Minnesotans For Sustainability©
Sustainable: A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.
Albert A. Bartlett
November 18, 2000
Talk about losing democracy!
There is no question about the central premise contained in the title of this conference. Human numbers are threatening natural systems. We see this everywhere we turn. Understanding is the best tool we can provide to local officials who are trying to address the problems that arise from population growth. So I will concentrate on removing some of the mythology that surrounds growth in our communities. In his book, "better, not bigger" Eben Fodor has done a wonderful job of puncturing many of these myths, and so I hope to supplement the work he has done.
Much of the continuing population growth that we see is justified by the promulgation of all manner of myths and legends. I want to examine some of these myths so that we can be prepared to deal with the problems of population growth.
One of the most persistent myths of modern America is the belief that we can
solve traffic problems by adding more lanes to city streets, so as to convert
the streets into highways, or by adding more lanes to existing highways.
If we are to find the truth in this situation, the first thing we must remember is the fundamental law of building urban highways:
Two things are necessary for this law to be true:
Although crude oil prices have more than doubled
recently, fuel prices remain very low, so the second condition is met at
present. So we can say that the fundamental law of highway building is valid at
the present time.
The highway crowding was the problem. Adding more lanes was offered as the solution to the problem. But the solution of adding more lanes produces the larger problems of larger traffic jams. This is a classic manifestation of Eric Sevareid's law:
If I remember correctly, Eric Sevareid was from
Minnesota, possibly from here in the Twin Cities. Eric Sevareid's law is
fundamental and basic to all of our planning, yet we never hear it mentioned by
planners. This law should be part of every engineering curriculum and every
planning curriculum in the country.
Let's look at one of the road widening issues recently in Colorado. The governor and the department of transportation want to speed up the widening of i-25 from (I believe) 6 lanes to 8 lanes. That is a 33% increase in capacity. The project will be done in something like 7 to 12 years. If we take a dozen years as our period of time, then 2% annual growth gives an increase of 27% in 12 years, 3% gives an increase of 43%, and 4% gives an increase of 62% in 12 years. So if the population growth rate in the area served by i-25, continues at its current rate of over 2% annually, a 33% increase in highway capacity will be consumed in something like a dozen years.
So, no matter how you cut it, the added capacity on i-25 will be completely filled about the time the construction is completed and the only thing that will have been achieved by seven painful years of construction will be the enlargement of the traffic jams by about 33%.
When confronted with this fact, our governor simply said that when we
complete the widening, things will be better than they would be if the widening
was not done. What he is asserting is that enlarging traffic jams by 33% is an
improvement! Unfortunately this kind of thinking is common among politicians.
If we are going to puncture some of the myths surrounding highways we must look at some rough ball-park cost figures. Suppose a road project will add one lane each direction for 20 miles for $400,000,000 dollars, what is the cost per added car that is accommodated during the critical rush hours? You have to do arithmetic like this if you want to understand how we are being taken for a ride in the construction of new highways.
We are talking about construction costs of about $10 million per lane mile for high- quality interstate highways, with all of the urban adjustments that have to be made in order to accommodate the highway expansion. The cost could be larger than this.
If everything is working perfectly you can accommodate about 2000 cars per lane each hour. If the rush hour is 2.5 hours, then one can accommodate about 5000 cars inbound in one lane. If the outbound lane is also full each rush hour, we have another 5000 cars, for a total maximum of 10,000 cars accommodated by this construction during each critical rush hour, morning and evening.
If you spend $400,000,000 to accommodate the rush hour traffic of an additional 10,000 cars, you are spending, on the average, $40,000 public dollars per car accommodated during the rush hour. This is more than the cost of the average car. If there are an average of 1.2 persons per car, we are spending $33,000 of public funds for each person who commutes regularly by private car. Is this a wise and prudent expenditure of public funds?
