Feature

Welcome to the world of exponential growth

G Magazine

By the end of this week, the world’s population will reach seven billion. With population and economic growth rapidly expanding across Australia & the world, Dick Smith confronts the staggering part we have played & are yet to as a wealthy Western nation.

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Credit: iStockphoto

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On 1 October 2009, Australia reached a little-noticed but significant milestone. Sometime just after 2pm a child was born who caused our population clock to tick over 22 million.

Perhaps it was in the District Hospital in Broome, the Mater in Brisbane or the Alfred in Melbourne, in fact any of the hard-pressed maternity wards in Australia experiencing the highest number of births ever seen in this country – nearly 300,000 in a single year. That new arrival – more likely to have been a boy than a girl – was one of nearly 220,000 babies born around the world that day. Before his third birthday, our young Australian will be part of another milestone, as the population of our planet passes seven billion. Whatever his future, he will never be alone.

The raw figures hardly give a sense of the environmental and resource pressures we are putting on this planet, and the other animals we share it with. Even if you don’t care about other species – and that seems unlikely if you are reading this – consider the fate of many of the 80 million children born each year. While the young Australian can look forward to growing up in one of the richest nations on Earth, this is sadly not the reality for many of the other children born that October afternoon. Of the nearly quarter-million babies born that day, 25,000 will be dead before their fifth birthday, with nearly half of those not surviving beyond their first month. Sixty thousand will not be protected against disease by immunisation, while 40,000 will be denied an education of any kind. Tens of thousands will be homeless, and more than 3000 will be trafficked into child slavery or prostitution. Nearly 160,000 of those children will not even have their births registered. They will be forgotten, all but invisible to the rest of us. The one common denominator linking all these terrible childhood outcomes is poverty. Despite decades of economic growth, there have never been more people in extreme need, lacking access to the very basics required for a decent, happy life.

More than one billion human beings have nothing like adequate nutrition. And despite Thomas Edison’s invention of artificial light 130 years ago, one quarter of the world’s population still has no access to electricity. We have created a world where 1.8 billion people use the internet, while more than a billion people still lack access to an adequate supply of fresh water. Just pause for a moment and let those figures sink in. How can it be that after many years of progress that have brought so many of us so much, 80 per cent of the population of the developing world still does not have access to the necessities of life, surviving on less every day than the rest of us spend on a cup of coffee? Why are we no closer to being able to feed, clothe, educate, house and protect so many of the world’s people?

Then consider that between now and mid-century, we are likely to add two billion more people to the planet, and nearly all of them will be born in the poorest nations. Those people will be condemned to a life of desperate poverty, made worse by the accelerating use of natural resources by the rest of us.

Humanity’s consumption of the planet’s resources, our ecological footprint, has doubled since 1966, while at the same time the variety of animals has declined by a third. We humans are using more than the world can restore, are out-competing other species and producing more waste than we can dispose of, yet even at this rate the gap between rich and poor is growing. While the poorest go hungry in ever-increasing numbers, the Western world is facing an epidemic of obesity. But perhaps not for long. As we have seen in Australia, the pressures of population growth have been putting unprecedented stress on our river systems despite recent good rainfalls. Our cities have been forced to implement more or less permanent water restrictions while our farmers are being paid to stop growing food and surrender their land.

Every year Australia imports more and more food. And if that is happening here, in one of the most productive agricultural nations on Earth, what does it mean for the rest of the world? The simultaneous growth in population and consumption threatens the long-term health of our society. Yet I don’t see our leaders discussing the issue, let alone trying to deal with it. There is barely a politician anywhere with the courage to argue that we must find alternatives to growth-at-all-cost economics, and find them quickly.

We have so geared our culture to demand growth that, even when faced with ever-approaching limits, we have no Plan B. In fact we are making it worse by pretending that our dream of wealth is available to all. Understandably, developing nations such as India and China are demanding their own share of what we have long kept for ourselves. If they and other poor nations lift their consumption to levels currently enjoyed by Australians, we would require three new planet Earths to supply the needed resources.

Despite all this, there are many who insist that it is the role and purpose of human beings to go forth and multiply. I ask these people just when will they be satisfied? Just how many people do there have to be before we exceed our limits? They don’t have an answer.

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.