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The Population Puzzle

by Sharon Ede on 22nd August 2010

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Image of Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith with a group of people superimposed on an image of Australia

Image sourced from The Age, 5 August 2010

Challenging uneconomic growth is a movement that is gaining momentum around the world.

Along with consumption, the question of population is at the heart of growth and post growth issues. Recently in Australia, this question has begun emerging into mainstream public debate.

With his documentary ‘The Population Puzzle’, Australian entrepreneur and adventurer Dick Smith has done something very brave, and very important, in working to break the taboo on speaking about population.

In addition to his documentary, Smith has launched a web site, Dick Smith’s Population Puzzle, in which he discusses the motivation for and thinking behind his initiative:

“Even though we may be able to grow to 100 million people in Australia – what would be the advantage in doing this?  The question is why?…

I have a feeling it’s all “down hill” from now as the population increases.  I can’t think of any of our present problems in this world which are alleviated by more people.  In fact, quite the opposite.  I think unrestrained population growth will make virtually every problem more difficult.”

In Australia, the population issue has often been emotionally charged, because of the role of immigration in Australia’s population growth. The debate is thus easily hijacked from being a discussion about exactly what a sustainable population for Australia would be, and instead becomes mired in blame games and fuels the agenda of racist elements.

One of the first statements by Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Australia’s first female PM), who took over the leadership of the country in late June, was to diverge from outgoing Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s policy vision of a ‘Big Australia’, in which Rudd had articulated a vision of a population of 36 million by 2050 (Australia’s population is currently about 22.5 million).

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is breaking free from one of her predecessor’s main policy stances by announcing she is not interested in a “big Australia”.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd was in favour of population growth, with his government predicting it to hit around 36 million by 2050, largely through immigration…

“I don’t support the idea of a big Australia with arbitrary targets of, say, a 40 million-strong Australia or a 36 million-strong Australia. We need to stop, take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia…”

Mr Rudd installed Tony Burke as the Minister for Population, but in one of her first moves as Prime Minister, Ms Gillard has changed his job description to Minister for Sustainable Population

Australian businessman Dick Smith has been a vocal advocate for a more sustainable approach to population growth and has applauded Ms Gillard’s announcement.

But he acknowledges it will not be welcomed by everyone.

“The business community, my wealthy mates are completely addicted to growth because of greed,” he said.

“So they’re going to fight her every inch of the way. They just want growth, growth, growth, even though it’s obvious that it’s not sustainable.

Gillard shuts door on ‘Big Australia’, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 27 June 2010

Dick Smith has used his personal ‘currency’ to help bring this issue into the mainstream of debate, and his initiative is both timely and admirable.

There is one thing I would offer to Dick Smith to strengthen his case, and that is to reframe his question:

‘How many people can Australia support?’

It seems to be the critical question, however seeking an answer to this question will lead only to an endless spiral of further debate, because the answer can only ever be – ‘it depends’.

How do Australians want to live? Because this will determine our demands on nature – how much water and energy we use, how much greenhouse gas and waste we generate, how much and what kind of food do we want to eat? What kind of houses do we want, how will we get around?

It is a hot air question.

It is also not helpful in an era of global economic trade, where our resources are exported to, and imported from, around the globe, and in a world where nations like China and Saudi Arabia are now buying up farmland in foreign nations to shore up their own food supply, in a move dubbed ‘Peak Soil’.

In a global economy, nations cannot focus on domestic populations alone when population and consumption pressures from elsewhere will impact on their citizens.

What is needed is an holistic, global, scientific approach. Luckily, this already exists!

In the early 1990s, Professor William Rees of the University of British Columbia and his then-PhD student Mathis Wackernagel created the Ecological Footprint.

Ecological Footprint accounting compares human demand on nature with the biosphere’s ability to regenerate resources and provide services. It does this by assessing the biologically productive land and marine area required to produce the resources a population consumes and absorb the corresponding waste, using prevailing technology.

This metric inverts the ‘carrying capacity’ question and instead asks ‘how much of the earth’s productive capacity does it take to support Australians at current levels of consumption?’

It’s measurable.

In the mid-2000s, Wackernagel founded the Global Footprint Network (GFN), a non profit based in California, whose objective is to:

Supporting creation of a sustainable economy by advancing the scientific rigour and practical application of the Ecological Footprint as a measurement and policy tool, with the goal of making ecological limits central to decision making.

GFN maintains a series of biophysical accounts for most nations, which track whether they are running an ecological deficit. These are published in the Living Planet Reports.

GFN’s accounts – which use a conservative accounting approach, and are therefore an underestimate – show that humanity as a whole is already in overshoot ie. when demand on nature exceeds available supply.

Each year, GFN calculates Earth Overshoot Day by comparing nature’s supply in the form of biocapacity (the amount of resources the planet regenerates each year) with human demand (Ecological Footprint), the amount it takes to produce all the living resources we consume and absorb our carbon dioxide emissions.

Its data for 2010 reveals that as of August 21, humanity has exhausted all the ecological services – from filtering CO2 to producing the raw materials for food – that nature can provide this year. From now until the end of the year, we will meet our ecological demand by depleting resource stocks and accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

What would happen if you spent all your annual household’s budget in nine months?

We should all be as worried about this as we are about tracking our financial position – more so, given that financial wealth ultimately depends on the health and productive capacity of the Earth.

GFN are working with a number of national governments on strengthening the data for each nation’s account through their Ten in Ten Program, designed to get 10 countries using the Ecological Footprint as a complement to GDP in decision making within ten years.

National governments can use the Footprint to:

  • Assess the value of their country’s ecological assets
  • Monitor and manage their assets
  • Identify the risks associated with ecological deficits
  • Set policy that is informed by ecological reality and makes safeguarding resources a top priority
  • Measure progress toward their goals

The Ecological Footprint is a metric which is both based on science and readily communicated to people, and is already widely supported and in use around the world.

If Dick Smith and others concerned with this question want to influence public debate and policy, brokering a partnership between relevant organisations in Australia and the Global Footprint Network would be a key step in resolving the Population Puzzle.

This post was written by

avatar Sharon is an ideas transmitter, writer and activist who writes, collects, and shares stories on communication and change for sustainability at cruxcatalyst and is founder of Share Adelaide Share Adelaide. Sharon has been working on sustainability issues in paid and voluntary work since 1993 and loves playing connect the dots by cultivating a wide network of people working on sustainability.

Sharon has written 39 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Sharon

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