Time saving from added highway lanes
The talking point of the promoters is that the added lanes will save time for commuters each day. This needs to be examined. Suppose that the average delay each commuter experiences each day due to this construction is 5 minutes per trip throughout the seven years of construction. If the completed construction will shave 5 minutes off of the pre-construction commute time, then it will take another seven years for the time saved by the new construction to equal the time lost during the seven years of construction. Only after 14 years from the start of construction will the driver find that the time saved as a result of the construction is equal to the total of all of the time lost during the seven years of construction.
But with continued population growth, it is probable that the improved highway will be bumper-to-bumper shortly after it is opened, so that the advertised time saving promised for the new construction will be illusory, and the commuter will never gain back the total time that was lost during the long period of construction.
The promise that the highway widening will produce the benefit of a reduction of commuting time is based on the improbable assumption of zero population growth. Population growth destroys the freedoms of our automobile-based system of commuting.
After seven years of heavy use, the improved highway will probably be in need of major repairs, which will mean more costs for the taxpayers and more delays for commuters. No one seems to look at highway projects in this way.
Journalists are often great at digging out facts and figures in other reporting situations. Why don't journalists do more to dig out facts such as these?
Widening neighborhood streets when the proposal is to widen a street through a neighborhood we have a similar problem. If a street is not wide enough to handle today's demand, drivers will find alternate routes through other parallel neighborhood streets. This is sort of a diffusion process. So when the central street is widened, there is a rush of drivers to get off of the parallel streets and to get onto the newly widened street. As a consequence, it can be expected that the widened Quebec street in East Denver will be pretty much filled to capacity the first month the widened street is opened, because people will leave the parallel streets for the widened Quebec street. Then, as traffic continues to grow, the widened Quebec will fill up and excess traffic will once again start diffusing through parallel streets. Then the traditional planners will cite the crowded Quebec street as the problem so that they may propose yet another widening of Quebec street as the solution to the problem.
You can see the process continuing without end as long as population growth continues. This brings us to another fundamental observation:
We hear about "shortages" of water and other resources; but as Garrett Hardin points out, we never hear about "longages" of people.
We know that journalists probably understand that these problems are due to population growth. Why isn't more written to educate readers and viewers about the real cause of all of these problems?
Creating jobs a major myth is the assertion made repeatedly by all manner of community leaders that one of their prime responsibilities is to create jobs. What these leaders fail to realize is that creating jobs increases the number of people out of work. This sounds paradoxical until one makes a simple examination of the way the system works.
Suppose the equilibrium unemployment rate in a community is 5%. A company builds a factory in the community, hires people, and the unemployment rate drops to, say, 3%. This low unemployment rate causes people to move into the community to restore the equilibrium 5% unemployment rate. But this is now 5% of a larger population. The population has grown and more people are out of work than before. Indeed, one can say that for every 100 new jobs that are created in a community, roughly 3 to 5 new unemployed people are created in the community.
Widening neighborhood streets to accommodate through traffic is a growing manifestation of the tyranny of the majority. The legal process of eminent domain was originally designed to prevent a tyranny of the minority, but more and more it is used to flaunt the tyranny of the majority. In earlier days eminent domain could be used to prevent a single property owner from causing inconvenience for the entire community. But today, eminent domain is used frequently to allow the majority to impose its will on entire neighborhoods.
Indeed today, the construction of arteries of transportation is a favorite mode encouraging population growth through the conquest and subjugation of indigenous populations, just as it was 200 years ago. Here's how it has worked. In the settling of the American west, the Native Americans stood in the way of the growing Anglo population, and hence the Native Americans had to be destroyed. A major tool for the destruction of the Native Americans and the natural systems of their society was the building of railroads. Railroads brought in settlers whose farming, ranching and commerce destroyed the open habitat on which the ways of life of the buffalo and the Native Americans were based. The killing of the buffalo doomed the Native Americans because the buffalo were central to the Native American society and economy.
We should note that the Native Americans had a society that was difficult, but, by lasting for many generations, it had proven that it was sustainable. The tough but sustainable society of the Native Americans was based on natural systems which have now been destroyed and which have been replaced with our society which is soft and unsustainable.
