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The Population Crisis

by Dick Smith on 31st July 2011

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Sometime in the next few months, the world’s population clock will tick over seven billion people.  Global population has tripled in my lifetime, and is continuing to rise. The UN has just predicted we face a world of 10 billion in 2100. This has immense implications for all of us, and Australia will not be immune from the impacts.

No one can confidently predict where we will find the food, energy, water and resources needed to supply even the basic needs of so many people. On a finite planet, we are already using up far more than we can replenish, literally exhausting the environment on which we rely for our survival.

For decades, overpopulation has been off the international agenda. It is barely mentioned in the media, and is never discussed in relation to, say, climate change or the looming global refugee crisis. Yet it is the common factor that links all our global problems, and ignoring it condemns billions of people to lives of poverty and injustice.

This is why I am so disappointed that Australia has missed the chance to deal realistically with the challenges of ever-growing population. Earlier this month the Government released its population strategy, and it is long on rhetoric and very short on concrete action. It mentions the word ‘sustainable’ dozens of times – three times just in its title – yet never defines what this overused word means.

The Report ducks entirely the question of just where we should be aiming in terms of our numbers in coming decades. This, of course, renders virtually meaningless any attempts we may make for planning the future.  How, for instance, can we expect to reach the Government’s target of 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by mid-century if we have no idea how many people we have making those emissions?

Meanwhile the Report makes grand statements about encouraging people to settle in regional areas, completely ignoring the reality that nearly all new migrants choose to settle in our major cities. Little wonder that Labor backbencher Kelvin Thomson described the Report as a missed opportunity to really map out a direction for Australia’s future.

To me the Report represents a wider malaise, which is the failure of our leaders,  both here and abroad, to deal with the really big inconvenient truth: the impossibility of endlessly expanding our economy and population in a finite world. No politician or business leader dares mention there are natural limits to growth, and that the evidence suggests we are already hitting against many of them.

Instead they hide behind the near meaningless calls for sustainability, all the while accelerating us towards a precipice.

The essential requirement of a sustainable system is that it can be continuing. Yet the global economic system is based on the need for perpetual growth of output and consumption which clearly cannot last indefinitely. Australia’s economy is based on two especially precarious principles: extracting as rapidly as possible mineral resources that have taken millions of years to accumulate while propping up our housing and retail markets with a continuing influx of extra consumers.

How much longer can we continue to exponentially expand our demand for additional energy and resources?  The global economy is already five times larger than it was fifty years ago, and as China and India’s people demand more of what we have been keeping for ourselves, this explosive expansion is accelerating.

Perhaps even more alarming is that despite all this growth, the numbers in extreme poverty, currently 3 billion, continue to rise. The world’s poorest 20 per cent consume just 1.5 per cent of its resources.

Between now and 2050, we will add billions more to the global population, and nearly every one of them will be in the poorest nations. This growing disparity between rich and poor is a certain recipe for conflict and chaos.

If Australians feel these problems are remote, then they may be surprised to learn that the issue is very close to home. Our nearest neighbor, Papua New Guinea, is experiencing a demographic tsunami that will see its population double to around 15 million in just the next 25 years. Our concerns about a few desperate boat people today will pale into insignificance if desperate young Melanesians, denied opportunities at home, look enviously across the Torres Strait for a better life.

One day a politician will be brave enough to speak the obvious but forbidden truth: that on a finite planet we cannot continue to exponentially grow our consumption of natural resources nor survive as a civilisation if we keep adding billions more people to our already swelling planet. Until then, I fear we are creating a dangerous world for our children and grandchildren.

Dick Smith is a well-known Australian businessman, philanthropist, environmental activist and the author of The Population Crisis, published by Allen & Unwin. He is also the creator of the Wilberforce Award, a $1 million grant for the first young person to show leadership in communicating an alternative to our population and consumption growth-obsessed economy.

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avatar Dick Smith is one of Australia’s most well-known and respected personalities. So much so, that in 2005 the National Trust nominated him as one of ‘Australia’s Living Treasures.”

Businessman, entrepreneur, adventurer, philanthropist, aviator and a passionate advocate for the environment, Dick is active in many fields of public life. He talks and travels widely all over the country and is never shy to take on difficult topics—from aviation safety to supporting refugees and the fair treatment of David Hicks. When Dick talks, people listen. They may not agree, but they never doubt his sincerity.

His latest interest is in initiating a debate on Australia’s addiction to population and economic growth, sparked by his concern for the future his grandchildren will face.

Dick has written 0 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Dick

{ 3 comments }

avatar Sergio Iván Solórzano July 31, 2011 at 09:04

but what about peak oil? this factor is going to mess absolutely everything, and it will restrain population growth, I think people is going to die earlier and the die rate will increase. I don’t believe there will be 10 billion people by 2100, not by chance, In fact I don’t even know how 2050 is going to look like, I just pray for the permaculture scenario. Here a peak oil link from another australian fellow http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxIINmkE2eQ

avatar Joshua Nelson August 8, 2011 at 18:42

Sergio,

Thanks for the comment!

Peak oil is definitely a factor, one of many pressures on society. Population, consumption, climate change, and all the related issues are converging, to be sure. Every one of them can be traced back to continued human pressure to growth our economy – that is the ultimate driver in the equation, and the ultimate casualty of a sustainable world future: the end of economic growth.

Cheers,
Joshua

avatar Brad Evans September 2, 2011 at 19:43

I Agree! Why is is that our politicians seem to sweep the real issues under the carpet? It seems to me that we keep applying “Band-Aids” to the real issues. Overpopulation is a REAL issue.. what are our politicians really doing about it? Other than simply throwing us another TAX!?

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