Saturday, August 14, 2010

Dick Smith

The well know Australian businessman and philanthropist has in recent times gone on a noble crusade to raise awareness about the problem of over-population. Whatever one thinks about the issue, it’s hard not to be impressed by Dick. He stands as a good example of why the Marxist notion of class interests is too simplistic. As a self-confessed capitalist Dick openly admits his material stake in a 'big Australia': More people mean more potential consumers for Dick's commerical interests. And yet, unlike so many of his mates in the big end of town, he is prepared to forgo the extra dollars and speak out for the common good. This should be recognised as an outstanding example of principle and courage in public life.

According to Dick, he first started thinking seriously about this issue when his daughter suggested that those concerned about the environment where not talking about the 'elephant in the room': population. But is this true? Is population really the environmental issue that people here in Australia should be most worried about?

In general when thinking about environmental problems we must keep in mind the classic equation: Environmental Impact = (P) opulation * (C) onsumption * (T)echnology. According to the equation, Dick is certainly right that population is a big driver of environmental impact. But there are two other issues, we need to consider; technology and consumption.

In terms of population, the numbers are indeed worrying. By 2050 the UN predicts we will have up to 10 billion humans, up from around 7 billion today. From an environmental standpoint (especially when one considers the interests of other species) there is no doubt the world is over-populated. But what population advocates overlook is that there is very little Australia can do about this! The vast bulk of the world population growth is occurring in the third world (or 'South'), and rich countries like Australia have reached, or almost reached, stabilisation rates. Of course Australia can contribute to aid programs which may have some impact on reducing population growth via birth control, education, poverty reduction etc. But even with the best efforts, we are probably locked into to at least 8 billion, so the difference won't be huge.

Of course much of Dick's concern is not about world population rates, but Australian immigration. He definitely has some valid points here. Dick rightly worries about stress on urban infrastructure and services, the immoral 'stealing' of third world professionals, and the illusory economic benefits of immigration, which provides additional consumers for business, but does very little to improve per-capita incomes for ordinary Australians. It is also true to say that when poor people come to Australia they (usually) substantial increase their environmental impact, simply by taking up our energy/resource intensive way of life. But if we want to understand the main drivers of today's global environmental crisis, this last point actually points away from population, and to something much closer to home; something a lot more uncomfortable; namely our own affluence!

To my mind, when it comes to the environment, the real 'elephant in the room' is not population growth but affluence. The vast majority of environmental campaigners in the West, focus on either population or Technology, as the key driver of environmental damage. Accordingly their solutions are always focused on reducing population and/or promoting greater take-up of clean/green technologies. Very rarely do politicians, the media, academics, and even most environmental campaigners put forward strategies for stabilising our affluent "living standards." To do so would confront the growth economy and consumerism and indeed, as a minority of radicals persuasively argue, the entire capitalist market economy! So instead we deny the problem and pretend that screaming about third world population growth or hoping that techno fixes alone can solve the problems.

The evidence, however, suggests that if we want ecological sustainability we have to abandon affluence. While population might grow by 50% to 2050, this is nothing compared to the impact that would result if 9 billion people in 2050 were to attain Australian 'living standards'. A good way of demonstrating this is via the footprint measure. The Australia way of life requires about 8 ha per-capita to provide the water, energy, settlement area and food. So if 9 billion people were to live as we do, we would need about 72 billion ha of productive land. But that is 10 times all the productive land on the planet! The overshoot is massive. The situation gets worse when one factors in future economic growth (which admittedly is partly determined by population). At the 'average' 3% growth rate, the global economy will double its output every 23 years. That's a 400% increase in 46 years, making the 50% population 'explosion' look a little less concerning.

There is a popular argument amongst some economists that environmental standards actually improve with affluence. Like all nasty lies, this has a grain of truth, but it is really hopelessly misguided. A recent scientific study has shown clearly that on a host of major environmental issues (climate change being the biggie) the problems get worse with affluence.

So back Dick and his population concerns. It is possible I am being a little unfair. In some of his statements it appears Dick understands the real issue (for rich countries at least) is not population but endless economic growth. If that is indeed the case he should be congratulated. The trouble is, Dick thinks we can do away with economic growth and keep capitalism. I think his mistaken, but that is a subject I will have to tackle in another post.

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