The Population Problem that Cried Woolf

(This has long been one of my biggest issues with Woolf’s doomsday take on our “failure” to grow in population.  The model is all wrong.  We should be striving toward a model called “sustainability.” – promoted by Sue Prent)

To hear Economist Art Woolf tell it, Vermont’s population problem is that it isn’t growing.  As he put it in a recent Burlington Free Press appearance:  

a very slow-growing population presents challenges.  For one, it limits economic growth and hence the opportunities for Vermont businesses to expand and for Vermonters to obtain jobs. Larger populations also make it easier for people to meet and communicate and to come up with new business ideas.

This is all true.  BUT–and this is a huge but–that doesn’t mean that the most cost-effective (the most economical) solution is to promote population growth.  

A reader of Woolf’s piece could be forgiven for thinking that this is the conclusion they’re meant to draw. He goes on:

Vermont is not headed for disaster if our population growth remains at current low levels. But it will present challenges for businesses, government and individuals, and it will limit everyone’s opportunities.

Yes, a population that doesn’t grow limits some opportunities.  The problem is what Woolf leaves unsaid:  a growing population limits other, very important opportunities even more.

Many Americans think that the government is too large, that its reach into our lives is too deep.  But imagine:  what if every single act of yours that might affect the health of ecosystems had to be regulated by public authority?  Economic growth used to be widely perceived as the necessary companion to increasing democratic freedoms; unfortunately, on a finite planet on which human civilization has built out to (and beyond) the limits of what’s ecologically sustainable, continued economic growth is now the enemy of democratic freedoms.  

We face loss of opportunity because of population growth:  The opportunity to have and keep our civil freedoms, and our sense that there is some behavior that is private and therefore not a fit subject for regulatory control.  

As I’ve argued in a recent book, democratic freedoms and civil liberties depend on our human population being below some critical point–a point below which  nature can absorb and adapt to our freely-chosen acts and ways. Many of us who are concerned about ecological sustainability fear that we’ve long since passed that point.  

The prospect if our population and economy continue to grow?  

The collision of the economy with its resource limits will give us an anemic economy–one in which unemployment is endemic and the rich grow richer, while middle and impoverished classes swell because of broken promises (like pension fund collapses) and higher effective taxes for poorer services.  Pressure will increase to promote economic growth (or even simply recovery) by doing  away with regulatory regimes that protect environmental quality and human health–like the regulatory regime that could have prevented the horrible spill of coal-scrubbing chemicals in West Virginia.  And if we don’t choose to continue to degrade our environment in the effort to maintain an unsustainable economy, then environmental regulation will necessarily get broader and broader in its scope and in the depth of its reach into our lives.  

The alternative?  Limit the matter-and-energy throughput of the economy, bringing it down to a flow that the planet can sustain.  This is the steady-state economy model.

Transforming our economy from an infinite-growth model to a steady-state model need not mean that we diminish the quality of our lives, or even the quantity of our material wealth.  In part the quality of our lives could be improved in a steady state economy by a trade-off of material stuff for immaterial benefits, like more leisure time, more satisfying work environments, a healthier environment.  In part the quality of our material lives could be improved in a steady-state economy by doing more with less:  we can expect that technological innovation will continue to let us wring more economic value–more human wellbeing–from a constantly-sized flow of throughput.  

Both of these sources of genuine economic progress are threatened–even made impossible–by population growth.  

If, under a given set of technologies, the amount of material wealth that an economy can sustainably create is finite, then the larger the number of people that share that finite amount of wealth, the smaller will be each person’s share. In a world that has reached the ecological limits to economic growth, continued population growth can only diminish the average quality of life.

Controlling population growth is now the most cost-effective way of increasing humanity’s standard of living–on the planet as a whole, in this country, and in the state of Vermont.  Far from sending up cautions about our population’s failure to grow, economists in Vermont should be celebrating our state’s near achievement of the steady-state ideal.

2 thoughts on “The Population Problem that Cried Woolf

  1. If “a very slow-growing population” “limits economic growth,” it also limits economic demand: put simply, if there are fewer people, their aggregate needs are smaller.

    Fueling economic growth with increased population creates a spiral: more people create more growth, who need more things, which necessitates more growth and more people.

    As Mr. Zencey suggests, there is little reason to believe that there is not some level which allows for an advanced and satisfactory “steady-state” economy.

    In any case, sooner or later, we will no longer have the choice: a finite planet will provide constraints to growth.

  2. A perfect title for this diary..   Mr. Woolf leaves the most basic component out of his equation:  carrying capacity.  

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