Endless Growth in a Finite Space

Wide open spaces, clean air and green countryside. Tramping through quiet forest or  fishing on a clear blue ocean. Walking down an empty beach or relaxing with friends in the backyard. Knowing your neighbours or making connections because you know someone who knows someone else. Ask any New Zealander what they value about their country and their answers will inevitably be linked to our small population and low population density.

New Zealand’s population is increasing and recent growth rates have been approximately twice the OECD average (1). New Zealand’s population grew from 3.9 million in 2000 to 4.4 million in 2010. That is more than the city of Wellington added to our population in 10 years. At the same time close to 1 billion have been added to the World’s population, bringing the total World population to 7 billion. New Zealand is fast approaching a population of 5 million (2) and is likely to be approaching 7 million by 2050 if current rates of growth are maintained. The World’s population is also continuing to rapidly increase and is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 (3).

We know that our planet is not limitless in its ability to provide for our needs, yet we continue to live unsustainably. Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste (4). If everyone lived the lifestyle of the average New Zealander we would need 4 planets (5). We know we must live sustainably for the benefit of future generations, however, as population continues to grow this task becomes increasingly insurmountable. Just like the Red Queen’s race, we will have to run in order to stay in the same place.

Continued population growth will impact on our quality of life and our ability to live sustainably, both in New Zealand and globally. The more of us there are, the less resources there are for each of us. A truly sustainable future not only depends upon limiting individual consumption and using natural resources more efficiently but also on stabilising our numbers at a sustainable level.

Endless physical growth in a finite space is not possible. Knowledge and understanding however, are not bounded by physical limitations. This is the kind of growth that will lead to a truly sustainable future.

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