WEDNESDAY, DEC. 12: Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the gauge conventionally used to measure a country’s growth. However, to measure societal progress solely within a commercial framework, encourages the accumulation of material wealth as an indicator of success. Thus bigger homes, bigger vehicles, bigger roads, bigger and better shops and offices, and more complex recreational opportunities are seen as indicators that we have “arrived”.

With only 21 square miles of land area, Bermuda has a very limited capacity for continuous growth of human activity without experiencing serious adverse consequences. As an alternative to GDP-driven growth, Bhutan (the tiny Himalayan kingdom wedged between China and India) measures development using the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index. Bhutan started its GNH Index in 1972, based on four cornerstone parameters: 1) promoting sustainable development; 2) preserving and promoting cultural values; 3) environmental conservation; and 4) fair distribution and efficient use of resources.

Bermuda has always been an immigrant-prone society and is no different today, with over one third of its 38,000-strong workforce being foreign-born in 2010.   With 3,200 people per square mile, Bermuda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Over the past 50 years, we have become a pre-eminent financial services centre, and one of the wealthiest countries, ranking fourth in the world based on GDP per capita.

While our population density alone is likely to put a strain on limited resources, a richer population entails a higher standard of living, which can lead to additional strain on resources such as land, water, housing and transportation. In 2006, a Standard & Poors’ report on our economy warned of strains showing in our small-island infrastructure. The Department of Sustainable Development echoed this warning with its statement that pervasive, unsustainable conditions facing the Island strongly suggest the need for a plan compatible with our limits of growth. 

Studies have shown high population densities to be accompanied by social unrest, increased accidents, sickness, lawlessness and crime, and a listlessness about engaging in the community’s usual preoccupations.  British Psychiatrist Anthony Storr writes: “The closer we are packed, the more easily resentful of each other we become. It is probably on this account that many people find life in cities irritating and exhausting since they are compelled to control aggressive impulses which arise solely as a result of overcrowding.”

More recent research links population growth and density with reductions in the quality and quantity of resources. Essentially, overpopulation places a competitive stress on resources that can lead to a diminished quality of life.

Living “greener”, less resource-intensive, lives may increase the threshold population at which a high quality of life becomes unsustainable, but there will ultimately still be a limit. The 2005 State of the Environment Report shows a direct correlation between the increase in our population and the decrease in our open spaces, for example. The 50,000 vehicles on our roads and incidents of residential developments encroaching on and usurping land designated for tourism purposes are taking a toll on our quality of life and our ability to attract tourism revenue. Our decreasing ability to sustain an overall quality, as opposed to quantity, of life for all residents needs our attention.

BEST believes that Bermuda’s population growth must be carefully monitored and managed if the island is to maintain a healthy social and ecological environment as well as to compete globally as a premier business and tourist destination.  We must re-view using material “wealth” as the accepted and sometimes sole gauge for measuring “success”, noting that the current expansion-driven model fuels population growth. BEST supports a review of tangible versus intangible individual and community wealth. While our total population may currently be in decline, BEST encourages the work of determining an optimum carrying capacity be done in advance of a rebounding economic cycle.

• This document was researched and written by members of the BEST research team led by: Alaina Cubbon, Stuart Hayward, Frances Marshall and Marlie Powell.