major destruction of the earth’s ecosystems, and we have clearly exceeded the carrying capacity to sustain future generations.
This is so well-documented that I won’t go into the details. Instead, I think a very important part of this discussion, and what is often missing, is what constant growth is doing to our quality of life. For me it has had a dramatic impact, and I suspect it has for many others as well, particularly those who have lived in Vermont for more than a few years.
I moved to Washington, Vermont, in 1968. At that time, Washington was a very rural community. There were several dairy farms, with each farm having no more than 50 milking cows. And the farms were economically fairly well off. The farmer across the valley even had his own little airport known as the Carrier Airport that still shows on Vermont atlases. Everyone knew everyone else, and communities were tight-knit.
Since we have moved here the changes are almost unbelievable.
• There are only a couple of dairy farms left and the cows that used to sometimes break out of the fenced pastures and wander onto our land are … no more.
• The one-third mile long road which we live on had only two buildings, our late 1800s farm house and a barn. It now has six homes with a total of 13 buildings. The same thing has happened to just about every road in Vermont. We used to look out across the valley and see just a few other buildings. Now the hillside is dotted with structures. Sense of real ruralness … no more.
• People no longer know everyone else in town and hardly know their neighbors. Attendance at town meeting is no larger than it used to be and probably less. Most of the community organizations that used to exist are gone. Tight-knit community … no more.
• The night sky used to be totally dark, and we enjoyed seeing the magic of the northern polar lights. Now there is a big glow of light pollution from the sprawl in Central Vermont. Aurora borealis….no more.
• There was a wide variety of birds including barn swallows, cat birds, red wing black birds, kill deer, ruffed grouse, whip-poor-will, woodcock and many others. In their place there are turkeys. The joy of so many beautiful birds … no more.
• None of the land around us was posted and there were no other buildings for long distances. Now much of it is posted and homes and camps are located on the fragmented parcels. Enjoying really long walks and sharing the woods … no more.
But it is not just the surrounding land that has changed; it is all of the Vermont land. The beautiful views driving from Washington to Barre have been greatly diminished or disappeared entirely as home after home has gone up in the fields, on the banks of rivers, and on the hillsides. A low traffic volume intersection of route 110 and 302 became so heavily trafficked, and with so many resulting accidents, that there is now a round-about there that feels urban.
The unfortunate thing about all these losses is that people who came along later don’t know what they are missing. If you have never heard a whip-poor-will, seen the northern lights, or enjoyed that beautiful view, how can you miss it and how can you know that your quality of life, at least in some aspects, would be enhanced if they were still there?
Vermont was a literal paradise when we moved here. It is a paradise that we are losing because of the obsession with growth that is in fact diminishing our quality of life as well as harming the environment. Yes, we have gained some positive things like more and better restaurants, cultural arts and more diversified employment opportunities. Call me-old fashioned if you will….which I readily agree to in some respects….but I’ll take the Vermont paradise that existed before Vermont and the U.S. grew so dramatically in population size.
George Plumb is a long-time volunteer environmental activist and currently serves as executive director of Vermonters for Sustainable Population. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
February is the second annual Global Population Speak Out month as promoted by the Population Institute based in Washington, D.C. And speak out we certainly should be doing as we environmentalists did so strongly beginning back during the first Earth Day in 1970 when population growth was high on the agenda of the environmental movement. However environmentalists retreated from talking about population growth as told in the PBS program, To The Contrary with Bonnie Erbé. The show tells how the environmental movement dropped population from its agenda and how population growth is affecting the U.S. environment. Watching this is a great way to learn why this incredibly important environmental issue is no longer covered by mainstream U.S. media or discussed by most environmentalists as an issue. To request a free copy of the DVD just e-mail requests to: email@example.com and tell who you are and who else will see the DVD.
I Believe: 'We are making it harder and harder for other species to exist'
By: George Plumb
Published By: Burlington Free Press
Sunday, February 21, 2010
Almost all of the expressed environmental concern these days is about climate change. However there is another environmental crisis happening that could be just as important, and perhaps even more important, and that is the loss of biodiversity.
The earth is now going through what is the greatest extinction of species since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. We are now losing species at the rate of nearly 30,000 per year. The difference between this extinction and previous ones is that rather than a planetary or galactic process, this one is caused by just one of the species on this planet.
By taking up an increasing amount of space, producing massive pollution, creating climate change and fostering invasive species, we are making it harder and harder for other species to exist. By any ecological measure, Homo sapiens sapiens has well exceeded its carrying-capacity size and is having an adverse impact on all other species.
Why is this important? Isn’t human life more important than other forms of life? Shouldn’t we be concerned only about the future of the human species?
