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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

EPA Examines Population Growth

Air Date: Week of

The impact of domestic population growth on the US environment is the focus of a tiny 3-person, 2-year-old office within the EPA. The Future Studies Unit was set up more than 20 years after Congress initially declared population to be a significant factor in environmental policy. The office focuses on possible demographic, technological and economic changes that could affect or result from a surge in US population. Host Steve Curwood talks with the office’s head, David Rejeski.


CURWOOD: Even though the government projects there will be 150 million more Americans in another half century, little has been done to plan for that kind of growth. The issues go far beyond sheer numbers. Where will people live? What kinds of communities will they create? What kind of impact will nearly a half a billion US citizens have on our environment? Government planners have barely begun to address these questions. The effort, such as it is, is being spearheaded by a 2-year-old office of just 3 people tucked away inside the EPA. It's called the Future Studies Unit. David Rejeski heads it. He says the debate over how we'll get to a sustainable future of 400 million is only just beginning.

REJESKI: One of the views is that we, if we simply create more wealth, that we simply buy better technologies and we can clean things up. There are other people that really believe that we need fundamental technological transformations, that we really need a very different energy production system in this country that uses more renewables, and really increases the efficiency of our energy use. The third group actually would tell you that there is a need for, in a sense, social transformation; this gets at the whole issue of whether we want to create regional economies by using local products and local services. I think that that's certainly one thing that needs to be looked at.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering how much trouble we face from this population growth and demographic change. We are at the highest end of industrialized nations of population growth. Doesn't this push us into the category of living dangerously?

REJESKI: You have to define dangerously. I think there are some people who believe that we can, in essence, think our way out of the problem with technologies, and I think that that - I happen to be a great optimist about technologies. But one of the things I think we can count on is that technologies always have unintended effects. And if you just look at the Clean Air Act Amendments, which have mandated about a 2% penetration of electric vehicles in California, those cars presently use about 16 to 18 batteries per car. And if you run the projections out in a very simple way, you end up with about 52 million batteries that you've got to deal with by about 2015. So you may be cleaning up the air, in a sense, but you may be creating a solid waste mess. So this is the kind of thing that you're going to get into, unless you have an integrated approach to technology assessment and environmental assessment. And quite often the two are separated.

CURWOOD: Technology might help. It might hurt us. And I'm wondering if looking at the consumer side of the equation, the consumption of these things, would help us. Do you think so?

REJESKI: Oh, definitely. I think there's a lot to be done in that area. There was an interesting study that was done in Germany about the environmental impacts of a simple cup of yogurt. Strawberries were coming from Poland, the glass from Belgium, the label from the Netherlands. And they came up with a total of about 5,000 miles that trucks had driven on highways around Europe just to assemble the pieces for this one simple product. And every time you pick up that you're in a sense moving enormous amounts of materials enormous distances. So a lot of times we don't simply know what the environmental impacts are of consumption of very, very simple materials.

CURWOOD: What do you think we should do to respond to our population growth responsibly over the next 50 years?

REJESKI: I think the first thing we need to do is to basically get a lot more information. We don't have much that we can really base good national policy or even regional policies on. We tend to isolate demographers quite often from the policy makers. But we need to get them at the same table with economists and sociologists, engineers and scientists, so that they bring the data to the table and they raise their hands and ask the right questions. I think the issue is not quantitative growth; we need to get away from that. It's really qualitative development.

CURWOOD: David Rejeski is head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Future Studies Unit. He joined us from Washington. Thank you, sir.

REJESKI: Thank you.



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