Growth vs. evolution

We're beginning to hear calls for densification from local leaders. Will San Diego actually learn to stop urban sprawl and grow up?

by Carolyn Chase

espite all the education and progress on contraception since 1968 when most social and technical breakthroughs have been deployed resulting in declining birthrates in some places the number of women still not using family planning is actually greater today than it was 30 years ago. Confronting this makes you much more aware of the scope and scale of human impacts.

The United States is the third most populous nation in the world (after China and India), and the fastest growing industrialized nation. At the moment, somewhat more than half of our national population growth comes from natural increase, and the rest from immigration. This means that even reproducing at a "replacement level," because of the momentum our existing numbers, is pushing our population towards 400 million from its current 269 million (as of 12/97).

Population momentum ripples throughout the global environment and underscores the unsustainability of out-of-control growth and consumption. While major advances begin to solve certain problems, they are being overwhelmed by unsustainable growth:

  • In 1989 the global fish catch peaked at 86 million tons. But it then fell by 7 percent over the next three years. Since 1992 it has hovered at about 80 million tons. The human population has increased by 800 million in the past decade and this means relentless pressures on fisheries. Due to increased technology, all 17 of the world's major fisheries are now fished at or above sustainable levels.
  • Thanks to enforced efficiency standards, the average fuel economy of new U.S. vehicles nearly doubled between 1974 and 1988. But since then, the average fleet efficiency has declined as the American love affair with cars overcomes environmental common sense and drives through political loopholes. Gas guzzling sport utility vehicles and minivans now make up 45 percent of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. Guess what? They are also not required to meet the same efficiency and pollution standards as regular cars.
  • Worldwatch Institute reports that soaring sales of high-wattage "torchiere" floor lamps are wiping out conservation measures and other efficiency improvements in the lighting industry. "World sales of the more efficient compact fluorescent lamps increased eight fold between 1988 and 1997. By providing the same light as old-fashioned incandescent bulbs with one-fourth the electricity, CFLs save money and avert pollution. But since the early 90s, low prices have made the halogen floor lamps popular among U.S. college students and others who live or work in rooms that lack built-in, high-quality lighting. These 40 million halogen lamps are now consuming more electricity than the 280 million CFLs are saving."
  • Worldwatch also reported that in "the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, floor space per person has more than doubled in new single family homes since 1950."


The American way


Americans comprise 5 percent of the world's population, and consume 30 percent of the world's resources. By the time a baby born today in the United States reaches age 75, he will have consumed, on average: 4,000 barrels of oil, 54,000 lbs. of plant matter, 64,000 lbs of animal products, and 43 million gallons of water. He will have produced over 3 million lbs of atmospheric waste, 23 million lbs of liquid waste and 3 million lbs of solid wastes. This is our personal Environmental Impact Statement. The average American's "ecological footprint" (the amount of land is take to support our lifestyle) is 22 acres. Compare that with the "fair earth share" which is 5.5 acres.

What is the possibility that all the world's population can live as Americans do? Zero. Sustainability requires confronting that we are reaching the global limits to provide resources and absorb waste for the that peculiarly 20th century man: Homo Americanus Consumptus.

How do we develop without depleting our natural environments? Ongoing support for better family planning approaches can help. If all pregnancies were intentional, the long-term rate of population growth from all sources would decline by about 12 percent.


Dying of consumption

  Another key part of the problem is that most businesses see environmental solutions as too costly. But this is simply wrong. In Factor Four, Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, Amory and Hunter Lovins and Ernst Von Weizsacker point out, "we are more than ten times better at wasting resources than at using them." This gives us considerable room for improvement. They state:

"A study for the US National Academy of Engineering found that 93 percent of the materials we buy and consume never end up in saleable products at all. Moreover, 80 percent of products are discarded after a single use. yet this wasting disease is curable. The cure comes from the laboratories, workbenches and production lines of skilled scientists and technologists, from the policies and designs of city planners and architects, from the ingenuity of engineers, chemists, and farmers, and form the intelligence of every person. It is based on sound science, good economics and common sense. The cure is using resources efficiently; doing more with less. It is not a question of going backward or 'returning' to prior means. It is the beginning of a new industrial revolution in which we shall achieve dramatic increases in resource productivity.

"Countries engaging in the efficiency revolution become stronger, not weaker, in terms of international competitiveness. the efficiency revolution is bound to become a global trend. those who pioneer the trend will reap the greatest rewards."


They go on to show "practical, often profitable ways to use resources at least four times as efficiently as we do now. Or to put it another way, it means we can accomplish everything we do today as well as now, or better, without only one-quarter of the energy and materials we presently use."

This, combined with increased access to education and family planning and valid, enforced environmental standards and regulations, is the sustainable development path we need to be seeking.


In our nature


Do we value nature enough to protect it and in the process save ourselves? Dr. Peter Raven, world renowned director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens observed: "The world is shared with many others, and is not a series of personal accounts to be drained at will." But we don't live our lives or run our businesses that way, yet. This cultural blind spot must continue to evolve. Evolve or die as the saying goes. But when cities are addicted to growth, sustainability is a tough path to follow.