The leaders of our unsustainable society talk earnestly about making our society sustainable, but all of the actions of these leaders are those that either promote population growth or avoid identifying population growth as the source of the problems. Thus the actions of these leaders are making our society less and less sustainable.
"Sustainability" is a popular contemporary concept. We need to know the first law of sustainability: population growth and/or growth of the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.
How many of the experts on sustainability are honest enough to tell their listeners and their readers that stopping population growth is a necessary condition for sustainability?
Displacement of Native Americans when the Native Americans were faced with the ultimatum of the Anglos to yield their lands to the conquerors, they could: 1.) leave for other pastures which may or may not have been greener, 2.) stay to fight, and be destroyed, or 3.) they could go to a reservation.
These are roughly the same options neighborhood people have today as the street pavers come to widen our neighborhood streets to accommodate more traffic that is the consequence of population growth. One can: 1.) sell out and move somewhere else, 2.) stay and fight, and generally lose, or 3.) go to a retirement home.
The conquest of the west continues today. Two hundred years ago it was the Europeans, with their wealth and all that the wealth could buy, who moved in, built railroads, etc., and displaced the Native Americans. The Native Americans lost that fight and their lands because they had fewer resources and much less wealth than the conquering Europeans. Today the Native Americans have been banished to reservations where they are out of sight and forgotten.
But the descendants of the original conquerors are now, in many instances, being displaced by yet a second wave of conquerors. Many of these descendants have modest resources. The new conquerors are the wealthy "dot com" folks who come to attractive towns and bid up the price of housing. As the value of houses increases, the taxes on the houses also increases. Folks on fixed incomes find it harder and harder to pay the escalating taxes. They can't compete, and like the Native Americans before them, they have to move or be destroyed. They usually sell out.
The new owners scrape the old homes off of the land and in their places erect starter palaces. Just as the settlers fenced in the western ranges, the owners of the new palaces erect fences around their gated communities to identify and preserve the property they have taken from those who were previously on the land. For a second time, the old natural systems have been destroyed and have been replaced by new less sustainable systems. All of this displacement of the old and poor by the new and wealthy is completely legal in the framework of our democratic legalsystem.
What drives up home prices?
It is interesting that when people try to enact measures to protect their communities by limiting population growth, they are faced with those who claim loudly and richeously that limiting population growth will drive up the cost of housing for the poor. This argument needs to be examined.
The argument is based on the law of supply & demand. Reduce the supply, and one expects that prices will rise. To understand how the system works we have to examine the "demand" side of the law. Throughout the country we see heavy advertising by public agencies and chambers of commerce trying to get factories and businesses to move to the advertisers' state or community. Billions of dollars are spend annually on such advertising. More billions in tax breaks and similar expensive considerations are offered to entice companies to move. This drives up the demand. If this advertising were not done, the real estate market would calm down and home prices would not rise so rapidly.
In boulder, the enactment of our growth limitation law had almost zero effect on the speed with which housing prices were rising. They were rising rapidly before the enactment, and they continued to rise at nearly the same rate after the enactment. Yet the $6 million campaign that successfully defeated a statewide growth control amendment in Colorado in the fall of 2000 kept saying over and over that the amendment would cause housing prices to rise and this would hurt poor people. Never mind that there is almost zero evidence for this.
I was recently flying home from the East Coast and on the plane I picked up the October 2, 2000 copy of Forbes magazine to read. In this issue was a 24 page special advertising section, in which all manner of community leaders, starting with the mayor of Denver, are urging readers to pick up and move their factories and businesses to the Denver Front Range area. It just made me ill to read how all of these "leaders" were eager to sell Colorado. They were willing and eager to degrade the quality of life of Colorado's present residents by increasing congestion, pollution, school crowding, taxes, etc., all for their personal profit. The rapacious greed of the Colorado gold rush of 1859 which was so destructive of the natural environment is now reincarnated in the gold rush of 2000. These good people were not spending thousands of dollars to purchase a 24 page advertising section in "Forbes" just to boast of their pride in Colorado. This expenditure was certainly a calculated investment on which they planned to reap giant profits, which ultimately come at the expense of Colorado's residents.
