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Gittins: too many Australians? Our population explosion: more people, more damage

Growth head and shoulders above India newspapers Australia wide 22 and 23 September reported on the escalating population of Australia. Economists continue to view this with enthusiasm - unlike those of us - who like MP Kelvin Thomson do not subscribe to the view that more is better and essential for economic growth. Humans are consuming resources at an unsustainable rate and overconsumption will increase our production of greenhouse gases.

More Australians will mean more greenhouse gases  - whether our population increase is natural with our increasing fertility rates or through immigration. The Sydney Morning Herald and newspapers Australia wide are reporting that AUSTRALIA is poised to be the world's fastest growing industrialised nation over the next four decades, with a rate of population growth higher even than India. An economist at the Grattan Institute, Saul Eslake, said strong population growth was one of the main reasons Australia had recently avoided a recession. Economic output per head declined for four consecutive quarters, but because there were more people, the economy still recorded growth.


''Thirty-five million of us might not be able to live in the same way that we do now, especially if all of the difference want to live in Sydney or Brisbane,'' Mr Eslake said. ''But provided we get on with planning for these things,I don't think there is much of a problem.''

Unfortunately in Queensland the areas around Brisbane are being targetted to house the growing population - and none of us wish to decrease our standard of living or change the way we do things. The article Growth head and shoulders above India which is available here includes an audio recording of Ross Gittins outling the impact of unchecked population growth on our economy and ecosystems - in similar vein as MP Kelvin Thomson.

His article Our population explosion: more people, more damage (which is available here) reproduced below.

You little beauty. Kevin Rudd's admission that the world's leaders are a long way from reaching an agreement on how to respond to climate change means there's no reason to get his carbon pollution reduction scheme passed by Parliament before the meeting at Copenhagen in December. And if the leaders can't reach an agreement then, we may need do nothing at all.

Wow. Off the hook. All the nastiness that was the emissions trading scheme - a new tax, by any other name - no longer needed. Some countries have all the luck.

Yes, I am being sarcastic. Listen to the Opposition and you'd think our problem wasn't that the world's getting hotter, the weather wilder and the sea level higher but that limiting those things may involve some unpleasantness. A new tax? Surely global warming can't be that bad.

The Government is little better. Of Rudd's 100 top priorities, responding to climate change is just one. He can't resist playing politics. He advances the most timid policy at home, then jets off to lecture others on the need for concerted action. And boy, doesn't Kev look worried about the planet as he mixes and mingles with the great and good.

It's clear the penny hasn't dropped. Neither our leaders nor we have any real appreciation of the severity and urgency of the problem we face. We can't focus on the problem for more than a few minutes. We can't stir ourselves to action.

Everyone (rightly) condemns economists for their failure to foresee and warn us about the global financial crisis but here's a climate crisis we've seen coming for years - and whose early effects we've witnessed - and we can't take it seriously.

Even the economists who brought us the emissions trading scheme don't adequately appreciate the problem we've got. They think all we have to do is switch to low-carbon energy sources (ideally by capturing all the carbon emitted by burning coal) and the economy can go on growing as if nothing had happened.

Being economists, they see us as all living in an economy, with this thing at the side called the environment that occasionally causes problems we need to deal with. As usual, wrong model. In reality, the economy exists within the ecosystem, taking natural resources from it, using them and then ejecting wastes, including sewage, garbage, pollution and greenhouse gases.

The global economy grows as the world's population grows and as material living standards rise. The problem is that the human population and material affluence have grown so much over the past 200 years that our economic activity is putting increasing pressure on the ecosystem that ensures our survival.

On the one hand we're chewing through non-renewable resources at a rapid rate and using renewable resources faster than their ability to renew themselves. On the other, we're spewing out wastes faster than the ecosystem can absorb them.

Global warming, an example of the latter, is just the most acute respect in which global economic activity is undermining the healthy functioning of our ecosystem.

We're destroying the world's fish stocks, farming practices are causing acidification, desertification and erosion of land, dams and irrigation are destroying our rivers and human ''progress'' is destroying species.

All this is happening with only about 15 per cent of the world's population enjoying high material living standards similar to ours.

Now consider what happens to the global economy's use of natural resources and generation of wastes when China and India - accounting for almost 40 per cent of the world's population - get on a path of rapid economic development to raise their citizens' standard of living to something approaching ours.

Since the rich countries are reluctant to countenance a decline in living standards, to put it mildly, and the poor countries most assuredly won't abandon their quest for affluence, there's one obvious variable that could be used to limit global economic activity's deleterious impact on the ecosystem: population growth.

Limiting population growth in the developing world and allowing population to continue on its established path of decline in the developed world wouldn't be easy but it would be easier than trying to prevent rising living standards among those already living.

Hence my dismay when Wayne Swan's announcement last week, that Australia's population in 40 years is now expected to be 6.5 million greater than was expected just three years ago, was received without the blinking of an eyelid. Ho-hum, tell me something interesting.

From 21.5 million today, our population by about 2050 is now expected to reach not 28.5 million but more than 35 million. That's growth of 65 per cent rather than 33 per cent. The revised estimate is driven by ''a greater number of women of child-bearing age, higher fertility rates and increased net overseas migration'', Swan explained.

Even at an upwardly revised total fertility rate of more than 1.9 births per woman, we're still well below the long-term replacement rate of 2.1 births. So it's likely that most of the upward revision comes from higher immigration, which would also increase the number of women of child-bearing age.

You might think that, once people have been born, it doesn't matter to the global environment what country they live in.

But if they move from a developing to a developed country - as in our case most would - their standard of living (and thus their use of natural resources and generation of wastes) greatly increases.

Our apparently universally approved determination to maintain high immigration greatly increases the difficulty we'll have reducing our carbon emissions, puts a lot of upward pressure on house prices and raises questions about whether we're exceeding our Earth's ''carrying capacity''.

But never mind all that. Did you know Our Kev had breakfast with the great Bill Clinton? Bill had an omelet but Kev had fruit salad.

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

Triple bottom line reporting makes companies accountable for economic, social and environmental effects of doing business. This is a popular form of accounting for nonprofit companies and government organizations who endeavour to show a commitment to corporate social responsibilities. For these companies, social and ecological performance is just as important as financial performance.  Triple bottom line reporting has been used since 1994 and an ethical or spiritual aspect has since been added so we now have quadruple bottom line reporting. Unfortunately most traditional economists only report on the single bottom line ie money!


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