Challenging the dogma of GDP and population growth

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Jacinda Ardern's Government is leading the way on focusing on its peoples' well-being (screenshot via YouTube).

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 Ardern Labour 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 model which 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.

Sustainable Population Australia will be presenting a public forum in Melbourne on world population day:  “Can We Curb Our Growth Obsession – Is Bigger Always Better?” More details on the SPA website.  SPA will also be releasing a short animation ‘the endless growth paradigm’ later this year.

Michael Bayliss is communications manager for Sustainable Population Australia and Co-founder of Population, Permaculture and Planning. You can follow him on Twitter @Miketbay83 and Sustainable Population Australia HERE.

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