First Appeared in Sustainable Population Australia’s Newsletter No. 138 February 2020
Did you know that wandering albatross chicks are up to 1.5 times heavier than their parents? Or that there is no significant difference between the economic performances of republics and monarchies? These are just two of the intriguing facts in Vaclav Smil’s latest book, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.
Czech-Canadian academic, Vaclav Smil, is one of the world’s experts on energy and has been named as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.
Growth is striking for its level of ambition, traversing an extraordinary sweep of topics: starting with microorganisms, moving to plants and animals, before exploring trends in human energy use and the history of machines, devices, buildings and infrastructure. The final two chapters are most relevant to SPA, considering populations and economies, as well as what comes after growth.
In his section on population, Smil starts with an account of the growth of the global human numbers over the last two million years. Growth then moves to assessing the causes and effects of demographic transition (changing death rates and birth rates) and total fertility rates. Growth then discusses possible future population trends, highlighting that the main uncertainty is future fertility rates, and the global significance of those rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Smil sensibly makes no firm predictions as to future global population numbers, but does discuss Earth’s biophysical constraints on sustainable population levels.
In considering what comes after growth, Smil focuses on the implications for nations of low fertility rates. He particularly discusses Japan, concluding that its infrastructure, health care, food production and global influence will be impacted by its declining population. Readers might criticise Smil’s emphasis on age dependency, but he does not specifically identify it as a problem to be ‘fixed’.
Smil’s treatment is arguably stronger for economies than population. He starts by setting out the dramatic expansion in human economic use of energy, which has increased almost twenty-fold since 1800. Smil then considers the importance of energy inputs and fertilisers to boosting food production, noting that ‘anthropogenic’ energy (essentially fossil fuels) inputs to farming increased by a factor of 130 over the twentieth century.
Growth also covers trends in material economic inputs, particularly steel and cement. Smil makes the point that while many industrial processes have become more efficient, reduced prices have led to greater demands for consumer goods, as Jevon’s paradox would predict. He argues there has been no absolute ‘dematerialisation’ on a macro level. Smil later uses a paper lead-authored by former SPA president, James Ward, to demonstrate that GDP growth cannot be decoupled (long-term) from growth in material and energy use.
Possibly the most interesting part of Smil’s treatment of economies canvasses the sources of economic growth. He supports the argument that the ‘second industrial revolution’ from 1870 – 1900 (with the introduction of internal combustion engines, running water, oil extraction and chemical industries) was more consequential to economic growth than the start of the industrial revolution or the digital revolution. Smil goes on to consider the positive effects of the demographic transition on national economic performance: the demographic dividend.
Those hoping to find a strong position on population will be disappointed; Smil is his own man, often contrarian, and would doubtless vigorously resist co-option into any activist movement. On most matters, Smil retains the scientist’s measured approach and avoids definitive statements on contentious topics. He is, however, scathing of poorly constructed arguments and flawed methodologies. For example, he criticises the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth algorithms for using what he considers are meaningless input variables.
Smil also brings a physicist’s critical eye to neoclassical economics, rehearsing common critiques of GDP as an indicator of national wellbeing. He also criticises neoclassical economics for its failure to recognise the importance of energy inputs and material flows to economic activity, stressing the impossibility of ongoing economic growth. He similarly points out the long-term material impediments to implementing a circular economy.
Smil works his way slowly to his conclusion as he focuses on the global environmental effects of human economic activity. He does not explicitly predict the collapse of the natural environmental or civilisations, or the nature or timing of disruptions. He does, however, firmly assert that the pursuit of economic growth, extending consumerism and treating the biosphere as merely exploitable resources “must change in radical ways”. Smil concludes that “The long-term survival of our civilization cannot be assured without setting…(economic) limits (at) the planetary scale.”
While Growth is not a polemical text, it does contain useful material for the activist. Beyond that, it is a fascinating read.
Dr Graham Turner is one of Australia’s leading thinkers on sustainability matters. He previously updated the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth analyses and found that after four decades they were still on track. In this paper, Turner explores what would be required for Australia to achieve true sustainability, and some of the barriers to that:
Population and immigration are difficult topics to discuss, given the current prominence of populists. The significance of the existential threats facing humanity and the biosphere this century, however, means that we cannot ignore population as a multiplier of environmental damage. The challenge is to discuss population, which we must, in a manner that is both evidence-based and respectful.
Population as an issue at the global level
Human Footprint analysis reveals that humanity is using the equivalent of 1.7 Planet Earths each year to provide our resources, and to remediate our wastes. In other words, we are living beyond the means of our planet, and eating into natural capital. If that continues, natural systems will collapse, causing major social upheaval. Climate change is just one expression of this breaching of planetary boundaries.
The importance of population in environmental impacts is highlighted in the illustrative equation I = P x A x T, where
I = impact on the environment
P = population
A = affluence (effectively per capita consumption) and
T = technology (which translates as the resource used and pollution created per unit of consumption).
