Challenging the dogma of GDP and population growth

By Michael Bayliss, communications manager for Sustainable Population Australia and Co-founder of Population, Permaculture and Planning

Australia’s economy is centred on the belief that we need Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a means of measuring prosperity.

For this to happen, we need to maintain a culture of consumption coupled with a continually growing population. While this is problematic for obvious reasons, GDP tells us nothing about the quality of lives and it gives no regard to the depletion or degradation of natural resources.

As we head towards World Population Day on July the 11th, this is perhaps an opportune time to explore some nations around the world who are exploring progressive alternatives to the growth based paradigm.

While we are not exactly spoilt for choice, there are nonetheless some countries who are making some tentative steps to break away from the norm and some surprisingly close to home.

New Zealand

Australia’s closest neighbour across the Tasman is proving to be an anomaly in the Anglosphere.

As Australia, UK, Canada and the U.S. appear to be grappling with an uneasy choice between business as usual neo-liberalism and right-leaning populism, New Zealand has managed to avoid this trapping. Under the Jacinda ArdernLabour Government, New Zealand is showing some promising early signs that a progressive alternative is possible.

Many of these policies are still at an early stage of implementation at a time when New Zealand continues to struggle with unemployment, underemployment and housing affordability.

However, highlighted below are two examples of what New Zealand is attempting to achieve and even on paper this is a refreshing change from the usual rhetoric of “jobs and growth”.

First, New Zealand has begun to distance itself from the GDP economic model

As stated in the New York Times, New Zealand is:

‘Moving away from more traditional bottom-line measures like productivity and economic growth and instead focusing on goals like community and cultural connection and equity in well-being across generations.’

This move has prompted some considerable interest in the mainstream area and a sense of inspiration and excitement for many progressives, as well as those who advocate for alternatives to the GDP such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (or GPI).

As stated in The New York Times:

‘No other major country has so explicitly adopted well-being as its objective.’

In New Zealand’s “well-being budget”, there is less emphasis on growth and tax cuts with a larger emphasis on supporting mental health, reducing poverty, lifting opportunities for Indigenous people and transitioning to a low-emissions economy.

As quoted by policy researcher Jess Berentson-Shaw in the Huffington Post:

‘Beyond a certain point we find that growth erodes the quality of people’s lives because it starts to extract too much from the people and the environment.’ 

The happiness budget has its fair share of critics, both in and outside of the country, with some claiming that the measure is nothing more substantial than a public relations campaign. Others maintain the critique that moving away from a GDP economic model is risky and may leave the country with more debt and financial problems.

At this early stage, it is too early to say if the critics will turn out to be correct.  However, if a happiness budget can be measured by the contentedness of the people, then New Zealand has already succeeded: the country is rated 8th on the World Happiness Index Report.

Even if this turns out to be all talk and little substance, in the long run at least, the mantra of “mental health and low emissions economy”  is a welcome change from the “we’re open for business and growth and jobs” rhetoric that Australia has become so accustomed to.

Secondly, New Zealand is lowering migration whilst embracing multiculturalism.

This may read like a contradiction to many people but this does not need to be the case.

According to the New Zealand Labour Party policies:

In recent years our population has been growing rapidly as record numbers of migrants arrive here.

This has happened without the Government planning for the impact immigration is having on our country … this has contributed to the housing crisis, put pressure on hospitals and schools and added to the congestion on roads … we will take a breather on immigration.

We will do this by making sure that work visas are not being abused to fill low-skill, low-paid jobs, while ensuring that businesses can get the skilled workers they need.

The population debate in Australia remains a contentious issue for many progressives as any mention of migration is stifled for fear of its association with protectionism (at best) or xenophobia (at worst).

New Zealand has demonstrated that it is actually possible to have policies which slow down economically fuelled migration whilst not comprising on their progressive policies or the country’s renowned openness to multiculturalism and diversity.

For example, the way in which Jacinda Ardern and her Government responded to the recent Christchurch shooting tragedy made global headlines.

They responded with tact, diplomacy, grace and solidarity with the Islamic communities following the shootings and so far this has fostered an environment of healing and connection when hostility and division could have so easily prevailed.

