For land's sake, have fewer kids

ON THE BAY

Growth: A sprawl opponent says stabilizing the population is the best thing we can do for the environment.

December 31, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

ED STENNETT is describing "this classic anxiety dream." Rooted in his childhood from 60 years ago, it recurs occasionally.

It's a tale of loss and violation, and I realize it's my dream, too, and similar to those I've heard in other interviews through the years.

In Stennett's case, it's about his grandparents' remote farm in West Virginia. With me, it is my dad's old hunting place on a neck of pine forest and marsh in lower Dorchester County.

In the dream you go back, and where there were woods, they're building townhouses; where there was nothing busier than a marsh hawk soaring, you see roads and traffic.

In other versions I've heard, the victim is the meadow down the road, the field across the creek from where you grew up, the view of the farm valley from the hillside.

Our culture is too disconnected from nature to speak easily of mundane landscapes as "sacred," or to declare their development an affront to our spirit.

But still we dream; and "the dream," I suspect, is more common than we'd think. Much scarier are those who never so dream because they've simply grown numb.

Or, if not numb, hammered into submission by the mantras of progress: "Growth is inevitable," "growth is necessary," "growth is good."

Ed Stennett, whom this column is pleased to anoint as one of the bay region's most unsung and important environmental heroes, begs to differ.

In his book In Growth We Trust, which he published himself, and in lectures around the Chesapeake region, Stennett dispassionately and intelligently dissects the modern version of progress for what it really is. He also exposes the fundamental flaw in an environmental movement that works to lessen human impacts without questioning how many humans there are.

Stennett raises issues that seldom get lip service, let alone critical analysis - and he brings it home to the bay. (It's easier to rail about "world overpopulation," taking refuge in the vastness of the problem.)

He argues compellingly that better pollution controls and Smart Growth solutions to sprawl - all good and necessary - only slow the decline as a million people a decade move into the watershed.

While the often-giveaway spending by counties and states to attract more jobs does create more jobs, the increased population has big environmental downsides - and does not bear much relation to improving per-capita income and well-being or to reducing unemployment.

Whether population growth is necessary for a healthy economy depends on how that economy is structured, Stennett says. The current one, based heavily on the subdivision and development of land, road building, paving, etc., is geared to benefit from more people.

His chronicling of what he terms "the Growth Machine," the amalgam of bankers, developers and business organizations that profit from population growth, is worth the price ($8.95) of his book.

Once you understand the Growth Machine for the single-minded industry it is, you will understand better what we're up against in environmental fights in county councils and state legislatures.

The soft-spoken, scholarly Gaithersburg resident is an unlikely David to hurl pebbles at the growth Goliath: retired IBM and Lockheed Martin electrical engineer, not a zinger sound bite in his repertoire - "a black hole of charisma," he says of himself.

Originally, he hoped to interest the Sierra Club in publishing his research as a white paper on the need to stabilize U.S. population; he is a member of the club's Maryland chapter.

But like most environmental groups, the Sierra Club didn't want to take a stand. So Stennett founded his own, the nonprofit Growth Education Movement.

Stabilizing U.S. population, and by implication the numbers living around the bay, would make a huge difference - 571 million Americans by 2100 without any action, versus 400 million, with a significant slowing of growth kicking in by 2040. (The current U.S. population is 295 million.)

The U.S. has the highest fertility rate of any industrialized democracy - 2.05 kids per woman, and the Census Bureau projects that it will increase.

By contrast, the fertility rate is 1.3 in Germany, 1.43 in Japan, 1.65 in South Korea, 1.71 in France and 1.72 in the United Kingdom.

Reducing poverty, educating all citizens and funding quality family planning services - all are proven to reduce fertility rates and are winners in their own right, Stennett says.

A fertility rate of 1.8 would stabilize us at 400 million. It's important, Stennett says, to realize what that means: "Families of four kids and three kids are welcome, as well as those with one and zero kids."

Stennett says, "I'm a little discouraged. I'm either preaching to the choir or, more commonly, people just don't want to think about it."

But population is what we must confront if we're to have a healthy, sustainable environment. So all praise to Ed Stennett, who does not need thanks so much as our full attention.

For more information: www.growtheducation.org

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