“The first law of sustainability: population growth and/or growth in the rate of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.” — Al Bartlett
As reported in the Boulder Daily Camera on May 20th, for the third year in a row, the U.S. Census Bureau has determined that Boulder’s human population has declined slightly from a peak of 107,128 people in 2016, down to 105,673 in 2019.
This is great news for Boulder’s community and environment. Stabilizing the human population is a key ingredient of any definition of “sustainability”, the end goal of which is to live in harmony with our beautiful, bountiful planet.
We don’t want or need more people because more people — especially affluent Boulderites — consume more resources and create more pollution of all types including greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Further, more people have a greater impact on the surrounding environment, both by over-crowding on trails and Open Space, and with traffic throughout Boulder Valley and beyond.
Boulder County’s population is still growing slowly over the last three years with the surrounding towns of Longmont and Lafayette increasing their population, while Louisville, Superior, and Lyons have stabilized their populations. Unfortunately, since 2010, Boulder County’s population has grown by 31,629 people, an increase from 294,567 to 326,196.
Stabilizing the human population should be seen as enlightened management of our shared home in Boulder Valley and around Boulder County. A stable population allows the community to focus on other shared goals without the constant hindrance of population growth further negatively impacting the environment, housing, and economy.
In the Daily Camera article, pro-growth supporters claim that Boulder has stopped growing because of higher housing prices than surrounding communities, and they then call for more growth to address the housing-price problem. While this claim is speculative, data provided in the 2019 Census update show that Boulder is in a good place to make positive strides with affordability, without promoting more growth, for three important reasons:
- More than ½ of Boulder’s housing units are rentals, which allows the City government to step in relatively quickly to achieve affordability. Rent subsidies, and other forms of rental assistance, are quicker fixes than buying expensive owner-occupied housing. Rent subsidies also allow for assistance to service-economy employees that are not in a financial situation to buy a house.
- Boulder’s population is highly transient with 35% of its population living in a different city or home just one year earlier. Although a lot of this transiency is because of CU students, there’s still significant turnover in housing stock — with people coming and going by the tens-of-thousands every single year — which allows a lot of flexibility for the City government to achieve its affordability goals.
- Some of Boulder’s population — especially people over 40 years old — are affluent, which allows the City government to consider all sorts of equitable taxes and fees that can be used to assist lower- and middle-income Boulderites achieve affordability. Policies like the “middle-income housing program”, passed by the voters in 2019, are a good start in this direction.
Stated differently, Boulder doesn’t need to grow to become more affordable — with a huge number of rental units already, a highly transient citizenry, and with an affluent citizenry, Boulder’s government can use its current housing stock to make strong policies supporting affordability. More population growth is completely unnecessary — and even a red herring — in the discussion about affordability.
The Census Bureau data reported in the Daily Camera was from July 2019, and of course it does not include any impact that the coronavirus has had on Boulder. It’s still too early in this pandemic to make longer-term predictions about its impact on the population of Boulder, although a slow-down in the economy may decrease the population again, as well as drive down the cost of, and demand for, housing. It’s also very true that the pandemic will have strong, if not severe, impacts on Boulder’s economy.
Stabilizing Boulder’s population should be celebrated by elected officials and leaders throughout the community. As our region, country, and planet struggle with huge environmental problems driven almost solely by population growth — including climate change, a dramatic loss of biodiversity and habitat for non-human species, as well as extreme strains on food and ocean stocks — a stable human population can slow down these extreme negative environmental impacts.
The opposite — which is the status quo of promoting even more population growth — is “population denial” just like how ignoring or promoting even more greenhouse gas emissions is “climate denial.”
Ultimately, a slowly declining population in Colorado, the U.S., and across the planet is the best medicine for the ailments our species faces. We need to flatten a lot of curves — of the coronavirus, of greenhouse gas emissions, and of population growth.
Let’s celebrate this milestone in Boulder — thinking globally and acting locally, by example, is the best form of leadership.