We cannot continue to grow in a finite space

November 2, 2017

As we consider the Sussex County Comprehensive Plan, please read what I wrote, and what appeared in The Cape Gazette (Nov. 2007), 10 years ago. It is readily apparent that we must better appreciate the land, open space and natural resources, and the needs of people. As Dr. Seuss wisely conveyed in The Lorax, we simply cannot keep “biggering and biggering” with limited resources and finite space.

As we consider growth and energy in these weeks and try to plan for the future, we hope all of us well appreciate two truths, ones inescapable as gravity itself: that population is central to nearly all societal issues, and that nature and what it provides need to be better understood and appreciated.

We need to understand population growth and its bearing on the land. The land area in Sussex County is fixed, as it is in all of our finite world and, if anything, land mass in the coming years likely will shrink with rising sea level.

In contrast, the population of nearly 200,000 people in Sussex County is growing by about 2 percent yearly (Delaware Population Consortium, 2007; US Census Bureau); at this rate, the population will double in less than 35 years.

Imagine the resource needs and traffic of 400,000: our already congested roads with twice the number of cars (a recent study showed that Americans, in 2005, wasted over $78 billion in time and fuel costs while sitting in traffic [, 9/21/07]), the beach with twice the number of bathers, the boardwalk with twice the number of shoppers.

Indeed, what we’re witnessing in Sussex County occurs throughout the world, where our population of 6.7 billion is expected to double to 12 billion in less than 60 years even with a seemingly benign growth rate of 1.25 (Population Reference Bureau).

In that much of our natural world has been altered by humans, many argue that the human population already has exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity, a thought that may be best illustrated in considering the compromise of time and other resources when 10 people attempt to share an apartment intended for two. Since 1980, population growth has exceeded grain production; the United Nations reports that 1.2 billion of the world’s people are hungry or malnourished. Topsoil is eroding faster than it forms on one-third of the world’s cropland.

Over a billion people suffer chronic water shortage. The Ogallala aquifer, the world’s largest and one made during an ice age thousands of years ago, is being used in the western United States eight to 10 times faster than it is recharged.

Worldwide biodiversity loss is estimated at least three species per day; among other reasons, biodiversity is essential for food (90 percent of our food is developed from wild strains), pharmaceuticals (half of our medicine is derived from naturally occurring plants and animals) and ecosystem services (such as the recycling and purification of water, soil, and air) valued at trillions of dollars per year (Costanza et al, 1997, Nature).

Air and water pollution costs millions of dollars in healthcare and lost productivity; at least
3 million people worldwide die each year from the effects of air pollution (World Health Organization).

The list of assaults goes on and includes a landscape crisscrossed with highways, many of them choked with traffic, near-irrevocable loss of fertile farmland to sprawling housing developments, loss of freedom, wars and other struggles over resources, and an atmosphere which, according to the overwhelming majority of the world’s leading climatologists, now permits more damaging ultraviolet rays and less escaping heat because of the increasing activities of a burgeoning, consumptive population.

Such growth has implications for energy and its consumption; in that we will have twice the energy need in less than 35 years, our wisest plan is to protect ourselves and the remaining landscape by choosing a renewable, nonpolluting energy source like wind.

Though the price might be slightly higher in terms of traditional costs, the cost for wind power is far less once savings are appreciated, that is savings from no air and water pollution, from no mercury and other emitted toxics, from no pollution-related health issues. We are slow to appreciate the value to the world’s ecosystem services, of which wind is a part.

Very simply, we cannot continue to grow in a finite space, and we must take care of the natural world, one on which we all ultimately depend.

To plan for the future, we need to lessen population growth through ways including education, family planning, fair and resolute immigration policy, and the empowerment of women. We need to address other related issues through the likes of ecotourism, local marketing, and all that comes with old-fashioned neighborhoods, with pedestrian- and bike-friendly communities. We must take our children outside, free from the computer and television and other distraction, and immerse them in the intrigue and beauty of the natural world; in so doing, our children will become more aware and appreciative of it. The challenge is pressing, but the solutions are many and include investments and technological improvement to accompany visionary thinking.

Many Native Americans make decisions as to how the outcomes will affect their people seven generations hence.

I suggest we follow this lead, this wise example; no doubt, our grandchildren will be glad we found the moral courage to do what is wisest and right for this and future generations.

Peter K. McLean, Ph.D.

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