Where to begin?
Misinformation. Disinformation. Truths. Myths. Same old, same old. Paradigm shift. GMA. OFM. Growth pressures. Population loss. Growth subsidies. Proportionate share.
As NW Citizen publisher John Servais knows, I hate to write. And, if it weren’t for the propaganda piece supporting higher density in Bellingham written by the government affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County (BIAW) and published by the Herald on April 1 (1), I’m sure I wouldn’t be writing now.
As the propaganda piece declares, “Let’s be realistic – no neighborhood wants higher density.”
Which got me to thinking… If no Bellingham neighborhood wants higher density, how does promoting higher density represent the vision that Bellingham residents have for our fair city?
Of course, that’s just one of many questions about population growth that need to be addressed, and it’s not the first. Let’s see:
1) What rate of population growth (or loss) should we really expect?
2) Are the marginal costs of growth (locally, statewide, nationally, and worldwide) now larger than the marginal benefits?
3) Have we miraculously solved the problem of infinite growth on a finite planet?
4) What is our real vision for Bellingham and Whatcom County?
Is it realistic to assume that population will grow forever? If we were planning for a city in Russia, Serbia, Romania, Czech Republic, South Africa, Japan, Germany or Hungary, what growth assumptions would we use - given that every one of these countries actually lost population (i.e. experienced negative growth) in 2011? (2) Will the U.S. and other countries make it on this negative growth list before long?
How do we plan for population growth (or loss) locally given the substantial downward adjustment - minus 72% for 2011-12 and minus 59% for 2012-2013 - to our state’s Net Migration assumptions in the Office of Financial Management’s November 2011 Forecast? (3)
Are these downward trends temporary? Or are they the beginning of a new growth paradigm? Can we continue to rely on the same old, same old?
Costs of Growth
If the assertion about density by the BIAW is correct – that “no neighborhood wants higher density” – why is that so? Do residents who live in these neighborhoods intuitively know something that economists have failed to consider? What are the marginal costs of growth? What do we lose? What are the adverse impacts? Are they greater than what we gain? And exactly what do we gain?
As contrarian economist Herman Daly writes (4):
“Increasing takeover of the ecosystem is the necessary consequence of physical growth of the macroeconomy. This displacement is really a transformation of ecosystem into economy in physical terms… These are basic facts about how the world works. They could plausibly be ignored by economists only as long as the macroeconomy was tiny relative to the ecosystem, and the encroachment of the former into the latter did not constitute a noticeable opportunity cost. But now we live in a full world, no longer in an empty world – that is, a finite ecosystem filled up largely by the economy. Remaining ecosystem services and natural capital are now scarce and their further reduction constitutes a significant opportunity cost of growth.”
Is it possible that Bellingham residents intuitively feel this dynamic? Are we beginning to feel like our neighborhoods are getting full? That the encroachment of density is a real cost? That our ecosystem, which supports life and the enjoyment of it, is threatened by the never-ending build-up of development after development?
And who is paying these costs associated with population growth? How much are developers paying toward the new jail we need in Whatcom County? The libraries needed to satisfy our newcomers? The new museums and art facilities? The new police stations and police cars needed to protect residents from increased crime? The new fire stations and fire trucks? The new roads? The new schools? The new parks?
Is it fair to force existing residents (innocent bystanders) to subsidize the population growth they intuitively recognize brings more costs than benefits?
Infinite Growth / Finite Planet
Please, someone, explain how we can have infinite growth on a planet whose resources and ability to assimilate waste is finite? Perhaps my imagination is just too limited, but all those laws of thermodynamics have some impact, don’t they?
Can we grow larger? To 10 billion perhaps? I dunno. 20 billion? Hmmm. 100 billion? Surely not! At some point, the planet will no longer support a growing population. Is it possible that earth’s residents intuitively understand this dilemma? Is it possible that negative growth rates in Japan, Germany and Russia reflect this understanding? Are we smarter than we look?
For laughs, consider reading Rob Dietz’ farcical article about Milton Mountebank and his Infinite Planet Theory. (4)
A (Real) Vision for Bellingham
In terms of population growth, what do Bellingham residents really want? What is realistic?
If the BIAW is right, and we don’t want higher density, is it appropriate to continue subsidizing population growth?
Why the hell would we do that? And why are our elected officials forcing us to do it?