Unfortunately, we cannot separate ourselves from the rest of life, although by living and working largely inside buildings it often seems that way. Nature is a complex system sometimes referred to as the “web of life.” The millions of species exist in a complex and delicate balance that is connected together by food chains, nutrient cycles, hydrological cycles and the climate system. Microbes in the soil are connected to plants, plants to animals — and everything is connected to air, water and sun.
If we were to lose all the bees on Earth due to colony collapse, or all the bats due to white-nose syndrome, our food supply would suffer badly as there would be a lack of pollination, or plants could be overrun by insects. Living organisms produce and clean our air, filter our water, control floods, store carbon, distribute nutrients and provide many other ecosystem services. With such complex and fragile ecosystems we never know what the impact of the loss of a certain species might mean to our own survival.
We probably can adjust to a warming planet, although there will be increasing suffering by millions of people. However, the warming planet with the droughts, desertification and rising sea levels also will change the space available for other species. Biodiversity needs space in the form of land, forests, wetlands and oceans in order to exist. That amount of space is fixed, and the ability to move safely and freely between appropriate habitats has been greatly compromised.
Politics over Science
By: Mark Powell
Secretary, Vermonters for Sustainable Population
Much has been said of the right wing’s efforts to put politics over science when it comes to issues such as global warming and the teaching of evolution. We mock conservatives who happily ignore the evidence when it undermines their political agenda. At the same time, however, we give a free pass to liberals whose sentiments override evidence showing that America’s population growth is unsustainable.
This aversion to inconvenient truths achieves it purest form in respect to immigration, which accounts for two-thirds of U.S. population growth. That growth immensely compounds the difficulties we face in trying to reduce our nation’s carbon footprint, in developing an affordable, universal health care system, and in assuring a livable wage for workers. These are indeed worthy goals, but the solutions they call for do not operate independently of the harsh objectivity of mathematics, notwithstanding the efforts of many liberals to pretend otherwise. While many on the left will admit that global population growth is a problem, they treat domestic population growth as a taboo, out of fear of being labeled as racist xenophobes. Those who aggressively support our high immigration rates know this, and won’t hesitate to pull out the race card.
Our immigration policies are shaped not by abstract forces but by business and political interests. Economic right-wingers see increasing numbers of low-skilled workers creating a best-case scenario of cheap labor and increased demand for goods and services. On the left, the Democratic party embraces high immigration levels because growth in the Hispanic community promises to solidify their grip on political power. In 1990, these usually oppositional forces partnered on a bill that doubled legal immigration. Warning of an “impending labor shortage,” that year’s Economic Report to the President recommended higher immigration rates, and in response the first President Bush signed the bill.
Since then, we have seen an unprecedented surge in U.S. population growth. Indeed, in the year before this legislation, the Census Bureau predicted that our population would reach about 300 million people around the year 2040 -- and then level off. After the 1990 immigration bill, however, we reached a population of 300 million in October of 2006. Think about that: the population growth that the Census Bureau had expected in fifty years has occurred in only sixteen.
In today’s political climate, a significant coalition of Americans wants to slow down immigration while an opposing coalition of about the same strength wants high immigration rates to continue, albeit in a more orderly fashion. This stalemate would not exist, however, if not for the many liberals who defend massive immigration in spite of the difficulties it presents. Were liberals more open to rational consideration of objective data, they might notice that we’ve survived the “impending labor shortage” of the mid-90’s, and they might support repealing the 1990 immigration reform. This would put America back on track toward a stabilized population by restoring immigration levels to historical averages. A tighter labor market would enhance job opportunities and wages for the poor. It would slow our nation’s obscene consumption of fossil fuels and make it easier to protect important ecosystems. It would make prospects for health care reform more realistic by slowing growth in the uninsured population.
I support a broad spectrum of progressive goals, so I hope I don’t seem too harsh in arguing that slower population growth would make those goals more realistic. If I think that liberal support of high immigration is flawed, I appreciate that it is a good-hearted and generous flaw. But progressives should trust themselves enough to know that addressing immigration from a scientific perspective does not make them racists. And that scientific perspective demands they challenge the boundaries of their comfortable discourse and analyze the issue in numerical terms. At some point, the number of immigrants we allow into our country begins to tip the balance. At some point, the immigration rates get so high that the benefits are outweighed by the costs to our environment, to our social services, to our millions of disadvantaged, which includes immigrants already here. Only by respecting the science behind the issues of our day can we hope to attain our worthy ideals.