Considering ‘T’ first, technological improvements can reduce inputs used and wastes generated per unit of product. Von Wieszacker and others identified a broad suite of areas where industrial production can reduce environmental pressures by up to 80 per cent. These improvements can be pursued as ‘no regrets’ measures, but technology cannot alone counter the ongoing increases in consumption, driven by indefinite economic growth. Such technological innovations will inevitably deliver diminishing returns over time. The Jevons paradox also predicts that efficiencies in production reduce the price of a product, enabling consumers to demand more of the product, thereby increasing the requirement for resource inputs. For this reason, more efficient production may have limited impact on reducing resource consumption.
We could focus on per capita consumption, particularly the profligate lifestyles of wealthy nations, noting that a relatively small proportion of the global human population is responsible for the vast majority of consumption, while much of the global population needs to increase its per capita consumption so as to reach a decent standard of living. Some argue incorrectly that because current global population increase is mainly in poorer nations, population can be ignored as an environmental factor. There is, however, no avoiding the fact that population is a multiplier of per capita consumption in both poor and rich nations. The two are inseparably linked to environmental impact by the I = P x A x T formula.
Nor is population a problem only if it is growing. Arguably, the current overpopulation issue is actually in wealthy countries, many with relatively low population growth rates. At our high levels of per capita consumption, there are simply too many of us in wealthy countries. We, therefore, should be encouraged that populations can plateau and even decline in wealthy countries, such as is happening in Japan.
There is a more difficult point here; we should all support residents of developing countries gaining access to a decent lifestyle, and this will inevitably increase their consumption and environmental footprints. A projected increase in global population from the present 7.7 billion to 11 billion in 2100 makes even more difficult the task of equitably sharing global wealth, while returning to within the Earth’s physical capacities. The total consumption of 11 billion people living comfortable lifestyles would certainly breach planetary bounds. The ‘doughnut’ band of consumption satisfying both social justice and environmental sustainability proposed by economist, Kate Raworth, may not be possible with that many people. Again, the responsibility for reducing global environmental impacts should be with wealthy countries and should not be shifted to developing countries, but we do need to understand that population is an important factor in the significant global threats we collectively face.
The importance of using any means available to reduce global consumption is highlighted by considering global economic growth, which is currently increasing at about 3.9 per cent per annum. If this growth rate were to continue until 2050, global consumption would more than triple. If it were to continue until 2100, it would increase by over 22 times. Given we are already beyond Earth’s biocapacity, neither of these situations is sustainable, and are probably unattainable, due to environmental constraints.
Population is a very relevant factor in climate change mitigation; the lower the populations of high emitting countries, the lower their total emissions would be. One study found that
…slowing global population could provide 16–29 per cent of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.
High rates of population increase are also a challenge for the developing countries themselves. While those in the West must not dictate population policies in these countries, we should be assisting those countries that want family planning initiatives. A paper by Dr Jane O’Sullivan has illustrated that until fertility rates are brought down, it can be very difficult for developing countries to improve standards of living.
In Australia, the key drivers of environmental change are population and economic activity.
The report continued
The concentration of Australia’s population near the coast, mostly in urban areas, creates substantial pressure on coastal ecosystems and environments in the east, south-east and south-west of the country.
The greatest impacts of population growth and demographic change on the environment are in our capital cities and along the coast of Australia, particularly in Queensland.
In 2010, an expert panel provided a comprehensive report to the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship on the impacts of net overseas migration on the natural and built environments. It identified a range of impacts, including water supplies, motor oil demand and traffic congestion. The report found that
… higher levels of NOM (Net Overseas Migration) impose greater adverse impacts on the quality of our natural and built environments.
… the magnitude of the impacts at all NOM levels suggests that unless substantial and timely actions are taken to address these impacts, some impacts have the potential to disrupt Australia’s economy and society.
…small differences now in the effects of different levels of NOM on various natural and built assets in many cases accumulate to large differences 10, 20 or more years down the track.
Considering some of these impacts in turn, urban expansion destroys native habitat. It also often pushes out agricultural use of the good soils that supported settlement in those areas in the first place.
An expanding population also generates new demand for the construction of new homes and physical infrastructure, as well as a range of consumer goods. This leads to extraction of large amounts of non-renewable mineral resources, causing a range of environmental impacts.
Our growing population also has increasing water needs. Decreasing water catchment yields in southern Australia due to climate change creates further demands for new water supplies. Large dams significantly change downstream ecological conditions, impacting on fish and invertebrate populations.
Urban expansion also can also necessitate the upgrading of reservoirs to mitigate downstream flood impacts. Lake Burragorang is Sydney’s major water reservoir, and there is currently a proposal to raise its dam wall. This would lead to significant inundation of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, destroying habitat for a number of species. A major reason for the dam is to provide better flood relief for expanded settlement in far Western Sydney, a consequence of Sydney’s rapidly rising population.
In pursuit of water security, the exhaustion of Australia’s limited river systems for water supply has led to the building of desalination plants for our major cities, which have very high energy requirements. Australia has one of the world’s highest per capita greenhouse gas emission levels and an increasing population makes it ever more difficult for us to make a fair contribution to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement.
