The Population Debate

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

Someone once told me a friend had announced he was going to quit fishing in one of Missouri's popular state parks that has trout fishing. "He said it had gotten too crowded." After a pause, the friend added, "That was in 1955."

In 1955, Bennett Spring State Park recorded just under 34,000 anglers. By 1995 that number had grown to 185,504, a six-fold increase. Trout stocked in 1955 totaled 88,242; in 1995 that number stood at 433,540. Only a great advancement in the technology of rearing trout allowed the Conservation Department to keep up with demand.

Missouri's human population in 1955 was about 4 million. In 1995 it was estimated at 5,324,000. For people who enjoy the outdoors, the boom in population comes in the form of other people competing for the same resources-be they trout or wild turkeys. We see pictures of anglers stacked shoulder to shoulder on opening day, or arrive at our favorite conservation area to hunt and find another group ahead of us.

Missouri state government reported in 1996 that the five fastest growing counties between 1990 and 1995 were Stone (31.5 percent), Christian (30.9 percent), Taney (26.2 percent), St. Charles (16.7 percent) and Dallas (15.7 percent). St. Charles County, in the St. Louis metropolitan area, had by far the greatest numerical growth in the state, gaining over 35,000 people. The other counties in the top five were in the Ozarks, either in or around the Springfield metropolitan area.

Pressure for outdoor recreation has quadrupled. In the case of public lands, Missouri has kept pace because the 1/8 of one percent sales tax has allowed the Conservation Department to purchase more recreation and wildlife habitat acres. Still, the public land managed by the Conservation Department totals less than 2 percent of the state's land mass.

In addition to providing land for recreation, the Conservation Department also conserves land to protect wildlife and plant species. As Missouri's population has grown, the amount of some types of wildlife habitat has shrunk. Developed residential areas do not provide homes for prairie chickens or protect fragile caves or springs.

For example, the population density in St. Charles County was 257 people per square mile in 1980. A decade later that density had grown to 380 people per square mile, which meant that more upland fields, timbered acres and other wildlife habitat were converted to suburban lawns or asphalt roads and parking areas.

Is there a population problem, and is it a source of damage to our natural resources? Paul Harrison, author of The Third Revolution-Population, Environment and a Sustainable World, writes that the population of the earth in the past two decades has risen from 3.7 billion in 1970 to 5.9 billion in 1997. Population may grow to 8.5 billion by 2025 and may surpass 10 billion by 2050, a year our own children will experience. "Consumption per person will at least double," Harrison notes. "The impact of our present population and consumption is already too high, but by 2050 it could increase four times."

Ultimately, of course, the whole picture of planet earth as an increasingly crowded place is a story of humans competing for their share of natural resources. Each person born will go on to consume natural resources for his or her lifetime. In a western society these resources may be cheap fuels for automobiles, aluminum to construct jet fighter planes or lumber to build houses. In poor countries like Vietnam or Haiti, the resources may be as simple as vegetables to eat or a basket of charcoal for cooking.

Harrison lists the core facts of overpopulation. "Three factors work directly on the environment: population-the number of people; consumption-the amount each person consumes; technology-which decides how much space and resources are used, and how much waste is produced, to meet consumption needs. These three are never found apart." We use the earth in three ways, he says. We take natural resources from it, we use it for living space, and we use it as a sink for our wastes.

Darryl Hobbs is director of the Center for Social and Economic Data Analysis at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He says much of the growth in Missouri is taking place at the edges of the metro areas and that 65 percent of the population is suburban. Cities are no longer cities he adds, but sprawling metro regions.

As an example he cites the westward development of the St. Louis area, which stretches to Lincoln and Warren counties. The small town of Warrenton now includes an outlet mall. Similar growth is moving east from the edges of the Kansas City metro area.

Hobbs says that in the 1980s growth was slow in Missouri-only 4 percent compared to a national growth rate of 10 percent. "In that decade we had 265,000 more babies born in Missouri than people who died. We should have had an increase of 265,000, but at the same time 65,000 people moved out of the state." Many of these were highly educated people who moved to the east and west coasts, where there was more economic growth.

In the 1980s counties in rural north Missouri lost as much as 20 percent of their population. The state's farm population has now dwindled to 100,000, but only 10,000 of these depend upon farming for their entire income. Most are now part-time farmers. Farms are becoming bigger, and there is a trend now for large commercial farms to rent or lease farmland rather than buy it, a fact that has implications for the conservation of wildlife habitat on rural lands.

Hobbs sees an important change for Missouri in the 1990s. From 1990 to 1993 the state's population increased by 5 percent, while the U.S. population increased by 6 percent, so Missouri is now growing at just about the same rate as the country as a whole-about 1 percent each year. From 1990 to 1996, Hobbs says, 104,000 more people moved into Missouri than moved out. In this decade even some north Missouri counties have gained population because more people are moving in than are moving away. "The population of Missouri has increased by 250,000 in the last six years," Hobbs says.

In just five years, the counties of Stone, Taney and Christian-a region that stretches between Springfield and Branson-have grown 30 percent. Hobbs also cites a high rate of growth in a region that starts at Columbia and moves south through Jefferson City, the Lake of the Ozarks and Springfield.

