Last month, we did our small part to break what David Attenborough calls the "bizarre taboo" that prevents an open discussion about the connection between population size and the environment from taking place. Obviously, the number of people in any given space has an impact on the environment of that space. When the first Earth Day took place several decades ago, this wasn't just accepted, it was at the very core of the movement. But we don't talk about it much any more.
EarthX in Dallas is a great place to break the taboo because Texas loses 20,000 acres of open space every two months largely because Texas adds another 8,500 people every week. Texas is a big place but most of the population growth occurs in the urban triangle between Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. Like most cities throughout human civilization, these three Texas towns are developed on or near the richest natural resources that the Lone Star State has to offer. That so many people from within the state, the country and around the world are moving to the urban triangle is a testament to what Texas is doing right. But that growth and development have consequences as natural resources and habitat areas are broken up or developed over completely. There are tradeoffs.
"You should be proud of your state," I told school groups who passed through our booth. "You should also protect it."
That sentiment was often expressed to me by individuals and families who stopped to visit.
"We've got to balance economics and the environment" said one gentleman whose own neighborhood has become less desirable as the increase in traffic (Texas adds 8,095 cars to its roads every week) and congestion has choked off the open space that made it a destination in the first place.
It would be easy for long-term residents to focus on what they had lost, but so many were primarily concerned with what they could save.
When I was a kid in Dallas in 1982, I was the same age as many of the students who came through our booth. Back then, there were 1.6 acres of cropland for every Texan. Those kids today have half of that. "When you're my age," I said, "you'll have 0.6."
"I want more than that!" declared one.
"The question is 'what is our responsibility to the future?'" said a woman standing next to her teenage daughter. Since 1982, Texas has doubled its population. No one I spoke with thought that was sustainable. Their only question was whether they could do something before Texas became a place that people wouldn't want to live in.
A therapist who practices on her 50 acres north of Dallas lamented that Texans were "eating up our resources." Research on human happiness and thriving concludes that we need access to nature. We struggle to fulfill our full potential happiness without it. The therapist's land is an oasis surrounded by exurban development. She has created a sanctuary for animals and just recently rescued her first bull (a "gentle" fellow, she assured me). She could easily sell her land to developers and spend the rest of her life traveling. Instead, she plans on "hiring a team of lawyers" to make sure that she leaves a place for animals and people to enjoy for generations. She hoped her example would inspire others.
"So what can we do about it?" is the very good question that was repeatedly asked. Obviously, not everyone has 50 acres of their own to protect. The first step is to recognize the role that population growth plays. About 70 percent of sprawl nationally is due to population growth. We have become afraid to talk openly about that because doing so inevitably leads to difficult conversations. The answers range from private decisions about how many children to have to state and local zoning laws. At the national level, Congress dictates population growth through immigration policy. That's NumbersUSA's focus. The latest Census data suggests that 95 percent of U.S. population growth between now and 2060 will be a result of immigration policy. Immigration isn't the only driver of U.S. population growth, but it is the main one.
"It's a complicated issue," said one of a group of teens who were there to present their innovative ideas for solar cars. "But we can't put our heads in the sand."
Updated: Thu, May 30th 2019 @ 4:15pm EDT