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The population problem

By Michael Lardelli - posted Friday, 6 March 2009


When one appreciates how rapidly trends are moving compared to the time that would be required to educate the world’s population and turn the situation around (if that was even still possible) then it is, perhaps, understandable that the topic of population growth is avoided, especially at the international level. There is also an arrogant and misplaced assumption on the part of industrial nations that hunger, if it does become a problem, will only affect “developing” nations. That assumption is almost certainly false for a number of reasons. As cited above, industrial agriculture is heavily energy and fertiliser dependent. However, almost all of the industrial nations have severely depleted their domestic sources of energy in the process of building their economies during the 20th century. Almost without exception, they are now very dependent on importation of large volumes of energy - often from great distances. As energy resources decline, “resource nationalism” becomes more prevalent and energy markets become more chaotic, we will see increasing energy shortages in industrial nations and this will affect agriculture.

While European populations now appear to have stabilised, the populations of nations such as Australia and the United States are still growing rapidly. Australia's grew by more than 330,000 people last year - equal to a city the size of Canberra - while the US population recently passed 300 million and grows by 2.8 million per year.

In 2008, population growth and the drought led Australia’s most densely populated state, Victoria, to become briefly a net food importer for the first time. In other words, Victoria will soon no longer be able to feed itself and will be looking to the wider world to supply it with food - when almost everyone else will be doing the same thing. The Victorian population is currently growing by 1.5 per cent a year. At that rate it would double within 50 years but its food production then would almost certainly be less than today.

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As Melbourne’s population grows it sends out pipelines like invasive roots to suck water out of what used to be distant river systems - but those river systems, such as the Goulburn River, are already being used to grow the food that Melbourne needs. (The Victorian government would do well to remember “Stein’s Law” that “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”.)

Population growth lies at the core of all questions of “sustainability”. It is growth of the human population and the increasing resources that it requires that drives the destruction of habitats, the increasing levels of pollution (especially CO2), and the accelerating depletion of finite resources. It is impossible to stop exacerbating these problems if we do not stop population growth.

 Efficiency gains in resource use can slow the damage for a while but we need to remember that efficiency gains are subject to what economists call “diminishing returns”. That means that the first 10 per cent of efficiency gain may be easy but the next 10 per cent will be harder, and there is a limit beyond which one cannot become more efficient. So while the efficiency gains decrease with time, the exponential nature of growth means that the increase in the number of individuals accelerates with time.

In case you thought that was bad enough, efficiency gains can actually make a population less resource secure, not more. To understand this you need to realise that what limits the survival of a population is not a range of resources but the most limiting single essential resource (Leibig’s law of the minimum). To be resilient a population must have significant reserve capacity in its essential resources so that, if any essential resource should become restricted, the population still has enough of that resource to survive. Efficiency gains can increase resilience by increasing the reserve capacity of essential resources - but only if the population does not grow! If the population is allowed to expand on the back of efficiency gains in resource use, this decreases reserve capacity and resilience. The population will then be far more vulnerable to shortage shocks in its resource base; it will be in greater danger of collapse.

For now, I am still a member of the Green Party in Australia. When I first took up the topic of population growth on a South Australian Greens Party internet forum I was labelled an “eco-fascist” among other pleasantries. My concerns were not ignored. Instead, they generated violent antipathy! However, for every outspoken objector there seems to be a number of quieter but supportive people to whom the role of population in questions of environment was obvious. This was revealed by the attitudes of audiences attending debates on the topic.

Nevertheless, while there may be broad but covert support for limiting population within the Greens, the Party’s leadership appears to be very concerned about alienating their growing support among the general public. (This is a pity because it was the willingness of the Greens to fearlessly take the rational but less popular line on important issues that initially attracted me to them.) This was revealed to me in the lead-up to the Party’s policy review of 2006 when those drafting the revised policies had decided unilaterally to drop the population policy by simply not presenting a revised policy because they saw it as too contentious.

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Fortunately, a strongly worded letter drafted by the South Australian Greens helped to see the policy retained.It is a pity however, that one must struggle so hard just to keep treading water on such an important issue. The current population policy is vague and sounds almost apologetic. It regards consumption as more important than population and wishes to avoid all talk of actually limiting numbers. Typical lines from the policy are:

2. Our environmental impact is not determined by population numbers alone, but by the way that people live.
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About the Author

Michael Lardelli is Senior Lecturer in Genetics at The University of Adelaide. Since 2004 he has been an activist for spreading awareness on the impact of energy decline resulting from oil depletion. He has written numerous articles on the topic published in The Adelaide Review and elsewhere, has delivered ABC Radio National Perspectives, spoken at events organised by the South Australian Department of Trade and Economic Development and edits the (subscription only) Beyond Oil SA email newsletter. He has lectured on "peak oil" to students in the Australian School of Petroleum.

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