Category Archives: Economy

Overpopulation and the Collapse of Civilization By Paul Ehrlich

Perpetual growth is unsustainable and will lead to collapse.  Photo by Chris Wevers.

Perpetual growth is unsustainable and will lead to collapse. Photo by Chris Wevers.

A major shared goal of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) and Sustainability Central is reducing the odds that the “perfect storm” of environmental problems that threaten humanity will lead to a collapse of civilization. Those threats include climate disruption, loss of biodiversity (and thus ecosystem services), land-use change and resulting degradation, global toxification, ocean acidification, decay of the epidemiological environment, increasing depletion of important resources, and resource wars (which could go nuclear). This is not just a list of problems, it is an interconnected complex resulting from interactions within and between what can be thought of as two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The manifestations of this interaction are often referred to as “the human predicament.” That predicament is getting continually and rapidly worse, driven by overpopulation, overconsumption among the rich, and the use of environmentally malign technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service the consumption. 

All of the interconnected problems are caused in part by overpopulation, in part by overconsumption by the already rich. One would think that most educated people now understand that the larger the size of a human population, ceteris paribus, the more destructive its impact on the environment. The degree of overpopulation is best indicated (conservatively) by ecological footprint analysis, which shows that to support today’s population sustainably at current patterns of consumption would require roughly another half a planet, and to do so at the U.S. level would take four to five more Earths.

The seriousness of the situation can be seen in the prospects of Homo sapiens’ most important activity: producing and procuring food. Today, at least two billion people are hungry or badly in need of better diets, and most analysts think doubling food production would be required to feed a 35% bigger and still growing human population adequately by 2050. For any chance of success, humanity will need to stop expanding land area for agriculture (to preserve ecosystem services); raise yields where possible; increase efficiency in use of fertilizers, water, and energy; become more vegetarian; reduce food wastage; stop wrecking the oceans; significantly increase investment in sustainable agricultural research; and move feeding everyone to the very top of the policy agenda. All of these tasks will require changes in human behavior long recommended but thus far elusive. Perhaps more critical, there may be insurmountable biophysical barriers to increasing yields – indeed, to avoiding reductions in yields – in the face of climate disruption.

Most people fail to realize the urgency of the food situation because they don’t understand the agricultural system and its complex, non-linear connections to the drivers of environmental deterioration. The system itself, for example, is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and thus is an important driver of the climate disruption that seriously threatens food production. More than a millennium of change in temperature and precipitation patterns is now entrained, with the prospect of more crop-threatening severe storms, droughts, heat waves, and floods- all of which are already evident. Thus maintaining – let alone expanding – food production will be ever more difficult in decades ahead.

Furthermore, agriculture is a leading cause of losses of biodiversity and the critical ecosystem services supplied to agriculture itself and other human enterprises, as well as a major source of global toxification, both of which pose additional risks to food production. The threat to food production of climate disruption alone means that humanity’s entire system for mobilizing energy needs to be rapidly transformed in an effort to hold atmospheric warming well below a lethal 5o C rise in global average temperature. It also means we must alter much of our water-handling infrastructure to provide the necessary flexibility to bring water to crops in an environment of constantly changing precipitation patterns.

Food is just the most obvious area where overpopulation tends to darken the human future – virtually every other human problem from air pollution and brute overcrowding to resource shortages and declining democracy is exacerbated by further population growth. And, of course, one of our most serious problems is the failure of leadership on the population issue, in both the United States and Australia. The situation is worst in the U.S. where the government never mentions population because of fear of the Catholic hierarchy specifically and the religious right in general, and the media keep publishing ignorant pro-natalist articles, and in Australia even advertise on prime-time TV to have more kids.

A prime example was a ludicrous 2010 New York Times screed by David Brooks, calling on Americans to cheer up because “Over the next 40 years, the U.S. population will surge by an additional 100 million people, to 400 million.” Equal total ignorance of the population-resource-environment situation was shown in 2012 by an article also in the New York Times by one Ross Douthat “More Babies, Please” and one by a Rick Newman in the USNews “Why a falling birth rate is a big problem,” both additional signs of the utter failure of the US educational system.

A popular movement is needed to correct that failure and direct cultural evolution toward providing the “foresight intelligence” and the agricultural, environmental, and demographic planning that markets cannot supply. Then analysts (and society) might stop treating population growth as a “given” and consider the nutritional and health benefits of humanely ending growth well below 9 billion and starting a slow decline. In my view, the best way to accelerate the move toward such population shrinkage is to give full rights, education, and job opportunities to women everywhere, and provide all sexually active human beings with modern contraception and backup abortion. The degree to which that would reduce fertility rates is controversial, but it would be a win-win for society. Yet the critical importance of increasing the inadequate current action on the demographic driver can be seen in the decades required to change the size of the population humanely and sensibly. In contrast we know from such things as the World War II mobilizations that consumption patterns can be altered dramatically in less than a year, given appropriate incentives.

The movement should also highlight the consequences of such crazy ideas as growing an economy at 3-5% per year over decades (or forever) as most innumerate economists and politicians believe possible. Most “educated” people do not realize that in the real world a short history of exponential growth does not imply a long future of such growth. Developing foresight intelligence and mobilizing civil society for sustainability are central goals of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (“the MAHB” – mahb.stanford.edu), goals now also a major mission of the University of Technology, Sydney.

Source: http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/overpopulation-and-the-collapse-of-civilization/

 

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Don’t Worry–Be Resilient by Charles Hugh Smith

Family fun. Photo by Keith Brofsky/Artville

Family fun. Photo by Keith Brofsky/Artville

At some point, absorbing more information about the unsustainability of modern society yields diminishing returns. It becomes emotionally draining and thus counterproductive. Part of this exhaustion results from recognizing our powerlessness within the Status Quo, where independent thinking and structural innovation are intentionally winnowed out as threats to existing institutions and industries. Another part arises from the burden of knowing that the supposedly permanent Status Quo is far more vulnerable than generally believed.

A related factor that is never publicly discussed is the negative impact on our mental health of all the propaganda that we are force-fed by the Mainstream Media.  When truth is incrementally undermined by massaged data and behind-the-façade manipulation, we lose faith in key State and media institutions and suffer from a propaganda-induced disconnect between what we see and what is reported as fact.

These “burdens of knowing” can diminish the small but real joys of the present: work we like, a home-cooked meal, and time spent with our friends and family. As a result, many smart, well-informed people consciously refuse to dwell on our systemic problems because doing so “is a downer.” These folks hold the perspective that anxiety about the future should not get in the way of the simple pleasures of living.