The main politically incorrect thing you're not supposed to say in San Diego political circles, along with the word "growth," is the word "no." But there it was, before an Earth Day breakfast crowd of more than 130 assembled in the Cruise Ship Terminal downtown, listening to remarks on "Urban Growth/Open Space: San Diego's Future in the Balance."

And it wasn't even an environmentalist bringing it up.

Chris Chambers, Continental Homes, and Building Industry Association past president and panel-sponsor stated: "The issue is not a no-growth issue. You can't say no to growth. The oldest woman in the world died recently and she left 156 people behind her. That's a fact today and that will be a fact tomorrow. the only way to have no growth is to have no births. The Rural Heritage and Watershed Initiative and Jerry Harmon's Building Moratorium are only short term ideas. population is not going away and it has to go somewhere. the only way talk no growth is to talk no births."

Quite a vision. I couldn't help thinking: Yes! Let's talk about stopping population growth. But that's decidedly different from talking "no births." What we need to be doing is distinguishing the developers from the "growers." Development can be the ongoing evolution of something. Growth means the physical increase of something. It is this physical increase that consumes and depletes the environment and threatens our quality of life.

The truth is, beyond some point growth cannot be sustained. Unmanaged growth is the ideology of the cancer cell and we must confront how to deal with both regional and global demographic realities.

Globally, population sustainability and stabilization is an essential step in arresting the destruction of natural resources and ensuring that the needs of people can be met humanely. Thirty-three countries, encompassing 14 percent of global population, now have stable populations, including Japan and most of those in Europe.

John D. Rockefeller III reported from the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future in 1972: "We have looked for and have not found any convincing economic argument for continued population growth. The health of our country does not depend on it, nor does the vitality of business nor the welfare of the average person." On the contrary, the Commission found that: "The stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the nation's ability to solve its problems."


Growth and sprawl


Locally, the growth-mongers grease the wheels of politics as required. But this push also seeks to off-load environmental and community costs as much as possible. New development may not even pay its own way. Poorer areas decline for lack of reinvestment and infrastructure funding. Combine that with Byzantine taxing and subsidies and we are always playing catch-up to deal with growth.

But many average citizens stuck in traffic are waking up to the fact that they can say no to growth. This is how urban sprawl really happens. To protect our low-density, car-dependent designs, people form "NIMBY" alliances to push the growth elsewhere. But where? The 20+ community planning groups chartered in the unincorporated areas of the county recently recommended that the unincorporated population grow 214,000 fewer residents than the county's current General Plan allows and 115,000 fewer people than the San Diego Association of Governments projects in its forecasts. San Diego Planning Commission Chair Mark Steele proclaimed: "If we don't build in the Future Urbanizing Area, it will cause more traffic on I-15, not less."

Steele hopefully put forth the idea that "surely there is no one here in favor of urban sprawl." But surely there was. There were many, in fact. People like and have huge investments in their low-density, car addicted lifestyles. But only one had the temerity to stand up and address it publicly. Fred Schnaubelt rose to the occasion: "I'm in favor of urban sprawl because it's about freedom. All cities are designed to create urban sprawl. height limits, population limits, zoning restrictions these all create urban sprawl. I live in Rancho Bernardo and that is textbook urban sprawl and I love it."

At least someone was willing to tell the truth about it, because he is exactly correct that our current approach to development has been to create urban sprawl. It's the balloon approach: you push in one place and it pops out somewhere else. This dynamic is what has pushed the county to the lead the nation in the number of threatened and endangered species. People push out and nature and farmlands lose. Habitat is destroyed, pollution outputs and demands on the watershed increase.

Quite a few folks were saying another politically-incorrect word: "densification." Steele stated: "Densify in the city and protect the outlying areas." Chambers amazingly noted: "Were it not for Rancho Bernardo, we would not have a place to densify."

Joe Ragusa, Executive Director of the San Diego Regional Technology Alliance provided some balance: "Look who you're competing with and on what basis. If you want hi-tech jobs, certain resources are necessary. As you think about land use, you need to think about what housing and services this kind of worker is looking for. Engineers check out the quality-of-life statistics for an area and these include many of the crunchy granola stuff that people want: walkable communities, acceptable commuting conditions, good schools, easy access to nature/outdoor activities, job clusters, density is okay. San Diego is competing with Portland, Seattle, Austin Texas and Denver for people capital, and these other cities think that way about their land use and planning."

Steele concurred on the common elements for absorbing growth and retaining quality of life without urban sprawl: "Compact communities provide for more sustainable developments by reducing the needs for trips, using less land and supporting a high quality of life. But council members understandably protect their districts from growth without the infrastructure to support it. $300 million has been identified in mid-city alone, the issue is how to pay for it."

How can we finance the infrastructure improvements needed to service more compact and liveable communities and at the same time keep density away from areas that don't want it? There actually was an answer to this: put together an honest, comprehensive and real package along with the bill - so that voters can see what they're getting and paying for.

  Carolyn Chase is Chair of the San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club, Chair of the City of San Diego Waste Management Advisory Board, and a founder of San Diego EarthWorks and the Earth Day Network