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The People Problem

Humans have encroached into elk habitat in Estes Park, Colo. Photo: David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Officials at Rocky Mountain National Park have a problem. Thanks to a lack of natural predators and paradise-like conditions, the park’s beloved elk population exceeds the park’s capacity. As a result, the animals threaten the ecological balance in a delicate ecosystem. They’re chewing up aspen shoots, destroying songbird habitat and making life difficult for beavers. As park managers see it, it’s time to address and tackle the question — admittedly controversial, decidedly thorny — of how to check a population that’s grown too big.

The scenario of a happy-go-lucky species turned runaway weed represents, in many ways, an admonitory allegory for Colorado’s coming dilemma. In this cautionary tale, substitute Homo sapiens for elk. Then prepare for a heated response. Some say the topic is so inflammatory, so larded in emotional rhetoric, that informed discussion has been stifled.

Count DU geography Professor Paul Sutton among that number. He’s doing his best, however, to raise the topic at every turn. “We talk about carrying capacity for deer, for elk,” he says. “We talk about how many fish can be in an aquarium. Why can’t we talk about it for people?”

By the numbers

Given the population growth rates projected for the state in the next quarter century, Coloradans may want to begin that conversation sooner rather than later. According to U.S. Census Bureau projections, Colorado is on track to add a million more residents by 2015. The population is expected to grow by still another million by 2025, bringing the total number of residents to 6.4 million. Much of that population will gravitate to cities, particularly those in the sprawling Front Range. Many of the mountain resort towns and smaller cities like Durango and Grand Junction are also expected to grow, while most bergs on the plains will be spared the challenges associated with population explosions.

This additional growth comes on top of a decade and a half of steady and sizable population increases. Andrew Goetz, chair of the University’s geography department and a specialist in urban, economic and transportation geography, notes that since 1990, Colorado’s population grew by more than 44 percent, bringing the number of people in the state to 4.75 million, up from 3.3 million in 1990. Today, according to Negative Population Growth, a Virginia-based nonprofit dedicated to curbing U.S. population growth, more people live along the Front Range than lived in the entire state in 1990.

Some of the recent growth can be attributed to birth rates, but most of it came from migration — from Americans relocating and from immigrants, legal and illegal, setting up shop in a new country. Goetz attributes much of the migration to Colorado’s attractive quality of life and dynamic economy. “Colorado is a fantastic place in which to live, and that, fundamentally, is a driving factor for population growth,” he says. Sutton, meanwhile, sums it up this way: “A lot of the rest of the country is full up and too expensive.”

The state’s growth is hardly happening in a vacuum. Most Sun Belt and Western states are bracing for brisk increases, while the country as a whole, whose population exceeded 300 million in 2006, is expected to add 100-plus million people sometime around 2043.

Each of Colorado’s new inhabitants will, by virtue of being human, consume and pollute. They will live in homes that will need to be heated and cooled — by power plants yet to be built. They will flush toilets, take showers, grow lawns and wash their cars. Their waste will need to be treated, their garbage recycled or transported to a landfill. They will require new stores, restaurants, movie theaters, hospitals and schools, which will translate into additional jobs, yes, but also to additional cars and trucks on already clogged highways. If only half of them have cars, that’s 1 million additional vehicles stalled in a 2025 traffic jam.

By virtue of the fact that they are living the American dream, Goetz explains, these new Coloradans will have a greater impact on the environment than their counterparts in, say, Europe or Japan. “We tend to have a disproportionately negative impact on the environment,” Goetz says, noting that Americans drive more, use more electricity and live in bigger houses that consume more open space. “Europe is also pretty highly developed, but their resource consumption on a per capita basis tends to be less than ours.”

Given Colorado’s tradition of environmental stewardship, given Coloradans’ reverence for open spaces and an unencumbered lifestyle, Sutton hopes that people may finally be ready for the conversation they’ve postponed. If Coloradans want to preserve the lifestyle and landscape they love, it may indeed be time to talk about carrying capacity and better ways of accommodating new residents.

Nearing capacity

Does adding 2 million more people to Colorado’s towns and cities make sense? Is it desirable?

