The population debate and an inconvenient truth

Australians are one of the world's largest per capita consumers of resources and emitters of greenhouse gases. Certainly we need an informed and rational debate about what might constitute a sustainable human population for Australia. But to do so without acknowledging the massive over consumption that we are responsible for is nothing less than hypocrisy.

At the 'earth summit' in Rio De Janerio in 1992, when the leaders of the world were beginning to grapple with the depth of the climate change problem, US president George Bush senior famously stated that "the American Way of Life is not negotiable". The unwillingness of the rich world to acknowledge the size of it's 'carbon debt' to the rest of the planet was then cleverly illustrated by a cartoon that began to circulate not long after, showing the driver of a gas-guzzling luxury car who yells at a hungry peasant cutting down a tree, “Yo! Amigo!! We need that tree to protect us from the greenhouse effect!”.


Fast forward almost two decades and we have a similar scenario as we grapple with a renewed debate about population growth here in Australia. Following the release of Treasury figures that project that Australia's population could reach nearly 36 million by 2050 we have seen a massive spike in coverage of the long running national conversation about what might constitute a 'carrying capacity' and what the ideal population level for the country might be.


While there are three obvious undercurrents at play here – xenophobia and racism on one level, concern for the environment on another, and fear of the economic impacts of an ageing population or lower levels of immigration – what is generally missing from the debate is a deeper question about how Australians are choosing to live and what impact that is having on the environment.


An incontestable fact of the matter is that Australians are one of the world's largest per capita consumers of resources and emitters of greenhouse gases.  According to the Global Footprint Network, we had an ecological footprint – which is a measure of human demand on the Earth's resources -  of 7.8 global hectares per person in 2008 (compare this with our neighbour Indonesia, with a footprint of 0.7 ha per person). The world-average ecological footprint in that year was 2.7 hectares per person. Our cities are sprawling and we are primarily reliant on cars. The population density of Melbourne is about 1,566 people per square kilometre. Compare this with the very liveable example of Amsterdam, which has around 4,459 people per square kilometre. We still pump more than 110 billion litres of water out to sea each year at Gunnamatta and have basically no use of recycled water in our water supply system. We are spending billions of dollars on a desalination plant while we wind back water restrictions and have the dirtiest coal fired power station in the developed world at Hazelwood.

What I am trying to point out is the fact that, by and large, we have very extravagant lifestyles. As the Victorian EPA notes, if all people currently living on the planet lived as Victorians do, we would need another three planets to provide all the resources that would be required.

So, when I hear people talking about concern for the environment and the need to limit population growth in the one sentence – without talking about consumption, alarm bells start to ring. Certainly we need an informed and rational debate about what might constitute a sustainable human population for Australia. But to do so without acknowledging the massive over consumption that we are responsible for is nothing less than hypocrisy.

Clearly we have responsibilities to accept asylum seekers. In coming decades it can be strongly argued that we will have a responsibility – partly because of our massive accrued carbon debt caused by our traditional reliance on coal – to accept considerable numbers of climate refugees as well. There is a real danger in arguing against population growth on environmental grounds while we continue to live such extravagant lifestyles.

I do agree that Melbourne is getting bigger and busier and more crowded. But we should recall that much of the gridlock is because of our reliance on cars. Our governments have had a traditional emphasis on funding roads more than public transport. At present developers largely control the nature of urban consolidation and in-fill, thereby driving community opposition to individual development proposals and raising sentiment against Melbourne becoming a more compact city. As noted by the Victorian EPA, our “footprint is large because (we) generally live in large cities, in relatively large houses, travel long distances, and (our) energy needs are currently sourced primarily from fossil fuels”. This, in turn, increases our impact on the environment and reduces the carrying capacity of the continent. None of this has been caused by any potential migrant or refugee. They are problems that we, as Melbournians, have allowed to develop for decades. Surely it is time to develop the political maturity to approach the questions of environmental protection, water stress, and carrying capacity without looking for the easy scapegoat of population growth?

Cam Walker is the campaigns co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth in Melbourne.

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