After reading this special advertising section I made a mental note to go to the business school library to make a copy of the section. But low and behold, the section was not in the copy of Forbes that was on the shelf in the business school. It appears that these ads can be targeted by zip code, and that subscribers to Forbes in Colorado received copies of the magazine that did not contain the special advertising section. I had to write to a friend in Eugene, Oregon and ask him if he would go to the library in Eugene and make a copy of this special advertising section for me. He very kindly did, so I now have acopy.
The principal tool of conquest today is planning, and the planners are the foot soldiers of the conquest. If we are going to protect our neighborhoods from the population growth that is completely destructive, we need to understand planning and the way planning works.
First, planning is offered as a tool for the creation of better living through solving problems. Thus planning has the potential for doing good. But the potential and the good are all negated by population growth. To see this, let's examine some typical problems that require planning for their solution.
1.) Problem: inadequate capacity of the municipal water supply.
2.) Problem: Inadequate water distribution system.
3.) Problem: Inadequate sewage treatment facilities.
4.) Problem: Inadequate streets and highways.
plan for enlarged streets and highways.
Note again that every one of these problems, and many more, are caused by
population growth. The important point to remember is, that if left unsolved,
these problems would tend to limit population size, but when solved they
permit population growth to continue.
To understand this, we note that if a solution is so expensive that a city must sell bonds to finance the solution, then the city is obligated to pay off the bonds on schedule. The bond repayment schedule invariably is based on predicted continued population growth. So if the predicted population growth does not happen, the revenue won't be available to retire the bonds on schedule. So there is a strong financial incentive for the city to promote the growth of its population so that bonds can be paid off on schedule. When this happens, the promoters invariably pat themselves on the back and say to all, "see, we were correct when we predicted the growth. Now we will need an even bigger bond issue to fund the next increment of infrastructure that is needed to accommodate the next increment of growth that we are predicting."
Thus the planners and promoters work together to make things bigger andworse.
1.) Essentially all problems are caused by population growth.
Here is a case where I think President Ronald Reagan was right. He believed
that the federal government should not be making grants to cities for human
services, public health, public infrastructure, transportation, etc. His belief
was based on his philosophy of government. What we can see is another basis for
this belief. These federal grants are simply subsidies for growth. The
availability of these subsidies disconnects local officials from the
consequences of their local actions, and thus rewards local officials for
actions that would otherwise be regarded as irresponsible, or worse.
2.) The growth produces all of the predictable problems of shortcomings of the local infrastructure.
3.) Local resources cannot fund the capital costs of the needed infrastructure, so
4.) Local officials go to their members of congress to get the members to bring home the dollars necessary to bail the locals out of the problems the locals have made for themselves.
This business of bailing out the local communities from the problems of their own making must take up a significant part of the time of members of congress.
When the sewage treatment plant becomes overloaded, city goes to the Fed's
for grants to enlarge the treatment plant.
In another example, the interstate highway system was originally thought of
as a national transportation system for military and commercial uses. But now in
big cities all over the country, the interstate system is a central part of the
internal commuting transportation systems. I-25 in Denver is a prime example.
The city would be in dire difficulty indeed if we didn't have I-25 for our
present load of commuters. But if I-25 had never been built through Denver, we
would not have the present load of commuters. The city could not have made this
expensive construction of I-25 without the availability of federal highway
If the public officials who make the growth decisions had then to go out on their own to find the money for the expansion of the interstate and other public facilities that are made necessary by their planning decisions, they might think twice about their eagerness to promote population growth.
If the healthy economy is so good, why are we asked in each election to vote more funds to relieve the strains on all manner of public services?