Developing a Common Platform
By George Plumb
June 11, 2009
With over ninety environmental organizations in existence today, Vermont’s environmental movement is very, very fragmented. Each environmental organization focuses on just trying to deal with one to maybe at most four environmental problems. As a result most of the problems keep getting worse as is well documented in three widely different reports published in recent years. In “Understanding Vermont,” published in 2007 by the Vermont Community Foundation, 10 of 11 environmental indicators were moving in the wrong direction. In Disappearing Vermont?, published by Vermonters for a Sustainable Population in March 2008, 23 of 31 indicators were negative. In Vermont in Transition, published in December 2008 by the Council on the Future of Vermont, 12 of 21 indicators were deteriorating.
Generally speaking environmental organizations are not having much success dealing with the little e environment such as Lake Champlain never mind the large E Environment such a global warming and loss of biodiversity. And some problems are really not getting addressed at all such as continued land development, increase in vehicle miles traveled, light pollution, loss of scenic views, and crowdedness of wilderness recreation areas.
While some of the lobbying oriented environmental organizations do come together annually to agree on what legislation they are going to jointly work on in the forthcoming Vermont legislative session there is no common agreement on which broad environmental problems are the most urgent to solve or how they are truly going to be solved in the long term. A common platform is needed so that environmental organizations reach an agreement on how to deal with the big environmental problems and more importantly the root causes of those problems which is a culture that supports an ever increasing population size and consumption of resources. As it is now the environmental community is only treating the symptoms and not the causes of our many environmental crises.
One possible sequence for developing a common platform is as follows. A few environmental leaders get together and agree that a common platform is necessary. They then call for a one day summit and invite to the summit the director or a staff person and the chair or a board member of all of all Vermont environmental organizations. Selected government employees, environmental academic leaders, and public citizens could also be invited. This would likely result in about 150-200 participants which is certainly a manageable number as demonstrated by the Council on the Future of Vermont when they gathered 500 people in May of 2009, at UVM for their Imagining Vermont summit. The summit would begin with a talk on the need for a common platform and explain how it is to be developed. The attendees then select to participate in one of eight or more task groups such as possibly these defined below.
Managing the results of environmental degradation
Reducing Vermont’s contribution of greenhouse gas emissions to global warming
Maintaining biological diversity
Preventing land from being developed in Vermont
Maintaining air quality in Vermont
Maintaining water quality in Vermont
Dealing with the root causes of our environmental problems
Changing our continuous economic growth economy to a steady state economy
Stabilizing our population size
Reducing our per capita consumption levels
Each task group then selects a facilitator and begins to work on a one to two page position paper. The paper would contain a background section that would explain the nature of the problem, a vision section that says where we would like to eventually be regarding that issue, a public policy position section on how the problem would be solved, a special notes section that discusses the unique aspects of the issue, and a resources section that provides any additional information that is needed. The task groups would start on the paper that day and then be charged with completing the paper within a four month period. The position statements could be similar in format to the position statements located on the Vermonters for a Sustainable Population web site.
The eight papers would then be combined and sent out to all of the participants and suggestions for changes sent back. The summit would then be reconvened and each task group would explain its report. The participants would then vote to accept or not accept each position statement. Each environmental organization would then go back to its entire board for approval of the statements. Hopefully, a majority of boards would approve the final common platform. Each organization that did approve the common platform would be asked to post the platform on their web site. The teams would then meet periodically to develop and implement plans for bringing the position statement into action.
The advantage of having such a common platform is that the greatest environmental minds in Vermont would agree on what needs to be done to truly solve the causes of our environmental problems and it would be a unified position. As an example a major cause of our environmental problems is cultural acceptance of the idea that we have to grow the economy forever. This is just not possible ecologically. If the position was developed that we need to move to a steady state economy, and most of the environmental organizations adopted this position, then no one organization would be sticking its neck out alone and be subject to criticism. They would all be united in this position and it would be easier to defend and promote. The task group that developed the position could then agree to continue to work on promoting and implementing that position.
Developing a common platform would be one of the most powerful actions that the Vermont environmental community has ever done. It would be a great model for other states and even for the U.S. environmental community. If it could be done anyplace it could be done in Vermont.
It’s the numbers that count
By George E. Plumb
The Weekly Planet Column of the Barre/Montpelier
Times Argus and Rutland Herald - May 29, 2009
Dozens of indicators tell whether or not our environment is healthy. For many people the signs are very personal and local, such as being able to walk in the woods and enjoy the songbirds (which are actually declining in numbers). For others the indicators are more scientific and global – climate change and rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
In the last couple of years three widely different studies have reported that at both the local and global levels – and everything in between – the Vermont environment is not being protected and, in fact, continues to gradually deteriorate. In “Understanding Vermont,” published in 2007 by the Vermont Community Foundation, 10 of 11 environmental indicators were pointing in the wrong direction. In Disappearing Vermont?, published by Vermonters for a Sustainable Population in March 2008, 23 of 31 indicators were negative. In Vermont in Transition, published in December 2008 by the Council on the Future of Vermont, 12 of 21 indicators were deteriorating.
