Promoting U.S. Housing Density Won't Save The Planet
“The inexorable march of the human footprint is just brutal”
A recent scientific study in the journal NatureFood indicates that cropland, to feed humans, is devouring the planet. Using satellite imagery, scientists studied and reported that the amount of cropland on the planet increased by 9% from 2003 to 2019 and now consumes 1 million square kilometers of the Earth’s surface.
The report states that the amount of cropland is increasing in nearly every country in the world including in many parts of Africa and South America. Importantly, the report indicates that, “Half of the new fields have replaced forests and other natural ecosystems that stored large amounts of carbon, threatening efforts to conserve Earth’s increasingly precarious biodiversity and avert catastrophic climate change.”
This report further exemplifies the tension that plays out in land-use policies primarily in developed countries and especially in the United States. Many decision-makers, including many environmental groups, like to claim that packing people into urban areas, via “housing density”, decreases America’s impact on the environment as well as decreases climate emissions.
As I’ve written about extensively elsewhere, including recently here in The Rewilding Institute, it’s the “Ecological Footprint” that must be accounted for, not the “housing footprint”, when we measure environmental impacts.
Regardless of how tightly you pack people into cities, you still have to feed them, which — as this NatureFood study indicates — requires ever-increasing amounts of cropland as the human population increases. One of the study’s authors states, “The inexorable march of the human footprint is just brutal”.
I exaggerate of course, but theoretically you could stack housing units singularly on top of each other, and stack them all the way to the moon, but you’d still need the same amount of cropland to feed all of Earth’s nearly 8 billion people. Further, the world’s human population is growing at about 80 million people per year, which requires more and more cropland.
The U.S. population is growing at about 2 million people per year, and similarly, you could pack them tighter and taller — what some urban planners call “pack ‘em and stack ‘em” — but you’d still need more and more cropland every year to feed them.
Further, a recent report states that the U.S. imported $127.6 billion in food products in 2019 from other countries, an amount that is increasing every year as the U.S. population and wealth increases. As such, the growth in the U.S. population is causing the destruction of wildlife habitat, forests, and biodiversity across the planet as Wild Nature in other countries is converted to cropland to feed Americans.
A policy that promotes U.S. population growth and housing density — as the Biden administration is currently doing — is a ruse that actually causes more environmental destruction and climate emissions, not less, in the U.S. and abroad.
Conversely, a policy that stabilizes the U.S. population is a meaningful global biodiversity conservation policy and a meaningful global climate policy.