• John Chisholm

5 Reasons to Not Get Too Excited About 1,000,000 People

Why do I write this contrarian stuff ?

The reason is, I can’t not do it. I believe it’s important.

The latest variation on the "grow the economy at all costs" mantra from Nova Scotia's power elite is that we should all join in celebrating the milestone that Nova Scotia is now, in some sense, home to more than one million people. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs, has been loudly replaced by More, More, More People - Grow, Grow, Grow.

I question the cause for celebration.

So, I'm asking you to try on this idea beyond the agree/disagree, like/not like, left/right button-pushing of modern social life. I'm asking you to leave yourself open to the idea that there is a size of our economy and population that is right in that it is sustainable economically and environmentally; that it creates the most health, wealth, happiness possible for each of its citizens; and that all the potentates, politicians, and powerful in the province have made absolutely no F#$^%ing effort whatsoever to even estimate what that economy might look like.

Why? Because their interests, their self-interests, lie only in growth. For increasing the wealth, influence, and power of a very few, there is nothing like growth. Even chaotic growth, even cancerous growth, is good for a few. But that's not the goal, is it?

1 / We live in a world of Limited Resources

Population has never been the thing that limited our prosperity. The foundation of all economic theory is the careful allocation of limited resources. Nova Scotia is not richly blessed. The near island we live on is a shattered rock with the thinnest veil of topsoil, cantankerous climate, and desperately depleted and overdrawn bank account of natural resources. No amount of additional labour will make up for a deficiency of land, capital, climate, and resources.

Economists from Adam Smith on believed the goal was to find a steady-state economy. One that balanced capital, scarce resources, and labour. No rational view of economics is dependent on perpetual growth.

Land speculators, developers, and all the attendant suppliers, financiers, and boosters are not coming to Nova Scotia to give, they are coming to take. And we have stood by while they have created a near frictionless out-conveyor of wealth from our region. Again and again, we undervalue our commonwealth, misallocate our resources, and accept the most fantastical schemes and easy-way, quick-fix, solutions in the name of progress and newness, when they are in fact the same old cons repeatedly played on rural people since the earliest European flush into North America where resources seemed, but were in fact not, unlimited.

Graph indicating the rate of growth over the last five years. Is household wealth, real wages, the environment, the economy, jobs, or anything we care about increasing in a corresponding fashion? No.

2 / Our gain is often someone else’s loss

When people look back at our era today, as we look back and find the fault and foibles of previous times, nothing about what we are doing will seem more selfish, more greedy, more morally bankrupt and short sighted than our brazen and commercial attempts to lure the world’s “best and brightest” to our shores without the slightest qualm that we are robbing less developed nations of the only hope they have to raise up their poor, starving, uneducated, and vulnerable people. Worse, we don’t even have the self-awareness to recognize the depravity of our openly self-serving politics of growth; encouraging people to come here so that our life, our bank accounts, our comforts, and our economy will be improved.

Look at the headlines from Jamaica, the Philippines, almost any African country, or Ukraine, and you will find the constant and ever-increasing drain of their 'best and brightest' is the cause of severe economic and social problems of almost incalculable loss.

It seems a dark and mean spirit from a region that up to just a decade ago legitimately knew the suffering of having, friends, and family, best and brightest "going down the road".

3 / Growth does not equal Progress, Prosperity, or Purpose

Astonishingly, we, or at least our political class, believes unquestioningly in growth even in the face of all evidence that growth, beyond a certain point, does not increase household prosperity; does not help maintain or repair infrastructure; does not help us progress in terms of education, peace, health, or well being; and does not give us a sense of purpose beyond growth for growth’s sake, which is the logic of cancer.

Economics has for over 200 years been the study of lines and graphs. A very basic principle is that, in economics, all lines are curves. There is no ‘perfect’ good. You like chocolate. A taste is great. More is better. A good steady supply is wonderful. But there is a point where you would choose not to eat any more chocolate. If you ate too much you might feel sick. If you ate too much over a long period you might develop any number of diseases. If too much chocolate were forced on you it would be as terrible as any torture. Likewise, growth which was good, at least for some, in the early days of North America, and fantastic as we recovered from the debt, deficit, and deprivation of World War II, is not the stuff of cherry-picked history and economic nostalgia. Will you think of that for a moment? That growth is not a pure good. That there are limits to everything? That there is a balance, an equilibrium, that creates the most possible good. Have you ever heard anyone from government, or the growth and developer industrial complex propose any limits rational or practical? Have you ever seen any accounting or even philosophy about the right size of economy our geo-political limits can bear?

