The federal government last week announced plans to ramp up immigration, already more than 400,000 a year, to 500,000 by 2025. Ontario Premier Doug Ford is looking to alter the Greenbelt, citing the need for more housing given Ottawa’s immigration plans.
Housing prices are out of reach for many people – there’s an affordability crisis. Homelessness is on a scale not seen before – that’s a crisis too.
Next week, on November 15, the world’s population is expected to top eight billion.
An aging population will cause turmoil in our social programs, particularly health care, a field in which pronouncements of woe are a daily occurrence.
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The one cure for many of the woes – depopulation – isn’t even on the radar.
Many of government policies, particularly immigration, are about adding bodies to the labour pool, keeping employers happy and maintaining a stream of taxes to pay for those already drawing pensions. The benefits of having of a smaller population are rarely discussed.
The growth mantra is behind this lack of foresight. We’re constantly told we need more. More development. More goods and services. More economic growth. To get there, we need more people. At least that’s the party line.
We’ve certainly structured our economic system on that premise. The hitch? It’s not sustainable. Change will come, either from environmental catastrophes and the resultant political turmoil or because we’re preparing for a gradual decrease on manmade planetary stresses. I like option two much better.
We’re already straining the planet’s carrying capacity. Climate change – anthropogenic or otherwise – is already having a major impact on the places we live, from desertification and drought to flooding of low-lying areas and changes in farm practices, to name a few. Each new person, no matter how light the carbon footprint, puts demands on the Earth.
In fact, many of the problems plaguing the planet – most of them the result of our success as a species and our failures as human beings – could be lessened by focusing on a degrowth mantra.
Our long fixation on growth now threatens the physical world – even just our numbers threaten flora and fauna with reckless abandon, let alone the myriad activities changing the very environment we all share – and the societies we’ve created over many, many generations.
It took the human population thousands of years to reach one billion in 1804. However, it took only 123 years for us to double to two billion in 1927. The population hit four billion in 1974 (only 47 years), and now the human population will reach eight billion, six years sooner than forecasts from just a decade ago.
The massive increases have been coming in the developing world, primarily. To the extent that depopulation has been discussed, it’s usually about Russia, Japan and Europe, where numbers are actually falling. In fact, in much of the West, immigration is the only thing keeping numbers rising, as fertility rates have fallen below the level of 2.1children per women needed to maintain the population.
Most of the discussion about that reality frames it as a problem. The growth mantra dictates that we need more people. This is short-term thinking.
Certainly there’s cause for concern. A shrinking population in Canada, for instance, would mean fewer workers supporting a growing number of seniors, a group drawing pensions and making large demands on health care and other social services. This could mean large tax increases and deep cuts in programs.
Globally, lower populations reduce the number of consumers, throwing out of kilter the trade patterns, exchange rates and other monetary policies we’ve come to take for granted.
Those concerned about security issues, for example, blanch at the thought of larger populations and economies developing outside of the West. That “they” will outnumber “us.”
To a certain extent that’s already happening today. According the United Nations figures, in 1950, six of the 12 most populous nations were developed countries. By 2050, only one will be: the United States.
Aging populations are a reality pretty much everywhere. Even without depopulation, we’re going to have to rethink policies such as pay-as-you-go pensions and even the generosity of our social programs. That kind of thinking is beyond the pale for our politicians, obsessed as they are with only the next election.
Still, there are compelling reasons to opt for a shrinking population. There are many positives. The environment would stand to benefit – fewer of us means less pollution and more room for other species. The quality of life experienced by many of us would improve. Labour shortages would lead to better working conditions. A surplus of housing would lead to improvements in choice and affordability. The pressure on farmland would decrease dramatically. In fact, previously developed land could be reclaimed or naturalized.
The transition from growth-is-everything to small-is-beautiful won’t come without pain. But we’ve already been through a number of transitions in just the past few hundred years, beginning with the industrial revolution. Even today, we’re constantly told by business advocates and their government supporters that the economy is changing yet again, to a post-industrial, information-driven age. That’s the rationale for sending manufacturing jobs overseas, though little is said of the service jobs that have followed.
As recessions demonstrate – and we may be in line for a refresher course – upheavals do happen: many of the jobs lost during the pandemic, for instance, are not coming back. A shrinking population will bring changes, but if done gradually over many years, we’ll learn to adapt.
The first step, however, is to get the issue on the agenda. There are issues of political correctness to contend with, and a system that favours the interests of a few over the public good – the status quo won’t go quietly. We’re well advised to be proactive, but in the end, the numbers just might take care of themselves.