Arguably the most significant indicator is the amount of land developed, because it also affects other indicators – the loss of farm and forest land, additional greenhouse gas emissions due to heating and the number of vehicle miles traveled, habitat destruction, and storm water runoff. Just between the years 1982 and 2003, the years for which data are available, more than 100,000 acres of land were developed in Vermont.
As noted environmental writer Gus Speth, the outgoing head of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, says in his most recent book, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, “But all in all, today’s environmentalism has not been succeeding. We have been winning battles, including some critical ones, but losing the war.” Time magazine called Speth the “ultimate insider” because he has served on several environmental boards.
There are several reasons the environmental movement has been losing the war. The most important is that environmentalists have been focusing on the symptoms of our environmental problems instead of the causes. As just one example, to solve the problem of land development, environmentalists focus on establishing and strengthening laws and regulations restricting development, which is only a partial solution. However, the underlying cause of land development is our cultural insistence on an ever growing economy which includes increasing population growth and consumption of natural resources.
With the U.S. population growing by over three million people per year, any improvements in treating the symptoms – such as tougher regulations, cap and trade, improved conservation and efficiency, and alternative energy development – are going to be cancelled out by the sheer increase in the numbers of people. President Obama’s 30 percent increase in fuel efficiency standards of automobiles will be wiped out when the U.S. population grows by 30 percent in the coming decades.
The environmental community is very fragmented. Most environmental organizations focus only on a few aspects of environmental protection. Some issues, such as landscape beauty, are not being addressed much at all. And these various groups don’t seem to be collaborating in any meaningful way to address the root causes of our environmental problems. If environmental organizations could work together and develop a common platform of positions, policies and programs to make real changes, we would have more hope of solving our environmental crisis.
Before citizens join or support an environmental organization they might want to ask, “Is this organization just dealing with the symptoms or is it also addressing the underlying causes? And what specific long-term policies does it have that will actually lead to a healthy environment?
As Gus Speth also says, “But it is time for the environmental community – indeed, everyone – to step outside the system and develop a deeper critique of what is going on”.
George Plumb is the Executive Director of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population and Chair of the New England Coalition for a Sustainable Population. He is a long time environmental activist and a cofounder the Vt. Earth Institute, the Vt. Bicycle and Pedestrian Coalition, and the Vt. Trails and Greenways Council. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Land Consumption is Not Sustainable
By James Andrews-UVM Herpetologist and Coordinator
of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas
Published in the Montpelier Bridge on March 19, 2009
A Rhode Island wildlife biologist told me that at their current rate of growth, within twenty years all land in Rhode Island that was not currently conserved would be developed. He hoped that the rest of New England would learn from their mistakes. Rhode Island even at its current level of development is not sustainable. It is losing species and the people there could not survive without the resources provided from many less-populated areas.
The familiar bright orange-red salamander seen in woodlands in Vermont is the Red Eft stage of the Eastern Newt. The continued existence of newts is dependant upon the ability of the young Red Efts to travel through a connected mosaic of woodlands and wetlands to colonize new beaver ponds. Red Efts are becoming rare in Rhode Island. The natural lands there have been broken into many small islands separated by roads, malls, homes, parking lots, and other developments that are difficult or impossible for the newts to safely navigate.
This is just one example of how land consumption is not sustainable. It is not possible to continually develop more land and at the same time enjoy our current levels of wildlife diversity, ecosystem services (e.g., flood control, water and air cleaning, noise reduction, and climate stabilization), recreational lands, and the high quality of life that they provide. Wildlife habitat, agricultural land, forestland, and recreational lands are all finite resources. If we hope to continue to enjoy them and benefit from their life-sustaining services, we need to end the consumption and degradation of biologically productive lands.
A simplified equation that models our impact on our environment states that the number of people multiplied by the resources used per person and reduced by an efficiency factor, determines our impact on our environment. For years we have focused on improving the efficiency factor to help minimize the impact of growing numbers of people and a growing amount of resources used per person. Efforts such as recycling and technologies such as catalytic convertors, genetically engineered food, and sewage treatment plants fall primarily in the increased efficiency part of the equation. They work to minimize the impact of the growth of the other two factors. However, we have not developed and implemented technologies fast enough to balance the impacts of population growth and per-capita resource use. Land for wildlife, agriculture, and timber continues to be consumed and greenhouse gases and new sources of pollution continue to increase.
It is past time to treat the disease and not just the symptoms. We need to stabilize our human population and limit or reduce the amount of resources used per person. Since much of the developing world is working hard to raise their level of consumption, it makes dealing with world population even more critical. We can limit population growth voluntarily and humanely through education and provision of services. Our options will be increasingly more limited, difficult, and expensive the longer we wait.