It appears that this is not a Government that is not attempting to isolate itself from multiculturalism, diversity and its global responsibilities. The fact that the Government, within this context, can question and act on the economic drivers of population growth is food for thought for Australians as we continue this emotive and protracted debate over population.

It is important to reinforce that the rate of population growth does not necessarily improve multiculturalism, especially under a neoliberal modelwhich treats humans as numbers.

Further, in Australia, developer-led population growth is intertwined with the housing development economy which forces gentrification and the dispersal of communities towards the urban fringe.

Costa Rica

I recall my surprise when I first read about the progressive policies of this small Central American nation of five million people. Although geographically small, Costa Rica is certainly not short of ideas.

After abolishing its military earlier in the 20th Century, Costa Rica has instead redirected their budget toward education, health and social security.  Costa Rica is also attempting to transition away from a GDP growth model towards a model that favours wellbeing over consumption.

According to the World Economic Forum:

Costa Rica has joined a small group of countries in the so-called Wellbeing Alliance, which is implementing ideas, highlighted by the International Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, for constructing better welfare metrics.

Recognising the shortcomings of GDP that the Commission emphasized, the Alliance seeks to ensure that public policy advances citizens’ wellbeing in the broadest sense, by promoting democracy, sustainability, and inclusive growth.

So far Costa Rica’s successes are many.

The country’s GDP per capita is a quarter of ours, however, Costa Rica tops the list in the Happy Planet Index. Literacy rates and gender quality are at international standards and the country is a world leader in terms of environmental protection.

Much of the country is environmentally protected, with most of the country’s revenue coming from eco-tourism. 99% of its energy comes from renewable sources. Interestingly, Costa Rica’s fertility rate has declined to replacement level and its population growth is slowing in the past decade, now averaging 1.0%, per annum, despite the high influx of refugees into the country.


Japan’s economic policies are broadly similar to many other countries in the global north. However, their population has been declining since 2010.

In addition to the fact that Japan’s total GDP has stagnated, a scornful global community has labelled Japan an economic “basket case”.

Yet, economist David Pilling found a different reality with Japan, including low unemployment, high-quality social services and health care sector and a rising standard of living.

It is true Japan is not without its problems that arise from its ageing population, however, it also seems to be missing the many issues that arise from rapidly growing countries. Additionally, Japan is exploring creative solutions to support its economic stability, including tourism and supplementing the workforce with automation.

Final words

World population day is a wake-up call to the modern human experiment of perpetual growth on a finite planet that is choking planet Earth.

This is a time of dramatic contrasts where Extinction Rebellion protestors in France were tear-gassed on the country’s hottest day on record.

It is a time when Canada declares a climate emergency one day and approves a tar sand pipeline the next.

It is a time where many nations are rebelling against global economics by voting in dangerous right-wing populist governments, including Hungary, Brazil and the U.S.

Australia has elected for more of the same “jobs and growth” for all the wrong reasons as our population grew by over 400,000 in under a year. This rate of growth alone will contribute more to Australia’s CO2 emissions (six million tonnes when per capita consumption is multiplied) than any new Adani mine site could ever dream about (between 240,00 to 750,000 tonnes per annum).

This is a time when it is more important to look for countries out there that are genuinely exploring alternatives to GDP and endless growth. The future of the planet literally depends on it.

This article was first published on Independent Australia.


  1. Let’s aim to be more like Bhutan, with its Gross Domestic Happiness, where they even cap tourist numbers and how they travel through the country.

    Let’s start factoring emergency room wait times, ambulance delays, teacher to student ratios for public schools.

    • Jumping jack flash

      “Let’s start factoring emergency room wait times, ambulance delays, teacher to student ratios for public schools.”

      Those issues are all solved by a bit more immigration.
      Importing additional teachers, nurses, doctors and paramedics is well underway.

      I can’t remember the last time I saw a GP who was native English speaking.
      The last nurse I saw was in a medical centre and they were also not native English speaking.
      I haven’t needed paramedics so I can’t comment on that.
      My children’s teachers are both from “Noo Zulland”, at a public school. Class sizes are pretty good there.

