We can have an environmentalism that ignores the fundamental causes of environmental problems, including lucrative careers treating overshoot’s many symptoms. Just not a successful environmentalism.
by Leon Kolankiewicz
Veteran population campaigners like me have long lamented the fact that at both the national and international scales, the environmental establishment (Big Green) and climate activists alike have for decades either avoided or disparaged the population issue out of some combination of cowardice, calculation, apathy, ignorance, inconvenience, ideology, political expedience, or hypocrisy.
Unfortunately this domain of deniers is not alone. I hate to say it, but most of my fellow environmental professionals – those who have the formal education and technical training to make a career out of managing or protecting the environment, in the public or the private sector – are pretty much in the same denialist or apathetic camp as the activists.
I have built a career as an environmental professional that now spans several decades, working both for government agencies charged with conservation and management of the environment and natural resources, and as a private contractor to those same agencies, analyzing the potential effects of their proposed projects on the environment. As a consultant to a dozen or more federal agencies, I have helped prepare scores of Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) and Environmental Assessments (EAs) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in the United States. NEPA is sometimes referred to as the “Magna Carta” of American environmental laws. I like to call it the “Look Before You Leap” Act.
Many if not most of the projects (“proposed actions” in NEPA parlance) whose impacts I have helped analyze, predict, and disclose to the public and decision-makers are a direct consequence of human population size or growth. They run the gamut of notoriously environmentally-damaging actions: new water supply dams and reservoirs, flood control projects, coal-fired power plants, electricity transmission lines, wind farms, oil and gas drilling on public lands, new roads or road expansions, gas and water pipelines, even a uranium mine.
The NEPA analyses I have prepared or managed, and many NEPA documents I have reviewed on behalf of agencies with jurisdiction over the decision in question, almost always clearly divulge the population connection. At the beginning of an EIS, in a mandatory section called the “Purpose and Need” of the proposed action, it’s virtually always made quite explicit that the increasing population of, say, water or electricity consumers (i.e., new residents, businesses, or industries) is driving the demand for a new environmentally damaging power plant, or dam and reservoir. Proposed state-of-the-art water or energy conservation and efficiency measures are simply not enough to offset the predicted increase in demand of electricity or water supply as a result of projected population growth.
And yet from what I have observed over the years, the environmental professionals themselves, those who draft these documents, have little or no interest in addressing the “root causes” of increasing human populations – whether from excessive fertility or immigration or both – which imposes an additional burden or “load” on environmental resources. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but I suspect that many in my profession acknowledge that it’s such perpetual growth that keeps them gainfully employed. After all, if there weren’t always new projects in the pipeline – to meet the ever-rising demands of more and more consumers – they (we) might be out of a job or even a career.
Some years back, I was an active member in a state-wide professional organization called the California Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP), whose aim was professional development and improving the quality and accuracy of environmental assessments. We were an eclectic, California-based organization of a thousand or more practicing wildlife and fisheries biologists, foresters, civil and environmental engineers, soil scientists, climatologists, archeologists and paleontologists, cultural resources specialists, environmental planners, geographers, geologists, cartographers and geographic information specialists, experts in such fields as air quality and noise modeling, sociologists and economists, and others of this ilk.
One year, I was president of the Orange County Chapter of AEP and helped organize our annual statewide conference in Newport Beach, in the very heart of the toney seaside community made famous or infamous by “Real Housewives of Orange County.” As keynote speaker, I lined up the distinguished MIT professor Henry W. Kendall, a co-founder and board chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), as well as a Nobel Laureate in Physics.
On behalf of UCS, Professor Kendall had recently spearheaded the “World Scientists Warning to Humanity,” a hard-hitting manifesto on the plight of humanity and the environment, signed by some 1,700 of the leading scientists in the world, including the majority of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in the sciences (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine).
The Warning, published in 1992, started with a declaration that I have since seen repeated many times: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.”
It had a major section focused on population, which started out with this unflinching message:
The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth’s limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.
Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth.
Henry’s keynote address to the AEP conference that year (1994) elaborated on many of these themes, and it was relatively well received. However, I also put together a couple of panel discussions, one of which was focused on population growth as an environmental stressor. I thought it was a timely topic, given California’s status as by far the most populous (and overpopulated) state in the U.S., one in which the number of residents had grown by seven million in the previous decade alone (from 20 to 27 million, a whopping 35% increase), and one in which the environmental impacts of such rampaging growth were blatant.
The two panelists I brought to the table were recognized experts and activists on population growth, with decades of combined experience at the state, national, and international levels. I was anticipating a lively, well-attended session. Instead I got three attendees, out of several hundred in attendance at the conference. What a dud.
It was a slap in the face. But more importantly, it was a vivid illustration of the indifference of my fellow environmental professionals concerning the population issue and what could be done about it. The most charitable explanation is that environmental professionals, who make their living from predicting and then mitigating the impacts of unsustainable human population growth, believe that it is an exogenous, natural phenomenon wholly beyond their control, like the seasons or the tides. Or perhaps they see it an issue freighted by too many controversies, unpleasantness, and career riskiness.
I won’t elaborate on the uncharitable explanations.
Over my long career, this vivid experience stands out, but it is not a one-off. Unfortunately, it’s the norm. Yet as I stated at the outset, environmental professionals are not outliers when it comes to eschewing overpopulation, but all too typical. In fact, the environmental activist establishment is still worse.
Take the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) for example. Today, if you search online for their original (1992) World Scientists Warning to Humanity, you can still find it at the UCS website. But before you ever read the message, you are treated to this woke disclaimer:
UCS is maintaining this page as part of our history. However, we understand that elements of this letter are deeply problematic. Specifically, centering population—with only a cursory nod to the consumption of wealthy nations and the wealthiest people—is a narrative rooted in colonialism and racism, and current-day unjust and inequitable socioeconomic systems.
I used to give UCS-approved talks on climate change, back in the 1990s. Politically correct posturing like this is why I dissociated myself from UCS a quarter-century ago.
I can’t dissociate myself from my chosen career as an environmental professional. But I can lament its refusal to be part of the solution when it comes to overpopulation, rather than merely a passive observer and data collector. More broadly, this unwillingness or apathy when it comes to facing facts and actively engaging with their implications, is symptomatic of humanity’s collective state of denial when it comes to recognizing and responding to limits to growth.
Leon Kolankiewicz is a population activist and veteran environmental scientist and planner with professional experience in the government, non-profit, and consulting sectors. Leon helped write a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement on US Immigration Policy published in 2016.