Environment, Economics and Population
By George E. Plumb
The Weekly Planet Column of the Barre/Montpelier Times Argus
and Rutland Herald - February 8, 2009
There is a very close relationship between the economic crisis we are facing, the many environmental problems stressing the earth, and population growth. It is time for a new economic model, one that better serves both the needs of people and the earth.
The economic crisis started in large part owing to the sub-prime mortgage fiasco which began in the Southwest. This region has seen tremendous increase in the construction of new houses as a result of population growth. Four of the five fastest growing states are in the Southwest, with Utah now the fastest growing state, having grown by 22% since 2000. With more bidders came higher property values, huge mortgages, and a situation that spiraled out of control.
At the root of the economic crisis is the myth that the economy can grow forever. This myth is even more false in a world where the growth is dependent on cheap fossil fuels that have probably reached their peak production. Economic growth is the result of an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services and that expansion is dependent on population growth.
The problem with economic growth as an economic model is that it conflicts with the principles of physics and ecology. There is a limit to economic growth, and there is mounting evidence that global economic growth is having negative effects on the long-term health of the environment, resulting in climate change, loss of biodiversity, and pollution of our air and water. Economic growth has provided many benefits over time, but now it is causing more problems than it solves.
One example of how economic growth is closely related to our environmental and social problems is the food situation. Current food consumption in the U.S. requires 1.2 cultivated acres per person. As a result of population growth it is estimated that, in 2050, the number of acres of farmland available for each person will be 0.6. That is going to result in more clearing of forests, diversion of water for irrigation, and economic hardship for millions of people.
Fortunately there is an alternative economic system: the steady state economy as first envisioned by economist Herman Daly. In his book Steady State Economics, published in 1977, Daly explains that a steady state economy features stabilized population and consumption. The key features of a steady state economy are: (1) sustainable scale, in which economic activities fit within the capacity provided by ecosystems; (2) fair distribution of wealth; and (3) efficient allocation of resources. A steady state economy can be compared to a mature and healthy Vermont forest ecosystem where a wide variety of fauna and flora living in healthy balance. The forest does not grow in total volume, but it is a complex, dynamic, and evolving system.
Leading the movement to transition to a different economy is the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) (www.steadystate.org). CASSE states that “Environmental protection, economic sustainability, national security, and international stability are all threatened by perpetually increasing populations and per-capita production and consumption.” The CASSE position has over 2,000 signatures, 50 organizational endorsements, and even the support of one mutual fund.
In Vermont we are also fortunate to have the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. According to its web site, “Ecological economics is the transdisciplinary study of the interaction between human economic systems and natural ecosystems.” One of its fellows is Joshua Farley, Ph.D., who co-authored with Herman Daly in 2003 the book, Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications.
How do we transition from our present growth economy to a steady state economy? Like any major change, this will require a paradigm shift. The same fiscal policy tools that have been used to promote an economic growth policy will need to be used to promote a steady state economy. We will have to gradually readjust the current spending, tax, interest rate, banking, regulation, and trade policies that are currently set for growth. Additional tools such as carbon cap-and-trade and enforcement of the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws will be required.
As individuals we can help to transition to a steady state economy by buying local, buying organic, vacationing as close to home as possible, limiting consumption, growing at least some of our own food, and shifting to green energy. We also need to engage in conversation with our friends and neighbors about making this shift in cultural assumptions about economic growth. Becoming involved in one of the several community sustainable living networks that are organized by the Vt. Earth Institute would also help lead to a steady state economy.
According to an analysis of the Global Footprint Network's ecological footprint data, U.S. bio-capacity -- domestic surface area available to produce resources and assimilate waste – provides only 48% of our annual subsistence. 52% is gained by importing bio-capacity, drawing down resource reserves, and degrading habitat. It also calculates that to align population with actual domestic bio-capacity the US could support only 147 million – 158 million less than today!
Whatever one calls it, Herman Daly’s Steady State Economy, the Gund Institute’s “ecological economics”, Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, or Peter Brown’s Whole Earth Economy, it is time that we as a society started to move in the direction of an economy that provides economic benefit to all people and protects the ecosystems of the earth at the same time.
Was Malthus Just Off Some Years?
View the Full Article Here.
Published By: Montpelier Bridge
Published Date: May 15, 2008
Yes, and a New Study Says There's Only One Solution
George Plumb grew up in Massachusetts, but he has been a Vermonter since 1963. Some years ago, after settling in Washington, Vermont, he began wondering: Why did every bucolic place he’d ever lived eventually get so crowded?