This attitude can be described as “don’t worry ~ be happy.” And it certainly makes sense when life is still comfortable and enjoyable.

But the philosophy of “thinking about the future is a downer, so I live in the present” ultimately rests on a false confidence that the future will take care of itself, regardless of what happens to the large-scale systems of State, finance, and resources. It overlooks the reality that not all responses to instability or devolution are equally successful. Those who are totally dependent on the Central State and speculation-based markets will have a much more difficult time maintaining their “happy” view if the systems they depend on erode or fail.

Perhaps the wiser response is “don’t worry ~ be resilient.”  The resilient household can be happy not only in the present surplus of energy, entitlements, goods, and services, but can also thrive in a future where the current surplus of cash, credit, and speculative gains has dried up.

Life will out. Photo by RayinLA/Flickr/cc

Life will out. Photo by RayinLA/Flickr/cc

What is Resilience?

What is resilience?  A dictionary definition is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” In other words, it is on the other end of the response spectrum from fragility, brittleness, and vulnerability.

In terms of individual psychology, resilience can be characterized as being able to roll with the punches, maintaining a positive attitude through difficult times, and focusing on developing successful responses to misfortunes and challenges. American culture extols individual resilience, and we are taught to think that the individual can overcome anything and everything with the right attitude. But if the Status Quo is vulnerable to disruption on a systemic level, then it is prudent to think of resilience in a systemic way as well.

One way to describe the difference between systemic vulnerability and resilience is to conduct a thought experiment:

  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA on the NY Stock Exchange) was 14,000 or 4,000? Or if gasoline cost $3.50 or $7.50 per gallon?
  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if Central State [government] entitlements were slashed by half, or vanished altogether?
  • What if it didn’t matter to you and your household if your land and house were worth $1 million or $100,000?

In other words, what if the machinations of Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, the Central State and, indeed, all of Central Planning’s promises and speculation-boosting had little effect on your life or well-being? Would this make your household more resilient or more vulnerable? Clearly, the less we are dependent on systemically brittle Central Planning systems, the fewer adjustments we will have to make should these large-scale systems devolve or fail.

The important point being made here about resilience is that it does not require a sacrifice of present happiness. Nor does it profit from the devolution or failure of Central Planning. The resilient household is able to enjoy the present surplus of energy, credit, State entitlements, and consumerist abundance, but it doesn’t rely on it.

If the Status Quo is indeed as permanent as it is presented, the resilient household has the same measure of happiness as the household that is totally dependent on Central Planning promises and boundless credit. The difference between fragility and resilience is how much security and happiness will be available to the two households should the Status Quo credit-based consumption and speculative wealth turn out to be decidedly impermanent.

Debt, Fragility and Vulnerability

The easiest way to increase resilience is to reduce fragility and vulnerability. We can understand the dynamics of what we might call anti-resilience—debt, fragility, and vulnerability—with another thought experiment:

Household A’s gross income is $5,000 a month and their net income (less Federal, state and local payroll and income taxes) is $4,200 a month.  The mortgage is $2,000 per month, both wage earners have substantial monthly payments on student loans, and the household also has an auto loan. The household’s healthcare insurance is partly paid by payroll deductions, and the household remains responsible for a percentage of any major medical costs.  Basic living expenses eat up the rest of the net income; the household saves nothing and has minimal savings.

Household A hopes housing valuations keep rising, as they plan to borrow money off this resurgent home equity to fund a vacation, something they haven’t had for four years.

This household’s financial situation is precarious because its expenses equal its income, and most of these expenses are debt-related and cannot be trimmed. This greatly increases their fragility to financial misfortune; any reduction in take-home pay or any increase in expenses will push this household into default.  To increase consumption, they plan to borrow more money once their only collateral—their home equity—increases enough to support more debt.

Household A has a high and inflexible cost-basis. Any significant reduction in income cannot be offset with equivalent cuts in spending.

Household B owns their land and home free and clear; the only housing-related payments are property taxes and property insurance.  (Recall that 30% of all homes are owned free and clear in the U.S., so this is not as unusual as you might imagine.)

One wage-earner paid off her modest student loans within a few years; the other never took on student loans in the first place. They own two older vehicles free and clear. They are debt-free. Their gross income is $4,000 and their net income is $3,200. Since they have no mortgage interest deduction, their income taxes are higher as a percentage of income than Household A. Their living expenses total $1,500 per month, so they save 50% of their net income.  If one of the wage earners loses their job, the household can maintain its current budget without sacrifice. Their substantial savings protect them from unforeseen medical expenses not covered by healthcare insurance, and they can pay for vacations with cash, not credit.

Let’s say that one wage earner in each household loses their job and must take a job that pays 20% less. Household A cannot cover its expenses and must default on one of their debts. Household B’s monthly savings decline, but they are still saving a substantial portion of their income.

Which household is vulnerable to even modest financial misfortune?  Clearly Household A. Will a positive attitude be enough to save the family from insolvency?  It will help it transition into and hopefully through bankruptcy, but a positive attitude alone is no substitute for financial resilience.

Though Keynesian economists argue that nations are not like households, in truth debt/financial fragility is scale-invariant, meaning that rising debt, a high cost basis, and zero savings/investment lead to fragility in households, enterprises, communities, and nations alike.

Conclusion

The United States of America shares a lot in common with Household A: It has a high and inflexible cost-basis, and it is dependent on borrowing to fund future consumption and on speculation to create collateral. It is also tied into spending a significant share of its income-servicing debt. History offers few examples of major nations that prospered by borrowing vast sums for consumption.

Charles Hugh Smith writes the ‘Of Two Minds’ blog <www.oftwominds.com/blog.html> which covers an eclectic range of timely topics: finance, housing, Asia, energy, long term trends, social issues, health/diet/fitness and sustainability. Smith’s books include “Weblogs and New Media: Marketing in Crisis” (2008) and “Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation” (2009). He is currently completing “An Unconventional Guide to Investing in Troubled Times” (June 2011). Published on ‘Peak Prosperity’  <http://www.peakprosperity.com, February 12, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

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U.S. Census Report Finds Increases in Coastal Population Growth Put More People at Risk of Extreme Weather by NOAA & U.S. Census Bureau

Wreckage from Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Spleeness/Flickr/cc

Wreckage from Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Spleeness/Flickr/cc

If current population trends continue, the already crowded U.S. coast will see population grow from 123 million people to nearly 134 million people by 2020, putting more people at increased risk from extreme coastal storms like Sandy and Isaac, which severely damaged infrastructure and property last year. The projection comes from a new report from NOAA, The National Coastal Population Report: Population Trends from 1970 to 2020, issued in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to the report, which analyzed data from the 2010 census, 39% of the U.S. population is concentrated in counties directly on the shoreline—less than 10% of the total U.S. land area excluding Alaska.  Also 52% of the total population lives in counties that drain to coastal watersheds, less than 20% of U.S. land area, excluding Alaska. A coastal watershed is an area in which water, sediments, and dissolved material drain to a common coastal outlet, like a bay or the ocean.

