The ideal population for Vermont is about 500,000, according to a new report by the group Vermonters for a Sustainable Population. If the state’s fertility and death rates continue their long-term trends, we just might get there.
Even though Vermont’s total population of roughly 626,000 has grown by about 59,000 since 1990, fewer births have been recorded almost every year. The death rate, meanwhile, has remained steady, according to the most recent published data from the Department of Health. The data run through 2009.
The moral of the data: More population growth comes from outside the state than from within.
The trend matches that of the nation. According to reporting by USA Today, the American fertility rate has “slipped below replacement levels.” And close to home, Maine’s Office Office of Policy and Management announced in May that the number of deaths in the state had exceeded the number of births.
A similar reversal might not be a bad thing if it were to happen in Vermont, argues a group of authors and citizens who released “What is an Optimum/Sustainable Population for Vermont?” on Oct. 9. The report synthesizes the perspectives of 15 authors, each of whom contributed a chapter on one of 15 indicators employed to arrive at 500,000 Vermonters as an ideal target.
“I think the report takes a holistic look at population and its effect on different areas of our lives. And I think that’s the goal, to get others to take this holistic look, too.”
Heather Davis, co-author of population report
The report acknowledges it would take decades to meet that goal, and it does not propose extreme actions to get there such as building a “moat” around the state, limiting in-migration or involuntary limits on family size. Its broad purpose is more about priorities.
The 15 indicators are heavily rooted in environmental considerations: biodiversity, ecological footprint, environmental health, forest cover, greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy production and water quality made the ranks. Food self-sufficiency, rural living/working landscape and scenic beauty also were factored in, as well as democracy, happiness, quality of life and spiritual connectedness.
A “steady state economy” indicator finishes the list, although it, too, prioritizes ecological resource management.
“Our economy is dependent on the environment, right?” asked George Plumb, rhetorically. Plumb is the executive director of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population, which released the report. He said the group’s goal was to spark a statewide discussion about the urgency of resource complications related to population growth.
Several recommendations were made for action at the individual, municipal, state and national levels: family planning, limits on development, advancing educational opportunities and adoption of the Genuine Progress Indicator among them.
The report aims to calculate “carrying capacity” in order to “estimate the number of people that can live here so that every Vermonter has access to a life of quality that he can afford.” The mission is not new: It was borrowed from a 1973 “Vermont Population Policy Report” by the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
What would be new is if that approach were employed by state and regional planners. Traditionally, planners anticipate population changes in order to manage major aspects of communities, such as education, service delivery and land use.
The opposite approaches mirror a dichotomy in budgeting: Should a government calculate the amount of money it needs in order to provide desired services, and create a tax and fee structure accordingly? Or should appropriations be determined only after a the taxes and fees are established? Likewise, should society identify an optimum population and organize itself to meet that, or do the best it can to deal with the population it creates?
Jackie Cassino is a regional planner with the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission, and is involved with the Vermont Planners Association. She hadn’t heard of the optimum population report, but she was intrigued by it.
“As professional planners, we don’t take opinions in terms of the optimum number of people,” she said. Planners closely monitor trends, however, to assess whether they’re adequately planning, “in terms of both the sheer numbers and also the demographics like age,” she said.
Take households, for example. “We know from hard data that households sizes are shrinking,” Cassino said. Yet the size of the homes those households live in — they are growing. “It’s pretty shocking,” she said.
According to census data, an average single-family house in 2010 was 2,505 square feet — up more than 50 percent from 1975, she said.
“So that’s important in terms of efficient land use,” Cassino said. “People have a right to build homes in whatever style they want. And as our preferences change, the impact is pretty significant.”
Plumb’s passion about population demonstrates such shifting values. He has three children.
“I’m 76 years old,” Plumb said. “That was before I began to realize there’s a population problem. After the third child, it began to dawn on me a little bit.”
Plumb now advocates a “One or None” guideline that would have each man and woman of childbearing age replace himself and herself with only one child, at the most. That’s not to say one biological child per family, he emphasizes, but one per parent.
Vermont’s aging demographic is a major consideration driving economic development strategies to draw younger adults to the state. And it’s a central concern of many demographers.
“They call it the ‘silver tsunami,’” Cassino said.
Plumb calls it a Ponzi scheme. “It doesn’t work. And it’s not true,” he said. If fewer young people are around to share the burden of an aging population, that will also mean fewer children will take up a different set of resources through education and child rearing, he said.
Plumb seems aware that the group’s message and methodologies might not be embraced by all. But the report’s consultant and one of its authors, Heather Davis, is hopeful their work might resuscitate the population awareness of the 1970s. They plan to distribute the report to legislators and libraries around the state.
“I think the report takes … a holistic look at population and its effect on different areas of our lives,” Davis said. “And I think that’s the goal, to get others to take this holistic look, too.”