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Support Your Local GrowthBuster

The topic of overpopulation is getting a lot of focus this month since February is the month for Global Population Speak Out. I have an unusual perspective to share today, but first I want to stress that most sustainable population advocates recognize stabilizing and reducing population only gets us halfway to sustainable equilibrium. We also have to tame the tiger of economic growth and over-consumption. I’ve suggested we need a speak out month for these topics.

My unusual perspective on population is that we need to root out our growth addiction at every level. We cannot have a sustainable world made up of cities, states, territories or nations competing for population growth in order to grow their economies (never mind how utterly stupid the idea). Without accountability for sustainable population size, taming population growth will always be somebody else’s job. In a perfect world we could have open borders and no government involvement in decisions about family size. But in our imperfect world in crisis, we’re going to need – at the very least – to eliminate public policies that accelerate growth.

I’m reprinting here my essay on this subject which first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2010 edition of Population Press. I thank Population Press for providing excellent coverage of the subject. In fact, I highly recommend you read editor Marilyn Hempel’s outstanding editorial, Population? or Consumption? Must We Choose? Here’s my essay, which can also be found here at Population Press.

Support Your Local GrowthBuster
by Dave Gardner

Chances are good there are some growthbusters in your town – groups or individuals who tirelessly advocate for your city to get unhooked from growth addiction and begin to stabilize the local population. The key step in this recovery process is to eliminate public policies that subsidize or otherwise seek and encourage perpetual expansion.

Meanwhile, there are quite a few global growthbusters – seeking solutions to bring world population growth to a halt. That’s critical, since the Earth cannot sustainably support the current 6.9 billion of us, let alone the additional 2 to 4 billion expected to join us over the next 40 years. Often these local and global growthbusters are not the same people.

There is plenty of work to go around, so it’s fine to choose an area on which to focus one’s energies. But some global growthbusters may not realize the value – the necessity even – of working toward local, regional and national population stabilization – and even reduction – at the same time. This is especially true in areas where the lion’s share of upward population pressure comes from in-migration. After all, migration doesn’t, on its face, add to the planet’s population; it simply moves people around.

Here is why it matters:

1. Ignoring population growth at the local level frees communities to remain addicted to growth. Cities and even nations compete for population growth, primarily to fuel expansion of their economies. As long as we live and breathe this addiction at home, it will be difficult to break free from it globally. We need to get it out of our culture, out of our bloodstream.

When local, regional and national governments are addicted to growth, they have policies that subsidize or otherwise encourage and accelerate growth. In its most obvious form this is exemplified today by the alarming and growing number of nations offering baby bonuses. But population growth accelerants extend well beyond this most obvious and egregious example.

2. Having no accountability for sustainable population size at the local, regional and national level amounts to what social psychologists refer to as diffusion of responsibility. This is commonly known as the bystander effect. When people drive by and don’t stop to help a stranded motorist, or stand by and don’t intervene when someone is being mugged on a subway, it’s because they assume someone else will step in and do something about it. Then nothing gets done.

When your city fails to set a goal of achieving a stable or smaller population, and in fact continues to compete with other cities for more taxpaying workers to move in, you are – in effect – leaving it to other cities to stabilize their population (and even reduce it in order to make up for your town’s gluttony). It should be obvious that if all cities are “successful” in their quest for eternal growth, the world will never achieve a sustainable population level.

Focusing on sustainable population levels only at the global level, with no accountability and responsibility at national and local levels, is like expecting a multinational company to be profitable without requiring each of its various divisions to turn a profit. Each division is free to leave it to other divisions to provide that profitability. No one takes responsibility. In the case of population, this approach – worst case – allows nations, regions and cities to continue foolish growth-seeking behaviors. At the very least it allows them to be bystanders, doing nothing and expecting someone else to do the heavy lifting of getting unhooked from this deadly addiction.

Dave Gardner is currently wrapping up production of the non-profit documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Due for release later in 2011. The film examines the sustainability of modern society’s worship of unending economic, population, urban and consumption growth. For more information, visit

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