You have already or soon will receive your Sierra Club national ballot. Included in that ballot will be a question regarding a proposed resolution on population and the Sierra Club sprawl campaign.
The Sierra Club Board opposes the proposed resolution. The Maryland Chapter Executive Committee, voting unanimously, supports the resolution. In addition, at least a dozen other chapter executive committees around the country have indicated their support for the proposed resolution. Clearly there is a deep difference of opinion among the leaders of the Club.
One of the great strengths of the Sierra Club is that it is a democratic organization; it gives its membership an opportunity to influence Club policy. In the present case all of us have the opportunity to vote on an issue of enormous importance an issue that may determine the ultimate outcome of environmentalism in America.
Sprawl and Population
How can a vote related to the sprawl campaign have so great an impact? We will get to that later in the article. For now, let me simply say that if you are going to be an environmental activist only once this year, let this issue be the one on which you act.
Smart Growth by itself simply cannot stop sprawl!
I am proud to live in a state that is recognized nationally as a leader in Smart Growth policies. I am also grateful for the work of the volunteers and staff of the Sierra Club and like-minded organizations who have contributed to the anti-sprawl efforts in Maryland. Nevertheless, I cannot escape the conclusion that Smart Growth by itself cannot even come close to stopping sprawl.
Sprawl as defined in the Sierra Club 1998 Sprawl Report is "low-density development beyond the edge of service and employment, which separates where people live from where they shop, work, recreate, and educate." Note that this definition focuses only on how land is developed; it excludes any consideration of how much land is lost. I care about how land is developed, but I believe our first priority is to protect the undeveloped land.
For example, who in Maryland would not be saddened to see the Catoctin Mountains outside Frederick developed regardless of the density or the proximity to jobs and shopping?
People concerned about protecting open space and the ecosystems on which we and countless other species depend, define sprawl as simply "development of previously undeveloped land."
Using the broader
definition it is clear that sprawl results from two kinds of growth:
population growth, and growth in per capita urban land consumption.
If we maintain a constant per capita land consumption and double the population of an area we will unavoidably double the amount of developed land.
Ah, you say, why don t we decrease the per capita land consumption and thereby limit sprawl? To some extent this is a helpful strategy. But the costs, both economic and quality of life, become intolerable when we try using this strategy to compensate for major population growth.
In the suburban Washington area (as well as most major metropolitan areas), per capita land consumption is already low because the land is very expensive.
In my community of Montgomery Village, about 25 miles from the center of Washington, there are more than 32,000 of us consuming an average of only 0.128 acres each.
Given this high density, there are but two ways to accommodate population growth in the village: 1) replace the golf course and ball fields with housing units, or 2) tear down some of the existing housing and replace it with higher density housing.
Be assured that any proposal to accomplish either of these steps would meet with fierce community resistance. Increasing density in an already dense area may be OK in the abstract, but in reality it involves a price that few are willing to pay or should be asked to pay.
Population to grow 33%
The Washington area Council of Governments estimates that the metropolitan area population will grow by 1.5 million persons by 2025. This is a 33% increase above the current population in just 25 years.
It is patently not feasible to accommodate this many new residents in so short a time by means of increasing the density of Washington area communities. Extensive sprawl will be unavoidable, even if the per capita land consumption for the newcomers is quite low.
For example, how much land will have to be developed if the per capita land consumption for these new residents is the same as in Montgomery Village? The answer is 300 square miles an area 113% greater than the combined acreage of all 40 Maryland State parks and natural environmental areas!
In a decade or so Maryland environmentalists may be able to point with pride to an expanded mass transit system with double the current ridership, and we may be able to point with pride to a few square miles of open space that have been set aside through easements.
But as time goes on, the millions of additional people settling in the Baltimore-Washington area will overwhelm our Smart Growth efforts. The new arrivals will inexorably lead to thousands of lane miles of new roads, and hundreds of square miles of sprawl.
There is no doubt. In the face of unchecked population growth, sprawl is uncheckable. Good planning (Smart Growth) will lighten environmental damage in the sprawl area, but it will still be sprawl land and ecosystems lost forever.
Ignoring population growth, relying on Smart Growth as the sole means of curbing sprawl is ultimately delusive an exercise in winning battles, but losing the war.
Why Is The Issue So Important?
In 1966 David Brower, the most famous Sierra Club leader since John Muir said, "We feel you don t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy." As this quote suggests, the Sierra Club was once a powerful voice for U.S. population stabilization. But by the 90s the Sierra Club had retreated into near total silence on the subject.
The impact of this retreat goes well beyond the sprawl campaign. There are few environmental protection issues that are not harmed by retreating from U.S. population growth as a relevant issue. But perhaps the most crippling aspect of the retreat is that it has helped to give Americans the wrong impression.
In 1971 the population of the United States was 208 million, and our low fertility rate suggested stabilization of the U.S. population was but a few decades away. By 1999 the population of the United States had increased a whopping 29% to 273 million people, and any hope of stabilization within the coming century abandoned.
Yet while a 1971 a Gallup Poll showed that 41% thought U.S. overpopulation was a major problem, the 1999 Gallup Poll showed that the percentage had dropped to 18%.
This is a dramatic shift in public opinion, and the direction of the shift is completely out of sync with the actual population trend. Why?
The full answer is beyond the scope of this article. The short answer is that the shift in public opinion is due largely to the Sierra Club and similar organizations replacing U.S. population stabilization advocacy with silence! Worse, this silence has been amplified by the media.
The media have a heavy hand in establishing what issues are in the forefront of American consciousness, and according to researcher Michael Maher, American journalists in recent years have largely ignored U.S. population growth.
You can verify media silence yourself by querying the archives of any major newspaper. For example, my own search of the Washington Post archives revealed the following. Over the past two years the subjects of sprawl and/or congestion arose 618 times in the Post's Metro or Op-Ed sections. Yet in these 618 articles, population growth was mentioned in only 12 articles.
Why are the journalists silent? The reason is not ignorance of the consequences of unchecked population growth. Indeed some journalists are deeply concerned about population growth. According to Maher the primary reason is that the journalists consider population a hot topic, too controversial to bring up on their own initiative. However, Maher found that the journalists are willing to include the population aspect if someone they are interviewing brings it up.
Now we see the consequences of the retreat. Without organizations such as the Sierra Club forcefully speaking to the impact of U.S. population growth on environmental issues, journalists have almost no one to quote. Consequently the destructive role of U.S. population growth is fading from the American consciousness.
A Final Note Before You Vote
Remember that the basic relationship between human activity and environmental decline was eloquently stated two decades ago by Ehrlich and Holdren:
I = (P)x(C), the adverse Impact on the environment is equal to the Population multiplied by the per capita Consumption of that population. From an environmental impact perspective then, the U.S. is already the most overpopulated country on Earth. Yet, unlike the other industrialized nations, we are growing rapidly.
The Census Bureau 2050 middle projection is just over 400 million more than triple the U.S. population the year I was born, double the population the year my daughter was born. But projections are not accomplished facts. We have options.
By reducing the assumed fertility by about 15%, the Bureau projection drops to about 350 million. The 50 million difference is greater than the current combined population of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
Think about the land that could be saved if we had 50 million fewer people in 2050. Think about the unimaginably large reduction in carbon emissions.
Awareness necessarily precedes action! If Americans don t grasp the connection between population growth and environmental degradation, why should either personal reproductive decisions or government policies change enough to alter our course toward growth driven environmental poverty?
Please vote! Please vote as your executive committee has already voted.
By a formal vote on January 20, 2001 this editorial was adopted as the position of the Chapter Executive Committee.