The environmental load of 300 million: How heavy?
As the US population rises, environmental problems that were once pushed aside may get worse, experts say.
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Among other things, they're providing literature on the environment to parishioners, providing sermons to pastors, organizing "Earth Day" and other events, and going "green" in their own facilities.Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, state and local governments in many ways have pushed well ahead of Uncle Sam in working to protect an environment from a population that is growing in both numbers and affluence. For example, 10 states have adopted the "Clean Cars Program," to reduce global warming emissions by 64 million tons by 2020.
At last count, 295 mayors (representing some 49 million people) have accepted Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels's "Kyoto challenge," modeled after the Kyoto treaty that the US didn't sign. The goal is to cut carbon-dioxide emissions in their cities to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
"All over the country in one way or another, communities are coming up against the issue of sustainability with their populations and their consumption styles," says Martha Farnsworth Riche, former director of the US Census Bureau.
Of all parts of the country, Portland and the Northwest generally come closest to addressing the issue. Oregon launched formal recycling with its bottle bill in 1971, the nation's first container-deposit law. It was one of the first states (along with Vermont) to enact statewide land-use planning in the early 1970s. Early on, it protected beaches from commercial development. For years, Portland has had model public transit, including a light-rail system that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.
"At its root is a strong appreciation of the place we are among those who've lived here and those who come here," says Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. "Those values get carried forward in public policies with great support of our citizenry and our business community.
"There's just a tremendous desire to try to avoid many of the pitfalls that we've seen other cities find themselves in, and on a more global perspective how to live more lightly on the land," says Commissioner Saltzman, who holds environmental engineering degrees from two universities.
As US laws and American attitudes toward energy and the environment have advanced, some experts argue, efficiency gains have outstripped population growth and consumption.
"The average new house today is about a third larger than the average house in 1970, however the energy consumption is about the same as the smaller house in 1970," says Steven Hayward, author of the 2006 Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, released this summer by the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco and the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "That's from insulation, new appliance standards, and so forth."
New houses may be more efficient, but their environmental impact grows in other ways.
"They use more resources to build and use," says Markham of the Center for Environment and Population. "Also, the average amount of land around houses is growing."
Some observers aren't that worried. "We're a very big country in terms of our land and our expansiveness," says demographer William Frey of the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The people who argue that we're going to run out of energy, that we're going to run out of water, that we're going to run out of other natural resources, overlook the fact that time and again technology has been able to overcome those limitations."
Even so, the US may face a stiff challenge in dealing with the environmental impact of its growing population.
Earlier this year, researchers at Yale and Columbia universities constructed an "environmental performance index" comparing 133 countries on the basis of environmental health, air quality, water resources, biodiversity and habitat, productive natural resources, and sustainable energy. The US ranked 28th. (New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Britain were the top five.) Among 29 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations, the US ranked 23rd.