Are we hooked on population growth?


I was recently invited to attend the launch of a new documentary called “Growthbusters” in Brisbane on Friday night but was unable to attend due to work commitments. Thankfully, the sponsor, The Stable Population Party, gave me access to an online screening. Here is a preview of the 1hr 30min film:

This is a very personal tale, centred on the filmmaker Dave Gardner, who presents a global view of the impact of growth. From a somewhat “folky” start, Gardner expands his home town tale into the global issue of today – population growth – one that transcends the politically charged debate surrounding climate change.

The film highlights just how ideologically embedded the concept of growth is in our Western consumer-obsessed society. How we have confused the tremendous prosperity that has come with adopting capitalism over the last 200 years with a requirement for population growth, which is called “the solution to problems it has never solved”. The film travels through a series of soundbites and narratives, Gardner’s attempt to win a seat at his local council, and interviews with anti-growth proponents, including the late Professor Al Bartlett who is famous for his quote:

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”


The very concept of exponential growth in Gross Domestic Product or GDP (actually supposed to be a temporary Depression/wartime measure, but now ideologically followed like a religion) is discussed, and the role of economists in perpetuating the notion that growth is good and “negative growth” is always bad. The film doesn’t quite make the connection with the role of credit and debt in this equation. Chris Martenson’s Crash Course and indeed, Australian economist Steve Keen have successfully made a well rounded picture of how the role of GDP is used by the orthodox economic, and hence, political establishment in requiring ever increasing population growth and the inevitable impact on finite resources.

One concept that could have been expanded upon was how globalism reduced the psychological impact of how local communities impact on the environment. That is, if your community is isolated from how it’s energy, food and other inputs are acquired – its ecological footprint – the effort required to stabilise or offset this deficit is made harder from a political/educational viewpoint.

This was brought home in a review of a (admittedly fairly rich) community in the US, which has adopted a stable population target and calculated its ecological footprint. This has had the impact of informing the community of their input costs and emboldening them to reduce waste, conserve energy but more importantly, create the inputs themselves, using local products, and in the local area.


In fact a plus for me was how the documentary directly addresses the current paradox by the environmentalists agenda (and hence now the official government position) of focusing on reducing consumption without addressing the underlying problem – a smaller (and non-growing) population equals less consumption.

Australia makes an appearance with a short soundbite from Kevin Rudd (when Prime Minister) and a lengthly exposition from Dick Smith’s recent film on population growth, who goes on to blame his fellow capitalists, namely the politico-housing complex . From a local point of view, and to regular MacroBusiness readers, it is obvious that the nexus of easy credit – required by the devotion to ever increasing GDP – the pressure from population growth and the ability of growth proponents to restrict supply (or make it as inflexible as possible) has been the multi-faceted driver behind Australia’s housing bubble.

As I showed recently, and even using the very poor economic measure that is GDP, the economic benefit of expanding population seems to be absent from the political and economic (but I repeat myself) debate. One stimulus measure not covered much in post-GFC Australia is that 1.2 million new Australians were added to the economy since March 2009 . Each of course, add to GDP, but possibly subtract from our overall welfare.


In fact, it seems this ability to pump the economic system with more people and more debt (an additional quarter of a trillion in private debt alone since 2009), may not be enough to have the previous incremental effect in raising prosperity :

Inexorable growth of GDP at 1.48% per annum over 10 years now half that growth rate, even with 6% more people and $250 billion more in private debt


The film touches on the “rational optimism” opposing side of the debate, that is, proponents of exponential growth who contend that human’s abilities to innovate and discover new sources of energy and new ideas will solve the growth “problem”. Again, I would like to have seen more data and explanation of why this thought process is dominant in our thinking, and why this “thoughtless” optimism travails over the relatively simple mathematics of exponential growth in a finite world.

Also, more examples of stable or sustainable zero-growth policies that have been successful (e.g Germany and Switzerland) and more in depth reviews of alternative economic systems could help in offsetting the descriptive side by adding a hopeful prescription. However, I may be too harsh as I think this film is pitched to either the “believers” or to the public that prefers a human tale, not one completely wound up in numbers and charts.

Overall, an empowering film about population growth that has a broad scope but with a personalised touch. The film is available for purchase with screenings here:

  • Melbourne: Nova Cinema, Carlton @ 6:30pm for 7 – Wednesday March 14
  • Brisbane: Tribal Cinema, City @ 6pm for 6:30 – Friday March 16
  • Canberra: Arc Cinema, NFSA @ 5:30pm for 6 – Tuesday March 20
  • Hobart: State Cinema, City @ 7:30pm for 8 – Wednesday March 21
  • Adelaide: Mercury Cinema, City @ 6:30pm for 7 – Thursday March 22
  • Sydney: Chauvel Cinema, Paddington @ 6:30pm for 7 – Tuesday March 27
  • Perth: WA Film Institute, Fremantle @ 6:30pm for 7 – Thursday March 29
  • Darwin: Birch Carroll & Coyle, City @7pm – Tuesday April 3