It’s the numbers that count

June 26, 2009 • Daily Email Recap

Thanks to George Plumb for this editorial, published in the Weekly Planet column of the Rutland Herald. See

George is the Executive Director of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population (VSP). The column was published in several Vermont papers. I am sure that if studies were done in other states and countries the environmental data would show similar trends. The most extensive of the three Vermont studies, Disappearing Vermont?, was done by George, who as a layperson gathered the Vermont data in just a few months. That report may be found on the VSP web site at


The Weekly Planet: It’s the numbers that count
By GEORGE PLUMB – Published: May 31, 2009

Dozens of indicators tell whether or not our environment is healthy. For many people the signs are very personal and local, such as being able to walk in the woods and enjoy the songbirds (which are actually declining in number). For others, the indicators are more scientific and global – climate change and rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the last few years three widely different studies have reported that at both the local and global levels – and everything in between – the Vermont environment is not being protected and, in fact, continues to gradually deteriorate. In “Understanding Vermont,” published by the Vermont Community Foundation, 10 of the 11 environmental indicators were pointing in the wrong direction. In “Disappearing Vermont,” published by Vermonters for a Sustainable Population, 23 of 31 indicators were moving in a negative direction. In “Vermont in Transition,” published by the Council on the Future of Vermont, 12 of 21 indicators were deteriorating.

Arguably the most significant indicator is the amount of land developed, because it also affects other indicators – the loss of farm and forest land, additional greenhouse gas emissions due to heating and the number of vehicle miles traveled, habitat destruction, and storm water runoff. Just between the years 1982 and 2003, the years for which data are available, more than 100,000 acres of land were developed in Vermont.

As noted environmental writer Gus Speth, the outgoing head of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, says in his most recent book “The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability,” “But all in all, today’s environmentalism has not been succeeding. We have been winning battles, including some critical ones, but losing the war.” Time magazine called Speth the “ultimate insider” because he has served on several environmental boards.

There are several reasons the environmental movement has been losing the war. The most important is that environmentalists have been focusing on the symptoms of our environmental problems instead of the causes. As just one example, to solve the problem of land development, environmentalists focus on establishing and strengthening laws and regulations restricting development, which is only a partial solution. However, the underlying cause of land development is our cultural insistence on an ever-growing economy, which includes increasing population growth and consumption of natural resources.

With the U.S. population growing by more than 3 million people per year, any improvements in treating the symptoms – such as tougher regulations, cap and trade, improved conservation and efficiency, and alternative energy development – are going to be cancelled out by the sheer increase in the numbers of people. President Obama’s 30 percent increase in fuel efficiency standards of automobiles will be wiped out when the U.S. population grows by 30 percent in the coming decades.

The environmental community is very fragmented. Most environmental organizations focus only on a few aspects of environmental protection. Some issues, such as landscape beauty, are not being addressed much at all. And these various groups don’t seem to be collaborating in any meaningful way to address the root causes of our environmental problems. If environmental organizations could work together and develop a common platform of positions, policies and programs to make real changes, we would have more hope of solving our environmental crisis.

Before citizens join or support an environmental organization they might want to ask, “Is this organization just dealing with the symptoms or is it also addressing the underlying causes? And what specific long-term policies does it have that will actually lead to a healthy environment?

As Gus Speth says, “But it is time for the environmental community – indeed, everyone – to step outside the system and develop a deeper critique of what is going on.”

George Plumb is the executive director of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population and chairman of the New England Coalition for a Sustainable Population. He can be contacted at

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