Amy Boylan's picture

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  by  Amy Boylan

From the vantage point of my desk, I observe people on the street walking with lunches from nearby restaurants, chatting on their cell phones, and toting packages or shopping bags. These mundane day-to-day activities are done without much thought, as they are part of our regular routines, but what we consume is a feature of our ecological footprint, which is most definitely worth pondering.

Our National Sprawl Study states clearly and concisely:

...All human beings and every American — even those who are conscientious and profess to be environmentally aware — inexorably impose certain demands (or what ecologists call a "load") on the land and resources of the biosphere through consumption and waste generation (including carbon dioxide). The mere act of living with the comforts and conveniences of the modern world necessarily causes environmental impacts, which can be reduced through better technologies and more environmentally enlightened behaviors and virtues, but never entirely eliminated. No amount of wishful thinking or technical wizardry will ever erase our ecological footprint completely..."

While of course living sustainably and utilizing new technologies both play key roles in addressing the issue, assuming we can innovate our way out of environmental destruction is delusional. This is because the resource consumption demands of a growing population continually add an increasing burden that further compounds the problem. In short, many of the gains will be lost simply because there are more people. So while "smart growth" that often calls for dense and transit-oriented living will help mitigate the destruction of open space, as long as we are consuming, there will always be a significant environmental impact.

Our sprawl study explains:

Even if all new population could somehow be added to cities without the cities expanding over any new ground, the additional people would still greatly increase the overall ecological footprint of the cities into rural areas. For example, U.S. residents in 2017 on average used or "consumed" 0.356 acre of developed land per capita, or a little over one-third of an acre per person. This 0.356-acre/resident metric does not include relatively unpopulated rural lands — farmlands (cropland, pasture, and rangeland), forests, reservoirs, mines — that furnish crucial raw materials and products used by every consumer/resident, namely food, fiber, fuels, water, energy, metals, and minerals

Nor does it include the forestlands needed to absorb each American resident's or consumer's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel combustion to produce electricity and propel our vehicles. All of these ecologically productive lands not covered with pavement and buildings, but used indirectly by each and every U.S. resident (and all human consumers), contribute to each average American's per capita ecological footprint. This entails a much larger amount of land, 56 times greater in fact, or approximately 20 global acres (8.0 global hectares) per person, according to the Global Footprint Network."

Our population growth, which is primarily due to Congress's unwillingness to reduce immigration, means ever increasing numbers of ecological footprints are spreading across our landscape. Our footprints are measured in global hectares (gha), which is a unit that puts human activity in the context of an area of biologically productive land and sea over the course of a year. In the United States, each person has a gha of 8.1, and this equates to us running at a deficit of 4.7 gha, which means our footprints are almost twice as much as the actual resources that are available - per person! It defies simple logic to think that adding more people to our country won't affect our consumption patterns or use of natural resources and materials.

We need to elevate the issue of unbounded population growth as an essential component of saving our natural resources and open spaces. In our country, historically high immigration levels are driving this population growth. Our Senators and Representatives who claim to care for the environment need to understand the ripple effects of policies that continue to allow for our country's population to grow to unsustainable levels.

Amy Boylan is the Content Writer for NumbersUSA's Sustainability Initiative

Updated: Thu, May 5th 2022 @ 4:36pm EDT

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