Plumb: True sustainability achievable only with population stabilization, even in Vermont

Editor’s note: George Plumb is the executive director of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population and is the author of the 2011 report, "Vermont Environmental Trends: The Population Connection He lives in Washington, Vt.

July 11 is World Population Awareness Day as sponsored by the United Nations. With the world population now over seven billion and well on its way to reaching nine to 10 billion in just a few more decades, we should definitely be aware of the impacts of future population growth on the earth. However, population growth is also a U.S. and Vermont problem. Vermonters should be concerned for the following reasons.


World oil production has peaked and global warming is happening. Without the cheap fossil fuels that now make possible almost all of the food we consume, most of the goods and services we receive and virtually all of our economy, Vermont certainly would not have a sustainable population today.

I estimate that a truly sustainable population size is about two-thirds of the current 626,000, and perhaps even less. This is based on the population size having been only about half of what it is now before cheap fossil fuels enabled our current population growth. Renewable energy will only be able to make up for at the very most three-fourths of our current energy demand and we should maintain our current forest cover as a source of energy, to sequester our carbon and to provide environmental quality.

The average ecological footprint of a U.S. citizen is also about 25 acres, meaning that if we had to depend on our own resources we could accommodate a population of only about 40 percent of our current size.

Quality of life

Vermonters value their rural landscape and small communities. However, that has declined dramatically since the state’s population growth started to rise in the 1960s. Sprawl, traffic congestion, crowded public outdoor recreation spaces, posting of land and real estate prices rising so much that the average Vermonter has difficulty paying for a home, never mind a summer cottage on a lake or a hunting camp as they used to just a few decades ago, have significantly diminished the quality of life for many.

Preserving the environment

According to most scientific data, Vermont’s environment has deteriorated significantly in recent decades. Approximately 200,000 acres of land have been developed (actually in a sense destroyed, because there is no biocapacity left) and Vermont’s forest cover is now in decline for the first time in over a century. For more information on Vermont’s environmental trends one should view the 2008 “Disappearing Vermont” Report and the 2011 Vermont Environmental Trends Report. Both are on the Vermonters for Sustainable Population website.

Population growth is the underlying cause of essentially every one of our environmental problems. It is long past time that we started to deal with the cause of the problems and not just the symptoms, an approach that is clearly not working. At the same time, we must all make a personal effort to purchase more sustainably produced goods and do all that we can to switch to renewable energy.

Social justice

Because Vermont imports almost 100 percent of everything we use and exports nearly 100 percent of our air pollution we create injustice for people living elsewhere as we take and pollute their resources. Vermont also has a surplus of labor in most sectors, and rising population size depresses incomes and thus increases poverty.

We are part of the world

Our population adds to the world’s population and the world’s problems. We can’t say “Oh, we are only a population of 626,000 compared to the world’s seven billion, so our population size doesn’t matter.” Of course it matters, and to not acknowledge this truth is simply not fair.


Connectivity to the natural environment and other people has much to do with what living in Vermont is about whether we practice a formal religion or not. It is our small population size that really makes Vermont different.

Preventing collapse

Several different scientific groups and authors have said that population growth is one of the major challenges facing the earth and that; in fact, we are headed for disaster unless we make major changes in how we do things. Among two of the most recent are the following.

The Global Network of Science Academies (IAP), comprised of 105 national science academies, released a statement on population and consumption, which cites population growth and unsustainable consumption together as two of the greatest challenges facing the world.

An interdisciplinary group of 22 scientists, combining paleontological evidence with ecological modeling, has concluded that the earth appears headed toward catastrophic and irreversible environmental changes. Their report, in the June 7 issue of the distinguished journal Nature, describes an exponentially increasing rate of species extinctions, extreme climate fluctuations and other threats that together risk a level of upheaval not seen since the large-scale extinctions 65 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs.

The time to discuss and act on population growth was 40 years ago

In 1973 the Vermont Natural Resources Council published the Population Policy Report, which is also on the Vermonters for a Sustainable Population website. It stated: “We must determine Vermont’s carrying capacity, then we must estimate the number of people that can live here so that every Vermonter has access to a life of quality and he can afford. That population would be the optimum population and far below the carrying capacity.” That was recognized almost 40 years ago!

Fortunately, thanks to the outstanding work of a group of Vermonters who have organized Gross National Happiness U.S.A., Vermont is now in the process of adding the Genuine Progress Indicator to supplement the Gross Domestic Product. One of the several indicators being proposed relates to the carrying capacity of Vermont.

The Shumlin administration and our Legislature need to be sure to adopt these indicators for the benefit of quality of life and future sustainability of Vermonters.

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