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Environment: donít mention people

By Melvin Bolton - posted Friday, 5 February 2010

Last year, when the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest projections for our population growth, the numbers jolted the population issue into the light of public discussion.

On The 7.30 Report, last week, Kerry O’Brien has just given it top billing. His timing could scarcely have been better for those who would like to see the population debate go global.

Last February, on the initiative of one John Feeney from Boulder, Colorado, hundreds of environmental scientists and other concerned individuals held a “Global Population Speak Out”. The intention was to break down the taboo against discussing human numbers in the context of environmental wellbeing. You might not have noticed the event but the Washington-based Population Institute was so impressed by its success that they are organising a repeat performance next month.


Don’t expect to see crowds marching in lab-coats and waving placards. This protest will be considered a resounding success if a few hundred respected scientists and other influential figures manage to have their messages delivered through the popular media during the same month. As one who has been banging on about the subject for decades, I believe I have the measure of the whole phenomenon. Broadly, in terms of public understanding, there are three obstacles to be overcome in linking people-pressure with environmental deterioration.

For a start, “the environment” is a term covering so many different concerns - from polar bears to urban sprawl - that muddled arguments prevail and the underlying connections tend to be missed in the shouting. Tree huggers, frustrated motorists and waterless farmers could find they had more in common than they realised if they got together and thought beyond their immediate problems.

Second, scientific facts alone have never been enough to bring the crowds out; it’s the way we feel about the facts, the emotions they stir, that gets us out on to the street. Feelings of right and wrong are particularly important. There is nothing like moral outrage for bringing law-abiding folk into conflict with the riot police, especially if there is a clear target for blame. Some quite diffuse targets are commonly regarded as fair game - big business, governments, the system - but the collective human footprint does not meet the requirements at all. Not only is it too broad (we cannot even exclude ourselves) but it might also be misinterpreted. It might be thought that there is a particular, unspoken target, such as women, or the poor, or religious groups who oppose birth control. Better steer clear of it altogether.

Before I come to the third and crucial point, I should dismiss the idea that numbers don’t matter, that it’s only what we do that makes a difference to our environment, not the number of people doing it. This is such nonsense that it insults one’s intelligence and yet we hear it time and again. In reality, even the simplest lifestyles can multiply to deliver a hefty wallop to the natural world. In Africa I have seen landscapes devastated by people just trying to follow the humble way of life that supported their ancestors, in much smaller numbers, for centuries. At the other end of the scale, Australians are among the worst carbon polluters in the world and yet our global contribution to greenhouse gases is only 1.4 per cent - a peanut’s depth in a metre of sea level rise.

It’s all in the numbers. The entire output of Australia’s greenhouse gases would be exceeded merely by the belching of India’s livestock if only India’s herds were not so hard-pressed to find enough decent pasture. Over vast regions of Asia the groundwater is being used by hundreds of millions of irrigators faster than it can possibly be replenished even with no climate change. Of course numbers matter, and at every level of existence.

So, now to that third point. A lot of people make money out of population growth so in their view the more consumers the better and the more pressure on land the greater the rise in its value. That’s the simple reality, but it has an emotive component that is less obvious. Somehow, the promoters of population growth have fostered the idea, deep in the human psyche, that they hold the moral high ground; that nice people can only ever want more people. Those who disagree are suspect. They must hate motherhood, or migrants, or both, and are probably closet racists.


Politicians loathe being asked about population policy. Green NGOs keep it off their manifestos for fear of losing support. Public figures in conversation quickly change the subject. In Copenhagen the impact of human numbers was officially invisible, despite the best efforts of Sustainable Population Australia and Britain’s Optimum Population Trust.

All this plays back into the hands of the population profiteers. Misinformation is easy to maintain when those who know better prefer to keep quiet. How many Australians, for instance, have been led to believe that with a fertility rate below the replacement level our population would be declining without immigration? It isn’t true. Parents do not generally drop dead as soon as children are born. With a fertility rate of 1.8 Australia’s population would continue to increase for several decades before stabilising. Only then would we need a total fertility rate of slightly more than 2.0 to prevent a slow decline. At present rates plus immigration there could be twice as many Australians by the time today’s infants are middle-aged. The USA will grow by more than a hundred million people over the same period.

This, then, is what the participants in the Global Population Speak Out are attempting to overcome. Not the misinterpretation of facts and figures but the taboo that inhibits public discussion and prevents proper understanding. My guess is that their task will become easier as the climate becomes more worrisome. Taboos can be swept away in nature’s storms. It happens all over the world. Just look what AIDS did for the open discussion of safe sex.

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First published in The Canberra Times on January 29, 2010.

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About the Author

Melvin Bolton worked as an ecologist for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In semi-retirement he is a freelance writer and occasional broadcaster on Radio National. His writing output has included seven books, ranging from fiction through popular science to academic.

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