November 11, 2014

The benefits of NIMBYs: Recognizing the limits to growth and population for a healthy bay

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Baltimore at night taken from the international space station

Baltimore at night taken from the international space station

Photo above: Baltimore at night taken from the International Space Station By NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center with Flickr Creative Commons License

By Tom Horton

Bay Journal News Service

“Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure. Who are you to say how many people should live here and enjoy it?”

The question from a fellow panel member came as I spoke on the need for those who would restore the Bay’s health to recognize limits to growth.

Current policies at every level of government and those adopted by environmental organizations imply we can live so greenly in the Chesapeake watershed that it won’t matter how large the human economy and population grow.

Watershed population doubled in 50 years

For the record, the population in the watershed has more than doubled from the 8 million people here when the Bay was healthier in the 1950s. It is expected to triple in the next several decades.

The government’s goal of growing the economy a few percent annually, if met, would mean a 16-fold increase in the next century (divide annual growth rate into 7 to get the doubling time—so 3% growth means double in 23 years, quadruple in 46…).

But who am I, lucky enough to have been born here, to say, in effect, that others keep out? Put that way, it sounds selfish, arrogant, undemocratic. Who appointed me gatekeeper?

But let’s put the question a couple of other ways. The 17-plus million already living in the watershed already need to reduce their environmental impacts by a large and expensive measure to avoid ruining this national treasure, the Chesapeake.

And it’s not clear, after decades of trying, that we can do this. So is it responsible to keep adding more pressure? Can we attract another 8 million people here with zero impact?

And to what ends do we pursue all that growth? What do the millions already here get from it? Do they get better, or just bigger? We ask questions like those about as much as we question gravity.

Myths about growth

Growth needs a better look. One place to start is a book by Maryland native and land use consultant Eben Fodor, “Better, Not Bigger” (New Society Press, 2001).

In a chapter called The 12 Big Myths of Growth, Fodor examines the premises and promises of growth—on taxes, unemployment, affordable housing and economic prosperity.

For the first three there is simply no correlation with how fast an area is growing. Most growth costs more in services than it brings in revenue. Jobs created by growth tend to be filled with new people moving in and don’t lower unemployment. Affordable housing is more complex than just goosing growth, which can bid up land prices and make housing costlier.

For economic prosperity there is a strong correlation with growth — strongly negative, across 100 of the nation’s biggest metropolitan areas. Slow growth areas are more recession-resistant and per capita incomes are higher.

Growth does have beneficiaries. Fodor has a chapter on the Urban Growth Machine: the bankers, developers, land speculators, pavers, surveyors and related interests who do well from rapid growth.

If these interests were a single industry, they’d be bigger than the oil companies or the auto makers. In fact, they act monolithically and effectively to prevent local governments, where the land use power lies, from adopting slow or no-growth policies.

It’s ironic: We have all of these environmental agencies, from the federal Environmental Protection Agency on down, to restrict pollution, while the growth that drives it is actively sought by every level of government.

Thank a NIMBY

One of Fodor’s myths goes to my initial question: “If you don’t like growth, you’re a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard).” Other versions of the myth are “you’ve got yours, now you want to pull up the drawbridge,” and “you just want to be the last one in.”

This goes hand in hand with another myth, that the environment is a “special interest.” But if you like clean air and clean water, strict containment of hazardous wastes and plenty of rockfish in the Bay, thank a “NIMBY.” There’s nothing wrong, Fodor notes, with caring deeply about the quality of life in your community.

And given growth’s poor track record in making most of us better off, where’s the guilt in being “anti,” though pro-community might be more accurate?

A column can’t do justice to a subject complex as growth. Real solutions, for example, won’t come from grinding the current economy to a halt; rather, from intentionally designing an economy not so dependent on growth.

We spend more than a quarter trillion tax dollars a year in the United States on roads, schools, sewers and the like — much of it to accommodate growth, the mindless promotion of which has become a large part of government’s role.
But who am I to suggest there might be better ways to spend it?

Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for the Baltimore Sun and is author of six books about the Chesapeake.