As far as Dave Gardner is concerned, the current economic malaise is the end of the world as we know it.
And he feels fine, thank you.
Known locally as “the anti-growth guy,” or maybe as the City Council candidate who lost to incumbent Jerry Heimlicher a couple years ago, Gardner is releasing his first documentary, GrowthBusters, locally on Wednesday, Nov. 9.
Its simple premise: Population growth and development must stop. Actually, Gardner says, the economic downturn signals the beginning of the end of growth, a breaking point. He believes everyone will need to adapt in a new, more sustainable world.
Sound like the ramblings of an old hippie? Not so fast. Gardner, 56, actually made his living for decades in the corporate world.
After growing up in Colorado Springs, Gardner went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, majoring in broadcast/film arts. He dreamed of being a disc jockey but fell in love with film. Early in his career, he worked on a PBS series, Here’s to Your Health, before he settled into corporate film-making.
Over the next few decades, Gardner traveled the world on the corporate dime. For years, he filmed those safety programs you watch at the beginning of airline flights. He also created videos to communicate a CEO’s vision to employees, or to train sales staff. He even made a video for the ill-fated Enron.
In 1993, Gardner moved his family back to the Springs. He was sick of the big-city issues in Dallas: the gunshots, the fear that prevented him from letting his kids play on the lawn. He loved the Springs because it was small.
But by the early 2000s, the Springs was well into a growth spurt.
“Colorado Springs, my feeling is, we have a bit of an inferiority complex,” Gardner says.
“We can’t be satisfied with what we are. We feel we have to be something more.”
At first, Gardner wasn’t willing to make a documentary that in many ways damned the very people who’d been writing his paychecks. But when droughts came, Gardner began thinking more seriously about examining the problems of growth through the lens of his hometown. He saw the city as economically beholden to growth, yet reaching its capacity. He started filming six years ago.
The full-length final product, done with the help of volunteers, was funded by Gardner and donors at a cost of $168,000-plus. Featuring stars of government and the environment like Jane Goodall, Herman Daly, Peter Victor, Bill McKibben, Robert Solow, Al Bartlett and Dick Lamm, it premiered in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 2, and will be available for purchase at growthbusters.org or at the local premiere.
A lot has changed even in the last six years: First and foremost, Colorado Springs has approved the Southern Delivery System to provide water for a continually growing metropolis. But Gardner sees problems: SDS is expensive, legally tricky, and its flow is dependent on forces of nature. The rest of our water comes from the Western Slope, which is predicted to turn drier as climate change takes its toll.
Gardner insists residents have “been sold a bill of goods” with SDS, which he says will fund growth that won’t bring prosperity. And he paints growth in the Springs as pointless.
Tax subsidies and cut-rate deals from Utilities bring growth, which brings a short-term rush of sales tax from construction materials. But, he says, in the long term, growth is a loss. Often, new commercial businesses hire workers from outside the city, offering little benefit to locals. Meanwhile, new retail establishments only redistribute the same money; a new Wal-Mart just takes dollars away from an old Safeway.
“The prosperity from growth is an illusion,” he says. “…It’s been tunnel-vision; it’s been short-term thinking.”
The Green Cities Coalition’s Steve Saint agrees with Gardner, that the Springs will one day run out of water if it doesn’t slow its roll into the greenfields. “We have to embrace sustainability,” Saint says. “And if we don’t, it’s going to fall on us like a 10-pound rock.”
Not everyone agrees. Kevin Walker, a consultant with ties to the development community, says the idea that growth can or should stop is preposterous.
“The reason I don’t think it’s a good premise is that we have 7 billion people on the planet, and that doesn’t seem to be stopping,” Walker says. “So it would seem to me that the best way to have 7 billion people prosper is to continue to grow.”
Besides, he adds, when cities like Aspen or Boulder limited growth, new residents simply moved just outside the city limits. The real result, he says, was that the poor couldn’t afford to live in those cities.
A lot of evidence
Some argue with that logic. Daphne Greenwood, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs economics professor and author of Local Economic Development in the 21st Century: Quality of Life and Sustainability, says it is possible for cities to offer citizens a better life without high population or new land development. She sees no evidence of any correlation between prosperity and growth.
“There is empirical evidence both from cities and countries that places that have very low population growth can have very high prosperity,” she says. “Western Europe would be a very good example of that.”
On the other hand, she notes, half the world’s poor live in expanding China and India.
As for development, Greenwood notes that average per capita income was increasing in Colorado Springs at a faster rate in the 1980s than in the 1990s, when the housing boom was in full swing. The growth didn’t produce lasting wealth, which she says shouldn’t be surprising.
“There are all sorts of things that wear out. Computers wear out,” she says. “But housing is very durable.”
Even if you buy a new home, you sell the old one. So you need a new population to buy new houses, which then has to be supported with water projects and municipal expansion.
“It ends up being a really inefficient way to stimulate our local economy,” she says.
For Gardner, though, the problem isn’t about fueling prosperity. Growth, he says, has to stop because resources are no longer there to support it.
“It’s because of peak oil, for one thing,” he says, “because the price of oil has started to go up and it’s never going to go down significantly. It’s because of the price of food … we’re looking at peak oil, peak food, peak water.”
In short, there’s less to go around — already spelling catastrophe in less prosperous countries. But the U.S. will feel it too, Gardner contends, because China and India want the Western lifestyle. They want to eat steak and drive cars, and the planet simply can’t sustain that.
To Gardner, at least, the solution seems obvious. Live with less. Work less. Have fewer children.
“We have a lot of adjusting to do,” he says, “and it’s not going to be easy.”
That goes for Gardner, too. He plans soon to sell the big house where he raised his two now-grown children. He’ll buy a smaller place.