The problems, which start as local problems, soon grow into regional problems, and planners and others tell us that we must have regional solutions to the problems. When Quebec street in Denver is two lanes, it affects mainly people in the east Denver vicinity of Quebec street. When Quebec street is four lanes, people from a much wider area of Denver will want to use it and will have a stake in its condition.
The larger the street, the larger is the constituency that depends on it for
commuting, and the less the immediate neighbors will have to say about the
future of their street. Thus a local problem becomes a regional problem. A few
hundred distant commuters may be a majority when you are discussing the future
of a two-lane street, but when it is four or six lanes, the few dozen people of
the neighborhood will be up against many hundreds of people from all over Denver
who have become accustomed to using Quebec street. The local residents will be a
minority that must accept sacrifices dictated by the majority. If the majority
wants to put a superhighway through your neighborhood, you will be outnumbered
and you will have a tough time making your voice heard.
Some cities are recognizing that population growth is destroying the sense of belonging that is essential for the vitality of neighborhoods, and are trying to establish neighborhood associations to preserve some sense of democracy that is being lost as population growth continues.
In one of the most perceptive observations I have seen, Isaac Asimov asserted
"Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation."
We need to remember this.
Let me give an example of the loss of democracy. We moved to boulder in 1950 when the population was 20,000. Today it is approaching 100,000, but we still have nine members of the city council. In 50 years, democracy in boulder has been diluted by a factor of five, which corresponds to a rate of loss of democracy in boulder of about 3.3% per year. This is, of course, exactly the average rate of growth of boulder's population over this period of 50 years.
Let's go back to Quebec street. Suppose the rest of Quebec street is widened to four or six lanes. A busy two-lane street can be intimidating to cross —especially for children and for the elderly. Busy four-lane or six-lane streets can be terrifying. In effect, widening the street divides a coherent and cohesive neighborhood into two separate neighborhoods which can quickly become isolated from one another. Children are at risk if they want to play with friends who happen to live across the widened and now busy street. This is a classic case of divide and conquer.
This is a central part of regional planning. Cohesive neighborhoods that object to street enlargements, are overwhelmed by distant "majorities" and in being overwhelmed they loose their effectiveness when they want to object to their own destruction. This strengthens the role of the regional czars vis-ŕ-vis the strength and clout of neighborhoods.
Tyranny of the majority or of a minority?
When we talk about tyranny of the majority, are we talking about a real majority, or are we talking about a few powerful people and their political allies? These days it appears that the most significant determinant of the development of our cities is not the will of the people, but rather is the will of the promoters who have to convince us that what is good for them is automatically good for us. Money seems to be the current currency of conquest. The current version of the golden rule is: "those with the gold, rule!" These few powerful people are the promoters who are so successful in their advocacy of more population growth. From coast to coast, the news if filled each week with stories of citizens banding to fight against this new development or that new development. Citizens fight pollution and congestion and they fight for less crowded schools. All of these local conflicts are brought on by population growth, yet the promoters incessantly promote more population growth, and they are extremely successful in their promotions.
This leads to another fundamental truth of planning:
The larger the city, or the regional planning entity, the larger is the population of people who will demand speedways through internal neighborhoods.
Bigness vs. Neighborhoods
There are other ways in which the system works to destroy neighborhoods. Big central schools are said to be more efficient than smaller neighborhood schools, but they are so big and so remote for many students as to destroy all sense of neighborhood among students and their parents.
After the terrible tragedy of the shooting at Columbine High School in
Denver, the Boulder newspaper solicited thoughts and opinions on the shooting
from high school students in Boulder.
Our children understand the problem. Why can't grownups understand the
We hear a lot these days about takings laws. If your front yards and homes are consumed by asphalt, you will probably be paid minimally for your loss. On the larger scale, the takings laws require compensation of the property owner if his / her property is down- zoned and thus loses some of its value. When property increases in value because of the growth of the community, the property owner wants to keep all of the profits from that increase. But if the community wants to protect itself from the ravages of growth by downzoning areas, the property owners want to be compensated for the losses. We are eager to win, but we don't want to lose.