Some of the growth in both areas can be attributed to retirees who come to Missouri because the cost of living is so much lower. "Housing in Missouri costs only about one-third of what it costs in large cities on the east or west coasts," Hobbs says. Housing is even cheaper in rural areas. Retirees can sell a house for a large sum, move to Missouri and live well on the profits they made on the old house.

What is fueling the growth in the 1990s that Missouri lacked in the 1980s? Hobbs points to a change in the economy. America used to have an economy based on manufacturing, but much of that work has been driven to foreign countries where labor is cheaper. Information, high-tech industries and even entertainment have replaced manufacturing as the heart of the economy.

These new industries can transport their products by telecommunication and can locate their plants based on the cost of living and the quality of life; they don't need to be in the middle of a big city, and they don't need rail or barge transportation at hand.

"That's why Missouri is growing," Hobbs says. The location of pharmaceutical and other technical plants in small Missouri towns is an example of how this is working.

What about the future? "In the next 15 or 20 years the trends going on right now will continue," Hobbs says. "We are going to see more geographical dispersion across Missouri." The increasing size of both big metro areas and smaller towns is going to continue to gobble up farmland and wildlife habitat. Missouri has gained about 400,000 acres of forestland since a survey in 1972, which is good, but the state continues to lose farmland to development.

Loss of farmland and its wildlife habitat seems to be a symptom of suburban growth. In a March 20, 1997, article in the New York Times, Barnaby J. Feder wrote that "It has long been an iron law of the real estate market that if farmland stands in the path of urban expansion, no crop is valuable enough to keep it out of developers hands." The article described the efforts of Pittsford, N.Y., to slow the expansion of nearby Rochester. The city issued $10 million in bonds to buy the development rights to 1200 acres of farmland from seven local farmers.

The article points out that, "By arguing that farms provide more than food and fiber-the list includes environmental benefits, soul-soothing scenery, diversity for the local economy and especially tax savings-advocates of farmland preservation are forging the political ties and financial tools to steer developers' backhoes away from farmland." A graphic with the article shows that 29 percent of the land developed in Missouri between 1982 and 1992 was farmland.

What will happen if the U.S. continues to pave over prime farmland? Farm products make up 15 or 20 percent of the food and goods that the U.S. sells to foreign markets, and the impact might be felt more overseas than in this country. "Some products now produced domestically would become imports," Feder writes, ". . . food prices could climb substantially, and other food-short regions of the world would be politically and economically less stable."

According to the article, simply increasing the density of housing from three houses an acre to six houses, ". . . would save more than 500,000 acres of farmland, protect a million acres from encroachment, add nearly $70 billion to the agricultural economy and save taxpayers $29 billion that would be spent extending sewers and other services to newly developed areas." But with 300 million acres of good farmland and research programs that promise to produce more food on fewer acres, Feder suggests, concern over the loss of this land in the U.S. is slow to build.

A group called the American Farmland Trust says the U.S. is losing farmland at a high rate. The group reported in a news release that, ". . . between 1982 and 1992, 4.3 million acres of prime and unique farmland were overrun, nearly 50 acres every hour of every day." The release also noted that every state in the nation lost high quality land during the period, most frequently to scattered and fragmented urban development like that on the fringes of the St. Louis metropolitan area.

In a report called "Farming on the Edge," AFT went on to note that, ". . . with the U.S. population expected to jump 50 percent by the mid-21st century and high quality farmland projected to shrink 13 percent, the nation could become a net food importer instead of a net food exporter within 60 years." Large portions of the country's fruits, vegetables and dairy goods would be lost, the group said.

AFT suggested every state with threatened farmland should identify the benefits of such lands, and suggested programs like the one in Pittsford to permanently protect them. Ralph Grossi, AFT president, said that "High quality farmlands need to be treated as more than just a holding pattern for future development."

Maryland Governor Parris Glendening has a unique plan that will save open lands. Maryland is designating certain sections of the state as "Smart Growth" areas. Developers who build within these zones will find state funds available for new roads, sewers and schools. If development falls outside the designated zones, local taxpayers will have to pay all of the costs of new public facilities and services. Glendening hopes to stop sprawl, revitalize older developed areas and pump renovation money into existing schools instead of building new ones.

While many of us have a gut feeling that overpopulation and its impact are only a problem in places like Africa and Asia, the population and consumption of developed countries like the U.S. and western Europe is also problematic. Third Revolution author Harrison notes that ". . . the average person in a developed country emits roughly twenty times more water and climate pollutants than their counterpart in the South."

He contends the 57.5 million population growth in northern countries in this decade will pollute the earth far worse than an addition of 911 million people in southern countries. There are problems in both spheres, however. Harrison directly ties deforestation, erosion and decertification of farm land to the population explosion in developing countries.

The third revolution Harrison writes about follows the agricultural and industrial revolutions of our past. The third revolution is just as important as the first two revolutions, he contends. He says it will affect all aspects of our lives and cultures. Ultimately, his third revolution will allow us to live on the earth in a sustainable way. Rather than mining natural resources, we will be using them in a way-and at a rate-that will sustain humanity and the earth far into the future.

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