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The Deadly Fallacies of Growth Management

   Much of the debate surrounding growth in Whatcom County today, as well as what we can and must do about it, seems to hinge on a set of beliefs that the Washington state Growth Management Act (GMA) of 1990 requires. These beliefs lead to claims that growth is inevitable, that we need to continue building infrastructure to handle projected growth, and that growth will continue at the levels seen in the 1990s. This latter point is already known to be false, as the rate of growth has decreased in the past few years.

   We often hear from the advocates of growth that growth is not only good--it's actually necessary for prosperity. Questioning this primary assumption is not allowed. Alternatives to growth are not permitted to be planned for, and even exploring the possibility that there might be a need for an alternative to growth is banned from the debate.

   The purpose of the GMA is to keep the harm of unplanned and uncoordinated growth from impacting the quality of life of the state's citizens. Actually, the Washington state GMA requires planning for both development opportunities and constraints. This latter term seems to have been forgotten in the growth debates that tend to focus only on whether we choose the low, medium or high population growth projections.

   Being anti-growth is neither an isolationist nor an exclusionary perspective. Anti-growth, actually a misnomer, is a label that speculators, developers and other growth proponents like to use to misrepresent and discredit the actual goals and values of sustainability advocates and adherents to a steady-state economy--meaning those economies that don't depend on continuous growth for their overall health. Anti-growth, in the context of the GMA, means to constrain and limit physical growth that creates negative long-term consequences to both human life and environmental integrity.

We've Surpassed the Organic Carrying Capacity of Our Region

   The desire to constrain growth is an acceptance of the harsh reality that we have surpassed the organic carrying capacity of the region--that the quality of life in this beautiful area we all love so much is steadily decreasing. We need to be more consciously aware that the only organisms that grow purely for the sake of growth are cancer cells and other invasive species. One of the prime purposes of the GMA is to ward off the known dangers of unplanned and unrestricted growth, as well as to intelligently and fairly formulate policies that will restrain growth from decreasing the quality of life through environmental degradation.

   The GMA's vision is for the development of sustainable solutions to problems with economic development, water quality degradation, infrastructure financing, regional transportation capacity, catastrophic flood and fire damages, loss of natural resource lands, housing affordability and the jobs-to-housing balance. As such, it is a framework for other state statutes and local policies related to land use practices, environmental protection and sustainable development.

   One of the problems with the "growth is positive" mindset is that the true costs of growth are simply not calculated in the discussions about growth management. Growth proponents ignore available evidence which shows that increasing the tax base through sprawl actually increases the net tax burden to communities. The average national cost to communities for farmland and open spaces is $.53 in public services for every tax dollar contributed, while developed urban land requires $1.14 in public services for every tax dollar it generates.

   The fact is we don't need "smart growth." Instead, we need less growth and sustainable long-term policy formulation in order to create a healthy future that exhibits a higher quality of life. This is not an impossible task. We can begin to curb costly growth by not actively encouraging it, which we do by giving taxpayer handouts of subsidies, tax breaks and other incentives to developers. We can also start to require realistically priced impact fees for new development.

Can't Have Our Cake and Develop It, Too

   Because we can't have our cake and develop it, too. Whatcom County, as a region, contains finite resources and about 20 years ago began to exceed its ability to fully provide for all the species that live within its boundaries. So, smart growth gets us to the same place as dumb growth. We just get there via first class. The sprawl may be a little less obtrusive, the farms and open spaces may disappear a little more slowly, but the quality of life for all, and the health of our community, are still greatly diminished.

   I'm going to keep this article from becoming buried in figures and statistics, and talk mainly about the concepts we must be aware of in coming to terms with how we want to work together to co-create a future that works for all of us. This work necessarily includes restoring and sustaining the natural world that we all depend on for our own health and sustenance. It also entails understanding how much of that world we actually need.

One Acre Per Person

   A diet that provides the necessary energy for human health averages out to about one acre per person. According to the Washington State University (WSU) county agricultural extension office, there are 103,600 acres of land in farms in Whatcom County. The Whatcom County population as of 2000 was 166,814. These are a few of the necessary baseline figures we need to keep in mind for the following, which also point to the fact that we are already overdeveloped and overpopulated.

