Opinion columns in The Durango Herald two weekends ago presented three contrasting but oddly complementary perspectives on growth.
Gary Wockner, who voted No on Proposition CC in November’s election (“I voted CC down”), cited concerns about ongoing population and economic growth here in Colorado.
Thomas Friedman (“Bloomberg brings something needed”) celebrated Michael Bloomberg’s potential impact on the Democratic nomination process because of his entrepreneurial success in helping to grow the national economy.
Richard Grossman, in his “Population Matters” column, explained how improving the reproductive health of women over the last generation has helped to reduce population growth rates and improve social conditions globally (“This UN population conference changed my life”).
A naive tally of the articles would count no-growth winning 2-1. Whether or not the Herald editors intended such an evaluation, the juxtaposition raises a critical issue. Is growth good for society, locally, nationally or globally?
I share Grossman’s concern that continuing growth in population and consumption threatens the future of our planet. As a member of the Durango City Council, however, I perceived national population growth and demographic pressure as external forces beyond local policy control. We could develop plans for affordable housing and seek to address the plight of homeless people locally, but there were no policy tools available, say, to slow the influx of newcomers who drive up the cost of housing – folks who seek to enjoy the many benefits we enjoy in this great community.
As long as Americans can move freely, find jobs in new communities or otherwise afford housing in their chosen destinations, attractive places such as Colorado and, in particular, Durango, will continue growing. Current residents – perhaps having come and contributed to growth in a prior year – lament the impact on roads and schools and housing.
The less affluent suffer because housing consumes ever more of their limited incomes, sometimes to the point where they cannot afford shelter at all.
In Colorado, Wockner likely is right that we should stop incentivizing growth, but that won’t stop people from coming, and it definitely won’t heal the chronic deficit in public resources imposed by TABOR. To take a single example, his suggestion of a vehicle-miles-traveled tax makes perfect sense – we each would pay for what we use! Unfortunately, research from focus groups indicates the proposal would fail badly in the necessary TABOR-imposed referendum.
Nationally, fertility rates have dropped below replacement level, prompting some observers to forecast dire economic consequences as the number of retirees continues to grow faster than the number of workers to support them.
Immigration can make up the difference, but immigration policy is fraught with controversy. A rational approach might seek to stabilize population through immigration but would not resolve controversy over which immigrants to admit. A further step would involve an economic sea change of choosing a goal of full employment, not ever-growing consumption.
Globally, growing population and consumption underlie the environmental crises of climate change and rampant biological extinctions, threatening to undermine the ecological basis for civilization. However, economic growth (and implicitly, population growth to drive consumption) is a nearly universal policy goal, as it is with Friedman. Growth on our finite planet, however, cannot continue indefinitely. The ecological crises are symptoms of an unsustainable global economy.
That is easy to say. It is very much harder to identify realistic policy options, much less politically palatable ones. First, policymakers need to understand that a problem exists, that growth can be uneconomic, doing more harm than good. Second, they must consider the alternative of a steady state economy. To achieve a dynamic non-growing economy, however, requires not merely ending population growth but slicing the non-growing economic pie more equitably.
Finally, people must see the alternative as desirable, which many will not if they perceive themselves as losers in a re-division of the economic pie, not just within nations but between them.
I do not suppose that such drastic economic changes could occur quickly. However, the alternative is growing chaos as resources under environmental threat – especially food and water – fail to meet human needs in more and more places. Arguably, some or even most of the world’s political crises stem from these issues, including the one on America’s southern border. Collapse of the unsustainable economy of growth is unthinkable to many, but it could occur anyway, resulting in catastrophic human suffering and death.
If all this seems abstract and remote, make it real by thinking carefully about all that you buy this holiday season.
Dick White is a retired astronomy professor who served on Durango City Council from 2011 to 2019, including two years as mayor. He lives in Durango.