Demographics and growth just don’t mix, though Ponzi would approve

From global problems such as climate change to the local battle over a gravel pit near Maryhill, our obsession with growth has got us where we are today.

Billions of people consuming an ever-growing amount of goods are the basis of anthropogenic global warming and a host of other ills. A microcosm of that is local development that relies on resources such as gravel, fuelling the financial aspirations of the few behind the Maryhill application. The growth mantra is at the root of many of our problems, only the symptoms of which are addressed – see, for instance, the unwarranted light rail transit in the region – and never the root cause.

Nowhere in the plans of any government is there an argument for curtailing growth. Instead, we have policies that favour an ever-increasing number of people flowing into the region (and the province and the country). Scheme such as the LRT itself requires a huge influx just to meet the optimistic – but still low – ridership numbers and to justify the spending of massive amounts of money.

Unable to get a handle on responsible financial management, governments rely on a growing number of “tomorrow” residents to pay for the spending of the past and present. That’s true not only of capital spending projects that will benefit people tomorrow. The real harm is not the mortgage, but using the credit card for today’s groceries before paying off yesterday’s, day before’s and last week’s, last month’s and last year’s.

Even long-term liabilities such as pensions and old-age programs rely on future workers to pay for former ones, fueling that portion of the Ponzi scheme that is our economic system.

The end game is a situation that stands to diminish the quality of life here, no matter what.

The mantra of growth trumps all.

It’s what been called Ponzi-scheme economics on more than one occasion, here and elsewhere. That’s true of every government action, municipal, provincial and federal. That we have to have more growth – more people, more consumers, more everything – is taken as gospel. That such a model is impossible to sustain never enters into the equation. It’s just another example of the short-term thinking that defines politics based on grasping power,  a private sector focused on quarterly profits, and, to be honest, our own desire for immediate gratification.

Much of the thinking stems from population growth in general and immigration policies in the West specifically, which fuel the growth mantra. But what we’re doing is unsustainable, as experts such as Dr. Joseph Chamie, who’s been warning for years about what he calls “Ponzi demography.”

Chamie is a former director of the United Nations Population Division, former research director of the Center for Migration Studies and editor of International Migration Review and now an independent demographer and author of “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”

“While it is often disguised in economic jargon and accounting spreadsheets coupled with fears of financial decline, Ponzi demography is basically a pyramid scheme that aims to make more money for some by adding more people through population growth (i.e., natural increase and immigration),” he writes in a piece for The Hill earlier this year, reacting to alarmism about slowing population growth in the U.S., China and elsewhere.

“The underlying strategy of Ponzi demography is straightforward: privatize profits and socialize costs incurred from increased population growth.

“When confronted with environmental concerns such as climate change, global warming, environmental contamination, pollution or shortages of water and other vital natural resources, promoters of Ponzi demography typically dismiss such concerns as alarmist or argue that such concerns are best addressed by a growing population.”

The U.S. population increase of 7.4 per cent from 2010 to 2020 was the second lowest rate of growth since the country’s first census in 1790, and half typical growth rates since 1790. Only during the Great Depression of the 1930s did U.S. population grow more slowly, by 7.3 percent. However, even slower rates of U.S population growth are expected in the coming decades, Chamie notes in a recent research paper with Joel E. Cohen, professor of populations at The Rockefeller University and Columbia University in New York  and author of “How Many People Can the Earth Support?”

China’s population grew 5.3 per cent in the decade ending in 2020, the lowest decadal growth rate since the catastrophic famine of the late 1950s. India projects for 2011-2021 its lowest decadal rate of population growth, 12.5 percent, since its independence.

“Some public handwringers maintain that a large population size aids the United States’ competition for economic and geopolitical dominance with China. But the mercantilist view that there is strength in numbers alone is obsolete by centuries. A large or rapidly growing population is hardly necessary or sufficient for prosperity,” they write.

“Finland, ranked the happiest country in the world, has an average number of children per woman per lifetime of 1.4, compared to the U.S. rate of 1.6 children per woman, South Korea’s 0.8, Singapore’s 1.1, Italy’s 1.3, Japan’s 1.4, Norway’s 1.5 and Denmark’s 1.7. China currently has an average 1.3 children per woman per lifetime, markedly fewer than the United States.”

That some country’s are both less obsessed with growth and are home to contented populations goes against the unchallenged, unexplained and inexplicable growth mantra we see even here in Canada.

According to Ponzi demography, population growth – through natural increase and immigration – means more people leading to increased demands for goods and services, more material consumption, more borrowing, more on credit and of course more profits. Everything seems fantastic for a while – but like all Ponzi schemes, Ponzi demography is unsustainable, Chamie argues.

He recommends population stabilization and an end to the growth mentality, akin to the calls for change by the likes of economists Herman Daly and Joseph Stiglitz and physicist Joe Romm.

 A former World Bank economist, Daly knows firsthand the failings of traditional economic thinking. At its root, the currently-accepted viewpoint sees growth as something infinite on a finite planet. That’s just not possible, especially when we’re using up the planet’s stored capital of resources at a breakneck pace, polluting our environment every step of the way.

His works outline a new way of economic thinking, one that moves away from a growth pattern that can’t go on indefinitely. And one the separates good economic activity from undesirable activity, something not done in traditional use of gross domestic product (GDP) figures, which give equal weight to the financial impact of a new lifesaving technology and the costs associated with a natural disaster. Both generate economic activity, but we would prefer much more of the former and less of the latter (though we’re likely to see more disasters, however, as climate change cashes in on the IOU we’ve been writing to the planet for the last two centuries).

The growth economy is failing. In other words, the quantitative expansion of the economic subsystem increases environmental and social costs faster than production benefits, making us poorer not richer, at least in high consumption countries, he argues.

This last bit is in keeping with what municipalities here have been experiencing for a number of years: growth costs more than it contributes to the local economy. The expansion of hard services such as roads, water and sewers and schools and the resultant maintenance costs, coupled with social services, policing and fire protection outstrip the benefits of new development.

And that’s just in direct dollars, never mind the environmental and quality of life impacts, neither of which is beneficial.

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