The impacts of population on the day-to-day lives of Australians
Impacts such as congestion on roads and public transport, overcrowded schools and poorer access to primary health and other services are the almost inevitable consequence of Australia’s high rates of population growth. Recently some politicians have identified increasing community concern about urban congestion and reduced access to services, particularly in our major cities.
Australia has the highest rate of population growth of major developed nations. The increase of 388,100 in 2016-17 represented a rise of 1.6 percent on 2015/16, way above increases globally of 1.1 percent, and in the United States’ (0.7 percent) and Canada (0.9 percent). The rates of increase are even higher in Sydney and Melbourne, the latter experiencing annual population growth rates of up to 280,000, or 6.6 per cent, per annum.
It is unclear whether it is even feasible for infrastructure and attendant lifestyle standards to keep up with such extreme rates of population growth, due to the competing demands on the construction sector and the annual capital requirements. If the average life of our infrastructure is, say, 50 years, then our infrastructure replacement is 2 per cent each year. If we have a population growing at almost 2 per cent annually, then this roughly doubles the necessary annual infrastructure spend just to maintain a standard of service across the community.
The very building of infrastructure, such as transport spines, is generally highly disruptive to local residents and current users. If there were a longer-term goal of an ultimate population size, then infrastructure could be built with that goal in mind. In the absence of such a goal, planners have the expectation of ever-increasing populations to service, but build infrastructure that will only meet a short- to medium-term population projection. The result, particularly with roads, is that every few decades otherwise serviceable structures are demolished or augmented to jam in new and expanded infrastructure.
Finally, lags in infrastructure are likely to impact most on already disadvantaged groups, who often are pushed by housing costs to outer suburbs with inadequate services and which are more distant from employment centres.
The Australian community seems to be becoming more concerned about these impacts of high rates of population growth, with declining support for an increasing Australian population. A 2019 ANU survey found that only 30 per cent of Australians agreed that ‘Australia needs more people’ (70 per cent disagreed), down from 45.8 per cent in 2010. This concurs with a 2018 survey by The Australian Population Research Institute, which found 72 per cent replied ‘no’ to the question ‘Does Australia need more people?’. It seems likely that this declining support for ongoing population growth has been shaped in large part by the lived experiences of urban residents, especially in Sydney and Melbourne.
Discussing population and immigration
Public debate and the media
Until recently, there has been limited public discussion or media coverage in Australia of population and net immigration rates. Federal Cabinet decisions on immigration quotas previously attracted little attention. The ABC, in particular, was largely silent on these matters, presumably because it feared that it would give weight to populist discourses.
Since 2017, however, there has been a significant increase in public discussion of population and immigration. The rise of the extreme right in Australia understandably makes the progressive left sensitive to discourses that are racist or may have racist motivations. Ethnically diverse people are being explicitly targeted and vilified, so that people of good faith critiquing population growth and immigration policy must be cautious that their utterances do not add to this hurt. It has been argued for this reason that environmentalists should not publicly question immigration policy. But this self-censorship would be to deny the important environmental impacts of population.
Sustainable Population Australia and One Nation both support lower immigration levels, but what needs to be understood is that Sustainable Population Australia seeks a lower immigration rate for very different reasons to One Nation, focusing on the population impacts identified in this article. Sustainable Population Australia is highly supportive of Australia’s refugee intake, seeking an increase in numbers within an overall reduced immigration program.
It is important that such different motivations are acknowledged within discussions about population. Some have characterised those questioning current immigration levels as ‘anti-immigrant’. This is misleading, in the same way as it is wrong to describe coal-mine opponents as ‘anti-coal miners’. It is clearly possible to respect individual immigrants, and to value their contribution to our society, while raising concerns about immigration policy.
Notwithstanding the sensitivities of the topic, the recent public discussion on population and immigration has remained largely civil and measured. The NSW Premier, the daughter of Armenian immigrants, was, for example, able to propose in 2018 that a pause in immigration rates would allow for infrastructure to ‘catch-up’, without significant flaring of populist discourses.
While the media has focused its coverage on the impacts of population growth on urban residents, impacts on the natural environment have rarely been raised. Instead, the voices heard in pieces on population and immigration have been dominated by business interests, politicians and some demographers, who mainly bring free market perspectives. These positions appear to be based on the premise that population and economic activity can expand indefinitely. The absence of environmental voices in these public debates presumably reflects the dominant economic framing in political and media discourses, as well as in our broader society.
Discussion of population issues within the Australian environment movement
Australian environment groups have enjoyed some success in protecting particular natural areas and stopping environmentally-destructive activities, but have done little so far to address the fundamental ‘drivers’ of environmental damage, such as neoliberalism, and ongoing population and economic growth.. It appears that most environment activists do not frame their thinking with concepts such as the I = P x A x T equation, planetary boundaries or limits to growth. The vast majority of the key players in Australian environment groups hold socially progressive views and are uncomfortable with arguments to limit immigration levels, because they do not seem to accord with a compassionate and welcoming national disposition.
