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POPULATION GROWTH AND WEALTH INEQUALITY ARE MORE ENTWINED THAN WE THOUGHT: HERE’S WHY.

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Michael Bayliss

By Michael Bayliss,

In the battle for population sustainability, advocates have become all too familiar with the challenge of facing criticism head-on. These passionate advocates constantly find themselves in the crosshairs of skeptics who eagerly highlight the ever-widening chasm between the wealthy and the underprivileged, dismissing population sustainability as a mere distraction from what they perceive as a more immediate problem.

There is no doubt that wealth inequality and the consumption of the rich are pressing concerns and very few sustainable population advocates would refute these facts.  However, critics are fabricating a false dichotomy by creating a divide between population and consumption. Further, there is evidence to suggest that the two are inexorably linked, to the extent that population growth may be a cause of inequality.

While total population and the rate of population growth certainly contribute to the size of a nation’s GDP, they are poor indicators of well-being per capita. The top 10 richest counties in the world in 2023, by GDP per capita, include Luxembourg, Norway, and Iceland. These countries all share the same commonality of relatively smaller population and land area sizes and slower population growth rates, compared to global averages. The USA also appears in the top 10 but is an outlier in regard to its much larger total population of 337 million.

Many factors have contributed in determining the wealth disparity between different countries.  That almost all the top 10 wealthiest countries are located in the cultural and economic West is certainly a major contributor. However, it is important to dispel the myth that ongoing population growth is a prerequisite for sustained national prosperity. Similarly, it is also a myth that ‘growth’ is a prerequisite for wealth equality. Interestingly, when considering wealth inequality, it becomes apparent that the majority of the top ten countries with the Lowest Wealth Inequality (World Bank Gini index) are located in Central or Eastern Europe — a region in the world in where stable or gradually declining national population are the norm.

Despite being labelled as a ‘basket case’ by some economists due to its declining population, Japan is superior across many per capita wellbeing indicators when compared to many Anglosphere countries such as Australia, Canada, and the UK. Lower unemployment, better social services, and lower private debt are just some of the indicators in which Japan is leading.

Undoubtedly, rapid population growth can hinder economic development. In a recent report, Sustainable Population Australia explored the infrastructure costs of its rapidly growing population, currently one of the highest per capita in OECD. Furthermore, projections suggest that the population is set to experience a remarkable surge of  650,000 within a span of just two years. The report’s findings painted a grim picture, highlighting the inability of infrastructure development to keep up with such rapid population growth. As a result, it concluded that this mismatch leads to a resulting decline in the quality of public services and a widening of socioeconomic disparities in terms of access to public infrastructure and services.

Kelvin Thompson, a former Federal Australian politician and advocate for sustainable population growth, gave a name for this, ‘The Witches’ Hats Theory of Government,  whereby increased population growth makes the task of governance harder, which then leads to shorter political terms for incumbent governments worldwide. USA-based environmental activist Karen Shragg often points out in her talks that her country allows two senators from every state for a total of 100. The number of senators remains the same even when populations grow, diluting representative democracy.

While this is counter-intuitive for many, a lower rate of population growth may foster economic prosperity. While it is often claimed that an improvement in economic conditions in the Global South results in smaller family sizes, important studies have suggested that the causation is the other way around.  In other words, the presence of non-coercive family planning and reproductive services leads to a lower fertility rate, which results in improved education and economic outcomes for women and girls.

Despite these facts, there have been howls of protest in the media in the face of China’s declining population growth, and there is a growing pronatalist rhetoric among several right- leaning governments in Central and Eastern Europe as a reaction to their declining populations. Why is this?

One answer may be found in the late Herman Daly’s contribution to the Great Transition Initiative’s ‘The Population Debate Revisited’ (Daly was a founder of the Steady-State Economy movement). He asks: “Where can we get the cheap labor needed to keep the economy growing?” He soon provides the following answer:

“From the proletariat, of course, just like the Ancient Romans. Encourage the proletariat to proliferate, and make it hard for them to move out of the proletariat by owning property. Concentrate property in the hands of patrician oligarchs.”

Jared A Brock, writing on the North American housing affordability crisis for the surviving tomorrow blog, echoes Daly’s observations, despite not writing on population sustainability per se.  He concludes that:

“Instead of living in a contribution economy, we now live in a parasite economy, where the wealthiest in society are those who contribute the least… Voltaire was absolutely right — the comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.”

