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Population Sprawl

October-November 2012

No Net Loss

Population Sprawl

by Wendy Harris

Wendy Harris is a retired citizen who comments on development, mitigation and environmental impacts.

We are in the midst of a global environmental crisis that threatens human survival, yet few Americans, outside the scientific community, are talking about its root cause. By any ecological measure, humans have exceeded their sustainable population size. Over the past 50 years, growing demands for food, water, timber, fiber and fuel have changed the earth’s ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history.1 We ignore the consequences of our growing population and instead discuss its symptoms. We focus our attention on the impacts of development. The sprawl that remains unaddressed is human sprawl.

It may be hard to believe, but at one time — recent enough for me to remember — the connection between population and environmental degradation was so clear and uncontroversial that it was taught to school children. My earliest awareness of environmental issues dates back to around 1967. As a third grade student, I understood that “pollution” was a big problem and that it was connected to “overpopulation” in developing countries. (Granted, the New York City public school curriculum may have been more progressive than others in the country, though Western over-consumption was never discussed.)

In the years following legalization of the birth control pill, population control not only seemed possible, but could be openly embraced as a means of improving both the human condition and the earth’s ecological health. Reproductive health was regarded primarily as a religious rather than a political issue. Fast forward forty-five years, and it is no longer socially acceptable to talk about issues if they even indirectly suggest need for reduced human birth rates.

This fact was underscored a few years ago, when a statistics professor at Oregon State University created a carbon footprint calculator and published a study reflecting the results of the carbon dioxide emissions from various human activities.2 The largest “carbon legacy,” by a very large margin, resulted from having children. The study did not contain policy recommendations, but the results spoke for themselves. Needless to say, this study generated a great deal of controversy and negative publicity. The professor was personally criticized, called a eugenicist, and worse. At one point, public hatred was so intense that he feared for his safety.3

This marked change in social attitudes followed the rise of social conservatism in the United States. As one writer commented, the United States has a strong aversion to anything perceived as restricting individual freedoms, be it the right to bear arms or children.4 Reproductive rights and birth control are now such a highly-charged political issue that public statements on this topic could trigger reactions from the religious right as well as from those who advocate for women’s equality and racial and economic justice. Never shout “fire,” or “abortion” in a crowded room.

In today’s political climate, it is easy to understand why the environmental community avoids this issue. The potential for alienating environmental supporters, or mobilizing organized opposition, is simply too great. In fact, when one environmental organization, the Center for Biodiversity, broke taboo by including human population in its list of environmental concerns, it warranted a New York Times article, entitled, “Breaking a Long Silence on Population Control.”5 (It helped that the marketing-savvy group distributed 500,000 free condoms in packages sporting original artwork and pithy slogans such as “Wrap with care, save the polar bear,” “Cover your tweedle, save the burying beetle”, and “Don’t go bare, panthers are rare.”6)

The significance of this matter demands public education and open discussion. The world’s population in 1800 was 1 billion people. It doubled in 1930 to 2 billion people. It doubled again to 4 billion in 1975. It is currently at 7 billion, and is expected to reach 8 billion in 2020. The rapid rate of human growth is wonderfully illustrated on a PBS Nova website, entitled “World in Balance.” At the top of the website is a running tally of the number of babies born since you downloaded the page, and the resulting increase in total world population.7

And as the world’s population grows, so does our demand for natural resources, triggering ecological changes of global significance. Just a single human waste product, greenhouse gas, has drastically altered the chemistry of the planet’s atmosphere and oceans, causing global warming and ocean acidification.

In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, sponsored by the U.N., reflected consensus of 1360 international scientists (supported by five technical volumes and six synthesis reports) that “human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”8 This bears repeating. There is scientific consensus that unrestrained human growth threatens the survival of our species.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment emphasized the importance of “ecological services,” (also known as ecological benefits), which are the “free” benefits of a healthy ecosystem. Ecosystem services directly protect human health through filtering of air and water, decomposition of waste, increased carbon sequestration, temperature reduction, flood and erosion control, soil production, creation of food and pharmaceutical sources and control of infectious disease. The report referred to ecosystem services as “humanity’s life support system.”

In particular, loss of biodiversity was determined to impact ecosystem services by reducing the resilience and biocapacity of earth’s ecosystems. Biodiversity is defined as genetic diversity within a species, species diversity within an ecosystem, and ecosystem diversity within a region. Human fate is inextricably linked to the fate of other species which share our planet.

This is particularly bad news because, as human population has increased, biodiversity has decreased. The cost for our unsustainable use of the earth’s resources is disproportionately paid for by other species. Concerned biologists believe we are in the midst of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event, known as the Holocene extinction.9 Species are disappearing about 1,000 times faster than is typical of the planet’s history. Unlike other mass extinctions, this is not the result of geologic or cosmic forces. Rather, it has been triggered by human activity, particularly destruction of habitat.

Human dependence upon ecosystem services and benefits continues to be overlooked and undervalued. The complicated connection between population, human survival, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity is not intuitive. It involves acceptance of theoretical concepts that are not readily observable. People easily grasp how human survival depends upon clean air and water. Understanding how our survival depends upon biodiversity and healthy ecosystems is much more difficult. Understanding that water and air are inseparable components of an ecosystem that functions, and therefore must be addressed, as a synergistic whole, is even more challenging. Teachers as gifted as world-renowned biologist and multiple Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson have struggled to raise public awareness for decades.10

However, the failure to grasp these concepts has long-term consequences. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment determined that ecosystem degradation could grow significantly worse unless actions are taken over the next 50 years, and noted that the changes in policy and practice required are substantial and are not currently underway.

Examples of a failure to understand these issues, and the harmful repercussions, can be found locally. During a recent update of the County Comprehensive Plan, members of the County Council were incensed to learn that they were required to protect the Chuckanut Wildlife Corridor, which is considered a regional biodiversity “hot spot.” Council Member Kathy Kershner supported growth in the Wildlife Corridor because Homo Sapiens are a species. Council Member Sam Crawford would like to see the County Critical Area Ordinance amended to get rid of “nuisance species like elk.” It is unlikely that this Council will ever understand that humans are the species proliferating at a nuisance level.

There is good news, however. A recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that slowing the United State’s growth rate to 1.5 births per woman from 2.0 could result in a 10 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century and a 33 percent drop by the end of the century.11 This is quantifiable evidence suggesting that policies aimed at reducing human population can be successful.

And increasingly, discussion of population control is connected to larger principles of economic equality, referred to as “population justice.”12 Population justice takes a broad view of the population/environment issue. It incorporates inequitable patterns of consumption as part of the problem, and advocates addressing inequalities–both gender and economic–that underlie rapid population growth. This approach increases opportunities for coordinated international efforts by reducing the traditional tension between West and East. If successful, it could result in a world that is both ecologically sustainable and politically stable.

Perhaps a good starting point, at least here in the U.S., is to begin the conversation.


1. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Overview, 2005,

2. Murtaugh and Schlazgh, Global Environmental Change, Volume 19, Issue 1, 2009

3. ;


5. Id.




9.; citing numerous scientific papers.




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