As arguably Australia’s foremost environment group, the Australian Conservation Foundation provides a good case study of engagement with population issues. The organisation spent considerable effort developing a very balanced and well-founded population policy, which achieved broad support across the organisation. But the policy was never translated into public action. Each individual had their own reasons for opposing action, but it would appear key players were concerned that advocacy on population would be, or would appear to be, ‘anti-immigrant’ or racist.
That said, there are other reasons why an Australian environmental group would decide not to enter population debates. These include:
a judgement that in today’s unnuanced and combative public debates, legitimate concerns will be twisted and misrepresented as racist, thereby reducing the group’s reputation and credibility
that it will be more effective to direct limited organisational resources to other targets, such as reducing Australian per capita consumption or reducing the environmental impacts of current economic activities, including through improved resource use efficiency
a moral view that there should be few constraints on migration, as they prevent those from poorer countries improving their lot. This view can recognise the impacts of population, but give greater weight to moral considerations. It might argue that from a global perspective that any environmental impacts due to migration are just being shifted from one country to another.
The only significant Australian environment group campaigning on population is Sustainable Population Australia, and it has very firmly distanced itself from extreme right-wing views, supporting non-discriminatory immigration policy and a generous and humanitarian refugee program. Given the values and perceptions of Australia’s environment movement, it appears very unlikely that the Australian environment groups will campaign on population issues any time soon, and there is no plausible risk that they will be co-opted by nativists. In avoiding limits to growth issues such as population, however, environment groups are arguably not tackling some of the primary causes of environmental degradation.
Population and immigration policies
Australia needs a population policy for a range of economic, demographic, social and environmental reasons, and this need was endorsed by the Productivity Commission in 2016. Even so, there is little interest in the major parties in developing such a policy. Perhaps governments have feared alienating migrant groups or business interests. The Gillard Government’s foray in this area ended abruptly and led to no obvious policy change. In the absence of an explicit population policy, the Productivity Commission has noted that our immigration policies are our de facto population policies.
Better environmental regulation and infrastructure can mitigate environmental damage, but they can only go so far. The equation I = P x A x T reminds us that everything else being equal, environmental impacts increase directly with population. Australia’s population is growing because of ‘natural increase’ (i.e. more births than deaths) and net overseas migration. Both impact on the natural and built environments, and both warrant consideration in any population policy.
Policies affecting Australian natural increase
Australia’s social services policies are pro-natalist and, for a mix of legitimate and questionable reasons, favour families relative to those without children, irrespective of the number of children parents choose to have. They go beyond providing a safety net for the needy. Peter Costello’s ‘baby bonus’ is but one example of these pro-natalist policies. Understandably, governments do not want to interfere in the reproductive decisions of adults, but there are few if any social signals that having more than two children places increasing demands on communal resources and the environment. Having one less child reduces a person’s carbon footprint far more than any other single measure they can take.
What is important here in government policies is the normative message that is sent, rather than the financial impact. While the average size of Australian families has decreased dramatically over the last fifty years, there does not appear to be significant public questioning of the legitimacy of having large families, which are still often celebrated in the popular media. Social service payments flowing to parents could be changed in a number of ways. Child support payments, for example, could peak at family sizes of one or two children, and even reduce with additional children. Alternatively, equivalent benefits could be provided to all people at a certain income, whether they have children or not.
Without a significant public education on the impacts of population growth, such policies are likely to be electorally unpopular. Anything that appears in some way to be managing population would be characterised as draconian. Support for ‘families’, which generally means nuclear families, is the bread-and-butter of political rhetoric from both major parties. Parents see government support as a legitimate expectation of their decisions to have children. The factors influencing people to decide whether to have children are complex and it is unclear how many people already factor into their decisions the environmental impacts of adding to Australia’s population.
There are, however, a number of measures which would reduce national fertility, which are non-coercive ‘no regrets’ initiatives with co-benefits, such as the empowerment of girls and women. A recent example is the provision of free contraception to Colorado teenagers, which halved teenage pregnancies. It is estimated that almost half of Australian pregnancies are unplanned and better family planning support could help address this, as would less restricted, unjudged and more freely available access to abortion.
Reducing Australian natural increase would arguably have a greater impact on reducing global environmental degradation (such as climate change) than reducing immigration. This is because Australian natural increase adds to the global population, while immigration is a transfer of people from one country to another. Australian fertility rates, however, are now close to replacement levels and would be difficult to lower much further. Natural increase also accounts for less than 40 per cent of our population growth and this proportion is declining, so it is probably difficult for further reductions in Australian population growth to flow from changes in fertility rates.
Net overseas immigration contributes 60 per cent of Australia’s current population growth. Leith van Onselen contends that this actually underestimates the contribution of immigration to population growth, because children born to migrants are counted as natural increase.
