Uneconomic Growth: When having more things makes us poorer

My first reaction visiting North America was “I like all the space”. I wasn’t even 10 years old but I appreciated that buildings were very far apart from one another and contained greenery in between.  Of course, I wasn’t paying anything for housing or transportation, I did not have to commute, I was driven to restaurants and grocery shops, and as far as I was aware fossil fuels were next to infinite and hardly harmful.

Things have changed quite a bit.

Downtown high density living.

As a young man I had to live in a suburb to attend university for several years. I had a budget and was supposed to make the best out of it. Quickly I realised that driving is far from something you can take for granted under those circumstances: on top of rent, I would have had to shell out hundreds of dollars every month for the ‘privilege’ to move around town. I didn’t. Grocery shopping was hell, winter night outings were horrible, and many hours were wasted waiting for and riding late buses to and from strip malls. I also found out that what were now scattered houses used to be productive farmland and that suburban sprawl was actually not ‘providing us with nature’ but rather ‘eating nature away’ at a faster rate than old cities ever could.

I realised then that if only all the cardboard houses that defined the suburban landscape were closer to one another then maybe I could walk to the supermarket, walk to university/work, and walk to visit friends. OK, I lie, my first instinct was that my suburb should have a subway, but maintaining a subway in a low density area would have proven more expensive than having everyone own cars, so…

What I was suffering back then were the consequences of uneconomic growth. Herman Daly coined that term decades ago to describe economic growth that leads to a decrease in well-being and quality of life. Because ‘everyone’ owned large houses and cars and governments had built vast expanses of expensive infrastructure to accommodate them, a teenager needed to spare $600 a month in order to move comfortably.

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Suburban entertainment and housing in Mississauga, ON

Assuming a university student lives with his or her parents, in Ontario he/she must take on the following monthly costs to commute comfortably (in a car):

  • Car insurance: $200 (conservative estimate)
  • Parking: $208 ($13 per day, 4 days a week, as per University of Toronto at Mississauga costs and classes)
  • Gas:  $120 ($30 a week for a 10 km commute)
  • Car + Maintenance: I’m not even going to include this.

That is, you need to spend at least $528 a month in order to reach ‘standard comfort levels’. And you need to do this on the back of an increased and continuous exploitation of natural resources. If you want to get milk, you need to move several tons of steel with you while blowing poisonous exhaust into the atmosphere. Down 10 years (if that), you’ll have to dispose of your obsolete vehicle and replace it with a new one that’s up to the task – thus perpetuating the cycle of tireless consumption.

Then I moved to a high density mixed use area.

By throwing my ‘car-money’ into rent I managed instead to afford an apartment 3-minutes away (walk) from a grocery store, I have a 15-minute bike ride (or 20 minute streetcar ride) commute, and I have spare change to dine out several times a week.

Living in a higher density area has counterintuitively gifted me more leisure time and transportation options to spend in green spaces. I’m more in touch with nature than ever before.

Higher densities can provide equivalent or superior quality of life to citizens at a much lower financial and environmental cost. Having more things, in this case more land per household, can sometimes indirectly make us all poorer.

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