“People who live near the shore, and managers of these coastal communities, should be aware of how this population growth may affect their coastal areas over time,” said Holly Bamford, Ph.D., assistant NOAA administrator for the National Ocean Service. “As more people move to the coast, county managers will see a dual challenge—protecting a growing population from coastal hazards, as well as protecting coastal ecosystems from a growing population.”

For the first time, this report offers coastal managers and other users two perspectives on population growth along the U.S. coast:

1) the traditional perspective that looks at status and trends throughout counties that drain to coastal watersheds, called Coastal Watershed Counties, and

2) a newer focus that examines only those counties that directly border the coast, including the Great Lakes.

“Understanding the demographic context of coastal areas is vital for our nation and helps us to meet the challenges of tomorrow. To help inform policymakers and the public through this report, the Census Bureau developed a new measure of coastal populations,” said James Fitzsimmons, assistant chief of the Census Bureau’s population division.

Coastal population statistics in the overall total of 769 ‘Coastal Watershed Counties’ provide context for coastal water quality and coastal ecosystem health-related issues. Data from the 452 of those counties that lie directly on the shoreline, called ‘Coastal Shoreline Counties’, can be used to talk about coastal resilience, coastal hazards, and other ocean resource dependent issues.

“Whether you’re talking about watershed counties or shoreline counties, the coast is substantially more crowded than the U.S. as a whole,” said report editor Kristen Crossett of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “Population density in shoreline counties is more than six times greater than the corresponding inland counties. And the projected growth in coastal areas will increase population density at a faster rate than the country as a whole.”

The report also found that from 1970 to 2010, Coastal Shoreline Counties population increased by 39%, and Coastal Watershed Counties population increased by 45%.

The report is available on NOAA’s ‘State of the Coast’ website, which provides quick facts and more detailed statistics through interactive maps, case studies, and management success stories that highlight what is known about coastal communities, coastal ecosystems, and the coastal economy and about how climate change might impact the coast.

Source: NOAA press release <http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2013/20130325_coastalpopulation.html>

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Workers of the World: RELAX! by John de Graaf

How We Can Create a Successful Economy Without Continuous Economic Growth

Relaxing by the fountain. Photo by PolandMFA/Flickr/cc

Relaxing by the fountain. Photo by PolandMFA/Flickr/cc

The late, great environmentalist David Brower used to say that there will be no profits, no corporations, no economic growth, and by implication, no successful economies on a dead planet.

Brower, who made the Sierra Club a powerful force for conservation and founded Friends of the Earth, often delivered what he called his “sermon.” He compressed the age of the Earth, some 4.6 billion years, into the Biblical week of creation.

The Earth forms on Sunday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon, the first life-forms arrive. Over the next few days, they grow larger and more complex. On the last day of the week, at 10 a.m., the dinosaurs show up. They last until 3 p.m., when an asteroid ends their reign. Only three minutes before midnight on the final night, humans arrive. And only in the last tiny fraction of a second before midnight do we get the consumer society that began after World War II.

So perhaps we should be asking a different question: Is continuous growth undercutting our efforts to create a successful economy? I think so.

In that last fraction of a second, we have used more resources than all human beings who ever lived before that time, reduced our soils and fisheries by half, caused the extinction of countless species, and changed the climate. Our leaders believe that what we’ve been doing for that last fraction of a second can continue indefinitely. We consider them normal and reasonable, Brower observed, but actually, they are stark, raving mad.

We can’t grow on like this.

Already, our “ecological footprint” is well in excess of what is sustainable for future generations. And beyond a modest level of income, growth doesn’t make countries happier either. So perhaps we should be asking a different question: Is continuous growth undercutting our efforts to create a successful economy? I think so.

Economic growth, our current indicator of success, is measured by the rise of the gross domestic product (GDP), the market value of the goods and services we produce, the sum total of things bought and sold. It’s commonly agreed that GDP is a blunt instrument; it doesn’t measure valuable activities that are not monetized (e.g., housework) and it counts (as a plus) expenditures that only alleviate things gone wrong (e.g., cancer treatments). Perhaps Bobby Kennedy put it best when he said, “It measures, in short, everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

By all accounts, the United States’ economy has grown faster than those of Europe over the past two decades, when measured by GDP. We trumpet that fact as indicating the success of our economic model. But Italian economist Stefano Bartolini makes a powerful case for a different view. He says our more rapid growth rate is a symptom of American economic decay, not dynamism. In his new book, Manifesto for Happiness, to be published in English this year by the University of Pennsylvania, Bartolini calls the United States “the example not to follow.”

In short, his argument is this: Growing inequality has left median American hourly incomes flat for a generation while GDP doubled. We were able to purchase the increased volume of consumer goods produced by working longer hours and by taking on excessive personal debt. But more work and more stuff have left us lonelier and less connected with each other, while growing debt has led to calls for slashing taxes, leading to higher prices for public goods such as higher education or access to public parks.

We have been encouraged to counter these losses by purchasing even more private goods (Want friends? Buy a hot car… Want nature? Fly to a tropical paradise…), leading to even heavier debt and workloads. Moreover, our lifestyles, built around private consumption, have created low-density sprawl that makes public transit too expensive and encourages automobile dependence, longer commutes, and even less social connection, while further reducing public space and access to nature. It’s a vicious circle.

Bartolini argues that free or publicly provided and often non-material need-satisfiers have atrophied or been crowded out by costly private consumer goods.

The outcome is poor health (the worst in the rich world), time stress, greater anxiety, and diminished happiness, including a suicide rate that now exceeds that for traffic fatalities. Yet our expenditures to soften these impacts (the highest health care costs in the world, for example) mean our economy grows faster than Europe’s, where people work and consume less and devote more time to social relationships. We are hamsters, turning the wheel faster and faster but never moving forward to better lives.

This result can scarcely be called a “successful” economy. Economic success is better measured the way Bhutan measures it. Since 1972, that tiny Himalayan kingdom has been promoting Gross National Happiness rather than GDP. With Bhutan’s encouragement, the United Nations is now advocating “equitable and sustainable well-being” as the goal of development instead of mere economic growth, while asking member nations to measure their success in pursuing happiness. A better measurement of “success” is the first step toward well-being.