   People tend to jump to the conclusion that we can import the food and other resources we need to continue maintaining our lifestyles, since we can't source them all locally for the current population. However, 20-year growth projections completely ignore what is going to happen to the economy and people's mobility (since the majority of population increase is from in-migration and not births) when the petroleum economy starts its race toward the bottom in the next five to 10 years.

   Harbingers of the coming collapse are already happening with the imminent peak of global oil extraction. While there isn't full agreement on whether we've already passed this pivotal point, or if it's still two to five years out, it seems that it would be much wiser to be safe than sorry, apply the precautionary principle, and start realistically planning for sustainability.

   Another important concept to keep in mind when discussing the amount of growth that Whatcom County can handle is the "ecological footprint." A person's ecological footprint is the measure of the amount of ecological capacity required to support an individual's consumption patterns for food, fibers, energy and waste absorption. The average American uses 24 acres to support his or her current lifestyle. By way of comparison, the average Italian lives within a footprint that is 60 percent smaller (nine acres).

   The landmass of Whatcom County is 1,360,000 acres. This means that Whatcom County can support a population of 56,666 based on the ecological footprint calculations for an average American. If we lived like the average Italian, Whatcom County could support 151,111 people. Remember, Whatcom County's current population is 166,814--ask yourself how we're going to take care of a doubling population that the growth proponents keep insisting they need to start immediately developing for.

Losing Ability to Regenerate Natural Resources

   The next concept important to add to this discussion is "carrying capacity." Carrying capacity is an ecological concept that pertains to the ability of an environment to sustain the resource demands of a species or a community without losing its ability to regenerate the resource.

   Carrying capacity is often calculated using the energetic requirements of a species. Thus, a particular environment might support more lizards than birds of equal body mass. With the human species, lifestyle choices play a major role in calculating what a particular area's carrying capacity might be.

   For humans, we must not only consider individual consumer choices, but also the economic ability of a given population to fulfill those choices. While Whatcom County population grew by 30 percent in the 1990s, the county lost 21,000 acres of farmland, and the average yearly income, in 1999 dollars, fell by almost $4,000 compared to 1971. Does this reflect an increasing quality of life?

   "Sustainability" is another concept crucial to this discussion. A sustainable process is one that maintains its ability without interruption, weakening or loss of valued qualities. Sustainability is also a necessary requirement for a population to remain at or below its environment's carrying capacity.

Sustainable Development

   Sustainable development, then, is that which meets current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability also carries with it a moral conviction that the current generation must pass on our inheritance of natural resources, not necessarily unchanged, but undiminished in potential to meet the needs of future generations.

   The only way we can limit the negative impacts of growth is by stopping it--by simply building sustainability and stability into our management plans. Because, if we plan for growth, that's what we'll get.

   There is a basic law in evolutionary biology that species will expand to fill an ecological niche. What we're seeing in growth-based development is a forced and unnatural expansion of a niche, and the population is expanding to fill it. As long as we keep building, more people will keep coming. If the niche doesn't exist or isn't created, people won't expand to fill it. There are some excellent studies available showing that, historically, increases in production and agriculture drive population growth, not the other way around.

Private Code Word for Developers

   Developers take the word "management" and assume it's a private code word just for them that means they can build more and faster as long as they draw up a set of plans first. Sustainable development, as provided under the GMA, is based on having a healthy economy, clean environment and thriving communities. These are necessary components of growth management. If development doesn't meet these requirements, it isn't sustainable, and thus is not allowed under the GMA. It's up to the developers to prove that any plans they present meet all of the above requirements.

   At this point you may be thinking, "Won't limiting or stopping growth harm the economy?" The concepts above provide some of the reasons we need to develop a comprehensive alternative plan to growth. Another reason is that unrestrained growth, and the increases in production it requires, also contribute to global climate change.

   Research is available on steady-state economies and their economic, human health and environmental benefits. There's also growing evidence that working to decrease global warming will be beneficial to the economy. A petition has been signed by over 2,000 leading economists--including a majority of the American economists who have won Nobel Prizes in economics--stating that acting intelligently to combat climate change would be a boon to the economy.

   We would have to import less oil and could invest in creating local smart energy industries that would have more jobs per unit of expenditure. We have numerous opportunities to save energy and move our energy needs toward cleaner and renewable sources of energy that can both benefit our economy and lower our ecological footprint.