The current level of population, population growth and the way we produce and consume are outstripping environmental capacity.
The policy, however, does not make any explicit recommendations as to population growth rates or immigration rates, and instead sets out principles which would frame a population policy. The Greens’ immigration policy does not include such considerations. In practice, the Greens rarely if ever speak publicly on population policy.
The policies and public statements of Labor and the Coalition support high levels of immigration and a ‘Big Australia’, reflecting the free-market paradigms of these parties. Their support for a large immigration program is predominantly based on contentious economic arguments. The natural environment appears to be ignored in these policies.
The financial benefits to the bulk of Australians from high immigration rates are questionable. Australia has a much-vaunted run of 27 years of uninterrupted GDP growth. This is in large part due to our high immigration rates, as each new resident consumes and contributes to economic demand. GDP is, however, a very poor measure of social wellbeing; while still flawed, per capita GDP is a better such indicator. Ross Gittins has questioned the value of increasing GDP through immigration, noting that while GDP grew by 1.8 per cent in 2017-18, per capita GDP only grew by 0.2 per cent. Productivity Commission figures raise questions as to whether immigration leads to increases in per capita GDP. Gittins goes on to conclude that it is business, the main proponents of high immigration rates, that benefits from immigration, rather than the broader Australian public.
A further argument presented for a large immigration program is that it is needed to avoid an ‘ageing population’ and higher ratios of ‘economic dependents’ to those in the workforce. The problem is that immigrants also age, requiring ongoing high rates of immigration, with its attendant challenges. The approach resembles a Ponzi scheme: its benefit is only maintained if the high levels of immigration are continued. The Productivity Commission dismissed the ‘ageing population’ argument in its 2017 report. A better approach would be to execute a planned transition to a new age structure. The identification of this problem also arguably under-estimates both the contribution of the aged in unpaid contributions to society (such as childcare and charity work) and the extent of their financial self-reliance. It is instructive that this dependency argument is never mentioned in relation to children, who may be financially dependent until their twenties.
The most popular argument for immigration is that Australia is a nation of immigrants, and that diverse post-World War 2 immigration has created a diverse, vigorous and harmonious multicultural society. This is definitely true; we should indeed value the rich composition of modern Australia, but we would remain a multicultural society even with a reduced immigration rate.
Population levels, immigration rates and moving to a truly sustainable Australia
We have seen that human economic activity has outgrown the capacity of Earth’s natural systems to support us. Climate change, soil degradation and desertification, loss of native habitat and escalated rates of species extinction, disruptions to global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and overexploitation of freshwater sources together pose pressing, interconnected existential threats to humans and our fellow species. Australia is contributing globally to these problems, and we are also degrading our own natural environment.
Given the magnitude and urgency of the threats facing us, we should be pursuing all available avenues to reduce our environmental footprint. This includes population policies, as well as reducing per capita consumption and adopting more environmentally benign production technologies. As David Attenborough said in 2018
All of our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.
It is incumbent on Australians to responsibly steward our land and its natural systems. While difficult to estimate, there are limits to the number of people Australia can support. Aboriginal Australians were living in relative balance with natural systems and had a pre-1788 population estimated to be up to one million. In 1994, Tim Flannery proposed up to 12 million as an optimal number. In the same year, the Australian Academy of Sciences recommended limiting population to 23 million. Irrespective of what a sustainable population is for Australia, an arid and mostly infertile continent, that number will be a lot lower in a carbon-constrained, climate change future.
The current Australian population of 25.1 million surpasses all of these estimates of a sustainable population. Our net overseas migration has more than doubled since the late 1990s and we now have one of the highest immigration rates in the Western world. There is no plan to curb immigration significantly so that our population plateaus. Nor is there a target population level. We are acting as if we can indefinitely increase our population, an approach that will inevitably lead to severe impacts on our society as well as to our natural environment.
I will not propose a particular annual immigration rate, but if we are to live within Australia’s environmental limits, we will eventually need to move to a steady state economy. A prerequisite for such a society is a stable or decreasing population. Depending on Australian fertility rates, immigration would need to equal or be smaller than emigration from Australia, which is currently at about 70,000 people per annum. Such a figure leaves significant room for an expanded refugee intake.
While welcoming large numbers of immigrants might seem altruistic, our offshore treatment of refugees and the dominance of business migration raise doubts as to the compassionate basis of our overall immigration program. While it is the decision of individual business migrants to relocate, we also need to recognise that our immigration program is, in many cases, drawing highly skilled workers away from where they are sorely needed.
Looking more broadly, if we are to ever live within Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut’, consumption of Earth’s planetary budget will need to be redistributed from current wealthy countries to current developing countries. This transfer would be supported by much higher levels of overseas development assistance. These additional funds could in part be sourced from the very high costs of infrastructure currently required to service our high population growth, and would be far more effectively used to raise living standards in developing countries.
There are no easy solutions to the existential challenges we face, but we do need to talk about population.
