An intelligent article on overpopulation in an Ottawa Newspaper

What's the big idea?

Visiting Canada's largest cities, have you ever said 'boy, there just aren't enough people here?'

Randall Denley

The Ottawa Citizen

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Questioning the god called growth is about as popular as flatulence in church, but it's Sunday, always a good day for heresy.

Conventional wisdom tells us growth is both good and inevitable. We want a larger population, bigger cities and a continuously enlarging economy. These outcomes are so obviously desirable that all three levels of government have made fuelling growth their top priority.

The federal government is doing its bit by raising next year's immigration target by 10,000 people. If we are able to admit up to 255,000 new immigrants, we will help "secure the economic and social prosperity of our country for this and future generations," Immigration Minister Joe Volpe assures us.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is another growth enthusiast. His government is planning for Ontario to grow by 4.4 million people during the next 25 years, an increase of more than one-third. Most of them are expected to live in the Greater Toronto area.

In Ottawa, growth means more of every kind of service the city provides, every year. We must continuously hire more police and paramedics, for example, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on light rail, to move all those new people downtown.

The problem with all of this is that the underlying premise -- growth is good -- doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. Continuous growth consumes finite natural resources at a reckless rate, damages the environment, destroys the quality of life in our cities and will be ultimately unachievable.

In planning to continuously expand its population, Canada is trying to outrun depopulation, a demographic trend that is affecting almost every major western country. Only the United States has a fertility rate adequate to replace existing population. That's 2.1 children per woman. Canadian women have 1.5. There is no realistic hope of increasing fertility rates. Couples have fewer children because of the high cost of raising them, the need for two incomes and the ease with which abortion and birth control allow people to limit family size. It's a trend unlikely to change.

We've been trying to overcome our low birth rate with the most aggressive immigration program of any G8 country. If the goal is to get more workers, our immigration system is a poor tool for doing it. In Canada, we are told the immigration program is a vital source of workers, yet of 235,000 people admitted last year, only 55,000 are skilled workers or entrepreneurs. The rest are spouses, family members or refugees.

Some say we need even more immigrants, and raise the fear that failing to do so will mean China and India will pass us on the economic racetrack. Let's not kid ourselves, we aren't even in the race, so losing it isn't a concern. Those two countries are using their vast populations to lever dramatic economic growth. We don't have a vast population, and immigration won't give us one.

But wouldn't an end to economic growth mean poverty all around?

In a word, no. When you think about it, GDP growth is only essential if the population is growing, too. The economic pie has to keep increasing if it is shared among more and more people every year. If the number of people is decreasing, the pie can too. Even in a no-growth economy, things will not be static. Some areas will always be growing, others shrinking.

Growth skeptics got some rare support this week, when Ontario's environment commissioner made the modest suggestion that the province's population expansion plans would be bad for the environment. The points made by commissioner Gord Miller are only common sense, although he has been accused of being anti-immigrant and anti-development. If you've toured the vast sprawl of southern Ontario recently, you'll know that growth can't be achieved without destroying natural areas. And the provincial government wants to add 2.4 million more people in the GTA alone.

Why would a province that can barely generate enough power for current needs want to add so much more demand? The solution is more nuclear plants, although they are astoundingly expensive and we still haven't solved the problem of disposing of nuclear waste.

We see the negative effects of growth around us every day. More people means more cars, more roads, higher taxes and more crowding everywhere we go. When visiting Canada's largest cities, have you ever said "boy, there just aren't enough people here?" The federal government pretends that more immigrants can be directed to rural areas and small cities. Not likely. Recent immigration destination patterns make it pretty clear immigrants want to go to big cities where there is the perception jobs will be easier to find, and they have the support of others from their homeland. A federal policy position isn't going to change that.

Some argue the effects of growth can be minimized with higher density development and use of more transit. It's true, up to a point, but like so much of the unrealistic national growth plan, it counts on people acting quite differently than they always have in the past.

No Canadian politician will even begin an intelligent discussion about growth because it would immediately open him to accusations of being anti-immigrant, anti-progress and anti-business. There is another factor, too. Growth has kept so much money flowing into federal coffers that annual surpluses in the billions have become routine. At all three levels of government, planning for all the growth has been a growth industry in itself. Why would they want to give up a concept that has served them so well?

Instead of putting more effort into yesterday's solutions, Canada ought to be taking a more realistic view of the world that lies ahead of us. That would mean re-evaluating such traditional markers of success as growth in population and gross domestic product. It would also mean reassessing the value of immigration. Canada still has 6.7 per cent unemployment and an economy in which Canadian-born university graduates have a tough time getting a foothold, and yet we wring our hands because a foreign professional can't step off the plane and find work here.

Growth is an insatiable demon, and a guarantor of constant instability as our governments and individual Canadians chase a continuously moving target. When you really think about it, and we ought to, you have to ask, what is the point of our blind allegiance to growth?

Contact Randall Denley at 596-3756 or by e-mail, rdenley@thecitizen.canwest.com

The Ottawa Citizen 2005

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