The answer was obvious, and in 1990, Plumb, who is now 70, formed the Vermont Earth Institute, which became the Vermont Population Alliance, which became Vermonters for a Sustainable Population , which sometime this week will issue a report that, if it doesn’t quite answer the author’s question, could make population growth a topic of civilized conversation again.
Few people will, in fact, be surprised by the information in Plumb’s report, which he titled “Disappearing Vermont.” It ranges from the provocative (the average temperature across the state has risen almost five degrees since 1970); to the obvious (the acres of developed land in Grand Isle County grew from 2900 in 1970 to more than 6000 in 2003); to the promising (more than two dozen advocacy groups have formed around a commitment to sustainable living since 2000).
And then there are the facts Vermonters live with every day:
• The state has added, roughly, a city the size of Burlington to its population each decade since 1970;
• Between 1970 and 2003, more than 100,000 acres of open land in Vermont have been developed, a 42 percent increase;
• The number of registered vehicles in the state has more than doubled, to about 716,000, and the number of miles driven in the state has nearly tripled, to 7.7 billion.
At the same time, the solutions to these clear and present dangers have always been difficult to articulate, as both history and a 30-minute chat with the author of “Disappearing Vermont” attests.
“This is not a politically correct thing to talk about,” Plumb says. “It gets into issues of politics, religion, abortion and birth control.”
Indeed, imagine a nation that makes sex education available through the public school system. Imagine a nation that gives minors access to contraceptives and that has not only de-stigmatized abortion, but requires public and private health insurance plans to cover it. Imagine a nation that makes “improved methods of fertility control” a national research priority.
Those are just a few of the 70 policy recommendations made 36 years ago by the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, which was signed into existence by Richard Nixon. They’re also some of the first solutions that come to George Plumb’s mind when he talks about population growth.
If Nixon hadn’t been busy obstructing justice and being impeached, he might have been able to draw more attention to what he called “one of the most serious challenges to human destiny.” The 312-page report, released in 1972 by the Rockefeller Commission, pointed out that since 1900, the U.S population had grown from 76 million to nearly 205 million. The reasons were elementary: More Americans were being born than were dying, and more people were coming into the country than were leaving. In the first decade of the 20th century, one in every four new Americans came here from someplace else; by 1970, 20 million more people had moved into the U.S. than had moved out.
In its opening pages, the commission pointed out the obvious: “At some point in the future, the finite earth will not satisfactorily accommodate more human beings — nor will the United States . . . [N]ow is the time to confront the question: “Why more people?”
Bill Ryerson, a renowned expert on population from Shelburne, was on his way to the inaugural United Nations World Population Conference, in Bucharest, when Nixon resigned in August 1974. A delegate to the conference and founder and president of the Population Media Center in Shelburne, Ryerson believes that if it wasn’t for Watergate, Nixon might have made a significant contribution to human affairs. Instead, his obsession with political enemies, culminating in the Watergate prosecution, squandered an opportunity for the world’s most prosperous nation to take action on population growth.
“Nixon had bigger concerns,” Ryerson recalls. “He shelved the report and gave it no attention.”
Subsequent administrations, starting with Gerald Ford’s and continuing right up to George W. Bush’s, have found their own reasons for ignoring the commission. “Ford was preoccupied by the pardon,” Ryerson explains. “Carter just wasn’t interested — he ignored it. Reagan bought into the view that population growth should be celebrated, that it stimulated growth and economic development.”
Ryerson has been trying to ease population pressure on the planet for decades now. These days, he spends much of his time in Africa and Asia producing television programs that encourage family planning.
So, it’s been up to grassroots activists like George Plumb to bear, for the rest of us, the painful and politically incorrect reality that America itself must stop growing.
Plumb admits that neither he nor anyone else knows what a “sustainable” population would be in a state as small as Vermont or a country a large as the United States. He only knows that the nation is well beyond that point and, if Vermonters want to avoid the same fate, they might want to connect population growth to issues such as climate change and the global depletion of energy reserves.
That won’t be easy. Two-thirds of the annual U.S. population growth, according to “Disappearing Vermont,” is currently attributable to legal and illegal immigration, which Plumb suspects is driving more and more people to less-urbanized states like Vermont.
The Rockefeller Commission, in fact, predicted the immigration battles of today, and even suggested how they might be avoided. It did not, however, call for a 700-mile wall along the southern border or suggest allowing local police and sheriff’s deputies to round up undocumented men, women and children. Instead, the commission proposed something along the lines of President Bush’s solution to illegal immigration: civil and criminal prosecution of employers.
Plumb has a simpler idea — restricting permanent immigration to the United States to about 250,000 a year, equal to the number of people who leave the country annually. “The U.S. needs a population policy, but it’s not easy talking about what the immigration level should be,” Plumb says. Nor, he continues, is it easy to talk about “sustainable” population without inducing nightmares among evangelicals, Catholics and civil libertarians. “Population control is a bad term,” Plumb emphasizes. “We’re not advocating that at all.”
