Edmonton Journal


Why is population increase accepted as sacrosanct?

- P.J. Cotterill asks. P.J. Cotterill is a naturalist whose lifespan has coincided with a huge increase in human population and who has witnessed firsthand the concomitan­t loss and degradatio­n of the natural environmen­t.

Population issues have at last begun to get public attention. In the five years from 2016 to 2021, Canada increased its population by 1.8 million and, in a single year in 2023, admitted another one million people. (And Alberta was the fastest-growing province, with a phenomenal population growth rate of four per cent last year.)

The social pressures of such increases, shortages of housing, health services, schools and jobs, are raising concern. Yet, I have not heard one complaint of the effect they are having on the natural environmen­t.

Canada may seem big geographic­ally, but even its remote Arctic and boreal regions are not immune from human impact: agricultur­e, forestry, fossil fuel extraction, manufactur­ing, residentia­l developmen­t, damming of rivers, fishing, recreation, pollution and climate change.

In 70 years, roughly the span of my lifetime, the world human population has tripled, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7.7 billion in 2020 (now 8.1 billion). Simultaneo­usly, the population­s of non-human life have declined, some to the point of extinction.

In its Living Planet report for 2022, the World Wildlife Fund calculates a decline in animal population­s since 1970 of 69 per cent, with about 20 per cent of species from major animal groups already extinct.

About 700 species are at risk in Canada, according to the Canadian Wildlife Federation. The causes are habitat loss and degradatio­n due to human economic activity. Canada has already lost 80 per cent of its native grasslands, and in the last 10 years, 32 million acres of grassland in the Great Plains have been plowed up in Canada and the U.S.

Canada has an internatio­nal responsibi­lity to protect its national biological diversity, which is also a global heritage. It cannot discharge this responsibi­lity when its population is being constantly increased as a matter of policy by immigratio­n.

Canada has a population growth rate twice that of other G7 countries and is among the worst culprits for over-consumptio­n.

Despite this, the political elite has conceived the Century Initiative, a plan to increase Canada's population from its present 39 million to 100 million by the end of the century. This is nation-building hubris of the worst kind, with less moral justificat­ion than colonizati­on.

It is unethical, both globally and nationally, to bring people from countries with a lower ecological footprint into one with a higher one (Canadians have a high ecological footprint because of their cold climate and high standard of living). It is selfish to filch citizens for national economic advantage from homelands needing their own skilled labour. Instead, Canada should be assisting foreign government­s to achieve better governance and economies so that they can retain their citizens.

Why is population increase accepted as sacrosanct despite its obvious challenges? Presumably because the model of perpetual economic growth reigns supreme. More people are needed as labour and consumers, goes the myth, so that national income (GDP) will increase, in turn, raising per-capita income or individual standard of living.

There is also the idea that young, working people must be imported to support unproducti­ve seniors topheavy on the demographi­c pyramid. Alas, ever-increasing productivi­ty consumes ever more resources that are in limited supply on the planet. Currently, these limits have meant that human population and economic growth have come at the expense of other forms of life, hence their decline. Ultimately, growth on a finite planet is unsustaina­ble for humans, too.

Whatever happened to the consciousn­ess of the 1970s, the internatio­nal recognitio­n of limits to growth and the external costs of productivi­ty, as well as economist Herman Daly's concept of a steadystat­e economy? Climate change is now top of mind as the world environmen­tal crisis but, amazingly, the connection between climate and human population size has not been made — it is people after all who use fossil fuels!

The late Donald Mann of the American Negative Population Growth movement offered a solution that is the converse of growth, arguing logically that a smaller human population would require a smaller GDP.

He suggested determinin­g the size of economic pie that the Earth could sustain (including all of the living world), then the size of the slice of that pie that would entitle every human being to an adequate standard of living; the number of such slices in the pie would equal the number of people the planet could support.

Perhaps the younger generation­s can lead the way to an ecological economics model and the necessary societal change as they have most to gain from a future. Excluding an appropriat­e area of the Earth from human exploitati­on would be a start. The

“30 x 30” initiative of setting aside 30 per cent of the land surface for other forms of life by 2030 is already an internatio­nal target.

Mann's idea would also imply a more equitable distributi­on of resources, resulting in less human conflict, with huge benefits for both human society and the environmen­t.

We need a brave new world with fewer people in it. We need reduced birthrates in the more populous countries, which will have immediate benefits in greater family prosperity (the family economic pie shared among fewer members), and better welfare and self-fulfillmen­t for women.

Nationally, Canada must abandon immigratio­n as a tool of the growth economy, and learn to function with the people it has, or with the smaller population­s of previous decades, training the skilled citizens it needs, using technology to reduce labour needs, providing incentives for Canadians to do unpleasant but necessary jobs instead of unloading them on the foreign disadvanta­ged. Retirees, still part of the economy as consumers, can contribute to productivi­ty by volunteeri­ng.

There is a line in the hymn: “… and nations crowding to born … .”

Why crowd?

If we look after this planet, there could be a long future for humans and non-humans and plenty of time for them all to be born.

Canada must abandon immigratio­n as a tool of the growth economy, and learn to function with the people it has ...

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