The Hidden Dividends of Stopping Population Growth

Ending population growth is necessary to create ecologically sustainable societies. That’s reason enough to do so. But the evidence suggests smaller populations have other important benefits, including more honest and responsive governments and happier citizens.

by Kelvin Thomson

Most people concerned about rapid population growth are concerned about its impact on our environment, on other species, and on future generations. They realise it is unsustainable; that we are trashing the joint, and leaving a poor legacy for our children and grandchildren.

But there are many other reasons why stopping rapid population growth is a good idea that would benefit us here and now. Two surveys this year point to two that don’t get a lot of comment, but are seriously important: honest government and the overall wellbeing of citizens.


Less Corruption

Transparency International’s Corruption Index for 2021 found that the top 10 nations in combating public sector corruption, in order, were Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. Readers won’t need a whole lot of statistics thrown at them to realise that, with the exception of Germany, the thing these countries have in common is that they have small populations. Most have populations of between 5 and 10 million people, and only Number 10 on the list, Germany, has a population in excess of 15 million people.

Unfortunately, the global picture on corruption is not very good. Transparency International – who give each country a mark out of 100 for integrity (the better the performance the higher the mark) found that the global average remained unchanged for the 10th year in a row, at just 43 out of a possible 100 points. Indeed, 27 countries are at their lowest score ever.

One of those is my home country of Australia. Back in 2011 we were in the top 10, ranked 8th with a score of 88 out of 100. But in the last decade we have fallen from 88 to 73 points and dropped to 18th place globally. It is the steepest fall in standing of any developed nation. During that time, we have also been running rapid population growth, at rates among the fastest in the world (26% population increase, 2005-2020). The decline in our standing could be a co-incidence, but I doubt it.

The good government rankings of the 10 most populous countries are as follows:

These generally poor rankings suggest that countries with large populations have a greater problem with corruption than the small population ones.

But it’s also possible to see negative effects of population growth in the ‘top ten small countries’. From 2005–2020, the top countries Denmark and Finland grew by 6-7%, while populations of Norway and Sweden grew by 14-17%, due to higher immigration. All Scandinavian countries saw their Corruption Index score fall after the large immigration surge in 2015–16, but Sweden more than others. And it’s not only corruption in government that is seen to rise: at least in Sweden, black-market employment has increased, especially in construction work, and 20% of the citizens report they use personal contacts to bypass queues in the welfare system.

In countries with large populations, such as the ones in the graph and table above, a likely cause of increased corruption is the greater distance between elected representatives and their constituents in large electorates compared to smaller ones. The more voters there are in an electorate, the less possible it is to get elected by meeting voters personally. Instead, you need money to campaign. The more money politicians need, the more obligations they acquire, and the more they turn a blind eye to corporate misconduct and wrongdoing.

The late Professor Albert Bartlett, Professor of Physics at the University of Boulder, Colorado, wrote a book called The Essential Exponential for the Future of our Planet, with a chapter called “Democracy Cannot Survive Overpopulation.” When he moved to Boulder in 1950, the population was 20,000. There were 9 city councillors. By the time he was writing, Boulder’s population had grown to 100,000, and there were still 9 councillors. He wrote: “in effect today we have only 20% of the democracy we used to have in 1950,” because it is harder for the individual to get access to a representative.

Photo: Rama

Professor Bartlett said the massive increase in electorate sizes for members of Congress made it impossible for them to personally represent their constituents. They ended up getting their campaign support, and ideas, from lobbyists and well-funded propagandists. “As a result,” he wrote, “we often get one dollar one vote versus what used to be one person one vote.” There is a crowding out effect, and people become alienated.

This corresponds with my own experience. When I first stood for public office, it was in a City Council with around 6000 households. While I benefited from being a Labor Party candidate, because the Labor Party was well regarded in the area, the small ward sizes made it absolutely possible for independents of good community standing to be elected as Councillors. This was true even if they could not afford, or chose not to, spend money on their election campaigns.

This kept the political parties honest. If they selected a poor candidate, voters would choose someone else. Secondly, Councillors often got elected with little “baggage” – obligations to campaign donors and workers. Their primary obligation was to the voters, as it should be. Campaign expenditure was low. I engaged in low cost or no cost campaigning such as doorknocking and street stalls.

The growing size of electorates works in favour of candidates with money – either their own or somebody else’s. Presidents and Prime Ministers in large countries are nowadays almost always extremely wealthy. Ordinary people have no hope of getting a meeting with these leaders, whereas they most certainly could get a meeting with me and my Council colleagues.


