Christian Science Monitor, September 26,
environmental load of 300 million: How
As the US population rises,
environmental problems that were once
pushed aside may get worse, experts say.
Author: Brad Knickerbocker
A flotilla of 100 fishing boats, rafts,
and kayaks crossed the Willamette River
to a downtown park in Portland, Ore.,
the other evening to rally for the Pacific
Northwest's reigning icon: wild salmon,
now plummeting toward extinction due to
development across much of the Columbia
It was a typical event for a "green"
city that has one of the best records
in the United States for recycling, reducing
greenhouse-gas emissions, using alternative
energy, and providing public transportation
and bike paths.
But Portland's amenities - its natural setting
along the Willamette River and its youthful
techie vibe - are drawing a surge of new
people, threatening to erode the very
qualities that drew people here in the
first place. As the US approaches 300
million people, that's the story of the
nation as well.
In many ways, Americans have mitigated the
impact of their increasing presence on
the land. Since reaching the 200 million
mark back in 1967, they have cut emissions
of major air pollutants, banned certain
harmful pesticides, and overseen the rebound
of several endangered species. Despite
using more resources and creating more
waste, they've become more energy efficient.
The danger, experts say, is that the US
may simply have postponed the day of reckoning.
Major environmental problems remain, and
some are getting worse - all of them in
one way or another connected to US population
growth, which is expected to hit 400 million
around midcentury. Some experts put the
average American's "ecological footprint"
- the amount of land and water needed
to support an individual and absorb his
or her waste - at 24 acres. By that calculation,
the long-term "carrying capacity"
of the US would sustain less than half
of the nation's current population.
"The US is the only industrialized
nation in the world experiencing significant
population growth," says Vicky Markham,
of the Center for Environment and Population,
a nonprofit research and advocacy organization
in New Canaan, Conn. "That, combined
with America's high rates of resource
consumption, results in the largest ...
environmental impact [of any nation] in
The boomer challenge
The changing nature of the population also
has environmental consequences.
"Today's baby boomers - 26 percent
of the population - are the largest, wealthiest,
highest resource-consuming of that age
group ever in the nation's history, and
they have unprecedented environmental
impact," says Ms. Markham.
The generation's preference for bigger houses
and bigger cars - and the proliferation
of them - are gobbling up more resources
and creating more pollution, according
to a recent study by the Center for Environment
and Population. For example:
* Land is being converted for development
at about twice the rate of population
growth. When housing, shopping, schools,
roads, and other uses are added up, each
American effectively occupies 20 percent
more developed land than he or she did
20 years ago.
* Nearly 3,000 acres of farmland are converted
to nonagricultural uses daily..
* Each American produces about five pounds
of trash daily, up from less than three
pounds in 1960.
* While the US is noted for its wide open
spaces, more than half of all Americans
live within 50 miles of the coasts where
population density and its environmental
impact are increasing.
That concentration poses special challenges
for areas near the coast, like Portland,
where land is rapidly being gobbled up.
The city's population, which is now a
bit over half a million, is fairly stable.
But surrounding population pressures are
great. The metropolitan area grew about
30 percent during the 1990s to just over
2 million. It's projected to grow to 2.6
million by 2010 and to 3.1 million by
Some groups worry that Portland's growth
will undermine its environmental sustainability.
"Population pressures are overwhelming
the Portland region's ability to absorb
the influx of new people, fueling congestion
and rises in land and housing prices,"
the ecological research group Environmental
Tipping Points concluded in an analysis.
"Portland's growth rate is twice
the national average. With these challenges
ahead, it remains to be seen whether this
growth will threaten the very assets that
Portland's progressive land-use planning
policies have managed to protect so far."
But recent US history suggests there are
reasons for hope.
It's no coincidence, for example, that the
modern environmental movement began about
the same time that US population ticked
past the 200 million mark 39 years ago.
Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich's
controversial book "The Population
Bomb" had predicted that humanity's
numbers around the globe would overwhelm
natural resources, especially food production,
in a Malthusian catastrophe.
Things haven't turned out that badly, given
the dire signs of distress in that era.
It was a time when "our nation awoke
to the health and environmental impacts
of rampant and highly visible pollution
- rivers so contaminated that they caught
on fire, entire towns built upon sites
so toxic that the only recourse was to
abandon them," recalled Environmental
Protection Agency Administrator Steve
Johnson in a May speech.
He was commemorating the 35th anniversary
of the EPA by pointing to the Cuyahoga
River in Ohio and Love Canal near Buffalo,
N.Y. He might have mentioned that the
bald eagle - the nation's symbol - was
headed toward extinction as well.
