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Saying Farewell to Nova Scotia for a Reason

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When an economist weighs in on population, run for the hills. There are a few notable exceptions (Herman Daly always comes to mind), but too many economists tend to see people in the same way they appreciate drill presses and piles of coal.

Today we roast this commentary in The Coast (Halifax, Nova Scotia) by David Fleming, whose vision is clouded not just by an economics education, but also by his leadership of the North End Business Association in Halifax. Mr. Fleming will need a blood transfusion to get growth addiction out of his DNA. 

Fleming got my immediate attention with this line:

“Nova Scotia's gotten less crowded in the last year, and that's not a good thing.”

Now, most scientists agree the world is overpopulated today. The scale of the human project has exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity, resulting in a chipping away at the resilience of life-supporting ecosystems. So anyone wringing his/her hands over a declining population is taking a very short-term, myopic view. If we want to leave a world worth inheriting to future generations, our prosperity strategies cannot depend on population growth (Ponzi demography).

Fleming’s pro-growth bias is reflected in this value judgment (use of the word "worst"):

“We lost 4,272 people. That's four-and-a-half times as many people lost as the second-worst province.”

Fleming’s commentary goes on to lament the fact that Nova Scotia’s gray-haired population increased while the under-50 crowd declined. My own city obsesses over the same phenomenon. It’s a phenomenon we all need to get used to, a temporary condition that results when a “population bubble” works its way out of the system. The adjustment is challenging, but not nearly as painful as adjusting to the collapse of ecosystems that would result if we practice Ponzi demography.

Here are a few more gems from Mr. Fleming: 

“We'd need to triple our immigration to get back to stagnant population growth….”

That’s a new one – “stagnant population growth” – but we know what he means. If you’re a growth monger you call it stagnant, if you’re a realist and a sustainability advocate you call it stable. If you’re an economist you turn to immigration to shore up economic growth, much like ordering more coal or factory equipment. Come to think of it, that’s how this type of economist views people – we are not human beings, we’re factory equipment.

“What if… we were the easiest city in Canada to become an entrepreneur? What if affordable incubators, and exits from them, were the norm? What if we appreciated and supported art's vital role in our city? What if we had more beautiful and active public spaces? What if our governments were transparent and hackable? What if we were the first province in Canada to provide universal, affordable child-care, attracting young families where parents want to continue careers? What if we went all-in on rapid transit and active transportation?”

I’m all for wanting to improve a city. I take exception, however, to assuming that growth is the only way to improve a city, or even the assumption that growth is one way to improve a city. In today’s full world, growth may well be the kiss of death. In today's world, cities and regions need to be much more innovative in their approach to maintaining a "healthy" (not growing) economy. The era of growth is behind us.

In Fleming’s defense, Nova Scotia certainly faces real challenges as it adjusts to the changing world. I’d simply like to encourage him to examine his unexamined assumptions. I encourage him to look for a prosperity strategy that doesn’t require Halifax to envy and try to emulate Vancouver or Toronto. Imagine a world in which every small, laid-back city gets its wish to be another Chicago or London. First, that’s ridiculous. Second, it’s boring. Third, it’s unsustainable. Fourth, many people appreciate the quality of life offered by smaller towns. And fifth, it’s sad that less-populated areas must have low self-esteem. Why can’t they be okay with their size?

Photo Credit: Phil Champion [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

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  • Guest
    Vic Friday, 20 December 2013

    Hi Dave

    Well... Regarding Fleming argument on getting less crowded not being a good think. I don't think his intention was promoting an intensive growth that would cause more damage to the environment. I think he was talking about losing people that could live, work and produce using existing infrastructure that has already capacity for them. Those 4272 people we lost didn't disappear, they are going to work and grow and produce in other provinces, when they could have done it here. Excessive growth is not a good thing either, but I don't think that we will get somewhere by shrinking. The weight of an aging population is going to fall in the minority shown proportion left in the province and that over the long term will have negative impact in our health system, our cost, and our taxes. I know already 4 immigrant couples -composed by engineers, nurses, dentists- (two of them with children) with ages between 25 and 42 that left because NS didn't offer them enough support for maternity leaves, enough cultural alternatives and entrepreneur opportunities. They belong to those 4272 people living now somewhere else in Canada. They could have remained here fixing teeth in existing dentist offices, developing engineering projects in existing consultancy companies and taking care of existing ill people. Have you noticed how in downtown new businesses do not remain open for longer than a year?. I think Fleming suggestion on attracting and retaining young people is more than reasonable and I don't think his main point is promote crazy growth and consumerism. I totally agree with him in the need of younger people.

  • Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner Friday, 20 December 2013

    Thanks for your thoughts, Vic. You make valid points according to everything we've grown up believing. But having slower growth, less crazy growth, or less intensive growth on a full planet does not make it sustainable. If we want to be fair to future generations and give them something to work with, we need to be shrinking world population. Let's assume Fleming gets that (and I don't think he does). He clearly does not want Halifax to do its part. We need to get dependence on growth out of their DNA. We can't have global sustainability goals in conflict with local goals of being the growth winner while everyone else does the shrinking. I'm trying to get regions and communities around the world to start thinking differently about what will make their economy healthy in the 21st century. Our communities need to stop competing for population growth and economic growth. Those are coming to an end. Check out the Transition and Degrowth movements that are exploring how we organize our economies to be healthy in a post-growth world.

  • Guest
    Teuwen Sunday, 22 December 2013

    When discussing these matters, one should take into account the possibilities offered by the concept of Relocalization as an alternative to endless 'growth'. Also, why not consider alternatives to the wastefully sterile infusions of huge amounts of cash for constructing what amounts to socially unproductive instruments of war. Instead, arguing with Fleming, one might consider using these resources to build up a base of small enterprises devoted to developing, manufacturing and servicing products in the field of renewable energy, for example.

  • Dave Gardner
    Dave Gardner Sunday, 22 December 2013

    Good points, Teuwen. I think the answers to many of the challenges Fleming brings up can be found in finding ways for Nova Scotians to meet the needs of Nova Scotians, so they aren't sitting around, waiting for a big corporation to offer them a job or move in and rescue them.

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Guest Thursday, 26 November 2015

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