Online Feature
The Heart of the Matter
Can we control population growth?
Jack Greer
Baltimore city street by Skip Brown

When Tom Horton's mother dropped him off for his first year of college at Johns Hopkins, they drove past a long line of Baltimore row houses. The Eastern Shore-born Horton asked, "When they come home at night, how can even they tell which one is theirs?"

Home would soon become a row house for Horton, who reported and wrote for the Baltimore Sun for some three decades, mostly about the Chesapeake Bay. "I loved it there," he says. "I love cities. I love city landscapes."

This affection for urban neighborhoods may come as a surprise to those who know Horton for his lyrical and penetrating writing about Bay country. His best-known pieces are less likely to be filled with theaters and city cafes than with marsh grass and oyster shells. Truth is, he enjoys walking down the street for good coffee, a good book, a good play.

On this summer day he's sitting in a coffee shop in a northern Baltimore neighborhood near where he lives. He's wearing the same thing he'd wear down by the Bay, a black T-shirt, shorts, sandals. We sit at a tiny table, around which other urbanites sip lattes and peck at laptops.

"People who come to visit me are often disappointed not to find me at the end of a long dirt road by a tidal marsh," he says. "Though that would not be bad."

This love of both city and country, of urban streets and quiet creeks, lies at the heart of his 2008 treatise on what he sees as out-of-control growth in the Bay region, entitled Growing, Growing, Gone.

The 40-page white paper, funded by Baltimore's Abell Foundation, is a lament over the demise of both city and country. In it Horton takes on a topic that many think about, but few want to tackle. Not only sprawl but population growth. "The response I get most often is, 'That was a great piece. I'm glad you wrote it and not me.'"

Horton's drawl still hints at his Delmarva roots, and his smile is ironic, but he's clearly not happy with this state of affairs. He thinks more of us should be thinking and talking about the threat of overpopulation. It's not a banner he wants to carry alone.

What drew Horton to take on the tough topic of human population is his fear for the future of the Chesapeake. "There's no way we can continue current rates of growth," he says, "without trashing the Bay."

He believes that even if we can clean up our consumptive behavior, uncontrolled population growth will overwhelm all our other efforts. When it comes to saving the Bay, he argues, population is the ultimate puzzle piece.

In Growing, Growing, Gone, he hits this issue hard. "At current levels of consumption and pollution," he writes in the report, "there are already too many of us."

He cites studies, such as one focused on the suburbs of Washington, D.C., that attribute nearly two-thirds of all open-space losses not to demands for larger lots but to population growth. He argues that as much as we might cluster our development or curtail our demands, our sheer numbers will threaten the environment and our sense of place.

His concern is understandable. There are more than 16 million of us in the Chesapeake watershed now, and that number grows by an estimated 100,000 people per year.

Chesapeake Watershed Population Map (2030)
Map source: Chesapeake Bay Program.

Horton suspects that most of us don't grasp just how much demand we place on the natural world. Americans, he says, leave an especially large energy footprint. Though only about a twentieth of the world's population, we consume a quarter or more of the world's natural resources, and generate "similarly disproportionate amounts of pollution." He writes that with our large appetites for fossil fuels, our daily consumption rivals the energy needs of a mature sperm whale — some 186,000 calories.

In his report, there's a tension between the focus on population and the focus on consumption. On the one hand, absolute numbers will sink us if we can't control human population growth. On the other hand, our impacts are made far worse by our consumptive habits.

Underlying both of these issues is a dependence on growth. More people, more consumers, more spending, more development, more consumption, more profit. Like a cosmic Ponzi scheme, each rung of this economic ladder depends on more growth.

Looking back, Horton now thinks that perhaps he should have focused more on this addiction to growth. An argument about population, he found out, "goes quickly to immigration." Much of the population growth in the U.S. derives from immigration, and more than 80 percent of immigrants are people of darker skin. It was never his intent to make this a racial issue. Instead of focusing on keeping out immigrants, he thinks we should work on issues like providing jobs for people where they live.

He says that if he were writing this paper now, he might begin by questioning the myth of growth.

His mind darts from the environment to population to immigration to economics to growth. This continuum has led Horton to reconsider the very roots of our culture — the motivations that drive us and the economics that brought us to where we are. He keeps coming back to the misleading mantra of growth.

His touchstone for this charge lies in the work of ecological economists like Herman Daly, a pioneer in the field of "steady state" economics. Daly and others argue that an economy based on continual expansion will eventually run into real limits — for one thing, the limits of the earth itself, its minerals, its living space, its atmosphere, its oceans. A rising tide may float all boats, Daly says, but put too many people in the boats and they will sink. To our forebears, the earth seemed infinite. Now, looked at from the cargo bay of the space shuttle, it seems a fragile sphere, mostly blue, sailing in that larger ocean we call space.

In his white paper Horton writes, "So averse are Americans to thinking of limiting growth that we ignore it even when it is an overwhelming part of environmental problems."

Yes, he says, if he were writing that paper now, he would hit this growth paradigm even harder. He's beginning to see that to slow growth, we have to go to the source of the problem. We have to learn to be better, not necessarily bigger. He uses the analogy of a person who grows spiritually and intellectually not by growing taller or fatter but by improving mental capacity, knowledge, and skill.

Washington beltway traffic by Sandy Rodgers

Better, not bigger.

He feels the challenge now is first to convince people that growth is a problem and then to convince them that it's possible to have prosperity without growth. This may even mean rethinking what prosperity means. He says that when he lived on Smith Island, the locals would speak not of being "happy" but of being "content." He points out that the Latin root of "content" is related to "contain." The notion of being satisfied within boundaries. This is different from the ideal of limitless happiness promised by television commercials.

We have to begin to believe, he says, that there is "life after growth."

How will this happen?

Not easily, he says. He thinks we'll have to hire experts like ecological economists who can demonstrate in concrete terms the advantages — including the economic advantages — of a future that doesn't rely on constant growth.

The best antidote to our growth addiction is educating the public, he says. For example, there should be a build-out analysis for the whole region. We should show citizens what the future will look like if we let the growth engine run unchecked. Growth advocates hire the best public relations firms and lawyers in the book, he says. "We need the same on the other side," he argues, including a high-level think tank. All this requires "serious money."

One bright spot Horton sees is land preservation. He applauds the many local land trusts working to preserve natural and rural areas. We also have Green Infrastructure, Rural Legacy, Program Open Space, the John Smith Trail, Treasured Landscapes, and other efforts. "It's one of the most hopeful things," he says. "It's one area where I'm not cynical."

But if human population in the watershed continues to grow unchecked, even protected lands could be in trouble.

Growing! Growing! Gone! The Chesapeake Bay and the Myth of Endless Growth

Read Horton's provocative white paper online at:

December 2009
vol. 8, no. 4
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