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Ask Dr. Weld 1 — Demography 101











Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Interviewee: Madeline Weld

Numbering: Issue 1: Inaugural Issue

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: Question Time

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: October 25, 2018

Issue Publication Date: January 1, 2019

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 1,660

Keywords: demography, Humanist Perspectives, Madeline Weld.

Madeline Weld, B.Sc., M.S., Ph.D., is the President of the Population Institute Canada. She worked for and has retired from Health Canada. She is a Director of Canadian Humanist Publications and an editor of Humanist Perspectives.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is demography?

Dr. Madeline Weld: In the words of “”, demography is “the science of vital and social statistics, as of the births, deaths, diseases, marriages, etc. of populations.” My interest in the subject of course focuses on population growth and the extent to which the growing human population is having a negative impact not only on the biosphere (Earth and the organisms that live on it) in terms of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss, but on humanity itself — in terms of the many stresses and conflicts associated with population growth. Within any country, the population is determined by the number of births relative to deaths together with net migration (immigration and emigration).

Jacobsen: How long were you involved this field?

Weld: As far as being concerned about population growth goes, I can say all of my life — at least as soon as I started to consciously think about things. I can’t remember too much from my very early years. But when I was two months short of five, my dad, who was in the foreign service, was posted to Brazil (November 1959 — June 1962), and I became acutely aware of the extreme differences in wealth in that country and the sprawling favelas. I also recognized that I had done nothing in particular to deserve to live in the nice big house we lived in at the time, and that the poor kids from the favelas (to whom I sometimes threw mangos over our wall — we had mango trees on our property) had done nothing in particular to be where they were. I was also very much aware of population growth when we were posted to Pakistan (1965–1967) when I was 10. The population of Pakistan at the time was less than 60 million and is now about 200 million. I remember a teacher at that time speaking about the “vast” forests and oceans and all the resources we could get from them, and wondered how these vast regions would withstand the onslaught of a growing human population.

As far as being officially active in the area of population, that didn’t start until 1992, when Population Institute Canada was founded under the name “The Ottawa Family Planning Project” by the late Dr. Whitman Wright (a professional engineer who also founded Planned Parenthood Ottawa). I was the vice-president and then in 1995 became president. The Ottawa Family Planning Project later changed its name to Global Population Concerns Ottawa and eventually to Population Institute Canada. We have always promoted awareness of the population issue and campaigned for Canadian government support for family planning in its international assistance programs. We also think that Canada should stabilize its own population and do more to protect its biodiversity and agricultural land.

Jacobsen: What was the doctoral thesis question? What were the findings of the research query or the “answer” to the question?

Weld: The funny thing is that my doctoral thesis had nothing to do with demography. I got my B.Sc. in zoology from the University of Guelph and my M.S. and Ph.D. in physiology from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The only academic work that I did that could in any way be linked to demography would have been at the undergraduate level in courses dealing with ecology (e.g., how animal population expand and are checked by predators and disease and that sort of thing) or with courses that dealt with topics like gene frequencies in animal populations. The topic of human population was my own “extra-curricular” interest. Whenever I would read newspaper articles or hear news reports about conflicts in particular regions or about some environmental problem (erosion,deforestation, depleted water supplies, pollution), I’d note how the population growth aspect of the problem was either completely overlooked or, very occasionally, mentioned in passing as something inevitable.

Jacobsen: How can individuals learn some of the basics of demography within a Canadian context?

Weld: In the age of the internet, it’s very easy to find out what Canada’s population was in a given year, or what the numbers of immigrants and emigrants were, or how many births and deaths there were that year (or within a set of years). It’s noteworthy that Canada’s population increased over 5-fold over the 20th Century. It was almost 5.4 million in the 1901 census, and almost 30.7 million in 2000 (a 5.7-fold increase). The current population is almost 37 million. But our population could have stabilized a long time ago at well under 30 million because our total fertility rate has been near or below 2 children per woman since 1970. We have been driving Canada’s rapid population growth with high levels of immigration.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a critical analysis of government policies that have an impact on population. Canada has no official population policy, but its policies in other areas are all directed at promoting both population growth and economic growth. Canada’s immigration policy as of 1990 has increased Canada’s population by about 1% a year, and under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, our intake is being upped even more. But there is no public discussion about the costs of those policies — the loss of wildlife habitat and greenspace in cities, the congestion and ever-increasing amounts of time that people spend stuck in traffic, the stresses on social services (such as health care) and on infrastructure, and on those seeking jobs. Our immigration policy benefits the few (developers, bankers, businesses that benefit from cheap labour, some politicians courting the ethnic vote) but the costs are borne by everyone.

Canada’s de facto policy of inexorably growing its population goes against all the scientific advice. In 1976, the Science Council of Canada, in its Report #25, “Population, Technology, and Resources,” advised Canada to restrict immigration, conserve its resources and stabilize its population. In 1991, the Intelligence Advisory Committee with input from Environment Canada, the Defence Department, and External Affairs, produced a confidential document for the Privy Council, called “The environment: marriage between Earth and mankind.” It states that “Controlling population growth is crucial to addressing most environmental problems, including global warming.” It notes that while Canada’s population is not large in world terms, its concentration in various areas has already put a lot of stress upon regional environments in many ways. The Fraser Basin Ecosystem Study, led by Michael Healey of the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, BC) and published in 1997, concluded that the rapidly growing urban environment would overwhelm the natural resource base and noted the environmental degradation that had already occurred. When the study was released, Michael Healey said, “The lower Fraser basin exemplifies all the social, environmental, and economic problems of modern industrial nations. These problems are not going away and it is high time that we faced up to them.”

Some people have written critically about Canada’s immigration policies. The late Martin Collacott wrote extensively about the need for reform, and economists Herb Grubel and Patrick Grady estimated that recent immigrants cost the government $30 billion more in services than they pay in taxes each year. Daniel Stoffman’s 2002 book “Who gets in” was critical of Canada’s immigration policy, as was Diane Francis in her 2002 book, “Immigration: the Economic Case.” All of the economic arguments for growing Canada’s population have been thoroughly debunked (the average Canadian is not getting richer through immigration, immigration does not change Canada’s age structure etc.) and growing our population is having a negative impact on the environment.

But the media — and most environmentalists for that matter — do not discuss let alone promote the concept of stabilizing and reducing Canada’s population as an environmental measure. Instead, we do hear about ideas like the Century Initiative, which aims to grow Canada’s population to 100 million by 2100. If this were to come about, it would be to the detriment both of working Canadians and the environment.

Jacobsen: Why is demography important in the early 21st century? Why should people care, as the oft-repeated question goes?

Weld: The human population is growing by well over 80 million people each year or about one billion people every 12 years. That’s a very sobering statistic! And that growth is occurring mostly in the developing world, much of it in the poorest countries. Growth in rich countries like Canada, the USA, and Australia is driven almost entirely through immigration. This rapid population growth in poor countries is leading to resource scarcity, unemployment, and conflict, and driving people to risk their lives to immigrate elsewhere, where their welcome is increasingly wearing thin. Witness what is happening in Europe. And for anyone who cares about life on Earth, it is sad to see the devastation of wildlife on land and in the oceans, rivers, and lakes. We should ask ourselves whether we really want to turn the Earth into a feedlot for humanity or preserve some of its natural beauty.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Madeline.

Image Credit: Madeline Weld.

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