In the United States, an organization called ‘The Happiness Initiative’ has been working with colleges and communities on such a measurement of progress, using a comprehensive but short survey that measures life satisfaction in ten “domains” identified by researchers as essential for happiness: financial security; environmental quality; physical and mental health; education; arts and culture; government; social connection; workplace quality and time balance.

“Time Balance” scores for Americans are uniformly low, leading to my own recipe—supported by Juliet Schor, Gus Speth, and others—for strategically moving towards a successful economy without continuous economic growth: work reduction.

High unemployment is certainly no indication of economic success; indeed, it contributes greatly to unhappiness. As productivity increases, employment must be maintained either by greater production (with attendant environmental costs) or by sharing and shortening work hours through reduced work weeks, longer vacations, liberal family and sick leave policies, and greater opportunities for decently remunerated part-time work with benefits.

Work reduction would provide more economic security and more time for self-chosen activity—exercise, gardening, volunteering, environmental restoration and stewardship, socializing, stress-reducing leisure, personal caregiving. Yet, this obvious answer to the question of how to create a successful economy without continuous growth has been systematically excluded from American politics since the Second World War.

Some argue that it will be very difficult to change the laws that permit work without end.  They forget that it will be far harder to change the laws of physics to permit growth without end. Conrad Schmidt of British Columbia’s Work Less Party, puts the solution in simplest terms: “Workers of the World, Relax!”

John de Graaf is a documentary filmmaker who has produced more than a dozen prime-time national PBS specials and has won more than 100 filmmaking awards. De Graaf is the Executive Director of Take Back Your Time and co-founder of The Happiness Initiative. He is the co-author of the books Affluenza and What’s the Economy for, Anyway?  Source: Center for Humans & Nature,  

 <http://www.humansandnature.org/economy—john-de-graaf-response-68.php>  Reprinted with permission.   The Center for Humans and Nature brings together philosophers, biologists, ecologists, lawyers, political scientists, anthropologists, and economists, among others, to think creatively about how people can make better decisions—in relationship with each other and the rest of nature.

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A New Dream Built on Resilience by Asher Miller

A new way of seeing our place within the web of life.

A new way of seeing our place within the web of life.

If you’re a lazy pessimist, times are good. After all, you don’t have to look far to see evidence that things are tough and poised to get tougher.

There’s a growing wealth chasm between the rich and, well, everyone else. Significant changes to our climate are already underway and are now largely unavoidable. Our industrial food system is having a malignant influence on people’s health and our politicians. And we are going to increasingly desperate lengths to feed our fossil fuel energy addiction. The list goes on.

And while national and international leadership are key to navigating the bumpy road ahead, thus far, that leadership is sadly wanting.

I’ll be honest—in the face of all this, I’d probably count myself among the lazy pessimists. But having kids ruined both the laziness and the pessimism. I’m sure many of you can relate.

But that doesn’t mean that we can ignore the painful reality that’s just outside the window. And if you’re anything like me, you’re wondering what can be done. One approach is to build resilient communities:

  • Resilient – because the complex economic, energy, and environmental challenges we face not only require solutions to make problems go away, but responses that recognize our vulnerabilities, build our capacities, and enable us to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable future.
  • Communities – because the future is grounded in local relationships—relationships with the ecological resources that feed and sustain us, among families and neighbors, and through the institutions we use to govern ourselves.

Thankfully, a small but growing movement of engaged citizens, community groups, businesses, and local elected officials is leading the way. These early actors have worked to reduce unbridled consumption, produce local food and energy, invest in local economies, and preserve local ecosystems. While diverse, the essence of these efforts is the same: a recognition that the world is changing and the old way of doing things no longer works.

A few months ago, my organization, Post Carbon Institute, launched a new website called ‘resilience.org’ to provide connections for concerned folks just like you and me: connections to timely information and thought-provoking essays; connections to like-minded grassroots groups and nonprofit organizations that are working to build robust, thriving communities; and connections to innovative resources and models that help us individually and collectively face these challenges head on.

Here are just few recent examples of articles and resources you can find at resilience.org:

•  A conversation with Mark Lakeman of City Repair: On the development of sustainable public places.

As part of this task we’re also publishing a series of Community Resilience Guides to capture some of the most promising and replicable of these efforts: investing in the local economy, producing community-owned renewable energy, and growing local food security.

These are uncertain, challenging times. But they are also full of opportunity. And so if you’re like me (and the thousands of other folks who visit resilience.org regularly) and feel compelled to take action, I hope you’ll get engaged in the necessary, daunting, and rewarding task of building resilience at home and in your community. It’s all-hands-on-deck!

Asher Miller is the Executive Director of Post Carbon Institute and on the board of Transition US. Visit <resilience.org> to find a resilience group near you. Source: Center for a New American Dream, March 7, 2013. <http://www.newdream.org/blog/a-new-dream-built-on-resilience&gt;

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What Kind of Economy Says OK to Tar Sands Oil? by Brent Blackwelder

On Sunday, February 17, I marched in the largest climate change protest in U.S. history. About 35,000 people gathered on the Washington Monument grounds for a rally and then marched past the White House, calling on President Obama to deny permission for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport oil from Canada’s tar sands through the heart of the U.S. to the Gulf Coast.

Native Americans protest tar sands mining that destroyed their land.

Native Americans protest tar sands mining that destroyed their land.

Two of the victims of tar sands development in Alberta, Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation and Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, spoke of the contamination of their lands and people. Even without the pipeline, the gigantic oil extraction operation is already causing plenty of harm.

If carried to completion during the next several decades, over the objections of the indigenous people who have been stewards of this land, tar sands mining will have transformed an area the size of Florida or Wisconsin. A land teeming with fish and wildlife will have been turned into a grotesque zone of toxicity where the lakes will act as predators as they entice unsuspecting waterfowl to land in their polluted waters.

What kind of economy would find such an activity acceptable? At the very least, the economy must be making some perverse calculations to justify such devastation.

As if the direct devastation of the land and water were not enough, the utilization of tar sands oil by the U.S. and other countries means “game over” for the global climate, according to NASA scientist James Hansen. In other words, the energy-intensive extraction followed by the burning of tar sands oil will put so much carbon pollution into the atmosphere that we will enter an era of radical climate destabilization.

The exploitation is proceeding on Cree lands against their consent and in violation of the Canadian Constitution. It represents a blatant refusal to abide by Article 32 of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that says: “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples… in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.”