 In her 2017 book, Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth argues that social justice is not only morally necessary, but also essential if we are to achieve environmental sustainability. She argues that there is a ‘doughnut’ band of global aggregate consumption that stays within environmental bounds but provides all humans with a decent living.
 It is not clear why the prominence of these issues suddenly increased, but certainly Melbourne’s Age newspaper was an earlier publisher on this topic.
 It might take a long-term to redress the infrastructure deficit, but that is a different matter.
 The Australian Conservation Foundation has, however, recently undertaken work to identify the ‘drivers of unsustainability’ and is now directing some resources to changing Australia’s ‘economic rules.’
 Interestingly, recent research by the Australian Conservation Foundation found that a significant number of young Australian women are questioning having children, fearful of the futures such children would face under escalating climate change impacts.
 …although those immigrants will generally increase their levels of consumption by moving to Australia, particularly if they come from developing countries.
 Our high immigration rates are also masking low rates of improvements in productivity.
 For example, through our very high per capita greenhouse gas emissions and ecological footprints.
 For example, Australia has the world’s highest rate of mammal extinction.
 Even George Megalogenis, a leading promoter of the benefits of immigration, recognises that “our continent may not be able to carry a very large population.”
Contemporary scientists could be forgiven for thinking they are modern-day Cassandras; they can foresee the perils we face, but their ‘prophecies’ go unheeded. This is currently most apparent in relation to climate change. Indeed, each new soberly-worded report of future climate disaster is relegated to a few column-centimetres deep within newspapers –ironically, often some pages after coverage of recent weather events.
Science has been critical to the dramatic improvements in material living standards in Western countries over recent centuries, but the dominant discourse in these countries is nowadays couched in economic, rather than scientific, terms. I have heard a number of scientists exclaim in frustration: “the facts are clear; why won’t the government act on them?”
If only human cognitive processes were so rational! Of course, there are vested interests inside and outside governments, and we may favour our own immediate interests over future generations’. Our values may also vary. But these does not fully explain the gap between evidence and action. Surely the majority of us want to keep our planet habitable? We live in a democracy, and we must collectively bear some responsibility for the actions of our governments. Unfortunately, our cognitive processes are subject to a range of distortions, and those of us with a long-term concern for the health of our planet must bear these in mind.
Distortion 1: We are best at acting on very immediate threats
Some argue that one of the main reasons we fail to engage with climate change is that the threat is not sufficiently clear-cut in its presentation. The theory goes that our ancestors’ brains were attuned to detecting immediate, readily-perceptible, mortal threats: the hunting tiger or approaching hostile warriors. Climate change does not present in this way; if we look out the window, everything generally looks normal and un-alarming. Individual extreme weather events may have been made more probable by climate change, but ultimately climate change is only evidenced in trends in climate statistics, and their longer-term impacts. The world therefore goes on, our lives are not immediately threatened, and we feel reassured.
While some politicians will encourage fear and anxiety for their own needs, for some reason the deteriorating condition of our planet is generally not raised in such terms. Climate change is taking its grip on the planet, and human consumption is overshooting the earth’s productive capacity, yet our Prime Minister can brightly extol that “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”. A crisis? What crisis? Let’s continue down the current path.
Distortion 2: Inadequate perspective
It is not surprising that our ancestors understood the world to be flat. Such a view seemed supported by day-to-day observation. Such an understanding is, however, untenable for astronauts, or the majority of us who have seen photographs of Earth from space. Perspective can radically change our understanding.
Using that perspective of Earth from space also makes it very obvious that our host planet and its resources are finite. It becomes clear that we cannot indefinitely increase global human consumption and pollution. Economic growth therefore must also be constrained, as it is strongly correlated with consumption and pollution. Yet, almost every national government, as well as intergovernmental groupings such as the G20, have economic growth as a key policy priority.
A further failure of perspective is that most of us have little direct experience of the impacts of our individual actions and choices on our physical environment. This is because we do not see the extraction of resources and the pollution created to produce or consumer goods. Nor do we suffer the direct consequences of those activities.
Distortion 3: Ideology
Neoliberalism has helped to shape a more self-centred, narcissistic, and fragmented society. Commercial media and advertising reinforce a highly materialistic lifestyle, whereby personal and social worth are demonstrated by material wealth. The flip-side of that is the withdrawal of the individual from the communal realm to identify as individuals, or as families. We are told, even by governments, that we are foremost consumers, rather than citizens. An apparent result of this is an increasing reluctance to sacrifice individual benefits for the broader good of the community. So, we hear statements from some Australian politicians that they would not take any measures to address climate change which would damage the Australian economy. An extraordinary approach, given that unabated climate change will devastate our economy, along with our society and environment. If such a philosophy had applied during the 1940s, the Australian government presumably would have decided that we could not afford to defend ourselves against the approaching Japanese army, so as to avoid deleterious impacts on our economy.