More Happiness

Not only are small populations more honest and better represented politically, apparently they are also happier. The World Happiness Report is an annual publication from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, using Gallup World Poll data to evaluate happiness and wellbeing across nations. The World Happiness Report 2022, ranking countries’ happiness on a 3-year average from 2019-2021, found that the 10 happiest nations were, in order: Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Israel, and New Zealand.

Once again, a dominant characteristic of these countries is small populations. Of the 146 nations ranked, Afghanistan and Lebanon were last and second last. The next 8 spots were filled by rapidly growing African nations, with crowded India next at No 136.

The happiness rankings of the 10 most populous countries are as follows:

Increasing population size leads to more traffic congestion, less job security, decreasing housing affordability, decreased tree canopy cover and access to open space, and loss of the mental health benefits of interacting with nature.

I am not suggesting there is a simple, unvarying relationship between population size and honesty, integrity, and happiness. Many other factors play a role in good government and individual wellbeing. And given the number of countries we are talking about, inevitably there will be exceptions. But the correlation is clear enough to warrant both further research, and more attention from policy makers.

Given the importance of honesty, integrity, and happiness in our lives, it makes sense for every country, everywhere, to put a stop to population growth. And of course, doing so also represents an important contribution to global sustainability.

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10 thoughts on “The Hidden Dividends of Stopping Population Growth

  1. Don’t agree! The corruption and happiness have nothing to do with population size, but with the ethical and spiritual values of the communities. A materialist society thinks that can be unpunished when do something wrong. They will have a surprise.

  2. The population of The Netherlands is nearly 18 million people. I believe that population density is more important than mere population size. Correlations per se don’t deliver any explanations.

    1. Correlations may not deliver explanations, by themselves. But they can suggest causal connections.

      I can think of various ways in which both higher absolute population size and higher population density could undermine good government and citizens’ well being. But whether they actually do or not is a further question.

      t would be interesting, for a start, to see whether changes in absolute population size and changes in population density correlate with measures of government corruption and national well-being. With that information in hand, one might explore possible causal connections more systematically.

  3. There seems to be confusion between size and density. Singapore might be small, but it’s one of the most densely populated countries on Earth. It’s also far from democratic.

    I agree on the link between population and size. For this reason I am against the European Union, which is an undemocratic, bureaucratic nightmare, unreachable by common citizens in spite of all its rhetoric. Another problem is that you cannot govern very diverse polities centrally with a single set of norms – which is why I think that people talking about a “world government” are crazy.

    And yet, most people in Europe associate the Eu with liberal democratic values, and its opponents with tyranny.

    Besides size and money, bureaucracy is a big enemy of democracy. You have all these elected representatives, even in small towns, close to the population, etc, who nevertheless keep saying “I can’t do anything about this” because some decisions have been made by nobody knows who, left to bureaucrats to implement, and basically become locked and unchangeable. Even when democratic decisions would be possible, bureaucracy obscures decision-making processes to the point you never know how and when you can intervene to change course.

    1. The more people, the more rules so they can all live together without tripping over one another, and the bigger the bureaucracy to interpret and enforce the rules!

    2. I agree that large bureaucracies get in the way of people having a genuine say. I support the principle of subsidiarity, ie having decisions made at the closest practicable level to the voters. That is consistent with the approach taken by Professor Bartlett, which I referred to – the bigger the electorate, the smaller the democratic say.

      1. I campaigned for years to save a small river where I lived from a pointless and destructive hydroproject. The mayor: “there’s nothing we can do about it” – there could have been, but the village’s richest guy was gonna profit from it, so they didn’t stop it. The Region: “there’s nothing we can do about it if the mayor wants it” – there could have been, perhaps, but the project was going to be subsidised from the national government, money coming in.
        The bureaucrats I spoke to: “we are just applying the law”.
        Turns out they weren’t. An environmental NGO with a paid lawyer found that they had authorised subsidies for this project against the law – well, against one of the countless laws (European, regional, super-regional, national, etc) governing the matter. I have a degree with a Master’s, at least average intelligence and literacy, and it took me more than a week of intense study with expert guidance to understand how exactly they were breaking the law. The less educated villagers wouldn’t have stood a chance. Local journalists didn’t write about it cause it was probably took hard for them to comprehend too.
        Problem: the lawyer wanted a fee to pursue the matter further. I figured out what I could do myself in terms of alerting the relevant authorities (of which there is more than you could imagine), NGO with paid lawyer did the rest. Eventually, one of the very many institutions we told about this, will never know which, stopped the subsidies and the project was dropped.
        We stopped environmental devastation on a random technicality.
        That’s contemporary democracy for you. Sorry about the rant.

  4. “Germany, has a population in excess of 15 million people”
    Germany’s population is 84 million – way in excess of 15 million

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