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Talk, but no action on the root cause of housing, environmental woes

The housing crisis understandably tops the list of issues identified by Ontarians during the less-than-exciting election campaign. Inflation, especially related to food and fuel, is also a prime concern. Each of the parties talks of what they’d do, but there are no real solutions offered.

As with many issues, we get lip service.

That’s not restricted to the provincial government, of course. From Ottawa to township council, there’s talk but no real action. We get some virtue signaling and a whole bunch of wasted money, but no results.

The root of many problems, from today’s skyrocketing housing prices to environmental degradation, is never addressed: the growth mantra.

Putting the brakes on growth – particularly population – would solve many of our woes. That’s not an option for the short-term thinking that defines politicians and bureaucrats at every level of government.

As a closed system with finite resources, the planet can only do so much for its inhabitants, which includes a long list of animals and plants not labelled ‘home sapiens,’ a fact we overlook at our peril. Every person, even one living the most basic of existences – an altogether too common scenario in much of the world – puts a demand on the ecosystem. We all need air, water and food as a minimum. Providing just that places another burden on the planet; those of us living in the consumption-mad West each place far more stress on those resources.

We are deluged with stories about climate change, food shortages, fuel crises, epidemics and a host of similar unsettling facts. At the root of all those problems is the issue of population. Quite plainly, there are too many of us.

The world’s population is projected to grow by 10 per cent this decade to 8.5 billion in 2030, and to 9.7 billion in 2050, a 26 per cent jump. Most of the increase will be in Africa and Asia, though the problems are not contained to those regions.

It took thousands of years for us to reach a population of one billion by 1804. However, it took only 123 years for us to double to two billion in 1927. The population hit four billion in 1974, and just 41 years later, we’ve added another 3.3 billion. Such is the power of exponential growth.

Our obsession with growth is at the heart of our current predicament, suggests Valorie M. Allen, author of Growing Pains – A Planet in Distress and, most recently, 8 Billion Reasons Population Matters.

“A lot of studies that have been done show that a sustainable population level would be between two and three billion, and we’re nearing eight billion right now. I don’t think we have to argue anymore, whether it’s two billion or four billion that’s sustainable, we’re way over whatever the number is,” she says from her Alberta home.

“It’s not just a problem off somewhere in Africa, like a lot of people think – it’s affecting us right here in Canada,” she adds. “We are facing housing shortages, conflict over land use and a great loss of wildlife, similar to almost every other place in the world. So this truly is a global issue. We all have to stop and think about that.”

While most of the growth has been and will continue to be in other parts of the globe, there is that closed system we discussed. Not to mention that the smaller number of us in North America and Europe use substantially more resources. With other countries striving to follow our lead, the trend is not healthy.

It’s no coincidence that overpopulation figures prominently in dystopian books and films – large numbers of humans is a likely catalyst for environmental collapses leading to wars over food and water, competition for scarce resources, a premium on living space, and the potential for disease and rampant epidemics. Then there’s the near certainty that such crises would lead to nightmarish authoritarian police states, the kind we’re already building.

There are those, of course, who dismiss any such ideas. Everything is fine. Or, if it’s not, we’ll find solutions, technological fixes. Don’t worry, be happy.

People of this mindset point out that many past doomsayers have been proven wrong. They’ll note how the famous warnings of English scholar Thomas Malthus (An Essay on the Principle of Population ), whose name gives rise to the adjective Malthusian, failed to come to pass. Or point the predictions of more recent prognosticators such as Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) as being proven wrong.

Interestingly, both Malthus’ and Ehrlich’s forecasts were in fact sideswiped by technology. In the case of Malthus, he could not have predicted that the forms of energy of his time – food for manual labourers and animals, wood for burning – would be supplanted by an explosion of fossil fuel uses. A similar thing happened in Ehrlich’s time with the massive use of technology – fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation – to grow food for the expanding billions.

Those very technological “fixes” have come with a high price, however. We’re seeing some of that climate change and the drawing down of aquifers in some of the most heavily irrigated spots, very notable right now in California and environs. There’s every indication that technology is reaching its peak in dealing with the woes of a growing population.

For Allen, it was Ehrlich’s book and the green movement in the 1970s that got her interested in the subject. While there was some focus on population at that time, she’s seen that largely wane over the ensuing decades.

“For me, that was just a light-bulb moment, because suddenly everything started to make sense: the poverty, the pollution, the loss of species and all the other critical world issues finally made sense. And it was then that I realized that most of the pain and suffering on our planet was probably unnecessary, that by returning to a sustainable number, we could all benefit and thrive,” she says.

While some organizations are starting to note the hypocrisy of promoting both growth and claims of fighting climate change and the housing crisis, the population issue remains off the radar.

“There’s no conversation in Canada, about population at all. And well, in most of the world, really. The United Nations is promoting a much smaller population level, but the countries aren’t all taking that home and taking it to heart, so that’s part of the problem there. But studies that have been done, polls  that have been done in Canada, show that over 70 per cent of citizens of Canada do not want this kind of growth, they don’t want these levels of immigration, and the government is totally ignoring that,” says Allen.

Until that changes, we can ignore what officials say as irrelevant at best and dangerously disingenuous in reality.

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