Making it safe for progressives to talk about population

Sustainable Population Celebration in Burlington

Originally published in the Burlington Free Press, June 22, 2013


Sustainable Population Celebration in Burlington:

Rally at Oakledge Park addresses need to slow growth and help the planet


Free condoms were available at the Vermonters for Sustainable Population celebrationat Oakledge Park. /MADDIE MCGARVEY/FREE PRESS

To celebrate Vermont’s declining population, about 20 people threw a party Saturday at Burlington’s Oakledge Park.

Someone brought apple cider. Another person brought some free literature. Jerry Karnas, population director at the Center for Biological Diversity, brought a box of condoms. They came packaged in catchy slogans that encouraged people to cut back on unintended pregnancies to give wildlife more room to procreate.

For instance, “Wrap with care, save the polar bear.”

The tongue-in-cheekiness of the gathering belied the dire consequences of overpopulation, domestic and abroad, that the Vermonters for a Sustainable Population had come to address.

Continual population growth, year over year, century over century, is ultimately unsustainable, they noted, given planet Earth’s finite resources and real estate.

And although Vermont’s population fell by 581 people from 2011 to 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state’s “sustainable” population is likely nearer to 450,000 than the current 626,000, said to George Plumb, the group’s secretary and treasurer.

Plumb said the group expects to finish crunching the numbers and send a report to the state’s elected officials within a few weeks.

“We’re writing a study on 11 different indicators, and each indicator will determine the optimal, or sustainable, population size of Vermont,” Plumb said.

The indicators, he said, range from a population’s ecological impact, to that population’s degree of democratic representation, to the numbers needed to support a “steady-state economy.”

“I‘m sure it’s going to be controversial, and people are going to say, ‘Oh you’re nuts, we need to keep on adding more housing,’” Plumb said. “At least we’ll get a figure out there finally on what is a sustainable population size for the state.”

But before you get too excited, consider that in the year Vermont’s population declined by 581 people, New Hampshire, to pick a state, grew by five times that number. Texas grew by 425,417 people.

The United States’ population on the whole, again, according to census estimates, grew by more than 2.3 million people.

Heck, during the four hours spent celebrating the loss of 581 Vermonters Saturday, the U.S. population grew by nearly twice that number, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s World Population Clock. The world population, according to the same clock, grew by more than 34,500 people.

So, even if Vermont achieves a sustainable population of whatever that might be, who cares? On a global scale, the impact would be negligible.

Lisa Sammet, president of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population, suggested Vermont could “be sort of a tiny model for how it can be done.”

“We had the first civil unions law, and we’ve been an environmental leader,” Sammet said. “Why can’t we be the first model of a sustainable state?”

To curb population growth, Sammet said nations should fund and make readily available birth control. She referred to a report conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that suggested roughly half of American pregnancies were unintended.

“Try to help women, and give women the power to choose,” Sammet said. “Give them the opportunity to have family planning. You give them access to birth control, and you help them out economically.”

Mark Powell, vice president of the group, pushed for immigration reform to at least halt the population growth in the United States. He cited a study the Pew Research Center conducted in 2008 that suggested the country’s population would grow to 438 million in 2050, and that immigrants and their descendants would make up 82 percent of that growth.

If the United States gets its house in order, maybe then it can begin telling other countries what to do, he said.

“If the U.S. were to come out and say, ‘Look we realize we over consume, we’re trying to consume less, we also are growing our population very quickly, we’re going to try to do better about that,’” Powell said. “That’s going to be a much better way to go out and offer support in the way of family planning programs, than to say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about how fast we’re growing, you guys have to stop having so many kids.’”

Karnas, of the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Ariz., said he worried a focus on immigration reform would alienate college kids from the cause. He advocated for the building of alliances between groups with interconnected interests like population and climate change.

“This is a long-term structural thing,” Karnas said. “We’re going to have to basically create 50 Vermonts.”

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