Created: 1995. Updated: 24 September, 1999


Is There a Local Angle In Population Stories?

by Ben Zuckerman

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Ben Zuckerman was a member of a population panel at the Society of Environmental Journalists convention held Sept 16 - 19, 1999 in Los Angeles. His speech to an audience of environmental journalists follows.
Is There a Local Angle In Population Stories?

I'd like to begin with a personal reflection. Very few people are concerned with the population/ environment connection in the United States -- such involvement represents a truly unfilled eco-niche [for journalists] in our society. Because so few are educated or involved [in population/environment issues] -- whether scholars, journalists, or politicians -- it is easy to rise quickly from obscurity to become a national expert. All that is required is some energy -- one must be proactive rather than merely reactive. Thus, any journalist with initiative can quickly make a name for him or herself as an expert on local population/environment matters. How can I be so certain of this? Only three short years ago I was a complete nobody in the population field. Now I am often asked to speak at national meetings such as this one or to write articles about connections between population and the U.S. environment. The same can happen to a concerned journalist.
I recently heard a refreshingly candid talk by a Colorado Congressman who advised a group of us concerned about the population/environment connection not to waste our time arguing long-term issues with members of Congress. They work better in crisis mode. [To me,] a crisis is often a long-term problem not faced soon enough. Population growth is a quintessential long-term issue. Can we command the attention of politicians before our population grows so large that we are in crisis mode?
Here many, including myself, put our hope in the media. A few months ago, Richard Schlosberg, the President and CEO of the Packard Foundation, had this to say in regard to population growth: "Americans may not be very good at dealing with a non-crisis, but if a crisis is to be avoided, the media will have to do its job in bringing the issues before them."
As you know, in our modern culture the media define reality as much by the stories they choose not to cover as by those they do cover. An optimum story involves sex, scandal, violence and celebrity. OJ involved all four. Monicagate involved three of the four. Unfortunately, population usually involves none of these four and thus is only rarely mentioned even in stories about the environment as Dr. Michael Maher has documented in an article published as the cover story for the March 1997 journal Population & Environment, How & Why Journalists Avoid The Population-Environment Connection.
Many journalists interviewed by Dr. Maher felt that population was a global or national issue and thus very difficult to write about. But there are exciting stories close to home in which population plays a dominant role.
As you know, a primary hook that a journalist can use to get the attention of his or her editor and the public is conflict. As U.S. population continues to grow by leaps and by bounds, more and more local environmental and social conflicts are sure to arise. I'll mention a few examples.
One hot story now is urban sprawl vs. so-called "smart-growth". Smart-growth means forcing people to live in high-density cities interweaved with or surrounded by green belts in which little or no development is permitted. Here is a major area of environmental conflict. It does not take a rocket scientist to intuit that a major cause, probably the major cause of sprawl in the U.S., is our rapid population growth. The U.S population has more than doubled in my lifetime. These additional people have to live somewhere and most do not want to be jammed into a metropolis like Manhattan or a Tokyo.
The battle between sprawl and smart-growth being played out today is a lose-lose proposition since it is a choice between the lesser of two evils. There is no such thing as smart-growth despite the pretensions of its proponents, who are often big business interests. Why would business interests support smart growth? Because they see the handwriting on the wall -- all over America people are complaining about inexorable loss of small town atmospheres and pleasant places to live which is being played out against a backdrop of relentless U.S. population growth. Big business, and the media they often control, gain from this growth -- cheap labor and more consumers to buy goods -- so business very much wants to see the growth continue forever.
Why is there no such thing as, so-called, smart growth? Because with smart growth everyone gets crammed into unpleasant, densely crowded places. In addition, even when we are in massive cities, our resource needs extend way beyond them. Where do proponents of smart growth think that the energy, food, water, raw materials for construction of homes and transportation, recreation, etc to support city people are coming from? Supporting the people who live in L.A. takes more land than exists in all of CA. because an individual's ecological footprint is much larger than the space he or she lives on. In addition, most urban being are alienated from the natural world. As we become a more and more urbanized society this alienation can only increase. In L.A. many who live in the inner city have never been to the Pacific Ocean. In a front page story in the L.A. Times on pollution in Mexico City, a park gardener there remarked "I think that the public attitude has gotten worse toward caring for the environment as the city has grown".
By the way, you may be interested to hear that Mr. Ted Turner, a leading media person who is concerned about the environment, said last year, "I maintain that there is no such thing as smart growth".
Remarkably, population growth is usually not mentioned as a major generator of sprawl. For example, the Sierra Club has instituted an anti-sprawl campaign -- there is a new Sierra Club report "the Dark Side of the American Dream". U.S. population growth was not mentioned in early versions of this report. Fortunately, now, some Sierra Club population activists are trying to force the Club to give population growth its proper due as a driving force for sprawl. Exactly what role does population play in urban sprawl? No one knows precisely, and these same Sierra Club activists and a small cadre of other environmentalists are trying now to research and gather together the relevant statistics. Please stay tuned, when the sprawl/population report is finished the results would appear on the EcoFuture website. I hope you will cover the report on the relationship between sprawl and population when it appears.
This same group of Sierra Club population activists is currently putting together a list of experts on population that journalists can call upon for advice when they write stories that might have a population angle. In due course, this list will appear on the same website.
Other organizations that should know better also ignore the fact that population growth generates sprawl. For example, many charitable organizations concerned with the environment have joined together to fund anti-sprawl studies. A substantial article entitled "Stemming the Tide of Sprawl" about this new major charitable initiative appeared earlier this year in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. But the word population never appeared, not even once, in this very long article.
A third and final example, is a recent flyer from the California Futures Network which proudly announces an October 6 conference entitled Striking Gold Through Smart Growth... The participants, which include various environmental groups in an unholy alliance with developers, accept California's projected massive population increases as a God-given certainty and go on from there to discuss band-aid "solutions" to a deep and horrific problem.
