Our Economic Pyramid Scheme

Some mornings, for no discernible reason, I wake up much earlier than others. That means that I get to hear Metro Morning’s business analyst Michael Hlinka, who throws in his daily two cents on the CBC Radio One morning show at around 6:45am. Yesterday morning was one of those days.

I used to live in Michael Hlinka’s building. He’s extremely friendly and outgoing, and we’ve had several good chats. Both before and after meeting him, I’ve often listened to him and agreed strongly with whatever he had to say. Yesterday morning was not one of those days.

Hlinka was reacting — like everyone else — to the new Statistics Canada census data that was released the day before. To make a long story short, Canada’s population is growing faster than any other country in the G8. Most of the attention in Ontario has been focused on Milton (one of my old stomping grounds), which has grown by 71% in just five years.

Hlinka was ecstatic at this “great” news. You see, he explained, (and I’m paraphrasing here) we used to have this guy named Malthus who thought that population growth was all bad and would eventually cause society to collapse. Now, however, we’re enlightened, and understand that population growth is, without reservation, a good thing, because people create wealth, so more people means more wealth. Also, we’re going to have a large retired population soon, so we need lots of younger people to pay for the care of the older ones. And, ultimately, we need to keep making more and more stuff (he actually used the word “stuff”), because we need more stuff swirling around all the time to keep this whole machine running.

In other words, Hlinka was arguing that we need to encourage infinite population growth in order to support infinite economic growth. It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that the dogma of perpetual economic growth has been given the status of infallible religion by many, and is causing otherwise intelligent individuals to ignore the blatantly obvious.

Let’s start here: surely we can agree that population cannot grow forever. We don’t give this much thought because it doesn’t seem like an immediate problem, but even if we’d argue about how much the Earth’s human population can grow (or if it’s already too high), we have to acknowledge the fact that all ecosystems have a carrying capacity, and that at the end of the day this planet of ours has limits.

From there, we have to agree that economic growth, at least as we know it now, is pretty tightly linked with population growth. That’s why some economists get excited about growing populations. It’s also why Ronald Wright has described our current economy as a pyramid scheme: it only works as long as you’re constantly introducing new inputs of people and resources.

Arguments like Hlinka’s, that people “create wealth,” are fundamentally flawed. In a resource-based economy, people do not “create” wealth, they extract it from the Earth. Or, in other words, they move it from the public realm to the private. In that case, a resulting increase in a country’s GDP is actually a measure of how much natural capital has been used up. That’s like taking $20 out of the bank and claiming that by so doing you had generated $20.

Now sure, this is all just semantics as long as you’ve got another pay cheque on the way. But in the case of the tar sands, for example, currently one of Canada’s largest sources of economic growth, there’s no chance of having that bank account replenished. What we’re calling “wealth creation” in the tar sands is just a one-time massive withdrawal from a savings account that took millennia to accumulate.

But this is a conversation that we as Canadians (and especially politicians) don’t have very often, probably because most of us don’t know where to begin solving the problem. For example, some might (wrongly) approach it from the population end, suggesting we need government-mandated population control. But that presents too many human rights concerns, and is often unworkable. Others would choose to blame immigration, without recognizing that immigrants (a group to which all of us save Aboriginals belong — and, on a long enough timeline, them too) contribute great value to our country and define who we are as a people. (Not to mention the fact that population is a global phenomenon, making any attempt to deal with it by geographic isolationism not only morally questionable, but environmentally and practically ineffective.)

So, as we approach solutions, we need to start by guarding against temptations towards xenophobia or drastic measures. We’re all in the same boat here. Then, we can focus on the good news. For example, it turns out that birth rates stabilize as women’s rights and access to education increase, and as poverty and infant mortality decrease. Surely those are desirable goals anyway. Also, we need to tackle the economic side of the problem. Many economists (including Dr. Peter Victor at the University of York) are developing resilient economic models that don’t depend on the pyramid scheme of growth.

In fact, we already have a model for that: the human body. We only grow until around the age of eighteen, but does that mean we stop developing, learning, or getting better? Let’s start to have a conversation about how we can be more without having more.

