Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment - part 3

by Prof. Al Bartlett

Pseudo solutions: growth management - smart growth

From the highest political and planning circles come various suggestions that are intended to address the problems caused by growth and thus to improve the quality of life. Many of these suggestions are "pseudo solutions" to the problems. At first glance, these sophistic solutions seem logical. A moment's thought will show that, in fact, they are false.

The terms "growth management" and "smart growth" are used interchangeably to describe urban developments that are functionally and esthetically efficient and pleasing. Sometimes these planning processes are advocated by those who believe that we can't stop population growth, therefore we must accomodate it as best we can. Other times they are advocated by those who are actively advancing population growth. The claim is made that growth management and smart growth "will save the environment." They don't save the environment. Whether the growth is smart or dumb, the growth destroys the environment. "Growth management" is a favorite term used by planners and politicians. With planning, smart growth will destroy the environment, but it will do it in a sensitive way. It's like buying a ticket on the Titanic. You can be smart and go first class, or you can be dumb and go steerage. In both cases, the result is the same. But given the choice, most people would go first class.

Pseudo solutions: creating jobs

The favorite rallying cry of community leaders and politicians is, "We must create jobs."

One must respond to this cry by asking:

Did you know that in your community, creating jobs increases the number of people out of work?

Most people don't understand this, even though it can be explained easily. If the equilibrium unemployment rate is 5% , and a new factory moves into town, the hiring at the new factory may lower the unemployment rate to 4% . But then new people move into the town to restore the unemployment rate to the equilibrium value of 5% . But this is 5% of a larger population, so the number of unemployed people has increased. Every time 100 jobs are created in a community one can look for about 5 more unemployed people in the community.

The only possibility for having permanently low unemployment in a region is to build a wall around the region so that people can't move in to take the jobs. The constitutionally acceptable way to "build exclusionary walls" around a region is to be so successful in promoting your region that you drive up real estate prices to a very high level so that people can't afford to move into the community. This is the case in many popular recreational areas.

Pseudo solutions: building highways

It is frequently said that we can reduce congestion and air pollution by building high-speed super highways. This can be proven false by noting that if this were true, the air in Los Angeles would be the cleanest in the nation. The falacy arises because of the fact that the construction of the new highways generates new traffic, not previously present, to fill the new highways to capacity. (Bartlett 1969)

Pseudo solutions: regional planning

As populations of nearby cities grow, the call is made for "regional solutions" to the many problems created by growth. This has two negative effects:

1) Regional planning dilutes democracy. A citizen participating in public affairs has five times the impact in his / her city of 20,000 as he / she would have in a region of 100,000 people.

2) The regional "solutions" are usually designed to accomodate past and predicted growth and hence they foster and encourage more growth rather than limiting it. In the spirit of Eric Sevareid's Law (below), regional "solutions" enlarge the problems rather than solving them.

One concludes that regional solutions to problems already caused by growth will work only if the growth is stopped.

Population growth destroys democracy

In an interview (Moyers 1989) Bill Moyers asked Isaac Asimov:

What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?

Asimov responded:

It will be completely destroyed. I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor: if two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want to stay as long as you want for whatever you need. And everyone believes in freedom of the bathroom; it should be right there in the Constitution.

But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, "Aren't you through yet?" and so on.

Asimov concluded with the profound observation:

In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive [overpopulation]. Convenience and decency cannot survive [overpopulation]. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one person matters. [emphasis added]

War and peace

At the local or state levels, there is an interesting parallel between the promotion of growth (unsustainability) and the promotion of war, both of which can be very profitable for high level people but are very expensive for everyone else.

The waging of war is the sole enterprise of large military establishments. Even the meanest mind knows what has to be done to win a war; "One has to beat the opponent," after which one can have a large party to celebrate the victory, pass out the medals, and then start preparing for the next war. Promoting community growth is quite similar. The promotion of growth is the sole enterprise of large municipal and state establishments, both public and private. It does not take much of a mind to know that victory in the growth war requires that your community beat competing communities to become the location of new factories. Campaigns and battles are planned and, when a factory comes, there is a large party to celebrate the victory and pass out the awards. Then the community warriors start fighting for even more new factories.

In contrast, winning the peace is quite different. Even the best minds don't know for sure the best way to "win the peace." Compared to the groups that promote war, the public agencies that are devoted to maintaining peace are miniscule. In the effort to maintain peace, there is no terminal point at which a party is in order where all can celebrate the fact that, "We won the peace!" Winning the peace takes eternal vigilance. Protecting the community environment from the ravages of growth is quite parallel. The best minds don't know for sure the best way to do it. There are few public establishments whose sole role is to preserve the environment. One can postpone assaults on the environment, but by and large, it takes eternal vigilance of concerned citizens, who, at best, can only reduce the rate of loss of the environment. There is no terminal time at which one can have a party to celebrate the fact that, "We have saved the environment!"

A healthy economy

For some time, the economy in the U.S. has been said to be "healthy." During this time studies shown that the economic gap between the well-to-do and the poor has been increasing. This allows us to say that "healthy economy" is one in which people with large incomes find that their incomes are rising more rapidly than their costs, while people with low incomes find that their incomes are rising less rapidly than their costs.

Injustice and inequity

The series of big city riots of the recent decades are symptoms of a deep-seated illness (injustice and inequity) that we have ignored too long. The illness is certainly made worse by the rapid population growth that consumes public and private resources in order to give generous returns to investors, with minimal benefits going to help the low income people who are adversely affected by the growth. The public financial resources that are needed to pay the costs of population growth come at the expense of all manner of community programs that are essential for improving education, justice, and equity. Injustice and inequity breed unrest and discontent. When a condition of instability is reached, things can happen with surprising speed. We were all stunned by the swiftness of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Global trade

As we enter an era of expanded global trade, we need to know that technology has made it easy to conduct trade over long distances, and this ease of trade serves to block out our recognition of the concept of "carrying capacity." Especially if their peoples are unsophisticated, these other places with which we trade with such ease, are used to provide an "away" from which we can get the resources we need, and to which we can later throw our trash. Technology and trade combine to interfere with our understanding of the concept of limits.

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Copyright 1998 Albert A. Bartlett
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