George Plumb grew up in Massachusetts, but he has been a Vermonter since 1963. Some years ago, after settling in Washington, Vermont, he began wondering: Why did every bucolic place he’d ever lived eventually get so crowded?
The answer was obvious, and in 1990, Plumb, who is now 70, formed the Vermont Earth Institute, which became the Vermont Population Alliance, which became Vermonters for a Sustainable Population, which sometime this week will issue a report that, if it doesn’t quite answer the author’s question, could make population growth a topic of civilized conversation again.
Few people will, in fact, be surprised by the information in Plumb’s report, which he titled “Disappearing Vermont.” It ranges from the provocative (the average temperature across the state has risen almost five degrees since 1970); to the obvious (the acres of developed land in Grand Isle County grew from 2900 in 1970 to more than 6000 in 2003); to the promising (more than two dozen advocacy groups have formed around a commitment to sustainable living since 2000).
And then there are the facts Vermonters live with every day:
• The state has added, roughly, a city the size of Burlington to its population each decade since 1970;
• Between 1970 and 2003, more than 100,000 acres of open land in Vermont have been developed, a 42 percent increase;
• The number of registered vehicles in the state has more than doubled, to about 716,000, and the number of miles driven in the state has nearly tripled, to 7.7 billion.
At the same time, the solutions to these clear and present dangers have always been difficult to articulate, as both history and a 30-minute chat with the author of “Disappearing Vermont” attests.
“This is not a politically correct thing to talk about,” Plumb says. “It gets into issues of politics, religion, abortion and birth control.”
Indeed, imagine a nation that makes sex education available through the public school system. Imagine a nation that gives minors access to contraceptives and that has not only de-stigmatized abortion, but requires public and private health insurance plans to cover it. Imagine a nation that makes “improved methods of fertility control” a national research priority.
Those are just a few of the 70 policy recommendations made 36 years ago by the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, which was signed into existence by Richard Nixon. They’re also some of the first solutions that come to George Plumb’s mind when he talks about population growth.
If Nixon hadn’t been busy obstructing justice and being impeached, he might have been able to draw more attention to what he called “one of the most serious challenges to human destiny.” The 312-page report, released in 1972 by the Rockefeller Commission, pointed out that since 1900, the U.S population had grown from 76 million to nearly 205 million. The reasons were elementary: More Americans were being born than were dying, and more people were coming into the country than were leaving. In the first decade of the 20th century, one in every four new Americans came here from someplace else; by 1970, 20 million more people had moved into the U.S. than had moved out.
In its opening pages, the commission pointed out the obvious: “At some point in the future, the finite earth will not satisfactorily accommodate more human beings — nor will the United States . . . [N]ow is the time to confront the question: “Why more people?”
Bill Ryerson, a renowned expert on population from Shelburne, was on his way to the inaugural United Nations World Population Conference, in Bucharest, when Nixon resigned in August 1974. A delegate to the conference and founder and president of the Population Media Center in Shelburne, Ryerson believes that if it wasn’t for Watergate, Nixon might have made a significant contribution to human affairs. Instead, his obsession with political enemies, culminating in the Watergate prosecution, squandered an opportunity for the world’s most prosperous nation to take action on population growth.
“Nixon had bigger concerns,” Ryerson recalls. “He shelved the report and gave it no attention.”
Subsequent administrations, starting with Gerald Ford’s and continuing right up to George W. Bush’s, have found their own reasons for ignoring the commission. “Ford was preoccupied by the pardon,” Ryerson explains. “Carter just wasn’t interested — he ignored it. Reagan bought into the view that population growth should be celebrated, that it stimulated growth and economic development.”
Ryerson has been trying to ease population pressure on the planet for decades now. These days, he spends much of his time in Africa and Asia producing television programs that encourage family planning.
So, it’s been up to grassroots activists like George Plumb to bear, for the rest of us, the painful and politically incorrect reality that America itself must stop growing.
Plumb admits that neither he nor anyone else knows what a “sustainable” population would be in a state as small as Vermont or a country a large as the United States. He only knows that the nation is well beyond that point and, if Vermonters want to avoid the same fate, they might want to connect population growth to issues such as climate change and the global depletion of energy reserves.
That won’t be easy. Two-thirds of the annual U.S. population growth, according to “Disappearing Vermont,” is currently attributable to legal and illegal immigration, which Plumb suspects is driving more and more people to less-urbanized states like Vermont.
The Rockefeller Commission, in fact, predicted the immigration battles of today, and even suggested how they might be avoided. It did not, however, call for a 700-mile wall along the southern border or suggest allowing local police and sheriff’s deputies to round up undocumented men, women and children. Instead, the commission proposed something along the lines of President Bush’s solution to illegal immigration: civil and criminal prosecution of employers.
Plumb has a simpler idea — restricting permanent immigration to the United States to about 250,000 a year, equal to the number of people who leave the country annually. “The U.S. needs a population policy, but it’s not easy talking about what the immigration level should be,” Plumb says. Nor, he continues, is it easy to talk about “sustainable” population without inducing nightmares among evangelicals, Catholics and civil libertarians. “Population control is a bad term,” Plumb emphasizes. “We’re not advocating that at all.”
Plumb is double-checking his facts this week before scheduling a press conference to announce the release of “Disappearing Vermont.” He plans to post the report on the Vermonters for a Sustainable Population’s website, www.vspop.org, by March 10.
At one point in the conversation, Plumb takes up a pen and a sheet of paper and writes out, I=PAT, a theorem devised in 1971 by the ecologists John R. Holdren and Paul R. Ehrlich. It states that any population’s impact (I) is the factor of its size (P), its affluence (A), and the technological damage brought on by its patterns of consumption (T).
Plumb is clearly impressed by the equation, which simply means that the quality of life in any environment rises as the number of inhabitants of the environment drops. The theory seems to comfort Plumb, who, like most people, is more at ease talking about the past then he is about our ostensible future.
“In 1963, I moved to Susie Wilson Road. It was the country then,” Plumb recalls. “You could walk and snowmobile. People used to trap. You’d come home in the evening and there would be cows in your garden.
“I remember thinking,” he adds, “‘isn’t that wonderful?’”
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I am a historian and have been a member of the Coolidge Foundation since 1972.