Whether we agree on if growth is good or not, the reality is that it can’t continue forever. We’d better deal with that fact, or else it will deal with us. And besides, we already have a word for something that grows forever in an unrestrained way. It’s called cancer.

One morning soon, I hope to wake up to a world where we place a higher value on quality over quantity, and where we measure genuine progress. And please, no more stuff for stuff’s sake.

17 thoughts on “Our Economic Pyramid Scheme

  1. Good effort Chris,
    One question though, why would anyone in their right mind want to live on a planet that is near (or above) its carrying capacity? If we aim for a lower population we have more resource per person and life is of a higher quality. Canadians know this instinctively — and that’s why they don’t reproduce like rutting rabbits.

    The last census confirms shows Canadians have voted with their loins on the population question. Is it pathetic political correctness that prevents sensible instinct from being expressed as public policy?


  2. Hi Brian — You’re right, obviously we cannot continue to live above the planet’s carrying capacity, as a recent WWF report concluded we are. But limiting immigration (if that’s what you’re suggesting “political correctness” is preventing us from doing) would do nothing to deter population growth globally, and therefore would not address the problem of global overshoot. On the other hand, we can make a big difference in other ways, for example by limiting our own individual ecological impacts. According to the WWF report, the planet could support our current population if we were more efficient and less wasteful.

  3. Hi Chris, No, what I ment by political correctness was the fact that that population control is not a topic of debate and no political party seems to be prepared to address the issue squarely. Rich countries (like Canada) steal MD’s etc from poor countries — whereas they should be training them for poor countries (and themselves). Human populations self regulate when women are: secure, healthy, well educated, and free to make their own decisions… Brian

  4. Chris, I am glad you had the courage to talk about these issues, but you made some critical errors.

    Chris, you said: “But limiting immigration would do nothing to deter population growth globally”

    Wow, that couldn’t be more wrong!

    If there are no limits on human expansion in a border free world, humans will move from areas of high to low concentration. Any available wild ecosystems will get converted to monocultures of human beings.

    If immigration is banned by a country such as Canada which still has wilderness left, it gives us a chance to preserve that wilderness instead of clearcutting it for the softwood to build new homes for immigrants.

    If we Canadians can’t stop population growth locally to set a good example for other countries, how can we expect to solve global overpopulation?

    Chris Tindal, you need to stop acting as though immigration is some sacred cow that cannot be accused of any negative environmental impact.

    Immigration is responsible for 70% of Canada’s population growth and therefore it is the primary cause of our farmland being lost to highways, subdivisions, and other developments.

    Chris Tindal, you say: “government-mandated population control presents too many human rights concerns”

    What about the human rights lost by not doing anything to curb runaway population growth?

    What kind of rights do you think future Canadians will have in a crowded cold climate with less than 5% arable land with depleted soils and no fossil fuels?

    Population growth cancels out human rights. If you want to be compassionate you should protect current Canadians and Canadian wildlife by:
    1) Putting the emergency brakes on immigration
    2) Paying people to not have children
    3) Stopping mass resource exportation

    Quality of life = Natural resources / Population

    Brishen Hoff (http://ecologicalcrash.blogspot.com)

  5. Chris, check out how many human rights there are in Harry Harrison’s dystopia, the New York City of “Soylent Green” where 40 million people fight and jostle for breath and can’t even catch sight of blue sky. There is no human right to adequate housing or medical care or fresh food or clean water. Oh yes, and there are no wildlife rights either, because wildlife was buried beneath all the subdivisions that were built to accommodate all the refugees and immigrants whose “human’ rights you’re worried about. Whenever I hear a Green or a New Democrat tell me that they are against economic growth too but that we can’t stop immigration, I ask two questions. One, how can you have a steady state economy without population stabilization? And two, and this question is never answered, OK, you don’t want to stop immigration, then tell me many how many people you want to see in this country? 40 million? 50 million? 60? What’s my bid? Is the friggin sky the limit? Do we just keep cutting back our consumption until we are all wearing loin cloths and living in caves just so we can accommodate more newcomers? If you think a moratorium on immigration is a tough political sell, just try telling the electorate about that game plan. I think if Ralph Nader could reconcile himself to immigration restrictions in the 2000 campaign, and New Zealand Greens the same, you too can make that intellectual breakthrough.

