It’s the ecosystem, stupid

June 5, 2010 • Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Kris Spike of Sustainable Population Australia for this article. As Kris writes, “Australia’s population forecasts were recently revised up dramatically due to high immigration and increasing fertility spurred on by the baby bonus. Our Treasurer Wayne Swan has identified ageing as the main crisis and plans to address it by…you guessed it….raising immigration and fertility. The debate has been raging ever since. I thought you may like this article by one of our leading economics journalists who has jumped ship and is now urging economists to get real and take the ecology seriously.”
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You little beauty. Prime Minister 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 we need 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 not need to do anything 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 playing our part in limiting those things may involve some unpleasantness. Accept a new tax? Surely global warming can’t be that bad.

But the Government’s little better than its opponents. Rudd has 100 top priorities, of which responding to climate change is just one. He can’t resist playing politics. He advances the most timid policy at home, then jets off overseas to lecture other leaders on the need for concerted action.

And boy, doesn’t Kev look worried about the fate of 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 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’ve got to do is switch to low-carbon energy sources (ideally by finding a way to capture 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 that system, using them and then ejecting wastes, including sewage, garbage and all forms of pollution and greenhouse gases.

The global economy grows as the world’s population grows and as people’s material living standards rise. The problem is that the human population and material affluence have grown so much in 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 is, of course, an example of the latter. But it’s just the most acute respect in which global economic activity is undermining the healthy functioning of our ecosystem. Think of the way we’re destroying the world’s fish stocks, the way farming practices are causing acidification, desertification and erosion of land, the way dams and irrigation are destroying our rivers and the way 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 Treasurer Wayne Swan’s announcement last week that Australia’s population in 40 years time 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 childbearing 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 childbearing 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 a senior Fairfax writer


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