Lucky Country or Greedy Country?

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Proponents of “zero population growth” link birthrate and immigration to climate change as though it were a given. At first, that seems logical enough; stop population growth and you stop the increase in carbon emissions. But is it really so clear cut?

The poorest 50% of the world’s population (about 3.4 billion) cause only 7% of global carbon dioxide emissions while the richest 7% (about 0.5 billion) cause 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions. (1)

Clearly, it is not high population that drives climate change but high consumption.

Of course, for any given level of per capita consumption more population does mean more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions but the villain is not population, it is consumption. More precisely, it is the resource hungry, environment polluting, industrial monster we have created to sustain that consumption.

Australia is a member of the high consumer’s club. The carbon footprint over the generations of one Australian child will be about 100 times that of an Ethiopian child, (1) so it is true that reducing our birthrate would have some effect. However, Australia, like other wealthy countries, stopped having large families long ago. Births have declined from 3.55 per woman in 1961 to 1.93 per woman in 2007. (2) That is well below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1. It has remained below that benchmark since 1976(3) and Australian Bureau of Statistics projections indicate that our population growth will taper off to zero by 2050. (4)

This should be heartening to those convinced that “population pressure” is the problem. Australia’s below-replacement fertility rate and rising death rate due to an ageing population indicate that in terms of natural births “zero population growth” will happen naturally.

According to UN projections, world population growth will also taper off to zero by 2050. (5)
Globally, during the past five decades the number of children born to an average woman has declined. Although almost a billion people still live in poverty, the world’s standard of living has increased overall. A higher standard of living results in a lower birthrate because when there is a reasonable expectation that children will survive to adulthood, families have fewer children. There is also a direct correlation between illiteracy, particularly female illiteracy, poverty, and a high birthrate.

If it were possible to hold the world’s population at the present level, presumably carbon emissions would remain at today’s level. But of course, that won’t happen and if every Australian family had fewer children it would make very little difference locally or globally. Neither would reducing our intake of migrants, which represented a net population increase of just 177,600 people in 2006–2007. (6)

Even if by some draconian anti-birth, anti-immigration measures Australia could achieve “zero population growth” almost overnight, and our carbon emissions remained at today’s level, but the rest of the world continued towards climate change oblivion, could Australia remain a rich and pristine oasis amidst the inevitable worldwide famine, conflict and chaos? Is that realistic?

If we are to avert the disaster facing most of humanity and the other species with which we share this planet, we must focus on the real problem – high consumption and the industrial monster that sustains it. Wealthy countries are unlikely to lower their living standard willingly and it is hypocritical to expect poor countries not to improve theirs. Therefore, the challenge is clear: to reduce carbon emissions to a safe level while maintaining the wealthy countries’ lifestyle and helping the poor countries improve theirs.

Improbable? Yes, but not impossible.

The planet does have the capacity to provide enough food for its 6.8 billion human beings and the 2.3 billion more likely by mid century. (7) That almost 1 billion people suffer appalling deprivation and don’t have enough to eat is not due to shortage but due to greed, lust for power, inefficiencies and corruption. It all comes down to indifference to the suffering of others.

If we, who are lucky enough to live in wealthy countries, are seriously concerned about our fellow human beings, present and future, we will help those who live in poor countries, to attain a level of nourishment, shelter, education, health care, security and leisure equal to our own. This quest will lead us to climate change solutions that are realistic and morally sound. It will help us to see that real solutions lie not in artificially curbing population growth, selfishly restricting immigration, hypocritically denying the world’s poor the right to a standard of living equal to ours, or in reducing our own standard of living.

That last point is important. People en-masse will not throw away their car keys and start riding bicycles, nor will they go to sleep at dusk and get up at dawn, nor will meat eaters become vegans. Certainly as individuals we can make a contribution by simplifying our lifestyle but it is highly unlikely enough will do so willingly to make a measurable difference globally.

Real solutions will be global solutions and regulated by legally binding international agreements. They will be focussed not on reducing consumption but on mitigating the effect of sustaining a high standard of living not just for the wealthy countries but for all of humanity. That means developing environmentally benign ways to produce energy and commodities from renewable and in-exhaustible resources.

It is a daunting challenge but if climate change predictions are correct, failure is unthinkable. Even if we are partially successful billions will be in dire need of humanitarian aid. There will be an enormous global movement of refugees fleeing from the poor world to the wealthy world. They will have no choice if they are to escape mass starvation, pitiful deprivation and the horrors of resource driven conquest and conflict.

In the light of this looming humanitarian challenge Australia and every other wealthy country should, right now, be devising policies and plans to cope with an influx of destitute and traumatised men, women and children numbering in the tens of millions. Debates about Australia’s perfect population level, reducing our birthrate and adjusting our intake of migrants by a few thousand this way or that are blithely academic.

While doing everything possible to avert catastrophic climate change, we must devote just as much effort to preparing for it.

To claim Australia is full is short-sighted and selfish. As environmental journalist Fred Pearce points out in a recent Guardian article, (1) the “lifeboat will sink” metaphor doesn’t wash while each of those safely on board jealously occupy 10 or more places. Sooner or later our great landmass must be developed to support many millions more.

Except for our indigenous citizens we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Australia is our home not by some divine birthright but by nothing but good fortune. The greatest challenge is not to increase the carrying capacity of the land, but to increase the compassion of the heart.


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