It is difficult to imagine that politicians would be entirely oblivious to the notion that population growth can dilute the essence of democracy. Their close ties with business donors undoubtedly expose them to the advantages such growth brings to these entities. Why else would Australian billionaires such as Gerry Harvey or property tycoon Harry Triguboff  be pushing for a big Australia? Why would Elon Musk be so anxious over the prospect of a declining global population? Oddly, this hostility to any open discussion on population sustainability is perhaps the one area in which big business and many well-meaning people on the left of politics find themselves singing from the same hymn sheet. On silencing an open discussion on population, the left is in fact, enabling the growthist ideologies of big business interest through their state capture of our political systems.

Recently, I read for the second time Jared Diamond’s excellent book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.”  With the renewed context of my understanding of the limits to growth (both economic and population growth), it is clear to me the extent to which the modern global empire is repeating the mistakes of past fallen empires. According to author Derrick Jenson, the imperative of centralized empires has always been to exploit and expand. For those in power, they seem unable to know when to stop. To them, more people means more power.

Conversely, research by Sheila Newman, detailed in her book ‘Demography, Territory & Law’, suggests that many societies were able to achieve long-term stable populations. The book refers to several islands within Polynesia as case examples where the islands’ populations were stable and within ecological limits. Since colonization and the introduction of Western religion, populations in many of these islands have exceeded local carrying capacity. The author attributes this in part to a displacement of land sovereignty and stewardship under the new colonial system, where people were now ‘cut off’ from a direct relationship with their natural environment. When combined with the pronatalist attitudes of introduced Catholicism, this has resulted in rapid population growth.

Contrary to the commonly held belief that population and wealth inequality are distinct issues, population growth is the fuel that enables the wheels of growth-based capitalism to keep spinning and with it, the widening socioeconomic gap that increasingly defines modern society.  Without population growth, the housing speculation industry, which is ripping apart the social contract in many industrialized countries, would not be possible. Without population growth, societies would be unable to rely on GDP growth and trickle-down economies as measures of success and therefore be forced to adopt post-growth economic policies that prioritise community wellbeing over shareholder profits.

Many organizations, such as Population Media Center, have repeatedly shown the world the vital importance of empowering women and girls, which encompasses providing them with choices and access to reproductive health services, as well as well-resourced family planning programs. This empowerment is not only a human rights imperative but also plays a significant role in stabilizing populations, leading to numerous positive outcomes on a range of environmental and social indicators. It is crucial to shift the perspective on the population issue and recognize it as a friend rather than an enemy of the social justice movement.

Instead of seeking to silence the population sustainability discussion by pitting it against other concerns such as consumption, there should be a focus on integrating it into the broader narrative, recognizing its rightful place as a vehicle for education, empowerment, and universal access to health. By acknowledging that population sustainability plays a crucial role, we also make huge inroads towards much-needed systemic change. One that doesn’t require continual growth in per capita consumption or population at a time when humanity desperately needs a new way to live.

This article was originally written for Population Media Centre.   Michael Bayliss is communication manager for Sustainable Population Australia (SPA).  SPA are inviting people to say No to a Big Australia by signing their position statement.  Michael is also co-host of Post-Growth Australia Podcast.

Michael 2024 biography

Michael Bayliss, B.A.Sc/PGDip OHS, has been active in the environmental, animal rights and social change movements for most of his life.  He is currently employed as the Communications Manager of Sustainable Population Australia (SPA).  Before this, he has worked in various managerial and program coordination positions in the disability sector.

Michael comes from a family line of passionate conservationists, in which overconsumption and overpopulation were frequent conversation topics at the dinner table.   fMichael’s approach to the ‘population issue’ comes from his broader position on the need to transition to a Degrowth, steady-state society.  He is co-host of the popular Post-Growth Australia Podcast.  Michael is a strong advocate for First Nations, Global South and migrant perspective on the population debate.    He has extensive experience in communicating the issue, including a legacy of written work, videos and interviews that can be seen at his personal website.  He co-authored the 2023 briefing note, “The housing crisis is a population growth crisis” with Dr Jane O’Sullivan.

Outside of work, Michael is a musician, keen bushwalker and enjoys sports such as swimming, bouldering and calisthenics.

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