Editorial: Growth is good… but for how long?

Runners on South Sound
Population growth has fueled Cayman's economy but has also put pressure on public spaces. -Photo: Taneos Ramsay

“Greed is good.”

The oft-quoted maxim of Gordon Gekko, the anti-hero of the movie ‘Wall Street’, is perhaps the most recognisable slogan of the core assumptions of modern capitalism.

We need to alter that phrase, only slightly, to find the formula that has underpinned Cayman’s economic development over the past 60 years – “Growth is good.”

The population of these islands increased by about 10 times between 1950 and 2019, rocketing from little over 7,000 to almost 70,000 in the lifetime of many of our older citizens.

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That growth has brought unprecedented wealth and a standard of living that previous generations could not have dreamed of.

In recent times, however, it has also created pressures on infrastructure, natural resources and social cohesion.

It is no exaggeration to say that population growth is linked to every single point of tension in the Cayman Islands.

From beach access and traffic congestion to political franchise, immigration, education and infrastructure, the key questions of Cayman’s future revolve around this central issue.

Over the next month, as part of our ongoing Cayman 2.0 series, we are examining the centrality of population growth in Cayman’s history and asking how influential it will be in Cayman’s future.

The pandemic has pressed pause on more than half a century of exponential growth.

Around 5,000 people have left Cayman since March. The exodus could continue as the local economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis worsen.

Thousands of guest workers left because of the impact of COVID-19.

But history suggests this is likely to be a temporary blip and that, as the world returns to normal, the trajectory of the islands’ population will ultimately resume its natural upward course.

Data analysis in this week’s Compass shows that Cayman’s population increased by an average of 4% per year between 1970 and 2019. If that growth rate resumes post-COVID, we will be on track to hit 100,000 residents by 2031.

While the virus has halted that charge, it seems likely that it will merely lengthen the journey time rather than change the direction in which we are headed.

But the pandemic has also provided a pause for thought.

Novelist Arundhati Roy described it as a ‘portal’ from the old world to the new.

Our Cayman 2.0 series is about how we ‘reset the vision’ for the islands.

Growth may have been very good for Cayman over the past decades, but will it continue to be so in the era of climate change, pandemics and increasing environmental consciousness?

Is there a point at which the negative impact on Cayman’s infrastructure and natural resources outstrips the benefits of new consumers for the islands’ landlords and businesses?

There are no simple answers.

Resuscitating Cayman’s tourism product, getting hotels back to business and money back into government’s coffers will mean a return of many of the COVID exiles.

In the longer term, diversifying the economy with new niches, such as health tourism or a thriving tech sector, will inevitably require an influx of expertise from overseas.

In the first feature in our series academic and historian Roy Bodden asked, ‘How many people can the land support?”

In other words, “Is growth really good?”

Over the next month, we will investigate the causes and consequences of Cayman’s rapid population growth and the viability of alternative strategies and ask, ‘Are we still headed for destination 100,000?’

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