The Environmental Movement’s Many Missteps Include its Stance on Population Issues

WORCESTER, VERMONT—It’s a very inconvenient truth: The organized environmental movement has been almost totally ineffective at protecting the environment since the mid 1980s.

Co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council and Yale dean James Gustave Speth says when it comes to environmental action, "we have fallen far short."©

Yes, the big groups have been successful at protecting some resources in certain regions—staving off the drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and gaining more wilderness designation in the Green Mountain National Forest are two notable successes—but in terms of protecting the major ecosystems and the general environment, they have largely failed. This is most clearly demonstrated by their failure to energize the public to deal with global warming, which has reached a crisis point. It will now be too late to avoid many of the impacts.

But this is just the tip of the melting iceberg. There are many other environmental crises including loss of species diversity, loss of natural resources like wetlands and forests, and the collapse of ocean fisheries. The list goes on at great length.

As the dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, James Gustave Speth, says in Red Sky at Morning, "My generation is a generation, I fear, of great talkers, overly fond of conferences. On action, however, we have fallen far short. As a result, with the notable exception of international efforts to protect the stratospheric ozone layer, the threatening global trends highlighted a quarter century ago continue to this day."

Many of the newer environmental organizations are doing very good work. Yet they tend to treat the symptoms of environmental degradation instead of the root cause — population growth. The best that can be said about the organized environmental movement since the mid 1980s is that, given the agenda of the right-wing, anti-environmentalism of the past couple of decades, things could have been worse.

Here in Vermont, the worst problem may be sprawl and suburbanization, once limited to our more urban communities, but now affecting nearly every town in Vermont. Life in Vermont feels much more crowded than it did 40 years ago or more.

Our beautiful views and access to recreational land are being lost as shorelines, ridgelines and meadows are developed. Despite millions spent on remediation, Lake Champlain is only marginally cleaner, if at all, because of increased stormwater runoff. Ski areas get more like cities, and now, even tiny East Burke faces the development of some 800 new living units.

Many factors have contributed to our environmental problems, including the myth that we must have continued growth no matter what, a media that has not paid much attention to the environment and our personal consumption patterns. Yet, environmental organizations hold a good deal of the responsibility.There are several reasons for this.

Today, environmentalists are afraid to talk about population control.© Getty Images

The environmental movement has gone from largely a citizen-based activist movement to an organizational movement run on paid staff. While this seems to happen with all citizen movements, it has been particularly harmful to the environmental movement. It has resulted in less passion, less citizen involvement, less creativity and less risk taking. The movement relies on paid lobbyists to do most of the work, and the members are largely limited to signing petitions after receiving an email action alert. With their paid staffs and large budgets, environmental organizations have become businesses, with their business interests sometimes taking precedence over their mission. Environmental groups also often find themselves being roped into legislative and administrative task forces and commissions to "solve" problems, making them part of the bureaucratic "solution" and less able to act independently.

Each environmental organization works with its own limited agenda and pursues only items that it thinks it has a chance of winning. Cooperation among environmental groups is fairly limited. As an example, it took the international (and some would say, radical) Greenpeace to send a staff person to Vermont during the months leading up to the 2006 elections before we finally got some real action dealing with global warming. Vermont environmental organizations knew some 20 years ago that this was likely to be a tremendous environmental issue yet they did nothing. Churches, with all their outward differences, are joining forces through the Vermont Interfaith Action and have hired a staff person to help them identify and work on important issues they can all agree on. Why couldn’t environmental organizations have done the same thing 10 years ago?

The organized environmental movement, with a few exceptions, lacks leaders who are willing to be even the slightest bit outspoken and radical. We need some folks who are a bit radical to call attention to issues, so that the rest of the movement does not seem so extreme. The last time we had a real action in Vermont was when the Hydro Quebec opponents unfurled a banner from the top of a building in Montpelier in the early 1980s to call the attention to the devastating impact the monstrous dams would have on the environment and the Cree and Inuit people.

Finally, and most importantly, environmental organizations have not mentioned population growth on their websites or in their literature as a major cause of our environmental problems. When the modern-day environmental movement began in the 1960s and 1970s concern for the environment and population growth were very closely interconnected and were widely and publicly acknowledged. Many of the nation’s largest environmental groups, had or were considering "population control" as major planks of their environmental platforms for the country.

The Biggest Problem

David Brower, the executive director of the Sierra Club at the time and a leading environmental leader, expressed the consensus of the environmental movement on the subject in 1966 when he said, "We feel you don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy." The first big Earth Day in 1970 had population growth as a central theme. A large coalition of environmental groups in 1970 endorsed a resolution stating that, "population growth is directly involved in the pollution and degradation of our environment—air, water and land—and intensifies physical, psychological, social, political and economic problems to the extent that the well-being of individuals, the stability of society and our very survival are threatened."

The connection between population growth and the environment is perhaps best expressed through what is known as the foundation formula or the environmental impact equation,


What this says is that any environmental impact is the result of three factors; the size of the population, the affluence or wealth of that population and the technology or type of consumption that the population spends its wealth on.

What has happened is that environmental organizations have disregarded the population part of the equation and focused almost entirely on the technology part of the equation, be it driving more fuel-efficient cars or encouraging "smart growth."

While some of the national environmental

organizations acknowledge that population growth is a concern they put almost no resources into addressing this concern. In Vermont, only two of the some 25 environmental organizations have publicly acknowledged that population growth is a contributor to our environmental problems — Vermonters for a Sustainable Population and the Vermont Earth Institute, both of which were founded originally to bring attention to population issues because other environmental organizations were not doing it.

Several environmental authors have written that population size and growth is of major concern including Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, James Kuntstler in The Long Emergency, Sandra Postel in Saving the Planet, Lester Brown in Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and A Civilization in Trouble, James Speth in Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, and Garret Hardin in Our Population Myopia. An environmental folk singer, Jeanie Fitchen, has even written a song about population growth titled, "Changes in the Wind/No More." Why is it that so many well-respected environmentalists can make movies, and write and sing about population growth but our environmental organizations seem tongue-tied when it comes to discussing it?

Why have environmental organizations abandoned dealing with population growth? There are several reasons, including the fact that fertility rates dropped in the 1970s to 1.75, which is below replacement level. Perhaps it appeared to some that population growth would take care of itself. Abortion and contraception entered into politics, becoming hot-button issues. Some of the emphasis shifted to conservation, with people trying to protect what they had rather than dealing with a root cause of why natural resources were being lost.

It also became clear, beginning in the late 1980s, that immigration was the driving force of our population growth, with some 70 to 90 percent of our population growth since 1970 due to historically high immigration levels and the descendents of these immigrants. Environmental leaders did not want to be seen as racist. Finally, funding became an issue, with some donors and foundations threatening loss of funds if an environmental organization talked about population and/or immigration.

Environmental organizations heavily promote "sustainability," as well they should. However, a population of 300 million, growing by approximately four million a year, is not sustainable. Experts say that a truly long-term sustainable population without cheap oil is probably more like 150 to 200 million. The larger the U.S. population grows, the more difficult it is going to be to achieve a sustainable population.

The founders of the modern environmental movement had it right. Population growth is a major cause of our environmental degradation. Action on population growth should be reestablished as a high priority by environmental organizations. Population is a sensitive issue, but it really is time that environmental leaders stopped worrying about offending, gathered their courage, and began alerting everyone to the need to rein back human numbers, humanely and democratically, for the sake of the planet.

CONTACT: Vermonters for a Sustainable Population; Vermont Earth Institute

MARK POWELL is the secretary/treasurer of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population and is writing a book about the politics of population growth.