The answers range from a qualified yes to a despairing no. In American cities, population growth typically spurs economic activity. It adds to the tax base and the pool of human capital. But for a population geographer and self-described misanthrope like Sutton, that same growth means an erosion of our environmental and social infrastructure. In other words, one person’s boon is another’s bane. And that’s just one factor that makes computation of carrying capacity complicated and difficult.

As Sutton explains it, any calculation of carrying capacity has to be calibrated to a specified lifestyle and habits of consumption. If the desired lifestyle calls for suburban developments and a car-centered existence, carrying capacity is expressed in one population number. If, instead, the desired lifestyle calls for urban density and mass transit, that number grows.

Carrying capacity also has to allow for technological advances. Colorado’s new energy economy, for example, may mean we can provide power for greater numbers of people without expanding our carbon emissions. At the same time, innovations in emissions technology or automobile design may mean we can drive cleaner cars and enjoy cleaner air.

While carrying capacity can fluctuate to accommodate a mix of lifestyle preferences and consumption levels, it inevitably runs up against a cold and inconvenient truth: “We live on a finite planet — there’s finite land and finite water,” Sutton says.

So far, most population experts and economists have been loathe to calculate Colorado’s carrying capacity, if only because the number could be rendered moot by a different kind of capacity, measured in human ingenuity and resilience. What’s more, Sutton says, it would be impossible to calculate Colorado’s carrying capacity without first identifying the planet’s. Even on that front, demographers, economists and population experts clash.

“It’s been estimated globally bazillions of times,” Sutton says. “And the estimates range from trillions of human beings to hundreds of millions of human beings.” The estimates that Sutton gives credence to fall somewhere between 5 billion and 15 billion.

“We’re there, or we’ll be there within a DU student’s lifetime,” he says.

One indication that the planet may already have reached its carrying capacity is Ecological Debt Day, which is determined by the Global Footprint Network and New Economics Foundation. That’s the day when the human population has consumed the resources the planet produced for the year. To arrive at this date, Global Footprint Network analyzes humanity’s global demand on cropland, pasture, forests and fisheries. It then compares these data with the ability of these ecosystems to generate resources and absorb human wastes.

In 1996, Ecological Debt Day arrived on Nov. 11. In 2007, it arrived on Oct. 6. From Oct. 7 on, consumption was financed by what the Global Footprint Network calls an “ecological credit card.” In other words, we’re devouring our seed crop. Or as Sutton puts it, “We’re drawing on capital rather than living on interest.”

Don’t sprawl on me

Throughout the 1990s, population growth in Colorado translated to ectoplasmic sprawl, with the major metropolitan areas spilling out of their confines and into previously pristine landscapes.

That’s typical of U.S. cities experiencing a growth spurt. Smart Growth America, a coalition of national, state and local organizations working to improve how we plan our metro areas, puts the rate of land expansion at historic highs. From 1982-97, the organization reports, the U.S. population grew by 17 percent while urbanized land grew by 47 percent.

“If I were up in a hot air balloon with you looking over the Front Range,” says Ed Ziegler, a professor at the Sturm College of Law, “and I said population is going to double in 25 years, you might expect the amount of developed urban space to double. But you would be wrong.” All too often in U.S. cities, particularly cities with a tradition of low-density development, space expands at three, four and even six times the rate of population growth.

Here’s what that means on a per-capita basis: According to the Connecticut-based Center for Environment and Population, each American today occupies almost 20 percent more developed land than just two decades ago. That’s counted in terms of retail outlets, schools, hospitals and highways. For every person added to the population, 1.7 acres of undeveloped land will be developed. Translated to a lingo with visual impact, that’s the equivalent of 220 parking spaces per person.

As Ziegler sees it, urban sprawl is aided and abetted by the American emphasis on local — rather than state and regional — planning. “Urban planning right now is part of the problem,” he says. At the local level, zoning laws typically favor low-density development. “They push people out,” he explains. Even in big cities, much of the zoning limits density. People have little choice but to buy houses in the ever-expanding circles around the city center.

The classic example is Boulder, Colo., often celebrated for its rigorous anti-growth policies. But by limiting density within its city limits, Boulder has driven up the price of housing. That, in turn, has spurred growth and sprawl in surrounding municipalities. “Forty thousand people work in Boulder, but their jobs don’t pay enough for them to live there,” Ziegler says. Each day, they drive to Boulder for work, clogging its streets and adding to the state’s already high carbon emissions.

