Population is the wrong target

Arguments that population is to blame for climate change distract from real solutions to environmental problems and only serve to boost racism, argues James Supple

Recent months have seen a growing unease about Australia’s population growth. Tony Abbott has seized on this as another useful wedge issue-but many environmentalists and Greens Senator Bob Brown have also voiced concern. But blaming population for environmental woes lets the corporations and neo-liberal governments responsible for trashing the environment and making our cities unliveable off the hook. It also obscures the real solutions-which require changing destructive methods of production and demanding proper government spending on services to meet social needs.

Kevin Rudd’s endorsement last October of a “big Australia”, backing projections that Australia’s population could reach 35 million by 2050, was met with a storm of condemnation. Tony Abbott has responded by announcing the Liberals would cut immigration levels if they win government. In an ugly attempt to revive Howard’s racist wedge politics, the Liberals have extended their scare campaign about refugee boats to immigration. Liberal Immigration shadow minister Scott Morrison linked the two, claiming, “The fear that Kevin Rudd is dismissing people’s concerns on border protection is now being echoed in the emerging population debate”. Rudd has responded by appointing a Population Minister, charging Tony Burke with developing a policy over the next 12 months-ensuring the “population debate” will continue.

The Liberals’ motives of pandering to racism are obvious-but they are not the only ones concerned about population. Environmental organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), Greens Senator Bob Brown and some climate change activists also see current population growth as unsustainable.

The Greens and environmentalists who campaign against population growth reject the idea that this encourages racism against migrants and refugees. Yet most complaints about population are targeted at immigration levels-which made up 66 per cent of the increase in the last year. This is true just as much of the Liberals, who have denounced immigration as “out of control” as Greens leader Bob Brown, who claimed that, “immigration levels should settle down much lower than they are at the moment”.

Kelvin Thomson, the federal Labor MP who last year attacked population growth in a speech to federal parliament, has called for immigration to be cut in half. He has also called for a ban on Somali immigration and said that immigration levels could allow terrorists to enter Australia undetected. The last time we heard that kind of racist fearmongering was from the notorious former Liberal Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock, trying to whip up a scare campaign against refugees. The ACF backed Kelvin Thomson’s calls to reduce immigration. The racism inherent in this was demonstrated in a response by ACF President Ian Lowe to criticism of its stance, where he backed up the racist argument that immigrants steal jobs by claiming, “we have trouble employing the people who are already here”.

Calling for cuts to immigration means lining up not just with Tony Abbott, but also with one of the main demands of a racist like Pauline Hanson. Fascist groups like the Protectionist Party are also using the supposed environmental impact of population growth to support their desire to reduce immigration.

Concern about population growth is a classic example of scapegoating. It blames immigrants for environmental degradation and dysfunctional services like public transport and hospitals. But immigrants are not responsible for the mania for privatisation, government cutbacks or under funding of public services. They are not the ones who profit from coal and refuse to fund renewable energy, or who destroy the land through over farming. These problems are caused by neo-liberal governments and profiteering corporations.

The environmental problems those worried about population point to-like water shortages, unsustainable farming practices and increased greenhouse gas emissions-are real. But the problem is not population size. It is current methods of food production, power generation and agribusiness water use that are unsustainable. The real issue is how production is organised, not the level of population.

Key problems

This can be seen by looking at any of the key problems that are pointed to as a product of population growth. Among the most frequently cited are climate change, water use and urban infrastructure.

Climate change is a problem largely caused by rich developed countries. This is true both in the sense that the bulk of carbon emissions over the last 150 of industrialisation have come from rich countries and that rich countries have much higher emissions per person than the majority of the world.

Australia has the world’s highest per capita emissions-five times that of China and 18 times that of India. So populationists claim that increasing our population will make it harder to reduce emissions, and that keeping down immigration is necessary, since a person living in Australia will produce more emissions than if they live in a poor third world country.

But the problem we need to solve is the carbon-intensive nature of production, not population size. Australia’s energy efficiency is low even by the standards of the OECD club of rich nations, a product of cheap coal-fired electricity. If Australia produced 100 per cent of its power from renewable energy, the size of our population and amount of energy use would not be a problem.

This may sound like an impossible goal-but the truth is that the situation is so urgent that nothing less than a transition to a zero carbon economy as quickly as possible can prevent dangerous climate change. And a rapid shift to an economy powered by 100 per cent renewable energy is perfectly possible with existing technology-as shown by the work of organisations like Beyond Zero Emissions. It is the huge mining corporations that profit from coal and industries that rely on cheap power that benefit from polluting the planet-and which oppose this transition. Zeroing in on population is the wrong target.

Looming water shortages in Australia are one of the other key complaints of overpopulation advocates. Their concern seems to make sense-since everyone knows Australia is one of the driest continents on Earth. Yet retired environmental scientist Dingle Smith points out that, “the available water resource per head of population is the envy of most other regions”, with the Middle East, the Mediterranean and most of Europe coping with just 5 per cent the available water per head of population that Australia possesses. A study of Australia’s water resources in a report edited by sustainability expert Peter Newman estimated they could support about 105 million people-and this is at the high levels of consumption of the mid-1990s.

Much of our water is wasted. The overwhelming bulk of water resources are used in irrigation by agribusiness-on average only 20 per cent of our water goes to urban use. The irrigation schemes established after WWII were set up assuming that water would always be plentiful, and with little understanding about the damaging impact of salinity they would cause.

