It might surprise you to learn that 17 million people live in a geography the same size as Munster. That geography is the Netherlands where a normal and civilised society can function, despite the challenges that come with having so many people in such a small space.
It makes you wonder what potential exists for a place like Munster, where less than one million people reside or, indeed, Ireland as a whole; where only four million live. After all Ireland, like Holland, is a signed-up member of the vast European Union economy. We operate a pro-investment and business culture. Our education skills match those of the Netherlands and we, like them, survive by depending on international markets for our goods and services.
Contemplating a future with a population of, say, twice our existing numbers frightens some. The Malthusians will be out opining that this is putting too much pressure on infrastructure, the climate and resources, in general.
History suggests the human race has an ability to work its way through growth challenges and develop solutions that improve people’s lives by raising their wealth and providing the needed resources to live in a modern world. Do you remember the scaremongers who told us the world was being stripped of energy resources as recently as 2009 when oil prices shot over $100? They have evaporated as prices fell by over 50% and excess supply is now the key debating point about oil. Energy efficiency and alternative fuels, invented by humans, are addressing the end-of-world threats supposedly posed by peak oil.
The same logic applies for growing populations. The Netherlands is a live example of how a country can adapt and change to accommodate high density populations. It reclaimed land from the sea, designed waste management systems and infrastructure that accommodates citizen numbers over four times those in Ireland.
We should remember this when debating the challenges and opportunities that now lie in front of Ireland. Is it beyond our combined abilities to consider the Republic as a thriving home for, say, eight million people? Listening to those who are loudly complaining about investing in water management, or the effect of flatulent dairy cows on the environment, would turn many off the idea of growth as a virtuous objective.
Yet, well-managed population growth offers huge benefits for the country. Firstly, if that population expansion is driven by a jobs-led agenda then it creates opportunities for our young demography and the vast number of Irish emigrants living abroad.
A larger population, in itself, creates demands for education, health, transport and general services that generates jobs, tax revenues and enhanced economic activity.
The ingredients for a major jobs-driven population rise now exist. Ireland has regained its competitive edge. Just ask anyone living in London, currently, about the cost of living and you can see clearly the competitive advantage that exists for employers who are cost conscious to deploy operations across Ireland.
Instead of fretting about the risks associated with managing a larger population, we should be embracing the concept with open arms. Ireland has the capacity, wit and landmass to play a much bigger role in the European Union with its population of over 500 million people. By shaping an economy that is open for business, stable and capable of absorbing much larger numbers of people, our politicians can create opportunities for many.
In 1820, there were almost seven million people living in Ireland. That was almost 200 years ago when living standards and infrastructure were primitive.
As we head in to the heavyweight thinking that is needed around the centenary of hard-won independence, it is time to think big and outside the box. Has anyone got the bottle to suggest a doubling of our population is a reasonable strategic objective ?
Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.
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