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The World Has Grown More Crowded, With a Nod to Wallace Stegner

Outgrowing the EarthI grew up in Longview, Texas – a small northeast Texas town on the Sabine River. It was a sleepy place in the 1950’s – brick streets, a few stoplights, no McDonald’s. People left their homes unlocked and their cars running at the curb while they ran into the store. Gas was 19 cents per gallon.

My parents built their home in 1947, on a lot given them by my grandparents. It was on the “back 40” of what had been my great-grandparents’ farm. Following World War II, the farm was subdivided into large suburban lots for small tract houses.

Since our house was the first in the “neighborhood”, it was an uncrowded place. I spent long hours roaming the fields, exploring the woods, playing in the creek. The street was unpaved. There was no sewer, no “city water.” The mailbox was on the main road, a block away.

I remember the pride we felt when it was clear that our town was growing. The editor of the local newspaper was a booster for the area, and worked hard to attract industry and businesses and jobs.The herringbone-patterned red brick streets downtown were paved over with asphalt. More houses were built in my neighborhood. We watched as the city fathers extended the city limits further and further, finally encompassing my little neighborhood. It was a big day when excavators and workmen dug up our street to lay the pipes for City Water.

All this has been on my mind lately. This so-called progress has been unrelenting, gobbling up farmland and filling empty spaces with cookie-cutter homes, subdivisions, strip malls, big box retailers, apartment complexes and freeways.

I’ve lived in Nashville the past thirty years and the pattern of sprawling growth continues here too. This is how post-World War II expansion has played out all over this country.

So what’s been on my mind is this: the world is a more crowded place today. This is a commonplace – we all know about population growth. But in so many ways, I feel crowded by the press of people, buildings everywhere. Places near my home where one once enjoyed a pleasant vista of forested hills are now views of upscale subdivisions, with McMansions poking up among the trees.

I read once that adding more capacity to freeways doesn’t solve the traffic problem – the extra lanes attract more traffic, so the net result is about the same.

This sounds a bit like an old-guy rant, and maybe it is. I was struck yesterday as I read Philip Fradkin’s interesting biography of Wallace Stegner that people have been saying these things in America for a long time. Stegner helped to found an organization to combat sprawl in what was then rural California – in 1962! It was a lost cause. He was battling unchecked growth in what we now refer to as Silicon Valley.

As I was preparing the introduction to the recommended books on population growth for my website, I found this graph that charted world population from 7000 BC to the present. It is a stark and compelling picture of where we are today. The world’s population quadrupled in the last century – from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6.5+ billion today.

World Population Growth Chart

This graphic makes it starkly real to me. How is it possible for the Earth to sustain this kind of increase in human population? The reality of human population growth underlies all the environmental challenges we are facing. Read my longer essay on the challenges of population growth.

This is obviously a seriously complex issue – which is often not faced head-on in discussions of global warming, environmental degradation, etc. The notion of limiting population growth – though public policy in China and elsewhere – is fraught with all sorts of ethical/moral considerations.

I don’t know the answer – but I’ve found a number of excellent resources that address the population growth dilemma thoughtfully. Below are the ones I like the best:


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