It’s the Stress, Stupid!

Growing ourselves to destruction?

An alien visitor to Earth could be forgiven for thinking that the ultimate purpose of its dominant species was to keep growing until it had consumed the planet that sustains it. And the alien would be right – at least as far as Earth’s ruling political and financial class is concerned.

Canada’s ruling class is all in on this scheme, driving Canada’s population growth in order to boost its gross domestic product. If a bigger GDP meant more happiness, Canadians should be approaching a state of ecstasy. But many Canadians are struggling with mental health issues and anxiety and many are experiencing burnout. Although exacerbated by Covid-19, mental health issues long predated the pandemic. Stress has long been reported as a major factor affecting mental health. And teen mental health has been on a downward trend since 2008.

Man does not live by bread (or growth) alone

Why do so many people feel so stressed out? Could there be something about our modern life that is causing it? Perhaps it is our ever-growing, ever-densifying cities with, for many, the near-impossibility of getting away from the maddening crowd. Norman Borlaug, “father of the green revolution” and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1970, is, more than any other individual, responsible for enabling the human population to increase from 3.5 billion in 1968 to 8 billion today. He developed wheat varieties that allowed for multi-fold increases in harvest; subsequent research increased the harvest of other crops. Borlaug was well aware of the “power of population” that Thomas Robert Malthus had warned about and hoped that his green revolution would provide a “breathing space” for humanity to get its population growth under control without the assistance of the grim reaper.

In his Nobel lecture, Borlaug praised Malthus for his insights on the race between population growth and food production. But Malthus, he said, could not have foreseen “the tremendous increase in man’s food production potential” – the very food production potential that Borlaug himself unleashed with the green revolution, following up on the development of the Haber-Bosch process of producing ammonia fertilizer several decades earlier. The other thing Malthus could not have foreseen, Borlaug said in his lecture, was the destructive impact of massive conglomerations of humanity: “Nor could he have foreseen the disturbing and destructive physical and mental consequences of the grotesque concentration of human beings into the poisoned and clangorous environment of pathologically hypertrophied megalopoles. Can human beings endure the strain? Abnormal stresses and strains tend to accentuate man’s animal instincts and provoke irrational and socially disruptive behavior among the less stable individuals in the maddening crowd.”

Could the “abnormal stresses and strains” that Borlaug worried about be behind some of the phenomena we see today, from road rage to mass shootings to various dysphorias to social isolation?

Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Even rats and mice don’t live by bread alone: John Calhoun’s studies

In 1947, John Calhoun had the job of studying the habits of Norway rats in Baltimore, Maryland, one of the city’s chief pests. He built a “rat city” on a quarter acre of vacant land and filled it with breeding pairs. Rather than the 5000 rats he expected, over two years the population never exceeded 150. At that point, despite continuous access to food and water, the rats became too stressed to reproduce. They engaged in strange behaviours, including hissing, fighting, and rolling dirt into balls instead of digging tunnels. Calhoun built various and ever more glorious indoor rat and mouse metropoles over the years. By 1954, he was working for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which gave him entire rooms where he created Rodentopias, with amenities like climbable walls, multi-customer food hoppers, and “walk-up one-room apartments.” But in every paradise, dysfunctional behaviours appeared and the population collapsed.

Universe 25, built in July 1968 and about the size of a storage unit, was Calhoun’s grandest Mousetopia ever and stocked with everything a mouse could need: food, water, climate control, hundreds of nesting boxes, a floor of shredded paper and ground corn cob. It was populated with eight healthy mice. The population doubled about every two months and in August 1969, reached 620. Then things took a turn for the worse. Many mice wouldn’t mate. Spinster females retreated to high-up nesting boxes where they lived alone, while males hung out near the food where they fretted, languished and fought. Adolescent males drank, slept and groomed but made no attempt to mate. Stressed out mouse parents moved nests frequently and took their stress out on the babies, kicking them out early or losing them during moves. If Calhoun’s mice had had access to drugs, no doubt addictive behaviours would have been added to the list of their afflictions.

Population growth slowed down. The last baby was born in May 1970, under two years into the study, when the population entered a swan dive. One wonders what advice the mice of Universe 25 would give to today’s city councils that promote ever-increasing densification as the solution to population growth.

John Calhoun with mice, 1970. Wikipedia.