      • It was only a suggestion, a starting point.

        Immigration certainly doesn’t help with Emergency Room wait times for most public holidays or ambulance response times.

        Lots of schools have been crush-loaded, including teachers dealing with kids whose first language isn’t English.

        Productivity rates have also taken a battering with immigration.

        Housing affordability has crashed.

        Mental health has also deteriorated – particularly with longer commute times and more stresssful commutes (crush loaded public transport).

        Wages have stagnated.

      • Chase that’s all common sense, sadly common sense isn’t so common anymore. I will say for certain mental health is taking a beating, I feel it myself. My sanity is out the window with it all.

    • Agreed. No mention of skittle-sh!tting unicorns and fluffy bunnies but I’m certain it must be in there somewhere.

      Seriously though, the article makes out like there are basically two choices: the neoliberal, globalist economic model OR fluffy bunnies. How about trying the Govt-fvck-off-and-leave-the economy-to-its-own-devices model? Just the once should do it.

      • Jumping jack flash

        Governments gave up on controlling the economy years ago. Somewhere around Howard’s time. They handed that responsibility to the banks. The banks turned it into a giant debt bubble.

        Debt is what banks do well, so it wasn’t much of a surprise.

      • “How about trying the Govt-fvck-off-and-leave-the economy-to-its-own-devices model?”
        This statement is one born from spin and repeated by you. Here is a much more accurate statement. “A government governs the countries economy.” See no spin just facts. It is not possible to have a government not run the economy. The only alternative would be to have no government so a Mad Max style economy.

      • @Blackbeard
        You couldn’t be more wrong if you tried. I’ll wager you must be in your twenties. The Govt doesn’t govern the economy, the Govt governs the country. BIG difference.

        It’s because the Govt attempts to govern the economy that most of the problems we have today exist. The government’s job is to run the civil institutions of state not direct resources to areas where they think they may needed. That’s what Communist and Socialist governments do — with a 100% failure rate, so far.

  2. Jumping jack flash

    “This is a time when it is more important to look for countries out there that are genuinely exploring alternatives to GDP and endless growth. The future of the planet literally depends on it.”

    true, but endless growth is where its at. Everyone wants growth. Growth means profit. Profit means riches. Riches means good times.

    Growth with no effort, instantaneous riches fueled by “somebody else’s” debt, is the current experiment.
    Its failing hard, but it doesn’t stop them from keeping on trying…

    “you can’t endlessly grow debt by attaching it to property, causing it to rise in price, creating additional capacity for debt to attach to property, and then use that mechanism in place of a properly balanced and well-functioning economy!”
    banks: “challenge accepted”.

  3. John Howards Bowling Coach

    I think we should be careful in believing what the Kiwi Government say and looking at what they do. As far as I can see they are still overflowing with Migrants trying to backdoor their way into Australia and they still have a housing crisis while at the same time they are equally as bad as Oz at the wholesale sell out of their nation to foreign raiders. The talk from the Ardern Lefties sounds like the positive discrimination crap I read from the HR departments of my client’s companies. Written by people who are so useless to their society they are likely to end up in Public Service. Isn’t it one of the great Ironies of life that people of not value to society largely work in government departments where they should indeed be working for the good of society?
    Anyway back on topic, the concept of getting away from just a plain growth model is excellent, but in Australia we are not even in the sustainable model business, not for society, not for the economy, and not for the environment. We could burn down the whole model of control in Australia and only have 3 government departments, Society, Economy, Environment with the first rule being, is this choice in the best interest of the nation (yes/no) and we’d all be a whole lot better off.

  4. Ah, NZ. No capital gains tax. GST rate at 15%. And no UBI.

    It is far better to copy certain aspects of Dubai (never give citizenship to foreigners), Norway (4 different rates of GST and it is ok for the government to own infrastructure), Iran (UBI), Germany (most Germans rent and the tenants have rights), Japan (unemployment rate of 2.4% due to a shrinking population), USA (no urban growth boundary in some states = housing is fairly priced), Denmark (build cycleways).

