More people, More Power Needed

Environmental Commentary by Tom Horton

...increasing population presses us to adopt new technologies before we know what we are doing... --from Population Growth and the American Future, 1972

Last month, my column favorable to nuclear energy dismayed readers who have fought for a future based on renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

I highlighted the pro-nuclear efforts of the Maryland Conservation Council. This group of active, well-informed environmentalists thinks the threat of climate change is so large and imminent that renewable energy won’t cut atmospheric CO2 in time without help from nuclear plants, which emit no carbon dioxide.

The MCC also believes that the environmental impacts of enough solar panels and windmills to meet our gargantuan energy needs are greater than that of building more nuclear capacity.

Perhaps the real lesson is that neither energy option, nor any others we know of, is going to be without considerable impact. A nation blindly committed to unending economic and population expansion as ours is will forfeit good choices.

Consider that it is national policy to strive for economic growth of about 3 percent a year. In a century, that will expand the human economy by about 16-fold.

Consider that we are Earth’s third most populous nation after China and India; that our numbers, driven by immigration, will exceed half a billion well before the end of this century — up from a current 316 million, increasing by one every 13 seconds.

Consider that the Chesapeake Bay has gone from healthy to unhealthy in the last 50 years as population has more than doubled, from eight million to 17 million; and that we’re planning to turn water quality back to what it was at 8 million, even as we ensure that 24 million souls will be here in another 50 years.

We are a high-energy society; per capita, the daily calories needed to support our lifestyle is about equal the calories needed by an adult sperm whale.

Half a century ago, a bipartisan, blue ribbon presidential commission on Population and the American Future considered this dilemma, along with others exacerbated by growth.

The group, appointed by President Richard M. Nixon, concluded it was not in the economic, environmental or social interest of the nation to keep growing. They proposed we “welcome” the concept of population stability and get on with achieving it.

We would continue to foster the innovation and productivity increases that allow prosperity, but stop pursuing an economy that grows bigger every year in its resource consumption.

Had we heeded that message, we might not be having to choose among nukes or renewables that impact millions of acres of natural habitat or wilder weather.

Halting growth would be no guaranteed panacea, the commission said: But it would “buy time, by slowing the pace at which growth-related problems accumulate and enhancing opportunities for the orderly and democratic working out of solutions…it opens up a range of choices we would not have otherwise.”

It’s worth noting that among today’s environmental organizations around the Chesapeake, only the pro-nuclear MCC takes a stand for population stability. All of the other groups ignore it, focusing on reducing our per capita impacts, as if our numbers were beyond our control.

We need to focus on both.

There’s abundant proof that technology and regulation can achieve some remarkable gains, even in the face of population growth.

Pollution from human sewage has dropped as population has doubled. The federal Clean Air Act has wrung 250 million pounds of nitrogen oxides out of the air falling across the Bay watershed since 1985. And there is real mileage left in re-dedicating ourselves to plain old energy conservation—using less—and cranking down still harder with clean air regulations. But growth, even smarter growth, offsets such gains.

The population commission’s authors wrote in 1972 that we could probably depend on technology and regulation for a while to cope with growth: “The real question is whether we want to.”

They asked, were we to be about quantity of life or quality of life?

“Population growth forces upon us slow but irreversible changes in lifestyle,” they wrote. “Imbedded in our traditions as to what constitutes the American way of life is freedom from undue public regulation—virtually free use of water, access to uncongested roadways, freedom from permits, licenses, fees, red tape and bureaucrats; and freedom to fish, swim and camp where and when we will.

“Clearly we do not live this way now (1972),” they conceded; “but everything is relative. The population of 2020 may look back with envy on what, from their vantage point, appears to be our relatively unfettered way of life.”

If you like not having good choices, or having no choice at all, then choose endless growth.

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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