Plaidneck

Month: July 2013

Growth and Demographics

Growth and Demographics

I’ve wondered why our gurus all tout growth. We are told that:
• we can borrow to defer paying for things now because growth will allow us to pay the interest plus the principal and maybe have something left in the future.
• we must grow or we are failing, and that
• without growth there is no prosperity.

Because of our “gurus” we assume:
• that savings will always grow.
• that there will be enough increases to pay for today’s debts.
• what was before (during a long population growth era) will always be even though things aren’t necessarily growing.
• we can keep growing

Is that necessarily so?

My son (www.keepcalm.ca) recognized that our fascination with growth was often based on the run up of population cause by the post war baby boom. He was one of those small classes in school that followed a run of large classes. He noticed the difference, took a look at those following him and recognized that growth wasn’t necessarily going to continue. He reasoned that demographics should be more of the discussion than it appeared to be. He advocates a minimalist approach and it looks like he was correct.

Without growth in population, why should our economic models be based solely on growth? Maybe we should develop an economic model that doesn’t rely on growth (and maybe the “boomers” should be required to pay much more of their own way).

Is constant growth really possible? A couple of events seemed to that it is not.

1. Fiction, but thought provoking: There was a Star Trek episode (I think the Next Generation) where the place being visited had recognized that slavishly advocating growth was pushing them towards disaster. Their solution was to keep up on things for well being (medicine etc.) but return to a more pastoral and static economy. They didn’t emphasize growth. Might have been a utopian slant but it was definitely something to think about.

2. Experimentation reported on a CBC radio show (Quirks and Quarks I believe). An experiment where a single cell organism was placed in a closed test tube of food. The organism(s) ate and divided once a minute. The amount of food was designed to be fully consumed in one hour. There were some questions – If 11:00 is the start of the experiment,
a. how much food would be left in 11:55 minutes? Something like 97%
b. how much food would be left at 11:59. 50%

But this is 50% growth. Wouldn’t slow growth be OK? What if things grow at 1% per year? That should be OK?

The unfortunate problem with growth is it isn’t straight line. It’s growth on growth. If the world’s population grows at only 1% per year:
• there will be 50% more of us (10.5 billion) in 2050 and
• more twice as much of us (15 billion) in 2085.

Finally, we seem to look at Canada as a vast empty land. True, but how much of what is empty is capable of supporting people? To support people, they have to be fed. Unfortunately we are filling up our farmland with housing and the non arable areas are left sparsely populated. Some of us rue the loss of species but we continue to invade and thus adversely alter their habitat. Natural calamities are much more disastrous because more of us are in their path.

Maybe our low birth rate and lack of population growth is really the right way to go.
Maybe it is time to make a concerted effort to develop an economy that doesn’t rely on “growth”

The Plaidneck

Reporting on “infrastructure”

My career was in civil engineering. I worked at the municipal level. I’m sure my profession tinged how I see the world, but I believe it’s a considered view that is poorly served by popular media.

From the number of people who contribute to municipal public works, I know there many many others who have a similar outlook on how things fit together.

Recent reporting on a number of newsworthy failures leaves a lot to be desired.

1. The recent collapse of a bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state was one.

Onsite pictures mainly showed cars on the downed span deck and orange dressed “first responders” working to get the three people off and milling about

Pictures of the downed structure were limited to long shots of the truss and the first pier.

It wasn’t until days later that someone decided to show the cross member that was apparently struck.

2. The coverage recent Alberta flooding (a personal tragedy to be sure) was lacking in technical substance.

Most of the pictures were of inundated land with little context as to how far from the river and where within the floodplane.

As the water started to come down we were finally favoured with a picture that put some of the flooding in perspective. A small hamlet resident was standing on high ground viewing his former settlement surrounded by water and wetland. His comment was basically “I’m not going to live down there any more, I think I’ll build up here on the high ground. How much of the flooded areas are identified in floodplane?

An asside Many of the homes shown looked relatively new (size, appearance, chimneys of framed in stainless steel chimney sections). Why were those new residences even built in the floodplane?

3. The failure of the CPR Bridge in Calgary

The pictures again show close ups of the pier, the failed span end and rail cars plus the usual first responders reacting to things.

A simple pan across the structure to show the height of adjacent piers compared to the one that settled would illustrate the suspected problem much better.

4. Water, sewage plants and electric generating stations. We rarely see the municipal crews working to keep their particular infrastructure plant dry and functioning.

Its good background to show boats, trucks and first responders carrying people from flooded areas (usually areas that are mostly still backwater), citizens working sandbagging but not the work around critical infrastructure. This work is vital but seems to be an afterthought for popular news reporting.

5. This one’s a bit older – the La Baie landslide that killed people.

Most of the coverage showed a building (an old mill??) surrounded by rushing water. However, there were landslides and people were caught in the slides. The slide took place in July 1996.

It wasn’t until a year later did a magazine doing in depth investigating was the following reported.
– There was a landslide mapping done by the Province in 1978
– The local Official Plan (which guides development) dated 1992 did not include the susceptible areas
– The location of the house in which two people were killed was in one of the locations identified by the Province 25 years before

Sensationalism is not wrong, but it must be accompanied by sufficient considered news coverage and background to satisfy those of us who want to know not just the what, when and where but also the why.

The Plaidneck

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