Feature

Welcome to the world of exponential growth

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Credit: iStockphoto

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Whether it’s in your local community, across Australia, or in the wider world, no problem that I can think of is easier to solve with more people. By adding 80 million a year we are making our problems much more difficult to solve. Some argue that hidden within those 80 million are the young Einsteins who will help us solve our current and future challenges. I think this is a cruel deception, for the sad reality is that nearly all those extra millions are being born into lives without opportunity, where access to the basics of life – education, water, electricity and human rights – is limited. We cannot expect those most poor to solve the problems of the rich, especially while we continue to turn our backs on the injustice that leaves them in poverty while we literally eat ourselves into an early grave.

For those who call for an ever-expanding population to help solve our problems, I suggest that it will ultimately be easier to solve those difficulties with fewer people. Many of our greatest challenges would be reduced in severity: pollution, energy shortages, food scarcity, environmental degradation, and quite possibly even the likelihood of wars and conflicts too. Just imagine the world of plenty that this new society would enjoy. Yet those of us who advocate a world that eventually holds fewer people are criticised as being anti-human by those who seem happy to condemn billions to unhappy lives.

Now it’s often argued that, in a world of seven billion, Australia must do its part as a good global citizen, and take its share of the world’s rapidly growing population. If accepting high levels of immigration is a measure of global responsibility, then Australia is in the gold-medal class of goodness. Per capita we are the most welcoming of nations and no one could seriously argue that this hasn’t been of tremendous value to the nation as a whole. But this is not the same as arguing that we must always seek to expand our population at the current rapid rates, or that population growth will automatically improve our quality of life. If this was the case the most populous countries would enjoy the highest standards of living, and this is clearly not true.

Like Australia, the USA is an immigrant nation, and like us too it continues to grow in population rapidly (though at half the rate of Australia in recent years). With more than 300 million people, it has 14 times as many as Australia. But is it 14 times better off than Australia? Are its schools and hospitals and roads better than ours in any significant sense? Are its institutions stronger or is its democracy more effective? These, of course, are subjective questions for the most part, but I would venture that most Australians would be quite happy to continue with our versions of all of the above. One measure we can be quite clear about, however, is that, despite their much greater population, Americans are no longer richer than Australians in a material sense. According to World Bank figures, we surpassed the USA in per capita income in 2008 and, the way things are going, are likely to be there for quite some time. We also overtook Germany in 2008, the UK in 2007 and Japan in 2006. France and Italy have been left far behind. So much for the economic advantages of growing bigger. It is clear that the population of a nation has little bearing on its ultimate economic strength. This dubious claim is exploded if we consider which countries are better off per capita than Australia. The answer is those with much smaller populations than ours: Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Norway.

There are now much smarter ways of measuring our progress and prosperity than the total size of the economy, and these new scores that rate our happiness and satisfaction levels as well as our material prosperity tell us clearly that size doesn’t matter.

In fact the bigger the nation and the national economy, the less likely its citizens are to feel happy and hopeful. Australians have been sold the big lie: as far as I can tell, rapidly increasing population mostly serves the interests of a few rich businesspeople like myself, and produces more taxpayers for the government. For the rest of the public it means going backwards as the economic pie is cut into ever-thinner slices.

While our past has been one of ever-expanding horizons, our future is going to be defined by limits and by the way we deal with them. Humans can certainly live very happily within the restraints the future will impose. Keep in mind that, for all history, apart from the last 200 years of spectacular economic growth, people have lived more or less in the same fashion, with our energy and resource use hardly changing. Yet in that time we perfected language, explored our spiritual meaning, invented democracy and created inspiring works of art and imagination. Living within our physical limits does not erect borders to our ingenuity, creativity and potential for the enjoyment of life. Once we appreciate that the world we built on cheap fossil fuel was the exception, not the rule, we’ll be free to create another cultural revolution.

We need to aspire to a world where every child is wanted and cherished; where each one is created by choice, not by accident or coercion or because of a man’s power over a woman, and can be well nourished and raised with a decent standard of living.

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