The physiology of stress: Stress R Us by Dr. Greeley Miklashek

PIC member and retired neuropsychiatrist Dr. Greeley (Gregg) Miklashek has studied stress in humans. Over a 42-year practice, he helped 25,000 patients. Dr. Miklashek believes that stress is the common underlying factor in many “diseases of civilization.” To evaluate stress, he used his patients’ subjective anxiety assessments in conjunction with measuring their blood levels of the hormone cortisol, which is released from the outer part of the adrenal gland known as the adrenal cortex. Cortisol plays an important role in regulating circadian rhythms and the release of stored carbohydrates and fats for energy. However, during prolonged stress conditions, cortisol levels become chronically and detrimentally elevated. [The adrenal gland is much more widely known for the adrenalin it releases in “fight-or-flight” situations of immediate danger; that hormone is produced in its the inner part, or medulla.]

Pioneering stress researcher Hans Selye found that experimentally stressed animals developed enlarged adrenal glands, an involuted thymus and lymph nodes, and peptic ulcers. He described this stress response as “general adaptation syndrome” (GAS). The diseases that befell these intentionally stressed animals were similar to the “diseases of civilization” that afflict people in Western societies. John J. Christian, a contemporary animal crowding researcher of John Calhoun, suggested that adrenal glucocorticoids (cortisol is the major glucocorticoid in humans) were responsible for the population cycles (peaks and die-offs) in mammals.

Dr. Miklashek and his patients came to see that the patients’ psychiatric conditions fell within the spectrum of the common “diseases of civilization” that are the main killers in Western societies but almost unknown in hunter-gatherer societies and pastoral populations. Cortisol was the core health problem directly causing or indirectly making people vulnerable to the deadly diseases of modern “stressed-out” humans. Gregg uses the term COASTER as an acronym for “chronically over-active stress response.” The diseases caused or facilitated by COASTER include essential hypertension, heart attacks and strokes; abdominal obesity and type 2 diabetes; suppressed immune function and the resultant increased vulnerability to all infections; anxiety, depression and suicide; addiction and other obsessive-compulsive disorders; kidney disease; thyroid disease; peptic ulcers and inflammatory gut diseases; cancers; and infertility. Today, 55% of American adults and 80% of those over 50 have at least one chronic health problem.

How does all this happen? Under normal conditions, cortisol levels have a daily cycle. They are low most of the day, but begin to rise early in the morning with a peak at awakening, followed by a rapid mid-morning decline. A continuously stressful situation results in persistently elevated levels of cortisol (i.e., COASTER). High levels of cortisol destroy lymphocytes (which make antibodies, thereby disrupting immune function which has many consequences), suppresses the production of gonadotropin-releasing hormones in the hypothalamus (which impairs reproduction), supresses the production of thyroid stimulating hormone from the pituitary (which lowers the level of thyroid hormones with widespread metabolic effects), causes hypertension, and has other physiological effects.

Gregg developed the concept of “population density stress” promoting disease in human populations. As well as being much more crowded, many of us have lost our connection to an extended clan beyond the nuclear family and to the natural world. There is also the phenomenon of “stress addiction” as stress releases endorphins, dopamine and other feel-good substances. High stress levels can also lead to substance use disorders to numb feelings of anxiety and depression. An extended period of high stress can lead to “adrenal fatigue” in which the adrenal glands cease to function. While too much cortisol suppresses immune function, with too little cortisol the immune system gets out of control and can attack normal organs and tissues, leading to auto-immune conditions. In addition, the release of stored energy is impeded. Affected individuals have been described as suffering from “chronic fatigue syndrome,” “nervous exhaustion,” or “neurasthenia.”

Pexels, Sao Paolo, Sergio Souza

Troubling as it may be to think in such terms, Dr. Miklashek argues that the “diseases of civilization” could be acting as population density regulators. He suggests we could be activating the same “kill switch” that prevented experimental rodent populations from recovering from a population crash. Those who want to get into the weeds of the physiology of stress and the history of stress research can obtain a wealth of information from Dr. Miklashek’s book, Stress R Us, which is available for purchase or can be downloaded for free.

The question PIC would like our politicians to answer is why the pursuit of growth has become our holy grail when, among many other problems, growth is causing so much stress.

Just how bad were things when there were only 20 million Canadians?