Ziegler’s concern about the ineffectiveness of so much urban planning spurred him to write “American Cities, Urban Collapse, and Environmental Doom: Letter to the Next President,” published in the January 2008 edition of Planning & Environmental Law as part of a series of missives for the country’s new chief executive. In this article, Ziegler urges the next president to promote national policies that curb automobile-dependent, land-hungry development.

As it happens, economic imperatives may help the next president in this task. Sprawl Colorado-style simply isn’t sustainable, especially given the ever-increasing costs associated with road construction and infrastructure development. What’s more, Coloradans habitually approve money for new infrastructure, but they’re much slower to fund its maintenance. “We don’t pay for the life cycle of our infrastructure,” Ziegler says. “We just pay for it once.” That means the state can look forward to an ever-expanding maintenance backlog.

Infrastructure costs are only part of the high price of sprawl. Yes, new subdivisions require roads, utility lines and water treatment facilities. They also require services: hospitals and schools, snow removal and police protection. According to a report by Negative Population Growth, the annual addition of just 10,000 new public school students to the Front Range would require construction of 20 new schools a year. Continued growth also stresses the health care system, particularly since Colorado is increasingly popular as a retirement destination. Factor in new courts, prisons, cemeteries, and the price tag has reached stratospheric levels.

On top of that, sprawl has made the state vulnerable to rising oil prices. “The low-density sprawl we’re talking about can’t go on with the high price of gasoline,” Ziegler says. With gas prices well above $3 a gallon, many Colorado families are diverting funds from other expenditures simply to fill up their tanks and fuel their commutes. Every dollar spent on gasoline is a dollar that isn’t spent on something more productive.

Ziegler even believes that car dependency is making the U.S. and Colorado economies less competitive. The conventional wisdom suggests that the high cost of health care and health benefits renders American firms less competitive than their counterparts in, say, India or China. But American employers face another hurdle: They have to pay their workers enough money to sustain a serious driving habit — a commute from Westminster to the Denver Tech Center, a five-mile drive to the weekend soccer match, the movies and the supermarket. “You have to pay a worker enough so he can travel all over the place in his car,” Ziegler says.

When you do the math, he adds, it turns out that Americans spend 20 to 30 percent of their incomes on automobile-related expenses — everything from gas and maintenance to registration and insurance. That’s more, Ziegler says, than Americans spend on health care. For some, it’s a voluntary expenditure, money channeled to a lifestyle preference. For others, it’s a necessity dictated by urban planning. Without a car, too many Coloradans have nowhere to go.

These economic realities are beginning to register with Americans, who are increasingly interested in high-density development. In fact, Goetz says, “metropolitan areas are faced with a basic choice. They know growth is coming.” Their choice is whether to push the growth out or to focus on containing the population within boundaries and on providing transportation alternatives with minimized impact on the environment.

Metropolitan Denver has opted for the second of these choices — much to Goetz’s delight. “Denver, in going ahead with FasTracks, is making a tremendous statement about the future,” he explains, noting that FasTracks, a voter-approved transit plan, will expand Denver’s existing light-rail service throughout the metropolitan area. Over the next decade, no other American city will build more rail transit than Denver. What’s more, the various cities in the metropolitan area are encouraging transit-oriented development — high-density residential and commercial projects within walking and biking distance of bus stations and light-rail stops. The goal, Goetz says, is to prevent sprawl, preserve open space and reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled.

“We’re still going to see growth taking place in the outskirts,” Goetz explains. “It’s just that that growth is going to be more costly.”

It may also be more costly for Colorado wildlife. Not only has sprawl reduced animal habitat, it has resulted in a phenomenon that conservation biologists call “habitat fragmentation.” This occurs when habitat is bisected or peppered by human development and activity.

According to Defenders of Wildlife, habitat fragmentation can disrupt migration patterns, affect breeding habits (bears, for example, often roam far and wide in search of a mate) and ultimately lead to population declines. Habitat fragmentation may, for example, be responsible for alarming declines in the state’s bighorn sheep population. The culprit? Biologists working on the issue believe that the state mammal may be vulnerable to diseases carried by livestock.

Often, land-use measures taken to preserve habitat only compound the problem. Say a ranch is sold to a developer, who, under pressure to maintain an open landscape, subdivides the land into 35-acre lots. And say that each house brings a dog or two into the picture. “Right away,” Goetz says, “you’re scaring off animals from the land.”

