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Squeezing Into A Billion Solar Systems: Population Growth In Prince George

Posted on 29 November 2011

Orion Nebula: Planetary Protection--X-ray Super Flares Aid Formation of "Solar Systems" (A rich cluster of young stars about 1,500 light years from Earth.)

Yesterday’s Citizen featured an opinion piece by Todd Whitcombe, UNBC science professor and past provincial NDP candidate. It’s behind a paywall, so here’s the portion that I’ll be commenting on:

“None of these economic opportunities are going to generate the thousands of jobs that we need in this town in order to prosper and grow. And in order to enhance the tax base so that we can afford the services that we hold near and dear.”

This is an article entitled “Stagnant city needs more than review.”

I’ve already expressed by suspicion of the growth gospel in a previous post. In it, I wrote:

“Maybe we need growth in the short term, and even in the medium term. We’re in a relatively sparsely populated part of  a relatively sparsely populated country. But I’d feel more comfortable if there was some conversation about what our target population is. What do we need to enjoy a comfortable level of living, have various services provided, and avoid a crushing mass of people everywhere? How do we hit our target and then plateau?”

That’s a question I’d like to see Mr. Whitcombe and the other politicians/commentators who’ve raised this stagnancy point answer. What is the guarantee that population growth will lead to a better overall city? Mr. Whitcombe is calling for thousands of new jobs. I’m going to assume this includes a few thousand new residents. And I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to live here the opportunity. But once again I would like to ask– why pursue this above all else? Why growth as an end unto itself?

I have been squeezing some research on this subject into my reading. The best argument I’ve seen in favor of growth comes from “urban physicist” Geoffrey West. He’s been studying the mathematics of cities and has found that every time a city doubles in population, it only requires an 85% increase in infrastructure, energy, etc. As a New York Times profile on him suggests:

“This straightforward observation has some surprising implications. It suggests, for instance, that modern cities are the real centers of sustainability. According to the data, people who live in densely populated places require less heat in the winter and need fewer miles of asphalt per capita. (A recent analysis by economists at Harvard and U.C.L.A. demonstrated that the average Manhattanite emits 14,127 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide annually than someone living in the New York suburbs.) Small communities might look green, but they consume a disproportionate amount of everything. As a result, West argues, creating a more sustainable society will require our big cities to get even bigger. We need more megalopolises.”

Which is fine, up to a point. Even West acknowledges that our current lifestyle and growth rate is unsustainable, short of some remarkable innovations. Countering this urban optimism is another bit of math that comes from investor Jeremy Grantham. I’m quoting wholesale from the Business Insider column I read this in, in which Grantham writes (emphasis is mine):

“Four years ago I was talking to a group of super quants, mostly PhDs in mathematics, about finance and the environment. I used the growth rate of the global economy back then – 4.5% for two years, back to back – and I argued that it was the growth rate to which we now aspired.

To point to the ludicrous unsustainability of this compound growth I suggested that we imagine the Ancient Egyptians, whose gods, pharaohs, language, and general culture lasted for well over 3,000 years.

Starting with only a cubic meter of physical possessions (to make calculations easy), I asked how much physical wealth they would have had 3,000 years later at 4.5% compounded growth. Now, these were trained mathematicians, so I teased them: “Come on, make a guess. Internalize the general idea. You know it’s a very big number.”

And the answers came back: “Miles deep around the planet,” “No, it’s much bigger than that, from here to the moon.”

Big quantities to be sure, but no one came close.

In fact, not one of these potential experts came within one billionth of 1% of the actual number, which is approximately 10 raised to the 57th power, a number so vast that it could not be squeezed into a billion of our Solar Systems.”

Now, I know he’s talking physical wealth here but he goes on to write about population sizes:

“So, I then went on. “Let’s try 1% compound growth in either their wealth or their population,” (for comparison, 1% since Malthus’ time is less than the population growth in England). In 3,000 years the original population of Egypt – let’s say 3 million – would have been multiplied 9 trillion times! There would be nowhere to park the people, let alone the wealth.”

Would you like to know the world’s current growth rate? 1.14% per year. We are straight up shooting for something that would result in no physical space left on the earth’s surface.

So I repeat my questions. Why growth? To what end? When Mr. Whitcombe and others speak of the need for growth, are they planning for stagnancy at some point, either in this generation or in some future one?

Further: Why is a city of 70 to 80 thousand considered a failure? What are these services that we desperately need that we cannot possibly achieve without a few extra thousand people? Should every small community that hasn’t hit this magical number be aiming for growth on an even larger/faster scale than Prince George? And given that Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton– Canadian cities with much larger tax bases– are struggling with their infrastructure, would Mr. Whitcombe prescribe a larger tax base (ie. a larger population) to solve all their woes as well?

The pursuit of growth, in both population and in wealth, is an incredibly pervasive goal– one that I rarely see questioned anywhere in the political or theoretical spectrum. And I would really like to know why this is. Because I don’t see us getting the technology to populate a billion solar systems– not now, and not in 3,000 years. At some point, this conversation is going to have to shift.

photo: The Smithsonian/Flickr Commons

Filed under: Best Of, ideas, Prince George

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