In many ways Canada was a much happier place in 1967 when its population was 20 million than it is now at nearly 40 million. We were a more confident nation: compare the joyful and celebratory mood of the 1967 Centennial with the near non-event that was 2017’s Sesquicentennial, which featured more introspection and atonement than celebration. The grassroots Freedom Convoy 2022 that garnered an outpouring of support from a wide swathe of ordinary Canadians was a strong manifestation of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

In 1967, a Canadian family could live on one income, getting an education almost guaranteed a young person a job, the chances of getting into the housing market were much better, and the debt-to-income ratio was much lower. In terms of social equality measures, Canada ranked second in the world in the early 1960s; now it ranks in the mid-20s.

How much stress is their huge burden of debt causing Canadians? Households Debt in Canada between 1998 and 2022. Source: Statistics Canada (Click on 25Y in bar over chart at embedded link to see the graph shown above)

With 20 million people, Canada was already “built.” It had all the amenities of modern life. It had acquitted itself well in two world wars, it was a leader in aviation and nuclear science, and its publicly funded healthcare system was working well. People did not wait a year for non-emergency surgery. Wait times for all social services, including healthcare, were reasonable. Even making allowances for advances in research and diagnosis, the mental health of Canadians was on a more even keel. Maybe that’s because they spent less time stuck in traffic on increasingly congested and deteriorating roads and had more access to nature.

Canadians are not asking for the relentless growth that the government is imposing on them through immigration policies. The fact that long-term residents are leaving big cities even as hundreds of thousands of newcomers pour in to more than fill the void suggests that the quality of life in big cities is not improving with more growth. The refugees from Toronto will settle in places like Barrie and Orillia. But in fact, the people in those cities are not asking for growth as governments would know if they took the trouble to ask.

What Orillians had to say

Orillia is a case in point. It actually did survey its citizens (imagine that!). Located on the northwest tip of Lake Simcoe, Orillia has a population of about 34,000. In 2019-2020, the City of Orillia, in developing its Strategic Plan, a requirement imposed by the provincial government to accommodate growth, conducted an online survey of Orillians. It turns out that Orillians were more interested in a high quality of life and a healthy environment than in “sustainable growth.” Perhaps the good citizens of Orillia know an oxymoron when they see one.

How do we measure wellbeing?

At the present time, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is used as the primary indicator of a country’s success. The GDP automatically grows as the population grows unless there is a per capita drop in consumption. But how much does a GDP that simply grows in line with population growth improve the wellbeing of people? And even if the GDP grows per capita, i.e., the overall growth of the GDP exceeds population growth, this does not necessarily translate into increased wellbeing unless the GDP starts at a level of privation. In a country like Canada that is already built, a growing GDP says nothing about what is happening to the quality of life.

The concept of the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) as an alternative to the GDP was developed in the mid-1990s. A group of economists with the Pembina Institute developed the Alberta GPI System of Sustainable Well-being Accounts as a more comprehensive accounting tool for measuring economic, social and environmental well-being. Their research revealed no correlation between well-being and the growth of the GDP. In fact, while Alberta’s GDP per capita rose 2.4% annually between 1961 and 1999, its genuine progress indicator fell from 1961 to 1987, and remained stagnant through the 1990s. The best year for the GPI index was the earliest year: 1961. Things don’t go better with growth.

Reference: Anielski, M., Griffiths, M., Pollock, D., Taylor, A., Wilson, J., & Wilson, S. (2001). Alberta sustainability trends 2000: The genuine progress indicators report 1961 to 1999. Edmonton, Canada: The Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development.

There actually is such a thing as the Canadian Index of Wellbeing. That would be a good place to start the search for a replacement for the GDP as an indicator of how everyday Canadians are actually doing.

Cui bono, all this growth?

The government says Canada must have more immigration because its fertility rate is too low. Yet immigration is significantly driving up the cost of housing. One of the reasons that young Canadians are delaying or cancelling plans for a family is because the cost of living, including housing, is so high. But the government thinks more people is the answer. Really?!

Growth does not lift all boats. No doubt it raises the boats of the profiteers of growth. But it is sinking more and more of everyone else’s boats. Life is not getting better for the majority of Canadians as housing becomes less affordable, living conditions more crowded, good jobs harder to find, services deteriorate while wait times grow longer, and their savings, if any, get eaten by inflation. No doubt, all of this is causing a lot of stress in the lives of Canadians and affecting not only their quality of life but very likely their health.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Canada’s pursuit of growth is not for the benefit of ordinary Canadians. Will Canadians do anything to rectify this situation?

Madeline Weld, Ph.D.
President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668