President Obama appears poised to give permission to build the pipeline and contribute to this industrial nightmare. So what can we do in the aftermath of the big protest?

The time has come to reject the premises of today’s economy, because it is not a true-cost economy, and it undermines good governance. It is an economy set up for cheaters and gamblers. It is also an economy that exploits those lacking political clout and that disrespects international law, except when it comes to trade agreements that enable polluters to enter special secret courts (see the Chevron trade case against Ecuador for one recent example).

A true-cost, sustainable economy would not countenance commercial activities like tar sands mining that are tantamount to an all-out war against the natural environment and a form of industrial genocide. The genocide is underway not because of racial hatred, but because tribal people have stood in the way of a major money-making venture. Furthermore, the indigenous people lacked political power to stop the transnational corporations from ruining their lands.

Protests of the Keystone XL pipeline should blossom into protests of our unsustainable economy.

A true-cost economy would exemplify resilience. It would be less susceptible to disruptions from speculation, violent weather events, and terrorism. Such an economy would not pursue activities that generate or are likely to generate irreversible pollution. No one has to worry about a “solar spill” or a “wind spill” ruining their drinking water.

Today’s economy, on the other hand, is permitting all sorts of damaging activities that violate the criterion of reversibility and bequeath a legacy of poison. Consider the contrast between renewable energy projects and coal mining.

If a wind farm or solar rooftop array is causing problems, it can easily be removed without leaving centuries of pollution behind. The roof or the land can be returned to other uses. In fact, wind farms are fully compatible with agricultural production around the wind turbines. One wind farm I visited near Dodge City, Kansas, consisted of 150 turbines in a 20-square-mile area, and the land requirements were just seven acres.

In contrast, coal mining in West Virginia through mountain-top removal is converting biologically diverse, forested mountains into a Martian landscape. In the words of former Congressman Ken Heckler, reclamation amounts to “putting lipstick on a corpse.” Such mining projects violate the principle of reversibility, just like tar sands oil extraction. What will be available to people in the future who want to live in and explore places like West Virginia’s formerly bountiful mountains and valleys?

Whenever concerns are raised over the destructive impacts of big extractive projects, the predicament of joblessness always comes up. But joblessness cannot be solved with the current economic strategy that allows temporary construction jobs to destroy permanent jobs and livelihoods. Big extraction projects cannot create the volume of jobs that can be had by pursuing renewable energy. In fact, the oil industry generates the fewest jobs of almost any industry in the federal government’s database.

It is time to start demanding a true-cost economy that will create diverse jobs without creating no-go zones of carcinogenic and mutagenic wastes.

Brent Blackwelder is the emeritus president of Friends of the Earth. Brent was a founder and first chairman of the board of American Rivers, our nation’s leading river conservation organization. He was also one of the founders of the Environmental Policy Institute, which merged with Friends of the Earth in 1989. He has testified in front of Congress on pressing environmental issues more than 100 times. As a leader in the effort to save rivers, Brent helped expand the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System from eight rivers in 1973 to over 250 today. He also worked to eliminate over 200 dams and other water projects that would have destroyed rivers, wetlands, wildlife and areas of special scientific value. Brent initiated campaigns to reform the World Bank and succeeded in getting Congress to enact a series of significant reforms directing the Bank and other multilateral lending institutions to pay more attention to the environment. He graduated summa cum laude from Duke University and received an M.A. in mathematics from Yale, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Maryland.

Source: Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy  <http://steadystate.org > Posted: 25 Feb 2013. Reprinted with permission.

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Happiness: Santa Monica Well-Being Study to Examine the Health and Social Connectedness of Residents by Marilyn Hempel

Santa Monica Third Street Prominade

Santa Monica Third Street Prominade

Santa Monica, California, is known for its progressive social consciousness. The Los Angeles County coastal city now wants to find out how its citizens are feeling. The City of Santa Monica has won a $1 million grant to develop an index to measure the satisfaction of residents, all in an effort to improve public policy.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, offered the ‘Mayor’s Challenge’ prize to cities to discover “innovative local solutions to national problems”. Providence, RI, took the top spot, winning $5 million to launch its ‘Providence Talks’ program, which is designed to improve the language skills of children born into low-income homes.

Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia were also named runners-up alongside Santa Monica. They too will receive a $1-million prize to kick-start projects such as a “one bin for all” recycling program and an analytics platform that will make city government more efficient.

“The competition has provided evidence that cities are really the new laboratories of democracy,” Bloomberg said.

Santa Monica will develop its happiness index over the next two years. City officials and Rand Corporation researchers propose tracking the physical health, social connectedness and community resilience of residents. Once officials pinpoint how residents are faring, they can direct money and resources where needs are greatest. The city has already completed a youth well-being study that found most students were healthy and felt safe at school.

The city of Santa Monica is not only interested in becoming more sustainable, it is already working to achieve that goal. It has had an Office of Sustainability and the Environment since 1994. Dean Kubani is director of the office and its programs.  In describing the development of a happiness index, he stated:

“Research shows that the conditions that make people happy are (among other things): strong family and community connections; positive physical and mental health; a feeling of comfort and safety in one’s surroundings; gainful and fulfilling work; and a pleasant environment to live in.

“In Santa Monica we plan to measure local wellbeing through a combination of subjective data (basically interviewing a lot of people about how they perceive their own wellbeing and the conditions that impact their wellbeing) and objective data like crime rates, public heath indicators, educational data, economic and jobs data, environmental indicators and others that address all of these various conditions and ‘happiness factors’.

“We will aggregate this into a Wellbeing Index that will inform our City Council and other community leaders on directing resources to those areas (both geographic and topical) identified by the data as wellbeing ‘gaps’.  The ultimate goal is to continually collect this data, and use it to increase the wellbeing of our community. Making more informed decisions will hopefully result in better outcomes for our residents. This is similar to the way our sustainability indicators and targets inform our decision-making process now.”

The ultimate goal is to build sustainable, resilient communities where the residents connect with each other and with nature—all within the means of nature. That way of life will help people thrive and be happy. As Dean Kubani said,  “If we can help each other along, we can sleep well at night.”

For more information, contact the City of Santa Monica, Office of Sustainability and the Environment, 200 Santa Monica Pier, Ste J, Santa Monica, CA 90401. Phone: 310-458-2213. Website: <www.sustainablesm.org>

Sustainable Santa Monica Background

On September 20, 1994 Santa Monica’s City Council adopted the city’s first Sustainable City Program to ensure that Santa Monica can continue to meet its current environmental, economic and social needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. The program has evolved since its adoption and has been responsible for many positive changes in the community. In 2003, City Council adopted an expanded version of the program called the Sustainable City Plan, which was developed by a diverse group of community stakeholders and lays out far-reaching sustainability goals for the community. In 2012, Santa Monica began a comprehensive update of the Sustainable City Plan in order to lay the foundation for future sustainability successes.