4 / If growth was the answer people might be moving to Sierra Leone, or Toronto…

How did you come to believe, or accept as true, that our population was aging and that was a bad thing? What evidence was given? Do you believe that communities with younger average populations or faster rates of growth than ours are better off? Does life in Addis Abbi Ethiopia, Rupgangj Bangladesh, or Xiong’an China seem good because of a growth rate of over 6% a year? Does life in Niger, Somalia, Uganda, or Sierra Leone seem awesome? These are just a few of the countries with the youngest demographics. All the countries with the oldest demographics are in North America and Europe.

The truth is that whatever the additional health costs of an aging population it is a mark of success envied the world over and unprecedented in all of history. And here we are on the very pinnacle of human success, and somehow we're viewing it as a bad thing? Everything about youth is expensive from crime to education, care to clothing, youth costs more socially than maturity ever could.

5 / Population Growth is the Problem, not the Solution

Growing pains? Economic growth does not offer a solution, it is in fact the problem. For decades it was not recognized that the ever-growing economy is the major driver behind the natural and environmental problems the world is struggling with. Happily, on the global level that’s changed. Yet, here in Nova Scotia we talk ‘growth’ as if it’s 1959.

Much of the growth obsession is based on economic thinking and modeling that presupposes profit and wealth can only be created off the backs of working labour. This echoes the darkest elements of our past and fails fundamentally to recognize the changing future path of work.

As Robert Kennedy so clearly showed half a century ago, GDP is not the economy. It does not measure the things we care about. Economic growth, led by foie gras-style population growth exacerbates every conceivable problem and will leave us teetering on the brink of an unprecedented decline, not a fantasy quick fix easy way solution to everyone’s problems. The world’s exponential population growth in the last 150 years has caused or exacerbated famine, civil wars, resource depletion, pollution, climate change, disparate wealth and income gaps. The solution of raiding the rest of the world’s “best and brightest” so we can maintain our lifestyle is not just morally wrong, it’s just plain wrong. It does not work. If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that we can not hide from the world’s problems, some that we have caused. These problems will come to us! And there is no country or culture in the world with noticeably better economic ideas than ours.

What is needed, and is sorely lacking, is an educated populace and government leadership that seeks to mitigate these problems in a cost-effective and humane way — with politics put aside. In 1900, over 100 years ago, Nova Scotia had less than half the current population, yet we had a balanced budget, low (no) income taxes, a commuter rail system that linked the whole province, an electric commuter rail system in Halifax, state of the art infrastructure including world-leading water systems, we produced most of our own food, we had a thriving industrial base that made everything we needed and exports from chairs to ice skates, few among us didn’t belong to service clubs and relief organizations who could help not just at home but around the world, we had a thriving world-renowned media, our own banks managing more capital than we have now, trade school producing the finest craftspeople in the world who in turn produced a city architecture of enduring beauty, grace, and proportion.

Household prosperity is in decline as the population grows. Inflation runs rampant as the population grows. Real wages for workers have decreased as the population has grown. The number of jobs relative to the number of public sector jobs has dramatically decreased as the population has grown. Capital has become less accessible as the population has grown. The cost of government per person has grown as the population has grown.

There is no doubt something has been lost and it is well worthwhile considering deeply how and why that happened. But one thing is stone certain. The loss was not caused by a decline in population, and it can not be solved by mindlessly increasing the population.

A new economic model that moves away from the line graphs of the last century is called Doughnut Economics. It's based on the book of the same name by Kate Raworth. It's part of a new feminist economics. In the doughnut you will see a green safe range. Depletion and over-consumption lie inside and outside the range. This doesn't recommend a number or a level of growth but it takes the first step; imagining that we are working to find a balance within due bounds of a finite world. That's where we should start.

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