I want to argue that if one supports takings laws, one should enlarge the whole concept of "takings," because there are other losses for which we are not compensated, and which should be recognized by takings laws.
Widening Quebec street will create a grand canyon-like division in the neighborhood. The widening will take away and destroy part of this sense of neighborhood. Will the residents on Quebec street be compensated for this taking?
Widening Quebec will take away the moderately quiet situation residents enjoy today and will replace it with much more traffic noise that will disturb the lives of residents. The residents should be compensated for the taking of their peace and quiet.
Widening Quebec will greatly increase the traffic, resulting in more local air pollution. Air pollution can destroy or impair the health of residents. Residents should be compensated for the taking of their health.
Widening Quebec will take away much of the ease with which neighborhood residents presently come and go from their own homes. Will residents be compensated for the loss of freedoms which have been takenaway?
Political leaders and planners who work so closely together to promote population growth may realize that they are destroying a way of life with their thoughtless approval of sprawl. So, to make sprawl more attractive, they coined the term: "smart growth." Very often they advance the preposterous claims that when growth is smart we can protect the natural systems of our environment. Let's look at this assertion.
Smart growth destroys the environment
Dumb growth destroys the environment
Smart growth just destroys the environment with good taste.
It's a little like buying a ticket on the titanic
If you're smart you go first class
If you're dumb, you go steerage,
But in either case, the result is the same.
There is another nice analogy
The natural systems of the environment are a little like a beef animal if you're dumb, you throw the animal into a grinder and get hamburger. If you're smart, you give the animal to a chef and you get a wonderful meal but in either case, you have destroyed the animal.
A recent real estate ad in boulder showed "before" and "after" pictures of an area that had been developed by one of the self-proclaimed environmental builders. The before" picture showed a grubby landscape full of weeds, while the "after" picture showed a beautifully manicured lawn. The beautifully manicured lawn was offered as proof that the environment had been improved by the builder.
Of course the beautifully manicured lawn required fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, large quantities of water, and perpetual maintenance, while the grubby landscape was the natural environment.
This reminds one of the story about the man who was a great gardener. One day he was proudly showing his garden to his pastor, "and see, here I did this, and there I did that" the proud man said. The pastor said, "don't forget, it was not you alone, it was you and the Lord."
The man responded promptly, "you should have seen this place when the Lord had it to himself!" When the Lord has the place to him/herself, then we have a natural environment. When we change the environment, we may not be improving it.
Talk about losing democracy!
I have spoken about the loss of democracy and about how the power of citizens has been transferred to a powerful few. This is illustrated in a story in the Wall Street Journal of September 22, 1999, p. b14. In this story we learn about a battle between developers in Colorado Springs who want to destroy more of the environment by the construction of subdivisions and shopping centers. But they are being opposed by citizens who object to the proposed new construction which will destroy the natural systems the citizens now enjoy. And now I quote:
One of the builders says [that] local officials have allowed community groups to hijack the development process. Neighborhood groups "shouldn't be in control of what happens," he says. "You can't be an elected official and let people determine the law of the land."
Hello! We can't let people determine the law of the land? Population growth is destroying our most treasured societal system, our representative democracy.
So I have tried to present scattered examples of the conflicts that arise because of population growth in order to illustrate the way in which population growth destroys our natural societal systems. Our most treasured societal system is our governance system which is based on the individual. This system is threatened by population growth.
Keynote speech presented at the conference, "Are Human Numbers Threatening Natural Systems?" Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota. November 18, 2000. Conference Sponsored by World Population Balance.
See at < www.WorldPopulationBalance.org/ >.
Please send mail to
email@example.com with questions or comments about this web site. Minnesotans For Sustainability
(MFS) is not
affiliated with any government body, private, or corporate entity.
Copyright © 2002 Minnesotans For Sustainability