[At this point I held up a 90-page Sprawl report that I had picked up on a table in the corridor outside of the meeting room and noted that, in 90 pages, population growth was never mentioned. This report was not from the CFN but rather from some other group I had never heard of.]
Even on those occasions when population growth is mentioned in sprawl related articles the causes of this growth are never considered, much less critically discussed. Population growth is not something that Americans have no control over, like the Sun rising each morning. If we are to take control of our destinies before the U.S. population tops 1 billion people, as in China and now recently in India too (congrats India), and before future families are condemned to having a maximum of one or two kids as in China now, we must ask ourselves what is causing the growth, locally, now. And once we have identified the cause we must ask, what can we do about it?
In the 1950s the primary cause of growth was high fertility. Now it is high immigration levels. There is now a clear and unambiguous connection between sprawl and mass immigration that one never reads about in the press. You may be aware of the bumper stickers that appeared in Oregon some years ago "don't Californicate Oregon". Similar bumper stickers are now appropriate for all of our western states. In various states in various years the major cause of population growth has been migration of people from California. The primary reason why Americans are leaving California is because the rest of the world is moving into California. Since the good people of Oregon elect Congresspeople who virtually always vote in favor of our current massive immigration policies, and since it is these laws which are energizing the mass exodus of Americans from California, then Oregonians have themselves to thank as they are being Californicated.
I would be willing to bet a dollar to a penny, that this obvious connection between a local problem, the Californication of Oregon, and our current immigration laws is never-ever discussed by the news media in that state.
The point of this example, is that a journalist can make a direct connection between local environmental problems such as sprawl and congestion and do so in the context of controversial questions such as "what are the appropriate fertility and immigration levels for the USA that are compatible with a good quality of life and a healthy environment?" I expect that such articles would be read by many, many people and be widely discussed -- i.e., not at all boring.
Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when the media purport to deal with the population/environment connection, the discussion usually gets sidetracked on irrelevant matters. For example, concerning immigration, the environmental issue is numbers of people -- how many people can live in the U.S. without seriously degrading our environment and that of the rest of the world. Questions of whether or not immigrants are nice people or whether immigrants work hard or whether California's Proposition 187 was a good thing are not environmental questions. Such questions may be interesting and worthy of discussion but they are not environmental. Probably many of you were at yesterday's luncheon where Ed Begley said he opposed Prop. 187 and that he thinks that immigrants are nice, hard-working people. His remarks were a red-herring and ignored to the environmental question that was raised from the floor: "How can California's environment survive our enormous immigration-driven population growth?" [See Californians for Population Stabilization.]
As you well know, it often helps to include a direct, local, human connection in your stories. For example, when writing about congestion one can focus on a person whose auto commute now takes 30 minutes rather than the 10 minutes that it took 10 years ago. This is a story of population growth. The congestion and the time for the commute are the same whether everyone is driving Geo Metros or SUvs. -- it's simply a matter of the number of people on the road.
A fascinating, highly controversial, local, population-related issue that you may have heard about recently is free speech. First in California and then in NYC, people have put up billboards that connect, for example, increasing traffic congestion with population growth. Because this growth is now mainly due to immigration, especially in NY and in CA, those who make such connections are slammed in the media and by government officials as xenophobic racists propagating hate speech. In NY, the city government has forced the billboards to come down in clear violation of our constitutional right of free speech. The environment aside, as a journalist, one must be terribly interested in matters such as free speech.
Here, in a nutshell, is a connection between free speech, population, and the environment:
Suppose that one understands that a doubling of US population in the next 50 or so years will be a disaster for our environment, not to mention the effects of yet even more population growth after 2050. And suppose that one also knows that according to studies by both the National Academy of Sciences and the US Census Bureau that most of this population growth will be due to immigration unless our current laws are changed. But if open discussion of massive overimmigration is classified as hate speech and thus something to be outlawed, then how can we ever save our country and its environment? [See The Impact of Recent Immigration on Population Redistributrion Within the United States from the book The Immigration Debate.]
Why is it critical to address this issue now? Because population growth carries with itself a large and unappreciated inertia. China is a striking case in point. Around 1980 as China's population was passing the 1 billion mark, Chinese leaders belatedly instituted the current one child per family policy. Yet in the 20 years since 1980, China's population has grown by 300 million and is projected to increase by another 200-300 million in the next 50 years. I find the addition of a half billion or more people after the introduction of a one child family policy absolutely remarkable and a frightening example of the force of population momentum.
Population is a huge unfilled eco-niche for the enterprising environmental journalist who wishes to write about a really important issue. Furthermore, the journalist who chooses to write about population as something about which we can exercise some degree of control will be doing society an enormous favor because most people are absolutely clueless. Population must get on the everyday table of the person in the street. People must be educated that a future of an overcrowded, unpleasant, unhealthy environment is a choice not an inevitability.

Much of the population problem stems from each new generation growing up surrounded by ecosystems that have already been impoverished by human activities. I'll conclude with a quote from a recent book Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina:
"Ecosystems are like history books with many of the pages ripped out. And when people come along there is no way for them to know what was on those torn-out pages. Their values are not constructed around the abundance that once filled those holes. They accept the blank parts as though they've always been there."

I think that this quote is quite applicable to population growth and the way that it changes our local environments. I hope that you will choose to write about it and most especially how it can be stopped.
Copyright @1999 Ben Zuckerman
Ed.- Ed Glaze



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