I saw an article today about New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to introduce an $8 congestion fee for drivers who enter Manhattan below 86th Street. As someone who lives in a town where they'll just about pay you $8 to enter the downtown area, I'm not too worried about this trend reaching me anytime soon. But the plan itself is in reaction to a premise that drives so much of our economic development conversations these days:
"Advocates [of the fee] say it's crucial for a city that's expected to add another million people in the next 20 years."
The reactions include frustration at the economic implications, outrage at the imposition on personal liberties, concerns about the logistical implementation details, and an overall sense of "well, somebody better do something or we're going to grind to a halt."
But no one seems to question the idea that adding a million people to the city is what must and will happen, and everything else must work to accommodate that.
All over the country and indeed the world, when we talk about growth and development and success, very few decision-makers seem to question the premise that the continued growth of our population is the desired trend that we want to accommodate. All of our cultural processes that work to meet our future needs assume that we will need more housing, more buildings, more streets, more neighborhoods, more jails, more healthcare facilities, more agribusiness, more imports, more oil, more cars, more energy, more EVERYTHING. After all, how can more humans be a bad thing?
For any given geographical area, if you take the problems that it faces with its current population numbers (poverty, crime, famine, unemployment, inequality, traffic congestion), and then add more people, it's fairly proven that those problems will only get worse. And sometimes, it's not a matter of a linear worsening - the effects of population growth are often exponential.
But few people say, "what if we didn't keep adding millions of people to our global population every year? What if we came to understand that unchecked population growth is at the core of so much of our economic and social strife these days, and decided to do something about it? What if we made it so that NYC got less congested because there were less people there?"
Our solution isn't to ease off on the baby making or city building or to otherwise explore alternative models of a sustainable future - we just charge you a few extra bucks as you head down the road. Who cares if it costs $8 more to be fruitful and multiply, fill the Earth, and subdue it?