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Cause and Effect: the Environmental and Social Impacts of Growth


The Causes

Population Growth

Population growth in Canada is now largely driven by immigration. Had immigration levels been set at balanced levels, meaning that as many people leave the country enter annually, Canada’s population would have been stabilizing at around the 28 million level between now and 2030.

However, given the mass immigration levels of the past 50 years, designed to expand the commercial economy, Canada’s population is currently 38 million and growing rapidly. The additional 10 million people has meant the equivalent of another 3 City of Toronto's with over 3 million additional housing units dropped on the Canadian landscape with all of the attendant direct environmental damage, displacement and elevated consumption and GHG emission levels.

There can’t be a cessation of environmental decline in Canada, much less any substantial recovery until our population stops growing.

Increased Consumption

In order to become sustainable, not only must we stabilize our numbers, we must learn to live with slightly less and use vastly less energy and resources in the process. We have to shrink our footprint and put behind us the aspiration for vain-glorious consumption. As much as electric vehicles will help us reduce GHG emissions, electric Hummers will not save the planet.  

Driving less, walking and cycling more and using much more efficient vehicles are a stepping stone to sustainability.  We need fewer and much longer lived, higher quality products, not disposable goods which are essentially outdated or fall apart shortly after they are purchased.

Reckless Resource Exploitation

In many ways, Canada is beginning to see the necessity of nurturing our resources rather than exploiting them through slash-and-burn type exploitation.  Our forest fishery and agricultural land policies are much more advanced than they were 40 years ago but development is still the priority, particularly real estate development which completely destroys the natural resource base and the habitat it displaces.

There are many black spots on Canada’s environmental record but most of these are in the past, like the Giant Mine which will take hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. There are thousands of similar sites across the country which will require billions of tax dollars to clean up since the owners left with their profits years ago.

In terms of severity and scale though, nothing approaches the oil sands.  Not only does the polluted area cover thousands of square kilometres, but the taxpayer liability is also between $60 billion and $260 billion and operations are being expanded. Against these costs, the Alberta government holds under $2 billion in oil company security deposits.

Rather than creating short term profits and dumping cleanup costs on future generations, we need full life-cycle accounting to determine when a project is profitable for the society as a whole. With scores of billions of dollars in pollution liabilities and Alberta deficits in the 10s of billions, it is difficult to see how the oil sands can be considered socially beneficial.

And then there are the millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions to consider.

Misleading Metrics

The oil sands looked good in dollars because it was a large resource of a high demand commodity.  It could, and did, generate scores of billions of dollars in sales revenue.  But if the full costs aren’t taken into consideration, something that looks good on paper for those companies producing the oil can turn into a fiscal and environmental disaster for the nation as a whole.

Rather than measure in a way that represents the outcomes narrow interests want, we need to illuminate national and environmental interests with real-world metrics including biophysical economics and well-being indices.

Biophysical economics measures real physical resources in real physical units, not dollars.  Human and social metrics can span job quality, equality, housing affordability and a host of other fiscal balance and quality of life proxies.  GDP size and growth rate illuminate none of these.


The Consequences of Growth at Any Cost Policies

The knock-on impacts of any policy have to be understood. Below are two examples.  

Most people understand that burning more oil produces more greenhouse gases which drives global warming.  So adding more consumers to a high energy demand country is a structural change that cannot be completely mitigated even by a very sophisticated suite of policy initiatives.

Similarly, increasing the number of cheap labour jobs in a country increases the demand for social services as low wage earners require more support services.  In Canada, the annual income level required to produce the taxes necessary to fund the services required by one individual is in the range of $45,000.  Jobs at lower levels, particularly if they are seasonal or part-time, are not only tax negative but they also have higher tax expenditure demand for social support programs.

Cheap labour drives structural deficits which can be seen at all levels of Canadian government. Despite extremely high growth rates of population and GDP growth, Canada is piling up an increasing mountain of debt.  In effect, once all the accounting is done, we are going broke on growth.

Similarly, the addition of 10 million people to Canada’s population through mass immigration over the past 50 years has created a demand for over 3 million housing units.  These were squeezed into densified urban areas and also spread out over prime farmland and forest area.  This demand is the principal reason for housing inflation and unaffordability in Canada.

The impact of a large inflow of cheap labour drove wages down or caused them to stagnate and it also inflated housing costs.  Combines, these two factors bear a large part of the responsibility for Canada’s plummeting equality levels which have fallen from the second-best in the world in the early 1960s to a rank in the mid-20s currently.

Some of the enduring and cascading impacts of growth are linked below to their real-world consequences.  


The Effects

Some of the consequences of adding 10 million people over the past 40 years to Canada’s natural level of the population are as follows:

Population Increase Leads To:

  • Environmental Decline
  • Urban Sprawl leads to
    • A 10 million person increase = over 3 million additional housing units
    • Farmland Loss
    • Congestion
    • Longer Commute times
    • Reduced Covid-19 security
    • Lower access to nature
  • A GHG emissions increase leads to
    • Climate change
    • Droughts
    • Species shift and extinction
    • Forest fires
    • Floods
    • Food cost increases
  • Social Decline leads to
    • Lower or stagnant wages
    • Housing inflation
    • Increased inequality
    • Structural deficits
    • A weakened social safety net

Increased Consumption Leads To:

  • Depletion of non-renewable resources and a higher cost per unit of resources mined
  • Increased GHG emissions
  • Increased waste
  • Larger environmental footprint

Reckless Resource Exploitation Leads To:

  • Oil Sands Expansion, Giant Mine
    • High GHG emissions
    • High legacy costs
    • Taxpayer subsidies
  • Boom and bust economic cycles

Globalism Leads To:

  • Cheap labour
  • Low to no environmental standards
  • Plastic in oceans
  • High GHG emissions from transportation 
  • Worldwide stress on resources
  • Narrow based economies
  • Low resilience
  • A race to the bottom

Money Metrics - Using GDP as the Central Indicator of Economic and Social Health Leads To:

  • Structural deficits
  • Growing inequality
  • Higher debt
  • Incoherent national policies
  • No clear goals or real-world metrics
  • Biophysical economics measures real physical resources in real physical units, not dollars.

In contrast, biophysical economics measures real physical resources in real physical units, rather than dollars.

We Need a Change to Clear Goals and Real Metrics

We need to establish clear national goals focused on the interests of our citizens and the health of our environment.  We need to differentiate between costs and benefits, bigger or better and productive vs unproductive activities.  

We need to view public policy through the real world lens of sustainability and progress rather than the money metrics of growth. 

Human well-being and environmental health should be the basis for public policy, not the size of the commercial economy.  Curing the symptoms created by fundamental root causes requires structural changes, not more band-aids or photo-op policy initiatives.


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