U.S. growth is unsustainable

For years, in company with most journalists, I've been ducking the population issue. We Americans seem to have it on our DNA – we believe that all economic development and growth, no matter the consequences, is a positive thing.

But a new article by seasoned environmental writer Tom Horton – “Growing! Growing! Gone! The Chesapeake Bay and the Myth of Endless Growth” – brings me up short.

The once-acclaimed federal-state campaign to restore the Chesapeake, now in its 25th year with billions of dollars invested, notes Horton, is in shambles. Its 2010 deadline for cleaner water won't be met, blue crabs are at a historic low, and nitrogen, the bay's dominant pollutant, remains double healthy levels.

And it's all about people, suggests Horton. From 8 million people in the 1950s, the population of the bay's six-state, 64,000-square- mile watershed has ballooned to 17 million, with 1.7 million more coming each decade.

That much population increase would put pressure on any region. But it's all the more acute in the great, sun-sensitive Chesapeake. Its average 22-foot depth leaves little water to absorb pollution washing in from 48 million acres of land.

Must population grow?

Why couldn't and shouldn't both the bay region and the United States aim for stable population, asks Horton in his paper for the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation.Couldn't we stay close to our current 305 million nationwide population, rather than hit the half billion predicted for mid-century?

That case collides, of course, with the prevalent idea that economic prosperity depends on growth, or that stopping growth is politically or morally unacceptable.

But hello! With less than 5 percent of world population, the United States consumes a quarter of the world's natural resources. We generate immense pollution. If every one of the world's 6.7 billion people consumed at an equal scale, we'd need five or six planet Earths to accommodate them.

A central challenge is how we grow. Weak zoning, around the Chesapeake and across America, stymies “smart growth” laws. We get what Horton calls “rampant development” impacting sensitive shorelines and rural lands. Politicos and chambers of commerce, realtors, land speculators and contractors celebrate any new growth. But the public ends up subsidizing (and paying ever-higher taxes) to build and maintain the new suburbia – highways, schools, waste and stormwater drainage systems, power and sewer lines and more.

But, Horton argues, we can live happily and well without sprawl and fast population growth. Rebuilding our struggling downtowns and abandoned industrial landscapes, and constructing new transit systems for a post-carbon age, can, he asserts, “stoke an economy as surely as expanding the suburbs and building malls in the countryside.”

The U.S. fertility rate is close to the classic “population replacement” level – an average of 2.1 children for each woman. We're adding people faster than any other industrialized nation because we have so many immigrants, most heavily from Mexico, many in prime child-bearing age.

Would immigration crackdowns relieve America's population pressures? Some anti-immigration groups suggest so. But how? Do we really think we can seal the Mexican border with huge fences and guards, creating a literal Fortress America?

For guidance I contacted the noted demographer Joel Cohen, head of the Laboratory of Populations at the Rockefeller University and Columbia University.

Border fences aren't the answer

Draconian measures like high border fences are a reprehensible symbol and likely doomed to failure, says Cohen. His alternative: “adequate health and sex education in America's public schools,” together with abandoning our “ostrich-like” attitudes about young peoples' sexuality.

“Give young people the means to control their fertility, and educate immigrant children on an equal basis with native-born children,” Cohen says, and America's high out-of-wedlock birth rate (roughly one in three) would drop.

As for Mexican immigration, Cohen reminds us what people really want is security, dignity and some prosperity. With reasonable life prospects, many immigrants would rather stay home. So U.S. economic development aid to Mexico, plus educational programs to assist in reproductive and sexual health there, would be the smartest formula of all.

Armed with Horton's and Cohen's ideas, it's suddenly possible to see exciting opportunities for North American sustainability – environmental, and human.