Additional information is available at <www.sustainablesm.org>. If you have questions, please contact the Office of Sustainability and the Environment at: (Phone) 310-458-2213 or (Email) environment@smgov.net.

10 Guiding Principles provide the basis from which effective decisions are made.

1. The Concept of Sustainability Guides City Policy

2. Protection, Preservation, and Restoration of the Natural Environment
is a High Priority of the City

3. Environmental Quality, Economic Health and Social Equity are Mutually Dependent

4. All Decisions Have Implications to the Long-term Sustainability of Santa Monica

5. Community Awareness, Responsibility, Participation and Education are Key Elements of a Sustainable Community

6. Santa Monica Recognizes Its Linkage with the Regional, National, and Global Community

7. Those Sustainability Issues Most Important to the Community Will be Addressed First, and the Most Cost-Effective Programs and Policies Will be Selected

8. The City is Committed to Procurement Decisions which Minimize Negative Environmental and Social Impacts

9. Cross-sector Partnerships Are Necessary to Achieve Sustainable Goals

10. The Precautionary Principle Provides a Complimentary Framework to Help Guide City Decision-Makers in the Pursuit of Sustainability

Sustainable Santa Monica ~ 2012 Achievement Highlights

Resource Conservation

  • Expanding Efficiency: More than 700 water saving devices were installed in homes and businesses throughout the city.
  • Solar Success: To date, there are 377 grid connected solar projects in the city representing 2.945 megawatts of solar capacity.
  • Compost Collection: The food waste composting program kept more than 4,000,000 pounds of food waste out of the landfill.

Transportation

  • Biking is Big: Bike lanes and routes were installed on 18 miles of city streets.
  • Pedal Parking: The bike valet program parked 24,000 bikes for free at 217 community events around the city.
  • Friendly Fuels: Public electric vehicle charging stations were installed at 24 locations adding to the more than 100 EV charging stations already available at private locations.

Economic Development

  • Community Commerce: 518 businesses joined ‘Buy Local Santa Monica’ and demonstrated their commitment to our local community.
  • Local Leadership: Nineteen businesses were recognized for their exceptional commitment to sustainable practices through the ‘Green Business Certification Program’.

Environmental and Public Health

  • Diligent Disposal: Community members using the Household Hazardous Waste Programs kept nearly 250,000 lbs
  • of hazardous materials and 32,000 lbs of household batteries out of the landfill.
  • Resource Reuse: More than 64,000,000 gallons of urban runoff were harvested and treated for reuse at the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility.
  • Market Madness: Sales are up 5% at four thriving farmers’ markets that provide fresh, locally grown produce to nearly a million visitors each year!
  • Better Bags: Implementation of the ‘Single Use Carryout Bag Ban’ eliminated 21,000,000 plastic bags from circulation throughout the city.

Open Space and Land Use

  • Outstanding Open Space: Santa Monica’s open space system now includes 245 acres of state beach and 27 community parks.
  • Total Trees: An additional 1,384 new trees were added to the existing 34,500 public trees in Santa Monica’s urban forest.

Human Dignity

  • Homeless Help: ‘Project Homecoming’ helped 266 previously homeless individuals reunite with family and friends able to offer permanent housing and ongoing support.
  • Safe Streets: Serious crimes against persons and property dropped 4.8%.
  • Community Care: The Human Services Grants Program provided over $7,400,00 to support local family, disability, employment and homeless services.

Housing

  • Housing Hope: 101 affordable housing units were completed and construction began on an additional 354 affordable housing units.
  • Complete Communities: More than 90% of all new housing units are within a mile of a transit stop, open space and a grocery store.

Arts and Culture

  • Adding Arts: City Council approved the addition of an ‘Arts and Culture Goal Area’ in the Sustainable City Plan.
  • Creative Culture: The full spectrum of cultural, artistic and design goods and services known as the ‘Creative Sector’ employ 43% of Santa Monica residents.

Community Education and Civic Participation

  • People Participate: Nearly 9,000 people participated in the Santa Monica Festival and 20,000 people attended the AltCar and AltBuild Expos.
  • Environmental Education: More than 800 people participated in the ‘Sustainable Works Community Greening Program’.
  • Individual Input: Voter turnout in the November 2010 off-year election was 65%, exceeding the Sustainable City Plan target of 50%.

Sample of Future Goals

  • Become water self-sufficient (i.e no water from the Colorado River or northern California – only local well water, rainwater and recycled/reclaimed water) by 2020
  • Achieve 95% waste diversion from the landfill by 2030
  • Get community greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 80% below 1990 by 2050 (Santa Monica is already 14% below 1990 levels now).

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U.S. Immigration Policies: Uncomfortable Facts by Paul Krugman

(This article was written in 2006, and it’s still relevant today)

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” wrote Emma Lazarus, in a poem that still puts a lump in my throat. I’m proud of America’s immigrant history, and grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.

In other words, I’m instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration. But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If people like me are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.

First, the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small. Realistic estimates suggest that immigration since 1980 has raised the total income of native-born Americans by no more than a fraction of 1%.

Second, while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration—especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8% more if it weren’t for Mexican immigration.

That’s why it’s intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do “jobs that Americans will not do.” The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays—and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

Finally, modern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should—and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net.

Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they’re here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote about his own country’s experience with immigration, ”We wanted a labor force, but human beings came.” Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don’t pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.

Worse yet, immigration penalizes governments that act humanely. Immigrants are a much more serious fiscal problem in California than in Texas which treats the poor and unlucky harshly, regardless of where they were born.

We shouldn’t exaggerate these problems. Mexican immigration, says the Borjas-Katz study, has played only a “modest role” in growing U.S. inequality. And the political threat that low-skill immigration poses to the welfare state is more serious than the fiscal threat: the disastrous Medicare drug bill alone does far more to undermine the finances of our social insurance system than the whole burden of dealing with illegal immigrants. But modest problems are still real problems, and immigration is becoming a major political issue. What are we going to do about it?

Realistically, we’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration. But the harsh anti-immigration legislation passed by the House, which has led to huge protests—legislation that would, among other things, make it a criminal act to provide an illegal immigrant with medical care—is simply immoral.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush’s plan for a ”guest worker” program is clearly designed by and for corporate interests, who’d love to have a low-wage work force that couldn’t vote. Not only is it deeply un-American; it does nothing to reduce the adverse effect of immigration on wages. And because guest workers would face the prospect of deportation after a few years, they would have no incentive to become integrated into our society.

