Right Room, Wrong Elephant

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In a parliamentary speech on global environmental issues delivered late last year, ALP MP Kelvin Thomson said it was time to discuss the environmental elephant in the room. At the time, you’d have been forgiven for assuming he was fed up with the shortcomings of Kevin Rudd’s climate policy as the Government focused all its attention on outmanoeuvring Malcolm Turnbull, rather than addressing the problems with its ETS.

Actually, the elephant Thomson wanted to talk about was population growth, both here and globally. Thomson read out a long list of global issues, from traffic congestion and waste, to global warming and terrorism, and explained how the population explosion was at the base of each of these problems.

Now, a couple of months later, the issue of population as a so-called "elephant in the room" is front and centre. Driven by the release of the 2010 Intergenerational Report — as well as by a Prime Minister who seems genuinely excited by the prospect of an Australian population of 35 million — everyone is talking about this particular elephant. Buying into the debate, entrepreneur Dick Smith and former NSW premier, Bob Carr, have both warned that this level of growth will lead to ecological disaster and that Australia is unlikely to be able to handle many more people.

For myself and many of my colleagues, however, this issue is far from being a new one. Population and sustainability are concerns that we see raised constantly in our work and we have seen that, while the motivations of those raising the concerns may vary significantly, the way the population question plays out is very specific. There’s just one question we are asked again and again: "What is the right population number for Australia?"

Is it a valid question? Well, perhaps, but before we even try to answer it, we need to understand that there is another elephant in the room. This one has been pointed out by British social commentator George Monbiot, and it’s one that Kelvin Thomson and his contemporaries have chosen to ignore: that those worrying most about population seem to be post-reproductive middle aged, comfortable white men who have reached a certain level of material success. Further, Monbiot reminds us, the population explosion is the one environmental problem that this high energy consuming sub-section of the population can not actually be blamed for.

In other words, to ask questions about an ideal population size completely misses the point.

Given the way we currently manage our environment — and our economy for that matter — we have way too many people as it is. In fact, it’s probably possible to mount an argument that the way we waste water, brutally exploit old-growth forests, build highways and dig holes for big dirty coal plants, even 5 million people in Australia is too many. One might even be so bold as to argue that given the way the original "settlers" trashed this place, even a few hundred thousand of us is not necessarily sustainable in Australia.

There are three reasons why focusing on numbers misses the point.

The first is that when we do so we equate sustainable practices with population size rather than resource usage. This means that we blame unsustainable management practices on the wrong people: not on the few who have high energy consumption, but on the many for simply existing. It also means that we are not likely to reflect and realign environmental, social and economic management practices.

The second reason it’s wrong to get stuck on the numbers is that no-one ever talks about how we will limit the population. Even before Peter Costello’s ludicrous plasma television baby bonus, Australia’s population growth rate has been substantial. How do we control this? Will a government put in place a "one child policy"? Do we place pressure on families via the tax system to discourage multiple offspring?

Or do we adopt a policy that limits our intake to those migrants who will have no more than one baby, who are young so they can work hard to help the retiring baby boomers and Gen X-ers and who have the right skills? What about our refugee responsibilities and family reunions? What about a policy that acknowledges the enormous contribution migrants will continue to make to the social fabric of this nation? To put it bluntly, taking the position that blames our newest and future arrivals for our environmental problems is simply placing a light green coat of paint on exclusion. This is especially true when the argument is applied to the tiny number of refugees we do admit.

The third problem is that this is a global issue. Like global warming, population requires a global solution. We are part of a global community which will reach over 9 billion in the next few decades and Australia’s policy response cannot be as narrow as keeping people out. Like reinstating trade barriers, the consequences of Australia simply putting up a wall will be significant and the reverberations difficult to predict.

In short, rather than getting stuck on this reductive debate about numbers, it is time for the Government and the Opposition to put petty squabbling behind them and start planning a real sustainable future. This requires a number of important steps.

To begin with, we need to change our tax base. Let’s hope that the Henry Review gives the Government the impetus to reconfigure the concept of resource ownership and land tax as well as plan for decentralised cities that rely on an integrated transport system rather than highways. The country cannot undertake a new Snowy Mountains hydro scheme. Instead, we should exploit our renewable resources by, for example, installing thousands of small, suburban-based solar stations that minimise pollution as well as our carbon footprint. We are not talking about massive skyscrapers, but rather about medium-density, liveable, sustainable cities.

If Kelvin Thomson, Dick Smith and Bob Carr wanted to promote a real sustainable Australia, these are the conversations they should be initiating, not ones that seek to pin blame on those who use the least resources.

The debate about resource consumption is not about some imaginary elephant in the room. It’s about admitting that many of us are taking more than our share and it is time we figured out a better way to manage what we have left.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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