"But looking back, we see much to celebrate,"
Mr. Johnson added. "Our air is cleaner,
our water is purer, and our land is better
Oomph behind environmental laws
Generally speaking, that's true thanks largely
to such groundbreaking federal laws as
the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act,
the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking
Water Act, and the Toxic Substances Control
Act. Bipartisan coalitions on Capitol
Hill and presidents of both parties enacted
those statutes. Making them work, to the
extent that they have, has involved full-time
activists, grass-roots efforts at the
community level, and courts of law.
Increasingly, business is also getting involved.
In the current issue of Atlantic Monthly
magazine, for example, Weyerhaeuser Co.
- whose history has included bitter fights
with environmentalists over clear-cut
logging - is pledging to reduce its greenhouse-gas
emissions to 40 percent less than what
they were in 2000 by 2020.
"We will do this by harnessing the
benefits of a renewable, natural resource
- biomass - as fuel in the boilers that
generate steam and electrical energy in
our mills," says Ernesta Ballard,
senior vice president for corporate affairs.
Weyerhaeuser, based in Federal Way, Wash.,
is one of 41 corporate members of the
Business Environmental Leadership Council,
most of them Fortune 500 companies, including
such familiar names as Boeing, DuPont,
Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Lockheed Martin.
The group focuses on practical steps to
reduce global warming.
In New Haven, Conn., last week, a program
to educate corporate board members on
the potential liabilities and opportunities
tied to climate change was launched by
Yale University, Marsh (a leading risk
and insurance services firm), and the
Ceres network of investment funds, and
environmental and other public interest
groups. The first training session will
involve some 200 board members of Fortune
Faith groups, including typically conservative
evangelicals, have also taken up "creation
care" through such efforts as the
National Religious Partnership for the
Environment. The coalition includes the
US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the
National Council of Churches USA, the
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish
Life, and the Evangelical Environmental
Among other things, they're providing literature
on the environment to parishioners, providing
sermons to pastors, organizing "Earth
Day" and other events, and going
"green" in their own facilities.
Meanwhile, state and local governments in
many ways have pushed well ahead of Uncle
Sam in working to protect an environment
from a population that is growing in both
numbers and affluence. For example, 10
states have adopted the "Clean Cars
Program," to reduce global warming
emissions by 64 million tons by 2020.
At last count, 295 mayors (representing
some 49 million people) have accepted
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels's "Kyoto
challenge," modeled after the Kyoto
treaty that the US didn't sign. The goal
is to cut carbon-dioxide emissions in
their cities to 7 percent below 1990 levels
"All over the country in one way or
another, communities are coming up against
the issue of sustainability with their
populations and their consumption styles,"
says Martha Farnsworth Riche, former director
of the US Census Bureau.
Of all parts of the country, Portland and
the Northwest generally come closest to
addressing the issue. Oregon launched
formal recycling with its bottle bill
in 1971, the nation's first container-deposit
law. It was one of the first states (along
with Vermont) to enact statewide land-use
planning in the early 1970s. Early on,
it protected beaches from commercial development.
For years, Portland has had model public
transit, including a light-rail system
that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
"At its root is a strong appreciation
of the place we are among those who've
lived here and those who come here,"
says Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
"Those values get carried forward
in public policies with great support
of our citizenry and our business community.
"There's just a tremendous desire to
try to avoid many of the pitfalls that
we've seen other cities find themselves
in, and on a more global perspective how
to live more lightly on the land,"
says Commissioner Saltzman, who holds
environmental engineering degrees from
As US laws and American attitudes toward
energy and the environment have advanced,
some experts argue, efficiency gains have
outstripped population growth and consumption.
"The average new house today is about
a third larger than the average house
in 1970, however the energy consumption
is about the same as the smaller house
in 1970," says Steven Hayward, author
of the 2006 Index of Leading Environmental
Indicators, released this summer by the
Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco
and the American Enterprise Institute
in Washington. "That's from insulation,
new appliance standards, and so forth."
New houses may be more efficient, but their
environmental impact grows in other ways.
"They use more resources to build and
use," says Markham of the Center
for Environment and Population. "Also,
the average amount of land around houses
Lots of land to handle growth, some say
Some observers aren't that worried. "We're
a very big country in terms of our land
and our expansiveness," says demographer
William Frey of the University of Michigan
and the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"The people who argue that we're
going to run out of energy, that we're
going to run out of water, that we're
going to run out of other natural resources,
overlook the fact that time and again
technology has been able to overcome those
Even so, the US may face a stiff challenge
in dealing with the environmental impact
of its growing population.
Earlier this year, researchers at Yale and
Columbia universities constructed an "environmental
performance index" comparing 133
countries on the basis of environmental
health, air quality, water resources,
biodiversity and habitat, productive natural
resources, and sustainable energy. The
US ranked 28th. (New Zealand, Sweden,
Finland, the Czech Republic, and Britain
were the top five.) Among 29 Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development
nations, the US ranked 23rd.
<< Christian Science Monitor --