Some Australian cities do have problems with water supply due to their location. Yet the experience of water restrictions, in the record drought conditions of recent years, shows that these problems can be overcome. According to scientist Michael R. James, “In the case against further population growth many cite Brisbane’s experience in the recent prolonged water concerns. Yet it shows the exact opposite: people responded beyond expectations in going from about 300 to 140L/cap/day.” Water restrictions have been the preferred response of government to urban water shortages because they are the cheapest option. State governments are also opting for expensive desalination plants to boost water supply. But there are many other solutions, including much greater use of household rainwater tanks, using recycled water in industry and redistributing wasteful use of water in irrigation to household use. Environmental groups in Melbourne have shown how some of these measures could have provided the same amount of water as Victoria’s desalination plant.

Government services

Our water problems, then, are a product of poor government planning and lack of investment in infrastructure.

Many populationists point to similar infrastructure problems in our cities as a reason they cannot cope with more people. But this is due to the embrace of neo-liberal ideology by governments over recent decades-not population growth. As Kevin Rudd himself wrote in response to the global financial crisis, “the neo-liberal political project has followed a strategy of ‘starving the beast’, cutting taxes in order to strangle the capacity of the government to invest in education, health and economic infrastructure.” A recent study by the Australian Council of Infrastructure Development and Econtech found that “to clear the back-log of under-investment in electricity, gas, road, rail and water infrastructure would require $24.8 billion of capital expenditure”.

The infrastructure strategy of Queensland’s Bligh government is a telling example of the damage done by neo-liberal policies. South-east Queensland, Australia’s fastest growing urban region with a “200 km city” which spans the Gold coast, Brisbane and the Sunshine coast, is one of the worst serviced by basic infrastructure in the country. The Bligh government’s infrastructure strategy hinges on privatisation of government assets including Queensland Rail, port, road and forestry-which it claims will encourage private sector investment in these areas. The same is true across the country, from NSW with its appalling public transport and crisis-stricken hospitals, where the Labor government is pursuing a privatisation fire sale, to Victoria which still feels the effects of former Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett’s privatisation program.

Privatisation everywhere has delivered lower quality services and driven up prices for consumers. In South Australia, power privatisation led to a 40 per cent increase in power prices by 2002, so that prices were 30 per cent higher than in NSW where power is still in state hands. A cut in the number of power maintenance workers from 900 to 300 led to 500 power outages in January 2001 alone. This is the result of allowing corporations to run vital services-where their only aim is to boost profits.

Another form of privatisation is the increasing reliance on public-private partnerships, where governments allow private corporations to build infrastructure and run it for a profit. This means that, instead of government planning to deliver infrastructure, corporations are allowed to cherry pick areas where they think a profit can be made. Toll roads like Melbourne’s CityLink and Brisbane’s TransApex are classic examples. The result, according to a 2009 Queensland Auditor-General’s report, has been “a systematic weakness in integrated planning.”

We need a return to proper planning of our cities and an end to the corporate agenda of government cutbacks and under funding of services and infrastructure.

It’s not hard to see why governments are crying poor when it comes to paying to fund new infrastructure or providing services. Australia’s tax take is low compared to other rich countries. This is thanks to cuts to corporate tax from 49 per cent in 1987 to 30 per cent today-which Rudd wants to take further. The failure to tax corporations properly makes it harder for governments to fund proper services-all so that big business can make record profits.

The neo-liberal obsession with eliminating government debt has also made governments reluctant to use debt to fund infrastructure.

Theories of overpopulation

There are similarities between those concerned about “overpopulation” today and one of the first to suggest there was an overpopulation crisis-Thomas Malthus. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798, Malthus argued that population growth would outstrip growth in food production, thus ensuring poverty and famine as human populations fell back to a sustainable level.

But Malthus made a very similar error to “overpopulation” theorists today. He assumed that increases in food production were fixed and would remain at the level he observed. The introduction of new technology in farming including machinery, fertilisers, pesticides, new crop strains and more widespread irrigation have produced massive increases in agricultural productivity since the late 19th century. As a result the increase in food resources has outstripped population growth.

This also applies to many other resources, which are not “fixed” in the way populationists assume but could be increased or used more efficiently if methods of production and social organisation were changed.

Karl Marx, a contemporary of Malthus, railed against the way he allowed his theory to be used to justify the payment of poverty wages by employers and the shocking conditions for workers in Britain’s early phase of industrialisation. These conditions were an inevitable product of overpopulation that nothing could be done to change, Malthus argued.

Marx charged Malthus with taking existing social institutions and problems like poverty as natural. Marx saw this as an example of a habit of many bourgeois theorists who take the way society and production are organised under capitalism for granted. He pointed out that there is a tendency to assume that many elements of the existing order of things are the result of natural or universal laws-a process he termed reification. Malthus saw poverty as a result of a natural law which could not be changed. In a similar way greed is often viewed as a product of human nature-although there have existed human societies where it was unknown.

Theories of overpopulation today make a similar mistake. They assume that environmentally destructive forms of agricultural production or carbon-intensive power generation cannot be changed, and so look to population size as something that could be altered with this framework. But once we examine alternative ways production could be organised, there is no reason to focus on population as a driver of environmental problems.

Rather than blaming overpopulation, we need to build a climate movement and organise through the unions to fight privatisation-and target those really responsible for ruining our environment and our living standards.



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