12 August 2010

Peak Population: Thoughts for Dick Smith

Sharon also blogs at Post Growth, along with Josha Nelson and Scott Gast, both of Seattle

With his documentary 'The Population Puzzle', Australian entrepreneur and adventurer Dick Smith has done something very brave, and very important, in working to break the taboo on speaking about population.

It is taboo because raises many sensitive issues around immigration, fertility - and of course, because it challenges the growth consensus.

In Australia, the population issue has often been emotionally charged, because of the role of immigration in Australia's population growth. The debate is thus easily hijacked from being a discussion about exactly what a sustainable population for Australia would be, and instead becomes mired in blame games and fuels the agenda of racist elements.

In relation to fertility, there is a high likelihood that any attempt to discuss the issue will be taken personally, or will be turned back on the person who dared intrude in one of the most personal and intimate areas of the human experience. If you have kids, you are a hypocrite. If you don't have kids, you won't know what you are talking about, or you're 'anti-children'.

Anything to shoot the messenger and keep the taboo in place.

Anything to avoid the discomfort of acknowledging the issue, its implications and what can fairly and humanely be done about it.

It is a highly emotive topic, but in fact addressing population is important precisely so we can ensure that everyone's kids – now and in the future – can have the best life possible.

And the growth consensus...

One of the main concerns underpinning the fuelling of growth in industrialised societies is how are we going to take care of an ageing population demographic – we need more people of working age to support the increasing ranks of elders who live longer, who often require more [and more expensive] health care, and often end up in high levels of dependent care.

Until the 20th century, when improved sanitation and medical care enabled us to live longer lives than any of our ancestors, humanity did not have this problem at this scale. It is a real issue. But is this grow-more-young-to-support-the old approach – a population Ponzi scheme – simply deferring, rather than tackling, the problem?

Alex Steffen of Worldchanging expressed this in his 2008 article on 'Peak Population':


1) The longer population growth rates remain high, the more total people there will be on the planet when we reach peak population, so one of our biggest goals ought to be seeing to it by every ethical means possible that the wave of population growth crests sooner rather than later.

2) If we are successful in reaching peak population sooner, at a lower number of people, rather than later with more people, we will be much more able to confront the myriad interlocking crises we face – a comparatively less crowded planet is an easier planet on which to build a bright green future.

When that population wave eventually crests – and it will – how high do we want the wave to be?

We need to think more creatively about how to address this genuine social concern – how to care for our elders with dignity – but not by encouraging more population growth to defer an even bigger problem that will need to be addressed.

Let's not fool ourselves that 'Ponzi Demography' is the basis for the future of Australia - because it is absolutely not. It's a house of cards.

Ultimately tackling population means facing our addiction to growth.

Climate change is merely a symptom of the biggest conundrum facing humanity: the assumption that we can sustain the current 6.5 billion people on the planet on western industrial lifestyles when the planet – according to every source from the IPCC to Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – is saying its not coping now.

The 21st century question is not whether we can sustain more than six billion people on a western industrial model of development, but how to sustain the projected global population so that everyone has a good quality of life – of which material living standards are only a part - within the biophysical limits of one planet.

The problem is that the discussion of limits challenges the policy position of all governments – economic growth. It would be tantamount to political suicide right now to question this consensus. People need to understand the conundrum before decision makers (not just politicians) will have the legitimacy to address it, before people will demand it.

We need to be able to have an open and honest debate about this issue.

Dick Smith has used his personal 'currency' to help bring this issue into the mainstream of debate.

There is one thing I would offer to Dick Smith to strengthen his case, and that is to reframe his question:

'How many people can Australia support?'

A critical question, HOWEVER seeking an answer to the question will lead only to an endless spiral of further debate, because the answer can only ever be - 'it depends'.

How do Australians want to live? Because this will determine our demands on nature - how much water and energy we use, how much greenhouse gas and waste we generate, how much and what kind of food do we want to eat? What kind of houses do we want, how will we get around?

It is a hot air question.

It is also not helpful in an era of global economic trade, where our resources are exported to, and imported from, around the globe.

What is needed is a scientific approach. In the early 1990s, Bill Rees of Canada's University of British Colombia and his then-PhD student Mathis Wackernagel created the Ecological Footprint.

Ecological Footprint accounting compares human demand on nature with the biosphere's ability to regenerate resources and provide services. It does this by assessing the biologically productive land and marine area required to produce the resources a population consumes and absorb the corresponding waste, using prevailing technology.

This metric inverts the 'hot air' question and instead asks 'how much nature does it take to support Australians at current levels of consumption?'

It's measurable.

In the mid-2000s, Wackernagel founded the Global Footprint Network (GFN), a non profit based in California, whose objective is to:

'Supporting creation of a sustainable economy by advancing the scientific rigour and practical application of the Ecological Footprint as a measurement and policy tool, with the goal of making ecological limits central to decision making.'

GFN maintains a series of biophysical accounts for most nations, which track whether they are running an ecological deficit. These are published in the Living Planet Reports:


GFN's accounts - which use a conservative accounting approach, and are therefore an underestimate - show that humanity as a whole is already in overshoot (when demand on nature exceeds available supply):


GFN are inviting national governments to work with them on strengthening the data for each nation's account through their Ten in Ten Program, designed to get 10 countries using the Ecological Footprint as a complement to GDP in decision making within ten years.

GFN work with national governments to use the Footprint to:

  • Assess the value of their country's ecological assets
  • Monitor and manage their assets
  • Identify the risks associated with ecological deficits
  • Set policy that is informed by ecological reality and makes safeguarding resources a top priority
  • Measure progress toward their goals

Dick, can you encourage a partnership with these accountants of natural capital and our decision makers?!!

Here is the man you need to speak with:

Mathis Wackernagel
Global Footprint Network

email: info@footprintnetwork.org
web: www.footprintnetwork.org

You could also talk to Brian Czech and Rob Dietz of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy for assistance with communication approaches, framing debates and technical questions on transitioning from a growth economy.

email: info@steadystate.org
web: www.steadystate.org


  1. Did you bang this out after watching the doco or did you have some special preview. If it was the former, well done! Great post.

    I'm glad these topics are finally making it into the mainstream. I wonder how long the population will take to wake up. Obviously the "Big End of Town" are going to get it soon; they'd lose too much.

  2. Well done Sharon, love the idea of steady state economics. Keep up the good work.

    However, what do you know of what money is and how it works? What gives it value? Is it backed by anything of value, like it once was with gold? I believe population is a deeper root problem of causes (not symptoms, as climate change is) but the deepest fundamental one is not money itself, but the monetary system. Two places to start are online docos called Money As Debt, and The Money Masters. Both a little dry but very informative and eye opening. Please research and I would love to know your thoughts.

    Peace and Love and keep up the good work

  3. @ Sean - I was writing it WHILE the documentary was airing! Had an ear out for it, wanted to get this up so I could Tweet to #qanda during the debate that followed!

    @ Adrian - click on the category 'Economics' in this blog...aware of what you raised, but think that we need to take this step by step, throwing too much at people at once will bamboozle them. Also Google 'The Money Fix', you can watch it online!


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