Gov. Phil Scott, in his 2019 budget speech, stressed that he wants to increase Vermont’s population with young people in response to our aging population. However, Vermont is just one of many states with an aging population and we don’t even make the top 10.
Population growth is the direct cause of all the environmental problems and most of the social problems Vermont is now facing. The environmental results have been massive sprawl, traffic congestion, water pollution, land fragmentation, species extinction, destruction of some of our once-pristine mountains, noise and light pollution, and the disappearance of the numerous once-small dairy farms that were replaced by huge industrial farms using inhumane confined feeding operations. And, of course, the growth of Vermont’s population has also resulted in a tremendous increase of our greenhouse gas emissions, which the governor refuses to do anything significant about.
Population growth is also the underlying cause of most of our financial problems. Instead of locally owned businesses, most of them have been replaced by giant out-of-state owned corporations so the revenues leave Vermont, with the result that many of our once-vibrant downtowns, such as Barre, now have a lot of empty stores. Of course, there is no way that, as a result of population growth, the thousands of cars that are now in the parking lots of the suburban malls with their big-box stores could ever find parking in downtown Barre or Montpelier. Ditto all the other cities in Vermont.
And, if population growth is so good for the economy, why has the Vermont population grown from 445,000 in 1970 to 626,000 in 2018, a 40 percent increase, but the poverty rate has stayed the same at about 11-12 percent? And that is not a mere percentage figure, but represents some 75,000 real people, many of them children. At the same time, developers have made fortunes.
Growing the population to solve problems is equivalent to a financial Ponzi scheme. We increase the population now, but what happens when that population gets older? Do we then bring in even more young people? Increasing the population creates ever more destruction to our environment even when it is “smart growth.” All population growth requires more development, in turn resulting in loss of habitat and more pollution and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of increasing the population, we should figure out ways to adjust to the aging population. People are living longer and so, they can be working longer.
Technology and robots will reduce the need for many jobs. But with global warming, people are going to be moving here anyway as “climate refugees,” Indeed, it was recently reported by moving companies that they have been making more moves into Vermont, than out. In fact, the projections are that worldwide, there are going to be 2 billion climate refugees by the end of the century.
Rather than increasing the population, what we should be focusing on is growing more of our own food and generating more of our own renewable energy. As the “food baskets” of the Midwest and Southeast become more arid, those areas are going to produce less food. Let’s revitalize our own agricultural economy and grow most of our own food, as was done back in the early 1900s. As an incentive to grow more food locally, we could reduce taxes on agricultural land, support more co-ops and farmers’ markets, and encourage people to buy at locally owned stores.
Rather than encouraging more people to move here, let’s develop strategies to encourage younger people to stay here and to develop the skills that are needed. Our Vermont college system has one of the highest costs in the nation and needs to be brought down. We should also raise the minimum wage, support paid family leave, provide health care and provide more support services for young people now facing so many problems.
And importantly, we need to rebuild our community social and support structures. Youth organizations like Scouts and 4-H hardly exist anymore. Instead, it is just sports, if even that. For adults, there used to be granges, PTAs, community bands and dancing, dinners and vibrant local stores, but much of all that has disappeared because of population growth and accompanying loss of a sense of community. And perhaps, most important of all as we face more stressful time, we need to build our spiritual communities. There used to be very strong local churches and spiritual organizations, but now many have gone out of existence and others are struggling to survive.
For the sake of our quality of life, protection of our unique Vermont environment and to help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, let us begin a conscious discussion on how to best adjust to an aging population and become a more “sustainable” state. It was great to hear the governor use that term, but it seemed to be just in a feel-good sense. We have to accurately define what we mean by sustainable. For the best definition of that term, go to the home page: www.betternotbiggervt.org/.
George Plumb, of Washington, is a board member of Better (not Bigger) Vermont and the organizer of the 2014 report “What is an Optimal/Sustainable Population for Vermont?”