What about a guest-worker program that includes a clearer route to citizenship? I’d still be careful. Whatever the bill’s intentions, it could all too easily end up having the same effect as the Bush plan in practice—that is, it could create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers.

We need to do something about immigration, and soon. But I’d rather see Congress fail to agree on anything than have it rush into ill-considered legislation that betrays our moral and democratic principles.

 

Dr. Paul Krugman, American economist, bestselling author and respected professor, was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008. Krugman’s expertise is in international economics, including finance, trade theory and economic geography. Source: This essay was published by Paul Krugman in the New York Times on March 27, 2006. It is reprinted here verbatim and unedited. In follow-up remarks Krugman noted that although many readers will probably be unhappy with the essay, he stands by its main points, referencing economic studies which support those points. Interestingly, the NY Times quickly deleted the original article from its website.

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Can the World Have Both Rapid Population Growth and Sustainable Development? by David Lam & John Bongaarts

This is part of an online discussion, a point/counter-point exchange on the issue of rapid population growth and sustainable development. The debate continues on what the international development agenda should be. These arguments are just as relevant to U.S. family planning services as to any other country.

Quantity...?

Quantity…?

The Quantity/Quality Transition

David Lam:

When couples decide whether to use contraception and whether to have another child, they think not only about the numbers of children but also about the quality of life each child will have. As fertility has fallen rapidly in most regions of the world, the amount of resources invested in each child has also increased dramatically. Some of these investments, such as schooling and public health, are at least partly provided by public resources. But many of the investments are made by the parents, and explain why parents around the world talk about children being more expensive than they were when families were much larger. In the last 50 years most of the developing world has made a transition from couples having large numbers of children with low investments per child, to couples having small numbers of children with high investments per child. This is one of the most fundamental dimensions of economic development and is one of the reasons for optimism about the future of the world. Children born today in developing countries will be healthier and better educated than their parents or their grandparents, good news for them and for the countries they live in.

...or Quality?

…or Quality?

Economists think of parents as choosing both the quantity and the ‘quality’ of children, in the same way that people choose both the quantity and quality of things like cars, houses, and clothing.  Non-economists sometimes find this language offensive, perhaps because it sounds like some children are more valuable than others or because it equates children with consumer durables.  But ‘quality’ of children simply refers to the amount of resources invested in each child, with these investments resulting in outcomes such as better health, more education, and a higher standard of living. Parents make decisions about both quantity and quality, and it is important to keep this in mind in thinking about why parents choose to reduce fertility. Whenever we see fertility decline we also see increased parental investments in children. It is really the combination of lower quantity and higher quality that parents are choosing, not simply lower fertility.

Understanding this ‘quantity-quality transition’ is important in thinking about population policy. Parents choose a combination of lower quantity of children and higher quality of children for a number of reasons. One reason is because increased child survival makes this a more viable childbearing strategy. Another is because better access to family planning services gives women the ability to choose a low fertility option. Another important reason is because with economic development parents begin to see increased returns to investing in their children.

Urbanization and industrialization bring increased returns to human capital, including education and health. Parents begin to see that a child with good schooling can do well in the world. This is one of the reasons why parents move to a strategy of low fertility and high investments in their children.

Women are most likely to reduce fertility when they see rewards to increasing investments in children. Family planning programs are most likely to be effective when they are accompanied by improvements in schools, better economic opportunities, and improvements in child survival. Most countries have already made the transition from high fertility-low investments to low fertility-high investments. The challenge is to bring this transition to the remaining poor countries, mainly in Africa, that have yet to make it. The best way to accomplish this is to provide access to family planning that is accompanied by policies and programs that will improve economic growth and increase the returns to investments in children.

John Bongaarts:

Economists have made important contributions to our understanding of the fertility transition by emphasizing the crucial role of investments in the education and health of children and by analyzing the quantity-quality trade-off that parents face when making family size decisions. Poor countries should indeed make education and health improvements a top priority. This will yield many individual and social benefits and will eventually bring about the fertility transition. However, such transitions take time and will leave many poor countries with huge population increases that threaten to derail development. This is why family planning programs are also essential.

Unfortunately economists have been largely unsupportive of family planning programs. As David Lam points out, economists think of parents as choosing both the quantity and the ‘quality’ of children, in the same way that people choose both the quantity and quality of things like cars, houses, and clothing. An obvious problem with this way of thinking is that durable goods require an active purchase in the market, while pregnancies occur unless an effort is made to avoid them. In addition, economic theories typically assume that the cost of contraception is sufficiently low to be ignored. From this academic perspective the occurrence of unwanted pregnancies should be as rare as of unwanted new cars; family planning programs are therefore considered pointless and a waste of resources. Needless to say, the real world is different.

Richard Easterlin recognized the problem with this reasoning and in the 1970s produced an influential revision of the conventional economic theory of fertility. His framework for the determinants of fertility added two critical elements. First, it acknowledged the role of biology in childbearing outcomes. Specifically, without efforts to control conception, women who are sexually active would bear large numbers of children, because a pregnancy takes only nine months and the reproductive years last decades. To avoid having ‘excess’ children, parents must practice birth control. This fact makes the ‘acquisition’ of children fundamentally different from the purchase of durable goods. Second, Easterlin recognized that the cost of birth control could be substantial, thus leading to significant numbers of unplanned pregnancies. These costs are broadly defined to include economic, health, psychological, and social obstacles.

The opposition of economists to family planning programs has been one of the main reasons for the low investment in them during the past. Fortunately the tide is now turning and Easterlin’s views are taken seriously again. Not a moment too soon.

Source: http://www.worldwewant2015.org/node/304148

John Bongaarts, Ph.D. is Vice President and Distinguished Scholar of the Population Council in New York.  Mr. Bongaarts is the author or co-author of approximately 200 scholarly articles on various aspects of demography, including the determinants of fertility, population-environment interactions, the demographic impact of the AIDS epidemic, population aging, and population policy options in the developing world.  He is a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  

David Lam, Ph.D. is Professor of Economics and Research Professor in the Population Studies Center, University of Michigan.  He was President of the Population Association of America in 2011.  Throughout a long and distinguished career, Professor Lam’s research has focused on the interaction of economics and demography in developing countries, including analysis of the economics of population growth, fertility, marriage, and aging.  He is currently on sabbatical at the University of Cape Town.

