30 April 2011

Boom or Bust for Our Planet?

Dick Smith: "We have a real problem as our economic system is built on perpetual growth, when everyone knows you can't have perpetual growth," he says. "One day it has to stop." << That's it. That is all there is. Can we get on with addressing this instead of whining about it like a bunch of over-indulged children?!

Reposted in full from Adelaide Now, 29 April 2011

'A crowded planet, with more people taking more of the Earth's resources, does not sound appealing. We have seen water shortages, fuel price rises, congested roads and a crisis in housing affordability. Questions are now being asked on our capacity to feed an extra two billion people - in just two decades.

Millionaire Dick Smith has just finished writing a book on the topic. Expect to hear more from the man at the centre of the population debate in Australia. "We have a real problem as our economic system is built on perpetual growth, when everyone knows you can't have perpetual growth," he says. "One day it has to stop."

The United Nations Population Division says the world will hit seven billion this year. We may double that by the end of the century. The UN offers scenarios based on different fertility rates. Under the medium scenario, the population peaks at 9.4 billion in 2070 and starts to decline. If fertility remains high in developing countries, we may have a population of nearly 30 billion in 2300.

How could we feed and house that many people? Something has to give.

Smith says Australia's growth rate, at 2.1 per cent last year, is "totally irresponsible". "That means we double every 30 years," he says. "By developed world standards we're one of the highest, above India, above Bangladesh, above America."

Twice as many people means each person would have access to half the amount of resources we are consuming, he argues.

There must be a better way, an economic system not based on growth, not just about "having more people and using more resources".

The UN Environment Program has released a guide for policy makers. Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication explains how a green economy can generate as much growth and employment as the existing world order.

This, however, "will require world leaders, civil society and leading businesses to engage in this transition collaboratively".

"It will require a sustained effort on the part of policy makers and their constituents to rethink and redefine traditional measures of wealth, prosperity and wellbeing," the authors write.

"The biggest risk of all may be remaining with the status quo."

University of Adelaide Environment Institute director Professor Mike Young contributed to the chapter on water resources.

"At the global level, finding ways to feed all these people and to supply the water they need is really challenging," he says.

"If we can be really clever, we can both water the world and feed it, but we're going to have to do a lot of really smart innovative stuff. If not we're going to have massive famines, water shortages and crises in many parts of the world. That's the big picture."

Wealthy nations have extra responsibility as they consume far more of the world's resources per person.

"Policies designed to increase population have to be examined very, very carefully - until we get all of the resource management, environmental issues sorted out - particularly carbon, water and controlling land degradation," Prof Young says.

Several factors contribute to population growth. The number of babies born on average to each woman, is just one. People are also living longer.

"The big question is whether we should make Australia an environmental fortress in a degrading world, or take our global share of responsibility and allow populations to increase in Australia to take pressure off the Western world," Prof Young says.

The Australian Population Institute has a vision for a "greater Australia", with a "robust population" of 30 million. President Jane Nathan says the group is convinced Australia needs to grow to maintain a high quality of life.

The Urban Development Institute of Australia agrees. President Peter Sherrie says there are 5.1 working Australians to every retiree. Unless we maintain strong population growth, by 2030 this will reduce to 2.9 working Australians for every retired person.

"We're going have to severely increase taxes to maintain the standard of living we're used to, or we need to increase our population," he says.

"Our whole economy is based on growth, it has been since the start."

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd's "Big Australia" has given way to a commitment to sustainability, though what that means is not clear.

"The focus of this policy is on the distribution of population across Australia rather than setting arbitrary targets or caps," says the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke.

The Government released an issues paper last year and has been "going through an extensive community consultation process in which a whole range of groups and organisations have put forward their views for the future of our nation".'

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