IMD International

ECOPOP proposal: a narrow view of sustainability

IMD Professor Francisco Szekely on the population control measures to be voted on in Switzerland

November 2011, 2014

How can society best diminish its environmental footprint? Is limiting population growth – particularly the inflow of foreign immigrants – the best way to protect a country's natural resources and quality of life? Hardly.

This November 30th, Switzerland will vote whether or not to accept ECOPOP, a policy which proposes to limit the inflow of foreigners into the country in order to reduce environmental impact. This will not result in diminishing Switzerland's environmental footprint, as the group who proposed the initiative claim.

The debate on population growth and its impact on natural resources started long ago. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus (1798) spelled doom for humanity, contending that even when accounting for technology, the population was growing at an unsustainable level. Malthus suggested that the best way to protect resources – and to ensure that society would survive – was to diminish population growth. Later, other groups spurred the "no growth" or "slow growth" movements and began contending that quality of life would be improved by curbing population growth.

But the "no growth" view is simplistic and narrow. Less people would not diminish the footprint of Swiss society. The footprint of a society depends not only on one but three key variables: population, affluence, and technology. What really matters is not how many people depend on the environment, but how people consume available resources and how the productive sector interacts with nature to responsibly develop sustainable technologies, goods and services.

To diminish the footprint of Switzerland, we need to focus on how and what people consume and to adopt a new economic model. We need to move away from a linear "extract, manufacture and dispose" economic model, where waste ends up in landfills and incinerators. We need to adopt a sustainable approach based on the principles of the circular economy taking insights from living systems. Our systems should work like organisms, processing nutrients that can be fed back into the cycle. Some global Swiss companies, such as Firmenich and Sika AG, are already leading the way in this direction.

In addition to environmental concerns, ECOPOP's focus on foreigners is problematic. Switzerland is a fortunate country. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) Better Life Index, it ranks among the countries with the world's highest standards of living. One of the factors that have contributed to its success has been its commitment to international cooperation. By hosting United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and 100s of other international and non-governmental humanitarian organizations, Switzerland has played a significant role in promoting world peace, international conflict resolution and understanding. Its own population of foreigners – nearly 25% of the population and one of the highest rates in Europe – has contributed significantly to its well-being. Swiss people must continue to adopt a global mind-set, welcome cultural diversity and support international contribution, or they risk closing themselves off from the rest of the world and jeopardizing their prosperity. The Swiss vote earlier this year to regulate immigration more strictly, which has strained scientific, business and economic cooperation, is a good example.

But most importantly, ECOPOP would not achieve its stated goals. Controlling population growth will not diminish the Switzerland's environmental impact. Empowering people and business to adopt sustainable consumption and a circular economy production model will.

Francisco Szekely is Professor of Leadership and Sustainability at IMD and Director of IMD's Global Center for Sustainability Leadership (CSL).

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