Population Growth Wreaks Environmental Havoc

by Fred Elbel, Chapter Population Chair

There has been a lot of discussion in the newspapers recently about sprawl, growth and their impact on the future of Colorado and especially the Denver Metro Area. Peter Kostmayer of Zero Population Growth recently commented in a Denver Post article that Colorado's present population of approximately 4 million is projected to double in just 14 years. That means that traffic, congestion and resulting air pollution will roughly double. It also means that the number of back country hikers will double, as well as the demand for water.

This population growth also translates to economic growth, which most view as desirable. Yet such growth cannot go on forever. In simple arithmetic terms, if Colorado's population doubles to 8 million in 14 years and continues growing at the same rate, it will be 16 million in 28 years, 32 million in 56 years, 64 million in 112 years. That's a 16-fold increase in a little over 100 years. That's a lot of people if growth continues. (Granted, much of the current increase is due to in-migration, which is not likely to continue at the same high rate because births and immigration in the rest of the country are not at this high rate. But you get the idea.)

The rule of 70 is a simple way to find out how long it will take your money to double at a simple interest rate. Let's say you invest $1,000 at 5% a year. Divide 70 by five and the answer is 14: Your money will double in 14 years. Now, for a rough comparison, if you compare this to the 14-year doubling of Colorado's population, we must be growing at close to 5% a year. Five percent income growth is good, but 5% population growth gets us in trouble rather quickly.

Population is a causal factor of today's environmental problems. Sierra Club activists deal with these problems on a day-to-day basis. Yet, without stabilizing population growth, environmental problems are only going to increase, perhaps to the point of unmanageability. Sustainable development is one thing. Sustainable growth isn't.