Plumb is double-checking his facts this week before scheduling a press conference to announce the release of “Disappearing Vermont.” He plans to post the report on the Vermonters for a Sustainable Population’s website, www.vspop.org , by March 10.
At one point in the conversation, Plumb takes up a pen and a sheet of paper and writes out, I=PAT, a theorem devised in 1971 by the ecologists John R. Holdren and Paul R. Ehrlich. It states that any population’s impact (I) is the factor of its size (P), its affluence (A), and the technological damage brought on by its patterns of consumption (T).
Plumb is clearly impressed by the equation, which simply means that the quality of life in any environment rises as the number of inhabitants of the environment drops. The theory seems to comfort Plumb, who, like most people, is more at ease talking about the past then he is about our ostensible future.
“In 1963, I moved to Susie Wilson Road. It was the country then,” Plumb recalls. “You could walk and snowmobile. People used to trap. You’d come home in the evening and there would be cows in your garden.
“I remember thinking,” he adds, “‘isn’t
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The Environmental Movement’s Many Missteps
Include its Stance on Population Issues
By: Mark Powell
WORCESTER, VERMONT--It’s a very inconvenient truth: The organized environmental movement has been almost totally ineffective at protecting the environment since the mid 1980s.
Co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council and Yale dean James Gustave Speth says when it comes to environmental action, “we have fallen far short.” © ncseonline.org
Yes, the big groups have been successful at protecting some resources in certain regions—staving off the drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and gaining more wilderness designation in the Green Mountain National Forest are two notable successes—but in terms of protecting the major ecosystems and the general environment, they have largely failed. This is most clearly demonstrated by their failure to energize the public to deal with global warming, which has reached a crisis point. It will now be too late to avoid many of the impacts.
But this is just the tip of the melting iceberg. There are many other environmental crises including loss of species diversity, loss of natural resources like wetlands and forests, and the collapse of ocean fisheries. The list goes on at great length.
As the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, James Gustave Speth, says in Red Sky at Morning, “My generation is a generation, I fear, of great talkers, overly fond of conferences. On action, however, we have fallen far short. As a result, with the notable exception of international efforts to protect the stratospheric ozone layer, the threatening global trends highlighted a quarter century ago continue to this day.”
Many of the newer environmental organizations are doing very good work. Yet they tend to treat the symptoms of environmental degradation instead of the root cause — population growth. The best that can be said about the organized environmental movement since the mid 1980s is that, given the agenda of the right-wing, anti-environmentalism of the past couple of decades, things could have been worse.
Here in Vermont, the worst problem may be sprawl and suburbanization, once limited to our more urban communities, but now affecting nearly every town in Vermont. Life in Vermont feels much more crowded than it did 40 years ago or more.
Our beautiful views and access to recreational land are being lost as shorelines, ridgelines and meadows are developed. Despite millions spent on remediation, Lake Champlain is only marginally cleaner, if at all, because of increased stormwater runoff. Ski areas get more like cities, and now, even tiny East Burke faces the development of some 800 new living units.
Many factors have contributed to our environmental problems, including the myth that we must have continued growth no matter what, a media that has not paid much attention to the environment and our personal consumption patterns. Yet, environmental organizations hold a good deal of the responsibility. There are several reasons for this.
Today, environmentalists are afraid to talk about population control.
The environmental movement has gone from largely a citizen-based activist movement to an organizational movement run on paid staff. While this seems to happen with all citizen movements, it has been particularly harmful to the environmental movement. It has resulted in less passion, less citizen involvement, less creativity and less risk taking. The movement relies on paid lobbyists to do most of the work, and the members are largely limited to signing petitions after receiving an email action alert. With their paid staffs and large budgets, environmental organizations have become businesses, with their business interests sometimes taking precedence over their mission. Environmental groups also often find themselves being roped into legislative and administrative task forces and commissions to “solve” problems, making them part of the bureaucratic “solution” and less able to act independently.
Each environmental organization works with its own limited agenda and pursues only items that it thinks it has a chance of winning. Cooperation among environmental groups is fairly limited. As an example, it took the international (and some would say, radical) Greenpeace to send a staff person to Vermont during the months leading up to the 2006 elections before we finally got some real action dealing with global warming. Vermont environmental organizations knew some 20 years ago that this was likely to be a tremendous environmental issue yet they did nothing. Churches, with all their outward differences, are joining forces through the Vermont Interfaith Action and have hired a staff person to help them identify and work on important issues they can all agree on. Why couldn’t environmental organizations have done the same thing 10 years ago?