Another unhelpful consequence of neoliberalism has been the marginalisation of the natural environment. Possibly this is also a result of the dualism within our western societies, which separates us humans from our physical environment. In neoclassical economics, the ‘environment’ is seen as an externality, removing it from our main focus. The central contemporary narrative of politicians and the mainstream media is about economic throughput and the provision of services and goods to humans. To the extent the environment provides such goods and services, well and good, but increasingly we emphasise the goods and services provided through the ‘economy’ as a human system alienated from the ‘environment’. Unfortunately, neoclassical economics also does not recognise a range of laws of physics and those shortcomings are highlighted as we overshoot global limits to growth.
Distortion 4: Disconnection with our physical environment, and our essential reliance on it
Those seeking to raise the alarm on the environmental crisis face a related problem. Indigenous cultures generally have a very strong understanding of their dependence on a healthy natural environment. In contrast, urban dwellers in wealthy countries are increasingly removed from the natural processes that support them. So, the term ‘environment’ has become trivialised and is now primarily be seen as a source of aesthetic values. Politicians associate the ‘environment’ with ‘cute and cuddly’ threatened species and troublesome impediments to economic development. Mainstream Australian media commentary rationalises ongoing incremental loss of natural habitat as a necessary enabler of prosperity, reflective of a society which lives on digging up and selling off its natural capital. In this discourse, the notion of the physical environment as human habitat is completely lost.
Distortion 5: Tribalism
Further barriers to environmental action are raised by the belief systems of society’s modern ‘tribes’. For many, particularly conservatives, climate change and other global existential threats cannot be readily integrated with their expectations of capitalism generating ongoing rises in material living standards. A person will take extraordinary measures to protect the core beliefs central to maintaining their identity, or ‘sense of self’. To the extent that their worldviews and identities are threatened by the existence of anthropocentric climate change, it is easier to deny the existence of that threat. In these circumstances, they will gratefully accept specious arguments that validate their positions. This is made easier, because the climate change messengers, environmentalists, are a despised tribe. Furthermore, to square their desire not to accept the science of climate change, many now also have to demonise the unimpeachable climate change scientists themselves.
Distortion 6: Implicatory Denial
Even among those who accept the science of climate change, many engage in implicatory denial; they do not accept, or do not act on, the steps needed to mitigate climate change. So we have inadequate and half-baked climate change policies to act as a political fig-leaf. We certainly have a gap between the translation of the Paris climate change agreement and current national greenhouse gas reduction policies. Anything to avoid disrupting ongoing-growth capitalism; it seems that some would sacrifice the habitability of our planet before they would disrupt contemporary models of capitalism.
We are sold the line that we can solve climate change with some technical fixes, and happily continue ‘business-as-usual’ growth economics. It won’t work. Climate change is just one planetary boundary we are breaching by annually consuming resources more quickly than Earth can produce them, and creating pollutants more quickly than Earth can remediate them. Ecological footprint analysis indicates we would need ‘1.5 planet Earths’ to support our current levels of consumption. At current global economic growth rates of 3% per annum, global consumption will increase more than tenfold by the year 2100.
There are opportunities for reducing ecological impacts through more efficient and cleaner production methods, or ‘decoupling’. Decoupling however cannot be a sufficient redress for the impacts of economic growth, as we would need to find ongoing annual efficiencies greater than the global economic growth rate indefinitely. Decoupling is part of the broader hope for ‘techno-fixes’. Techno-fixes are a desperate hope akin to awaiting the arrival of a messiah. It is the optimistic view of Mr Micawber that “something will turn up”. In the case of climate change, such techno-fixes take the form of geoengineering, ludicrously speculative proposals with large unknown but potential huge side-effects. They are but ways of avoiding addressing the underlying cause of climate change – overconsumption and overpollution.
To create a global society that limits climate change to two degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees, will require massive changes. Those in ‘developing countries’ need to consume more to achieve basic levels of health and welfare, while those of us in the rich world will need to consume much less to limit the total global consumption. Our economy is totally reliant on the transport of goods across great distances, and this is strongly dependent on fossil fuel consumption. The great advances in food production over recent decades have also relied heavily on the availability of large amounts of cheap oil. In a future which is both carbon-constrained, and oil-constrained, all this will change, and local communities will need to be far more self-reliant.
Taking personal responsibility
For most of us, climate change is a little like death – occasionally we are reminded of our mortality, it scares us…and then we just carry on, ignoring this unpalatable reality. Some of us do try to reduce our footprint. But then we take an overseas holiday, despite the huge greenhouse gas emissions caused by air travel. We can justify our actions by rationalising that our personal sacrifices will have minimal impact globally. Moreover, our primary concerns are often working long hours to feed, clothe and educate our families. This provides a psychological cocoon to shelter us from having to really consider the parlous future of life on Earth.
We are all implicated here. This is not a call for taking on guilt. We need to accept that merely living on this Earth, we will have impacts. We should, however, be mindful and responsible in our day-to-day choices and actions, conscious of our impacts.