  6. Tim, I do call for population stabilization in the above post, primarily though increasing “women’s rights and access to education” while aggressively combating “poverty and infant mortality.” Where we (and Brishen) disagree is if building a wall around Canada would help stabilize population worldwide. I do not believe we can create an end to global population growth by turning our backs on the world. On the other hand, contributing to women’s rights and access to education internationally is something we can do (and is, in fact, served by immigration, as is a reduction in the wealth gap).

    BTW, did someone just link to this post and my other “Managing Without Growth” one? Just wondering why I’m suddenly getting new comments on these two threads (though of course they’re very welcome).

  7. I’ve said this elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating.

    The national Green Party website contains this statement in the policy documents: “Population. Every problem arising in the relationship between people and the Earth is made worse by expanding population.”

    It is clear that we as a species do not know how to relate to this planet at present, and that changing that relationship will take enormous amounts of time, energy, and work. If the Green Party truly believes this statement, and if some of the problems can be mitigated by the following, then why have they not adopted immediate population control, and even reduction, as a public part of their policy statements? Isn’t every such problem made worse right here at home in Canada?

    The logic of promoting immigration (read “increasing the consumption levels of those who would otherwise live at a Third World standard of living”) escapes me. This is not “turning our backs on the world.” It is a responsible and appropriate statement that Canadians consider the impact of population growth to be a serious issue, and have the fortitude to take a stand on an issue that others avoid like the plague.

    We seem to be coming to grips intellectually with the destruction our economic activity wreaks on this planet, but population growth has gone hand in hand with that activity to the point where we threaten to overrun this poor old planet. For some reason, we do not seem willing to come to grips intellectually with the issue of population (at least here at home in Canada). Whether because it’s some sort of ingrained Darwinian adaptation, genetics, programming, or some other cause, this issue seems to have us thinking more with our groins than with our brains.

  8. All:

    I would add two points to Brishen’s well put response:

    1) The Greens are the ones that say “think globally, act locally”, so why doesn’t it apply to population control?

    2) Secondly (and related to my first point) they ignore the multiplicative effect of immgration to Canada on the world’s ecological footprint. I’ve seen figures that each immigrant from France doubles the footprint, and each one from Bangladesh multiplies his or her footprint by a factor of 20.


  9. Chris, I don’t recall recommending “building a wall around Canada”. I do recall recommending negative net migration.

    Chris, I also don’t recall recommending “turning our backs on the world”. I do recall recommending setting a good example for the world to follow by reducing Canada’s population to a sustainable level.

    You didn’t answer Tim’s question about when is enough enough. Would you be content with 40 million Canadians, 50 million, 60 million, etc… ???

    How many would be enough before you would advocate negative net migration?

    What would the Canadian environment look like at the point when you, Chris Tindal, finally determine that we have had too much immigration?

    Do you acknowledge the multiplicative effect of immgration to Canada on the world’s ecological footprint that Alan pointed out?

    As Alan pointed out, what ever happened to thinking globally and acting locally?

    Does this rule of responsible leadership not apply to the Green Party?

    Have you already committed your loyalty to the pro-immigration business lobby, including the likes of the Royal Bank of Canada?

    You adamantly say that a negative net migration policy for Canada would not help stabilize population worldwide.

    I think you are wrong on this. If we stop human migration from growing Canada’s population, won’t that be our contribution to, and the first step towards HELPING stabilize population worldwide?

    If Canada grows its population with its 265,000 annual immigration quota, what kind of example does that set for the world?

    Are you in favour of holding, reducing or increasing that quota?

    Remember you said you “do call for population stabilization”. When would we see the results and how would you get us there?

    Brishen Hoff

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