Photo: Dick Davis, Rocky Mountain News, Arvada High School, Colorado, 1970
Saturday, July 11, was designated by the United Nations as “World Population Day”. The U.N. says that the day, “seeks to focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues”. The U.N. held many online events and programs around the planet bringing attention to the perils of population growth on human health, economies, and the environment.
Unless you are a follower on social media of a handful of global groups that have a program around population, you would have never heard about this day here in Colorado. Not one word was posted on social media by the main environmental groups in our state, as well as not one email being sent out and not one call to take action.
It didn’t used to be that way.
U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson
When I grew up in the 1970s and came of age in the 1980s, everyone – especially people in the environmental movement – talked about the perils of population growth all the time. On the first Earth Day in 1970, population growth was the single biggest issue the public was concerned about as well as the inspiration of the first Earth Day as stated by its founder, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson. An iconic image memorializing the first Earth Day was taken at Arvada High School and featured in the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News (top of page). The students in the march waved a huge banner saying, “If the pollution doesn’t kill us, overpopulation will”. In 1970, that's what young people marched about.
Dr. Paul Ehrlich and his international bestseller, The Population Bomb
Around the same time, the host of “The Tonight Show” was Johnny Carson, the predecessor to Jimmy Fallon in that job. Just like now, getting on “The Tonight Show” was a big deal and brought public fame to people and issues. In 1968, a book titled The Population Bomb was published by Dr. Paul Ehrlich that warned about global population growth. The book went on to be a bestseller and was standard reading in U.S. colleges at the time. Dr. Ehrlich, a professor at Stanford University, became internationally famous and was on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson eighteen times.
When I first came to Colorado in 1985, Dick Lamm was the Governor, a job he was elected to twice running mostly on an anti-growth agenda. At that time, I was involved in environmental groups including the Sierra Club, Earth First, and the Rainforest Action Network – all of which were concerned about population growth locally, in the state of Colorado, nationally, and globally. Statewide concern about growth was discussed constantly, as well as reported in the media frequently. I couldn’t go to an event, a party, or have a conversation with environmentally minded friends without the topic of population growth being discussed by almost everyone.
Al Bartlett (Photo: Boulder Daily Camera, 2005)
Boulder, Colorado, itself was a hub for population growth concerns. One of the seminal figures in U.S. population advocacy was CU Physics Professor Al Bartlett. Al presented and spoke voluminously warning about the perils of population growth – he was active at the local level too, by co-founding PLAN-Boulder County which helped establish the first growth controls of any city or county in the U.S.
Like the planet and the U.S., Colorado has only headed in the wrong direction on this issue – our state’s population has almost doubled since I got here in 1986 causing vast problems. Further, Colorado's population is expected to grow by at least 50% over the next 30 years causing even more problems.
As an environmental activist, I believe population growth by far outpaces every other environmental problem we face in Colorado because it is the root cause of almost every problem. The loss of open space and farmland, cars and traffic, pollution, the draining of rivers, the crowds at trailheads – the landscapes around us are literally being devoured by growth here in Colorado.
As a progressive Democrat, I believe population growth is also a root diver of many of the problems our human society faces. Overpriced housing, lack of affordable healthcare, higher and higher taxes, infringement on personal freedoms, and an economic system that rewards capitalist growth instead of sustainable jobs and wages for regular people are all made worse by rapid population growth.
Colorado and its environmental groups missed World Population Day in 2020, but we should jump on the U.N. bandwagon in 2021. We should also create a “Colorado Population Day” – we need to "Think Gobally and Act Locally" to address the perils of population growth in Colorado, and beyond, as soon as possible.