  5. If this guy is their communications manager then they havn’t got a hope of convincing the broad public.

  6. Couple of corrections of this article by Michael Bayliss, ‘Communications Manager for Sustainable Population Australia’ (maybe he reads the comments 😏)

    🔷New Zealand – has a Labour minority government chosen by Winston Peters NZ First – who campaigned and won the balance of power on anti migration, blatant racism and reducing the migrant trafficking via NZ into Australia.
    “NZ only sells 2 things – milk power to the Chinese and passport stamps to the third world to enter Australia on an SCV” – Winston Peters.
    And then he promptly sold the NZ voters out.
    The migrant intake pours in. Auckland and now the other NZ cities third world migrant slums, housing unaffordable, education prostituted as a foreign student visa alibi; widespread visa fraud & trafficking and then once they get the NZ passport stamp – off to Australia.

    Jacinta Ardern the Morrisonville communist in her virtue signalling and pandering in a thinly veiled effort to cover the cracks of massively failed migrant assimilation.

    -> Nothing sustainable or happy there, just hypocrisy and failure – and Ardern will be a 1 term PM as the backlash in NZ to the Winston Peters sellout grows.

    🔷Costa Rica – yep,. exploding crime, drug rings, ultraviolent armed gangs, disease and illegal migrants, as the beleaguered locals scavenge the rubbish tips & bins outside the tourist areas for food to eat.

    Nothing ‘vibrant’ or ‘happy’ about Costa Rica’s growing
    crime wave – underpinned by what? A migrant intake of mainland criminal illegals, beggars and poor.

    🔷Japan – the case study or control group in non immigration.

    An aged society with a decling birth rate where gdp per capita and productivity went up.
    Robotics & automation replacing unskilled labour.

    So they try some tiny little token efforts in immigration.
    Massive social failure and community backlash.
    The ‘Nepalese foreign students’ found paying bribes and riddled with TB after fake health checks, working illegally & prostitution. In japan even the non Japanese genuine tourists are still unwelcome in most suburban Japanese zones.
    ‘Happiness in Japan’ and ‘Japanese sustainability’ was not flooding the country with million of migrant guestworkers that lowered everyone’s standard of living & morality or sense of community wellbeing.

    And there is nothing ‘sustainable’ about the 2.561 million TR / SCV migrant guestworkers here.
    1. The vast majority are third world unskilled and living & working illegally in visa breach.
    -> Who all create a much larger environmental impact here in Australia in our western society – than they would back in their third world country of origin.

    2. The migrant guestworkers bring in their own cultural and ideological attitudes to resources usage, emission, water saving, environmental impact which are highly negative.
    They don’t know, can’t speak English, they don’t care. They all missed the childhood & ABC indoctrination of multiculturalism, environmentalism and climate alarmism – and so individually and collectively have zero inclination toward assimilation, multiculturalism, zero tolerance of other races or beliefs, and no inclination in respect of the environment or sustainability.
    To the non assimilated Chinese, Indians, South East Asians – all these concepts are laughable.

    Real sustainability would be exiting this burden.

    For example – if just migrant guestworker TR in visa breach (at least 1.4 million of the 2.561 million TR) were exited then;
    🔻Wages would go up some 6% and be ‘sustainable’
    🔻Sydney & Melbourne housing would be ‘sustainable’ and we wouldn’t see Australian homeless all over the footpaths or sleeping in the parks.
    🔻Our water usage in Sydney would drop by 25% (1.3 million TR in Sydney- 1 in 4 people).
    🔻Our education system would be ‘sustainable’ and ‘affordable’ for Australian youth & families.
    🔻Massive wasteful (and Australian taxpayer funded) public projects would be scrapped as we would be more ‘sustainable’
    🔻Our public transport & roads would be far less congested and more ‘sustainable’.
    🔻And our emission targets would be easily met.
    Just by enforcing current visa conditions of entry.

    Now – why isn’t exiting a million or more TR migrant guestworkers in visa breach & zero immigration of any more like that – a core plank of the ‘Sustainable Population Australia’ policy?