The organized environmental movement, with a few exceptions, lacks leaders who are willing to be even the slightest bit outspoken and radical. We need some folks who are a bit radical to call attention to issues, so that the rest of the movement does not seem so extreme. The last time we had a real action in Vermont was when the Hydro Quebec opponents unfurled a banner from the top of a building in Montpelier in the early 1980s to call the attention to the devastating impact the monstrous dams would have on the environment and the Cree and Inuit people.
Finally, and most importantly, environmental organizations have not mentioned population growth on their websites or in their literature as a major cause of our environmental problems. When the modern-day environmental movement began in the 1960s and 1970s concern for the environment and population growth were very closely interconnected and were widely and publicly acknowledged. Many of the nation’s largest environmental groups, had or were considering “population control” as major planks of their environmental platforms for the country.
The Biggest Problem
David Brower, the executive director of the Sierra Club at the time and a leading environmental leader, expressed the consensus of the environmental movement on the subject in 1966 when he said, “We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.” The first big Earth Day in 1970 had population growth as a central theme. A large coalition of environmental groups in 1970 endorsed a resolution stating that, “population growth is directly involved in the pollution and degradation of our environment—air, water and land—and intensifies physical, psychological, social, political and economic problems to the extent that the well-being of individuals, the stability of society and our very survival are threatened.”
The connection between population growth and the environment is perhaps best expressed through what is known as the foundation formula or the environmental impact equation,
What this says is that any environmental impact is the result of three factors; the size of the population, the affluence or wealth of that population and the technology or type of consumption that the population spends its wealth on.
What has happened is that environmental organizations have disregarded the population part of the equation and focused almost entirely on the technology part of the equation, be it driving more fuel-efficient cars or encouraging “smart growth.”
While some of the national environmental organizations acknowledge that population growth is a concern they put almost no resources into addressing this concern. In Vermont, only two of the some 25 environmental organizations have publicly acknowledged that population growth is a contributor to our environmental problems — Vermonters for a Sustainable Population and the Vermont Earth Institute, both of which were founded originally to bring attention to population issues because other environmental organizations were not doing it.
Several environmental authors have written that population size and growth is of major concern including Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, James Kuntstler in The Long Emergency, Sandra Postel in Saving the Planet, Lester Brown in Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and A Civilization in Trouble, James Speth in Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, and Garret Hardin in Our Population Myopia. An environmental folk singer, Jeanie Fitchen, has even written a song about population growth titled, “Changes in the Wind/No More.” Why is it that so many well-respected environmentalists can make movies, and write and sing about population growth but our environmental organizations seem tongue-tied when it comes to discussing it?
Why have environmental organizations abandoned dealing with population growth? There are several reasons, including the fact that fertility rates dropped in the 1970s to 1.75, which is below replacement level. Perhaps it appeared to some that population growth would take care of itself. Abortion and contraception entered into politics, becoming hot-button issues. Some of the emphasis shifted to conservation, with people trying to protect what they had rather than dealing with a root cause of why natural resources were being lost.
It also became clear, beginning in the late 1980s, that immigration was the driving force of our population growth, with some 70 to 90 percent of our population growth since 1970 due to historically high immigration levels and the descendents of these immigrants. Environmental leaders did not want to be seen as racist. Finally, funding became an issue, with some donors and foundations threatening loss of funds if an environmental organization talked about population and/or immigration.
Environmental organizations heavily promote “sustainability,” as well they should. However, a population of 300 million, growing by approximately four million a year, is not sustainable. Experts say that a truly long-term sustainable population without cheap oil is probably more like 150 to 200 million. The larger the U.S. population grows, the more difficult it is going to be to achieve a sustainable population.
The founders of the modern environmental movement had it right. Population growth is a major cause of our environmental degradation. Action on population growth should be reestablished as a high priority by environmental organizations. Population is a sensitive issue, but it really is time that environmental leaders stopped worrying about offending, gathered their courage, and began alerting everyone to the need to rein back human numbers, humanely and democratically, for the sake of the planet.
CONTACT: Vermonters for a Sustainable Population; Vermont Earth Institute
MARK POWELL is the secretary/treasurer of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population and is writing a book about the politics of population growth.
For more information on Disappearing Vermont, Environment Population, Family Planning, Growth, Human Population, Overcrowding, Overpopulation, Population Connection, Population Growth, Population Resources, Rural Vermont, Slow Growth, Smart Growth, Sprawl, Sustainability, Sustainable Population, Vermont, Vermont Environment, Vermont Environmental Indicators, Vermont Environmental Trends, Vermont Growth, Vermont Population and Vermont Quality of Life, please review our links sections for further research. Thank you from Vermonter's for a Sustainable Population ( VSP )