Canberra's population growth should be kept at a steady pace.

Canberra's population growth should be kept at a steady pace. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Thinking about Canberra's future: is growth the answer or the question?

With the coming to power of another federal Coalition government, it seems likely that Canberra's high growth rates of recent years will come to an end, at least for the next few years. While there is understandable concern about this change in the city's fortunes, in the longer run all the indicators are that we will have a much bigger city than we do now.

But how much bigger do we want Canberra to be, and what are the implications of the changes involved? The Australian Bureau of Statistics, using its most conservative assumptions on fertility rates and net immigration levels, projects Canberra's population to reach 500,000 by 2034, just 20 years away. (The ACT's population mid-2013 was 385,000). Bearing in mind that this is the most conservative of the bureau's published projections, it's a figure that should give us all pause for thought.

The figure of 500,000 is based on net overseas immigration actually falling to 2400 people per year (it's currently running at nearly 3000 per year). If 500,000 seems a lot, the ABS's high-growth projection has the city reaching 600,000 in 20 years. Of course, whatever the ultimate level, not all the projected increase comes from overseas arrivals. Interstate migration is important and (perhaps surprisingly for many people) there is expected to be a substantial component of natural increase as well. Even with a low fertility assumption of 1.6 babies per woman, the Territory's population will continue to grow (reaching 435,000 in the next 20 years) without any net overseas migration at all.

A high level of growth - in population and in economy - is considered the ideal state of affairs for all capitalist societies. Growth - certainly if accompanied by productivity increases - carries with it the promise of greater incomes and wealth. But growth also imposes costs, both collective and individual. In Canberra's case, we can see that we have a physically bigger city than before. New suburbs have taken shape in Gunghalin and in Molonglo. Even with the operation of densification policies, this expansion means more public expenditure: on the bus service and light rail, on schools, on roads, on health and so on. It is expenditure that the city struggles to meet.

Even if the city's fragile finances could magically be repaired, growth imposes costs at the individual level, too. For existing citizens, it means more traffic, more difficulty parking, less green space. It also means more carbon emissions which, if current targets are to be reached, entails more (very expensive) solar and wind-based power-generation. For new arrivals, there are presumably net benefits in moving from previous locations, whether interstate or overseas. For those already here, the costs must simply be absorbed.

Because political agendas are constructed around growth, it is difficult to find a ''space'' within which to discuss these issues. Growth is presented as inevitable, if not desirable. It is impossible to find an ACT government planning document that does not start by telling us how many more people the city is going to have to accommodate. Faltering growth may mean that plans are put on hold, but they are never questioned.

Nevertheless, there have been some dissident voices. Dick Smith, our own Mark O'Connor, Jenny Goldie and Crispin Hull, as well as federal Labor MP Kelvin Thomson, have all made notable contributions to the debate. And, slowly, new ways of thinking beyond growth, towards some kind of steady state, have started to appear. Although no one knows what that steady state might look like in detail, after a long period in which little was done, a number of economists are starting to figure out the constituents of at least a macroeconomic steady state. British economist Tim Jackson in Prosperity Without Growth acknowledges the difficulties, pointing out that in the steady state, investment and consumption will have to balance at much lower levels than at present and the relentless churn of capitalist economies will have to give way to more reflective lifestyles.

It is important, though, not to equate the steady state with stagnation. Indeed, it is likely more collective work and thought will be required to effect and maintain a transition than to maintain business as usual. But we need to buy time. The advantage of slower population growth, in particular, is we reach ecological limits much more slowly. Rather than pinning our hopes on an elusive decoupling of growth and ecology, it seems much more realistic to moderate population growth, which will reduce pressure on environmental resources far more surely.

The steady state will, presumably, value quality of life rather than quantitative increase. Turning over society's stock of capital at a slower rate will give us a lot more time to do a lot of other things. We are so busy, working two jobs to stock our ever-grander houses, to fuel our SUVs and to send our children to private schools, that we scarcely have time to relax.

So, how might we get there from here? As well as choosing lower population trajectories, it would be good to try to ensure that the prices we pay for what we consume actually reflect the environmental costs of production. If our goodies cost us more, we would be less inclined to discard them. Manufacturers would be obliged to bring out new models, not every year or so, but at much longer intervals. More goods than at present would have to be made to last.

What can each of us do? I am not sure that growing vegies in the backyard or covering the carport as well as the roof with solar panels will make much difference. But consuming less, and going for quality more, would be a start. Quality costs more, of course, which implies a real revolution in the way we think about credit. Forms of financing which enable those with less accumulated capital to meet the additional outlays that would be necessary for properly priced goods, would become essential.

At the moment, our throughput seems way too high. Just as eating less has been shown to prolong an individual life, so slowing the rate at which we consume may prolong our collective existence. If we slow down, we may as a species live longer. A dream? Perhaps. But better the steady state we have chosen than the chaos of growth that has passed its limits.

Professor Jenny Stewart is a visiting fellow in the School of Business, UNSW Canberra. Her most recent book, Inner Weather: Learning from Depression is published by Hybrid Publishers.