The habitability of our planet will not be saved by individual actions alone; this is a conceit of libertarians and defenders of the ‘free market’. Systemic actions will be essential to creating a truly sustainable global society. But systemic action does start with the awakening of every individual. As Alice Walker said, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”
We need to give up the mind-games that allow us to validate what we know is unacceptable. We need to root out our own perceptual distortions. We then need to act as if planet Earth is what it is; the only known habitat for human and non-human life anywhere in the universe.
This post has been adapted from an article by Jonathan Miller first published by the Frank Fenner Foundation in the November 2016 edition of Nature and Society Journal.
While governments worldwide strive to maintain or increase economic growth, an international movement is asking the G20 to plot a path towards a steady state economy.
Across the globe, maintaining and increasing growth in gross domestic product is the pre-eminent national policy goal. Yet, there is growing scientific evidence that growth is a major cause of unsustainability, and many are questioning the benefits of economic growth.
The argument for a steady state economy starts from the understanding that exponential growth in the extraction of physical resources cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. The 1972 study, Limits to Growth, identified the risks of continued global growth in resource use and pollution. Frequently misunderstood, the work did not make predictions as to future resource exhaustion, but instead modelled a range of scenarios for population growth and resource use. Its main conclusion was that our current path would expand the economy beyond Earth’s capacity to support it, and that after this ‘overshoot’, production of food and other essential materials would collapse (possibly by the mid 21st century). Dr Graham Turner from the University of Melbourne has recently re-run[i] the Limits to Growth scenarios and found that they have proved accurate over the past 40 years.
Our economic system is totally dependent on the health of natural systems to deliver physical resources and manage our wastes. Ecological Footprint[ii] analysis undertaken in 2007 found that humans were using ecological services 1.5 times more quickly as the Earth can renew them, causing an ongoing degradation of global natural capital. Twenty-seven scientists co-published a paper[iii] in 2009 identifying nine key planetary boundaries as safe limits for human impacts. Four of these boundaries are already being exceeded: climate change, biodiversity loss, phosphorus use and nitrogen use and pollution.
Growth proponents argue for continuing GDP expansion to improve lifestyles, and particularly to provide a decent standard of living to those in the developing world. The record, however, has at best been patchy. In many countries the recent decades of high global economic growth have led to significantly increased wealth disparity, a key correlate of social problems. Over the last three decades, only 10% of global wealth generated[iv] has flowed to the poorer half of the world’s population. The gross numbers of people[v] with incomes less than $2 per day have remained similar over that period. Government policy interventions, such as land reforms, support of smallholders and social security have generally been more important in addressing hunger than free market-driven economic growth.
Proponents also claim that economic growth is essential to addressing environmental problems, but increasing extraction and pollution associated with economic growth are actually the causes of our global environmental problems. This fact is largely masked by environmental burden-shifting, with increasing production in the third world of goods consumed in the first world. The poor in developing countries are also much more vulnerable to the current and projected overshooting of global environmental boundaries, being driven by economic growth.
Economic growth is currently strongly linked to levels of resource throughput and a rising population. A key question is whether economic growth can be absolutely decoupled from resource use and consequent pollution. Not all economic activity relies directly on physical resource use and there are opportunities to improve significantly improve resource use efficiency. For example, curtailing heat losses from buildings can reduce both heating costs and greenhouse gas emissions. ‘Cradle to cradle’ strategies and adopting circular economies are also highly desirable approaches for reducing the environmental pressures of resource use.
While these strategies, in theory, could bring human environmental impacts back within safe global boundaries in the short-term, continuing exponential economic growth would likely ensure these boundaries are breached in the long-term. There are two main reasons for this. The first is described by the ‘Jevons paradox’, which identifies that when technological gains improve the efficiency of resource use, consumption of that resource actually rises due to increased demand. The second reason is that to achieve absolute decoupling of economic growth from resource use would require ongoing improvements in resource efficiency at a faster rate than economic growth, and would therefore also need to be exponential in the long-term.
Moving to a steady state economy is therefore proposed as the only viable long-term means of staying within global environmental boundaries. The key elements of a steady state economy are a constant population and a constant low-level economic throughput of material and energy.
Moving to a steady state economy provides the opportunity to return and stay within global environmental boundaries. The steady state economy model also recognises that it is not possible for all of the projected 2100 global population [vi]of 11 billion to live sustainably at current developed world levels of consumption. Global footprint analysis indicates this would require more than five ‘planet Earths’. To enable the developing world a decent standard of living, it will require significant reductions in first world levels of resource consumption and pollution, and possibly significant global redistribution of wealth.
But moving to a steady-state economy does not mean ‘returning to the Stone Age’ and could actually facilitate improved lifestyles and well-being. Health, individual happiness, secure employment, leisure time, strong communities and economic stability are key goals for a steady-state economy.
Climate change is now widely considered the single greatest threat to our global civilisation. But it is just one of a number of global environmental threats to our livelihoods, driven by exponential growth in consumption and pollution. For these reasons, CASSE is arguing the critical need to start the global transition to a steady-state economy.
This post has been adapted from an article by Jonathan Miller first published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs in 2015 in Australian Outlook.