Tennessean: Cities like Spring Hill are growing fast. Here’s why the boom is unsustainable. | Opinion (8/18/2022)

There is ample evidence that the U.S. population, 333 million and counting, is already unsustainable. Without a slowdown, the problems will only get worse, and our quality of life will decline.

James Bowen

Guest Columnist

  • James Bowen, Ph.D. is a nuclear physicist and environmentalist from Lawrence, Kansas.
  • Endless growth also threatens Americans’ quality of life.
  • The ever-increasing population has made the consequences of water shortages far worse.
  • The good news is that Americans want a more sustainable population.

Spring Hill, 30 miles south of Nashville, experienced the 10th-fastest population growth of any city in the country last year — and it was the only Tennessee city on the Top 10 list.

Plenty of other Tennessee municipalities are growing nearly as fast.

According to projections by the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the Volunteer State could grow by close to a million people over the next 20 years and reach a total population of 7.87 million by 2040.

This growth certainly brings some economic benefits, but it also comes at a severe cost to the environment and existing residents’ quality of life.

A growing population needs more water from rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers — as well as more land to grow food, more residential and commercial buildings, more roads, more landfills, more wastewater treatment plants, and so on.

There is ample evidence that the current U.S. population, 333 million and counting, is already unsustainable. And unless our leaders slow this ongoing growth, the problems will only get worse, and our quality of life will drastically decline.

Our nation is losing vital open space

Since 1970, the U.S. population has grown by 130 million, but our natural resources have only diminished.

Spring Hill aldermen candidates talked growth, development and infrastructure at a forum hosted by the city's chamber of commerce.

Even as per capita consumption has decreased, overall consumption has outstripped conservation efforts.

As a result, the U.S. lost 69,000 square miles of open space between 1982 and 2017, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s an area about 60% larger than the entire state of Tennessee.

Such sprawl destroys forests, meadows, and other wildlife habitats. This is a life-or-death matter for the species that live there.

It is also vital for the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of humans. Most people crave life in a world of biodiversity and natural wonders, not packed into high-rise apartment buildings cut off from any meaningful relationship with nature.

Moreover, worsening fire seasons are a consequence of increasing human activity in a fragile ecosystem. And it’s not just arid Western states at risk. We’re also seeing those consequences in Southeastern states.

The devastating wildfires that swept across Eastern Tennessee in late March were a grim reminder that all 50 states must heed the warning signs. Our increasing demand for electricity, fossil fuels, fertilizers, and plastics only exacerbate wildfires and other problems associated with global warming.

Unsustainable growth threatens our water supply

Endless growth also threatens Americans’ quality of life. Consider how water levels in Lake Mead, the massive reservoir that supplies drinking water and hydropower to much of the Southwest, just dropped to the lowest level in history.

So low, in fact, that folks have started finding dead bodies — likely the victims of 1980s-era Mob assassins from nearby Las Vegas  along the formerly submerged, now-uncovered shorelines of America’s largest reservoir.

Lake Mead isn’t an anomaly. Lake Powell, another massive reservoir, is also at a record low. Across much of the West, Americans face the prospect of severe water shortages.

The explosive population growth that the region has experienced in recent decades didn’t cause this water crisis, of course. But the ever-increasing population has made the consequences far worse.

Dependency on growth is a ‘Ponzi scheme’

Environmental advocates have been warning about the consequences for decades. Sadly, those warnings often fall on deaf ears in today’s growth-obsessed political environment.

But there was a time when our elected officials had a broader perspective. In 1981, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced the Global Resources, Environment, and Population Act, which would have made population stabilization a U.S. government policy.

More recently, in 2019, former U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu stated that an economy that is dependent upon population growth is a Ponzi scheme, since that growth cannot go on forever.

Steven Chu

The good news is that Americans want a more sustainable population, as evidenced by their choices to have smaller families. Birth rates among native-born Americans have been slightly below replacement level since 1972.

The Washington Post and other media outlets have decried what they call a “Birth Dearth” urging measures to encourage women to bear more children. This is pure folly as we should celebrate women’s advancements to control their reproduction.

James Bowen

The population has only kept growing because of historically high levels of immigration. If the U.S. government would simply, and humanely, reduce future immigration to the levels that America enjoyed during the middle of the 20th century, population stabilization would follow.

But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, if we maintain the current rate of immigration, the U.S. population is “expected to grow by 79 million people by 2060, crossing the 400-million threshold in 2058.”

Put simply, that rate of growth is not ecologically sustainable. It’ll lead to fewer open spaces, increasingly strained water resources, the widespread loss of wildlife, and, ultimately, water rationing. If we continue ignoring this stark reality and sticking our heads in the proverbial sand, the only thing we’re likely to find are more buried bodies.

James Bowen, Ph.D. is a nuclear physicist and environmentalist from Lawrence, Kansas.


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