Ethical Population Projection

   It seems to me that the only truly ethical population projection (that takes all available evidence into account) used by any of the local planning departments should reflect a decrease in the population of Whatcom County over the next 20 years. Further evidence for a decrease in growth rates includes trends in global warming which show we could lose up to 25 percent of the forests in the Northwest within the next two decades.

   Other forecasts show worldwide population decreasing within the next 20-50 years due to 80 percent overestimates on oil and natural gas reserves. Remember, fossil-fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides are necessary to sustain forced overproduction of the intensive agriculture necessary to feed the overpopulated world. Current Whatcom County population study figures are based on erroneous assumptions, exclusion of these other pertinent variables, and are thus invalid. I think a very good case can be made for a citizen's lawsuit challenging the figures that assume continued population growth.

   I believe we can actually have a vibrant and thriving economy, as well as growth in quality of life measures, without more pavement or sprawl--or even any new houses on currently undeveloped lots. Residential redevelopment, multi-use zoning, and finding replacement industries in clean and renewable energy, or industries that use low-impact, clean production and zero waste technologies in manufacturing, are all methods we can use to decrease unemployment, increase living wage jobs and increase the quality of life.

Model for a Bright Future

   Bellingham and Whatcom County can serve as a model for how to design and build a bright and sustainable future. We can show the state, and the rest of the world, that we're intelligent enough to cooperatively come together to develop sustainably. We can learn to live in ways that allow all others to live as well.

   The World Bank predicts that by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will suffer from lack of clean and safe drinking water. Water consumption is doubling every 20 years while water sources are rapidly being polluted, depleted, diverted and exploited by corporate interests ranging from industrial agriculture and manufacturing to electricity production and mining. Our government agencies cannot be allowed to retreat from their duties to act decisively to protect the resources on which a healthy and sustainable future depends.

   We have to look at the larger picture, of the interconnected nature of our world and the consequences of our actions within it. There are currently plans, as expressed in the Washington state Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) preferred alternative in the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS), to approve hundreds of acres of clear cutting on the lands within the Nooksack River and Lake Whatcom watersheds. Not only will this negatively impact the ability of our bioregion to ecologically sustain itself, it will exacerbate other trends. It's not just cuts on "potentially unstable" slopes we need to be concerned with.

   As previously stated, we could lose as much as 25 percent of the forests in the Pacific Northwest due to global warming. If we continue to allow logging at the current levels, we will have even less of this life sustaining and water purifying resource available. This combination will be increasingly deadly to all species. Quality of life will no longer be the issue--life itself will be.

"Body Burden"

   The facts speak for themselves. The evidence of the damage that is being caused by overdevelopment cannot be simply overlooked or ignored. Denial, obfuscation or rationalization will not change this. Thus, one further point that bears mentioning is the very personal effect that unrestrained growth in a petrochemical, industrial based society has on the individual. Overdevelopment, and its attendant environmental degradation and toxic discharges, contributes to an individual's "body burden."

   Body burden is a measure of a person's contamination by industrial toxins. Of the 210 chemicals commonly found in consumer products and industrial pollution, it's not uncommon for a health conscious person to find her or his body polluted with over 100 industrial toxins, with elevated levels of arsenic, mercury, PCBs and dioxin. On average, everyone in the U.S. has accumulated 50 or more chemicals linked to cancer, considered toxic to the brain and nervous system, or known to interfere with the hormone, reproductive and immune systems.

   The industrial, agriculture and transportation industries have turned us all into walking toxic waste dumps. We have become unwilling participants in a huge chemical experiment that would not be permitted by the FDA if these chemicals came to us in the form of drugs.

   I'll close with two quick questions. Can we as humans become the first species to use our vaunted intelligence to reverse our course when we discover we have taken the wrong fork in the road? Or will we continue on the fork of fanaticism, which means doubling our speed when we discover we're going the wrong way?


   Background information and further resources on the issues of sustainability and carrying capacity are located at , ecological footprint resources can be found at , and body burden information is available at .

   If you would like to schedule an introductory consultation session or arrange a presentation or workshop for your group, please contact or give Dave or Allison, co-founders of Attraction Retreat, a call at (360) 756-7998.


"You didn't come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here."
Alan Watts


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