Saturday, August 14, 2010

Dick Smith's Population Puzzle - My Initial Thoughts

On Thursday 12th August, on prime time TV, Dick Smith's Population Puzzle aired on national Australian TV on the ABC. This was followed by a lively debate on the ABC's Q&A, or QANDA.

I admire Dick Smith for raising the profile of the challenging and often unpopular question of sustainable population growth. Dick credits his daughter for raising the question of the elephant in the room in relation to the impact of human population growth on global warming. The use of this English idiom in relation to population is not new, such as Paul Chefurka's Population - The Elephant In The Room.

This idiom was repeated by Melbourne Labour MP Kelvin Thomson in his speech to Parliament in August 2009. Perhaps the meme then replicated from here to Dick's daughter.

Dick took great pains to separate the topics of racism and sustainable growth. This too is admirable, because controlling population is not a matter of race. It does not matter what race the members of any population belong. No population of any any race can sustain population growth - more on this later.

A few critics in qanda argued that Australia is very large and its population of 22 million is so tiny in comparison with the available land that any mention of overpopulation or sustainable population is laughable. However, such opinions are borne of ignorance of the aridness of Australia's landscape compared with all other continents except frozen Antarctica.

It is no coincidence that 95% of Australia's population lives on roughly 5% of its land. Unfortunately, this is also the most arable land so urban sprawl into such land will inevitably reduce Australia's ability to feed itself.

Much was made of the social impact of overpopulation. It's true - as American Science-Fiction author stated, human dignity and democracy cannot survive overpopulation.

However, the most obvious omission from Dick's program and the qanda debate was any discussion of population growth rates. It is clear that not even an annual Australian growth rate of 1% per annum is sustainable as this would result in 10 populations doublings from 22 million to over 22 billion - 3 times the Earth's current population - all living in Australia!

Greens leader Bob Brown at least had the guts to mention Malthus, who warned of the issues off unsustainable growth back in 1798. He was right, but presented a flawed argument. The few vague mentions of Ponzi schemes and exponential growth missed the point that variable rates of growth are just as powerful and unsustainable as any fixed or constant rates of growth.

Although Human Global Ecophagy - the total consumption of our planet by humans - can never happen we can still create a catastrophe of epic proportions within just a few centuries. For example, imagine if our human population doubled just 5 times from 6 billion in 1999 to 192 billion in mere centuries. Imagine the environmental impact of 192 billion people.

In the end the big business addiction to economic growth driven by population growth - so enticing and irresistible to government - seems destined to hold sway for now.

Dick is right - we must end our addiction to growth at all costs.

Thanks for reading,

David Coutts


Blogger Exponentialist said...

The sci-fi author I forgot to mention is Isaac Asimov

11:55 PM  

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