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.