In addition, the expanding human presence leads to more encounters with dangerous animals — think black bears on the front porch, mountain lions on the hiking trail. And in those encounters, Goetz says, the animals ultimately lose.

Professor Robert Hardaway of the Sturm College of Law believes that Coloradans, like every other inhabitant on Planet Earth, would do well to revise a phrase from Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign: “It’s the population, stupid.”

Apply that statement to any environmental quandary, and you have arrived at the crux of the matter. Brown cloud over Denver. Too many people. Dying forests. Too many people. Vanishing species in the Colorado wilderness. Too many people.

“Human beings are the greatest threat to the global environment. And you can look at Colorado as a microcosm of that environment,” Hardaway says.

The author of Population, Law, and the Environment, Hardaway believes that Coloradans and Americans are spending unconscionable sums and way too much time addressing all the wrong issues. They do so because tackling the pertinent issue — population growth — means addressing all sorts of highly charged questions about fertility, family planning and population control.

Thirty years ago, concerns about runaway population growth enjoyed front-and-center coverage in the media. And then the topic went away, though the problem certainly did not. Hardaway and Sutton attribute this to the environmental movement’s reluctance to confront controversy. Too often, they say, the question of checking population growth is associated with wildly unpopular moves like China’s coercive one-child policy or the eugenics practices of Nazi Germany. Still others link the topic to abortion rights and immigration issues — two minefields that only the fearless negotiate.

“I think the idea of fertility control raises the hair on people’s back, like gun control,” Sutton says.

In his many writings on the subject of population growth, Hardaway cites a litany of statistic that should, he believes, raise 6.5 billion sets of eyebrows: “Every one-third of a second, the planet Earth makes room for one additional human being. To provide living space and resources enabling these additional humans to have a decent standard of living, one entire living species is being sacrificed every day, including one vertebrate species every nine months, and nonrenewable forest resources are being destroyed at the rate of 100 acres per minute.”

And that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg. “In his or her lifetime,” Hardaway’s argument continues, “each new human spews an average of 3.2 tons of carbon into the atmosphere and demands 297 giga joules of energy from nonrenewable resources; the individual’s waste products include a share of 355,000 tons of phosphorus dumped into the oceans and 30,000 tons of sulphur and 80,000 tons of carbon monoxide into the air. … When this person dies, the epitaph is written on a monument of garbage and waste
4,000 times his or her body weight.”

A former classmate of Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, Hardaway worries about what he calls the “utter futility” of today’s environmental policies and initiatives. In the face of exponential population growth, the emphasis on reducing consumption — say, the switch from plastic grocery bags to canvas carryalls — is nice enough, but nowhere near enough.

Take the question of water, perhaps the most finite of all Colorado’s resources. Unlike oil or natural gas, we won’t be able to develop alternatives. But to date, Hardaway notes, Colorado has attempted to deal with its water challenges by focusing on consumption. And like so many of our attempts to tackle environmental issues, this one is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. That’s fine for the time being, he says, “but what we’re really doing is sinking under our own weight.”

Writing in a 2003 Rocky Mountain News column — titled “Water Crisis: It’s the population, stupid” — Hardaway challenged a state water policy crippled by the premise that water shortages can be addressed simply by reducing per capita consumption.

“The problem with such a policy is that for every 10 percent reduction in per-capita resource consumption, the number of consumers increases by 20 percent. The long-term consequences of such policies cannot end in anything but catastrophe,” he wrote.

By catastrophe, Hardaway means the next drought. If it’s serious enough, and if population continues to grow at the current pace, stay tuned for draconian restrictions on everything from showers to toilet flushing. Prepare for mass migrations out of the state as whole communities dry up. And prepare for civic tension. Already, water shortages have pitted farmers against city dwellers and one side of the Continental Divide against the other. “When we have a real water shortfall, that is when the proverbial bovine residue hits the fan,” he says.

To many skeptical ears, Hardaway may sound like the boy who cried wolf or the alarmist given to improbable exaggerations.

“The scope of the disaster is bad enough without exaggerating,” he says. “But what you have to remember about the story of the boy who cried wolf and the wolf did not come is that eventually the wolf did come. That’s the moral of that story.”

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