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If Norway Can Prosper with a Stable Population, Why Can’t Australia? by Charles Berger

Melbourne city sprawl.

Melbourne city sprawl.

The projection that Australia’s population will grow to 36 million by 2050, contained in the 2010 Intergenerational Report, was received very differently by Australian governments and the community.

Many Australians are deeply uncomfortable with rapid population growth. A  recent poll found that 48% of Australians thought such growth would be bad for Australia, while only 24% thought it would be good. They intuit, perhaps, that governments might not be up to the task of providing sustainable water, energy and transport infrastructure for rapidly growing cities.

The Government’s stance has vacillated between claiming that such rapid population growth is inevitable on the one hand, and assuring us that it is good for Australia on the other.

The claim of inevitability is disingenuous and easily dismissed. While some degree of growth is inevitable over the next few decades, both the pace of growth and the ultimate trajectory are well within the government’s power to influence. Migration is the largest determinant of long-term population growth for Australia, and different migration levels mean the difference between population stabilization and ongoing rapid growth.

More interesting, and more forthright, is the claim that rapid population growth is in Australia’s best interest. Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner has been the government’s most vocal proponent of the “Big Australia” preference. In a recent piece, Tanner asked “Do we want lower productivity and less economic growth?”, implying that lower population growth could only damage our economy.

Is there good evidence for or against a link between population growth and economic prosperity? Tanner unfortunately offered none in support of his argument for rapid growth. One’s view on the question depends largely on an assessment of so-called “economies of scale” and “dis-economies of scale”. Economies of scale are things that get better the more of us there are—greater diversity of restaurants is an example that rings true for me. Diseconomies of scale are things that get harder the more of us there are. For example, water supply tends to get more expensive per unit as population increases, as increasing supply requires resorting to progressively more distant and difficult to access sources. A desalination plant is more expensive than extraction from local wells, for example. Congestion is another diseconomy of scale, and greenhouse pollution is rapidly emerging as another.

Economic modeling conducted for the Intergenerational Report concluded that lower population growth would mean lower per-capita GDP for Australia, among other ills. But a closer look reveals some flaws. For one, the modeling excluded any environmental parameters, such as the potential impact of a larger population on greenhouse pollution, water use, and congestion. The omission seems all the more glaring when you consider that climate change was identified as one of the two most important intergenerational challenges facing Australia today. In effect, the Intergenerational Report included many potential economies of scale, while excluding the most important dis-economies of scale. The result tells us more about the modeler than about what is likely to happen in the real world.

The most considered and balanced treatment of this issue in recent times is the final report of the National Population Council, an official Commonwealth body, released in 1991. Although nearly two decades old now, its analysis remains compelling and relevant. It is not, I should stress, an “anti-growth” document.

On the link between population and economy, the Council found that the jury was still out: “because of our limited present direct knowledge of economies and dis-economies of scale, it is not possible to state … that population growth per se enhances or reduces the productivity basis for economic progress.”

Unfortunately, our knowledge of economies and diseconomies of scale is no better today than it was back then. This leaves Tanner’s claim that we’d be less prosperous if we don’t grow our population on a pretty shaky theoretical base.

But enough of economic models, what about the real world? The Intergenerational Report discusses just two examples: Italy and Japan. Both nations have experienced very low fertility levels, rapidly ageing populations, and slow economic growth in recent decades. On the basis of these two countries, the Intergenerational Report concludes, “A key lesson from the international experience is that countries with low population growth or declining populations such as Japan and Italy face lower potential rates of economic growth than countries with relatively healthier population growth.”

But why focus on those two countries? A broader look across the OECD shows that rapid population growth is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve solid per capita GDP growth. (I leave aside here the question of whether per capita GDP growth is a useful goal to strive for, except to say that Joseph Stiglitz and many other mainstream economists have cast doubt on the wisdom of an excessive focus on GDP.) In fact, no fewer than 11 OECD nations achieved faster per-capita economic growth than Australia from 1997-2007, despite slower population growth or even in some cases no population growth or a slight decline.

Clearly enough, experience shows us that rapid population growth is no guarantee of economic prosperity, and conversely a stable population does not doom a country to economic failure.

The real puzzle here is why the Intergenerational Report discusses only the two worst performing countries among OECD nations on this issue, rather than looking at some of the success stories. Norway looks like an interesting case—thriving economy, despite an ageing population and much lower population growth than Australia. Or how about Slovakia, with a stable and ageing population and a booming economy? The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Finland … with so many intriguing examples of countries with stable or low-growth populations that somehow continue to enjoy vibrant economies, it’s a pity the report didn’t take a more lateral approach.

As for the significant environmental, planning and social challenges of population growth, the report acknowledges them but plays them down in a single line of optimism: “The risks in these areas are manageable provided governments take early action to plan for future needs.” Sure, but that’s a pretty big proviso. It’s a bit like saying I can win a marathon, provided I run really fast: technically true, but it really begs the question of how.

Lindsay Tanner similarly suggests that we focus on better planning and less profligacy, rather than worrying about population. One can hardly argue against better planning and lower ecological footprints; they are desperately needed. What is beyond me is how he can be so sanguine about our ability to achieve those ambitious goals, in the face of all evidence that we’re nowhere close to the trajectories required even to reduce the ecological footprint of the present population.

Population growth and wildlife come into conflict.

Population growth and wildlife come into conflict.

The truth is we are struggling just to catch up with the huge backlog of infrastructure, social and environmental investments for our 22 million people, let alone the 36 million we will have if current migration trends continue.

A better approach, again, is that provided by the National Population Council in 1991. It stated: “Solutions should not be assumed for population-related problems through other policies, unless the institutional and other mechanisms required to effectively implement those solutions are in place”.

The assumption that the impacts of population growth will be defrayed by technological and planning improvements is the opposite of a precautionary approach. It is fine to hope for the best possible outcome, but reckless to pursue policies that will increase our population on the expectation that the best possible outcome will occur. And even more reckless in the face of the facts are that Australia’s per-capita greenhouse pollution continues to increase year on year, our cities continue to push beyond urban growth boundaries, and few of the policies or practices that would signal a transition to a genuinely sustainable lifestyle are in place.

In the end we as a nation have options about our future population. The Intergenerational Report and the government treat us as if we have none, confronting us with a false choice between rapid population growth or economic calamity. The truth is that we can care for an ageing population, enjoy economic prosperity and work towards ecological sustainability without rapid population growth. How? Just ask the Norwegians. Or the Slovaks. Or the Dutch. Or …

Charles Berger is director of strategic ideas at the Australian Conservation Foundation. This commentary was first posted February 22, 2010.

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