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Population and the environment: a perspective

By Max Thomas - posted Monday, 30 March 2015

It’s not unusual to hear the claim that overpopulation is the greatest problem facing humanity.  I certainly would not argue that unlimited population growth is desirable, but there is little doubt that the world can feed its present population. Food is exported from some of the poorest countries while great quantities of grain are fed to cattle in the richest nations. Political and religious strife, war and economic injustice drive millions from access to land, water and other resources. Is environmental pollution the inevitable consequence of population increase or is it at least in part, the product of human behaviour?

Enormous environmental damage was done in Australia by a very small population during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Yarra River in Melbourne became a ‘sewer’ not long after European settlement. The legacy of great wealth achieved by our ancestors was built on hard toil clearing land, building roads, railways, mines, dams and power stations etc. Other economic activities, especially gold mining, land clearing and drainage, to name just a few, externalized their costs to the environment. Environmental degradation not only damaged the natural attributes of our country but it imposed additional costs on most goods and services. The introduction of pest animals and plants is another form of environmental damage that remains with us today. Some of these environmental problems are intractable but in some respects, the environment in Australia has improved as the population has increased. While there is ample scope for further improvement, considerable progress has been made with air quality in our cities, land management and the health of rivers.   

My contention is that the global distribution of wealth and resource consumption is so massively skewed that population per se, is a secondary issue. This matters because unquestioning acceptance of an essential nexus between population and environmental damage may lead to a rationalization of severe economic injustice, or worse. 


Energy consumption and the resultant carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per capita in the US or Australia, for example, are far greater than in developing countries. In other words, even modest per capita reductions in energy consumption by the wealthiest countries would more than balance the relatively minor increase that is occurring in poor nations.  In crude terms, emissions would not reduce much if most of the world’s poorest people moved to another planet.

Topical examples of energy extravagance are the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix motor race and the ICC Cricket World Cup. 

The Grand Prix calendar consists of 20 races around the world. About 700 tonnes of cars and equipment is air freighted to each event.  The distance travelled annually is approximately 160,000km. The estimated CO2 emitted for this much airfreight over that distance is 107,000 tonnes.

The Cricket World Cup is comprised of approximately 50 matches, 36 of these are day/night games. Some matches will take longer than others etc, and different venues have different lighting; the power sources also vary.  But for an indication of power consumption, the MCG lights draw 1.8 megawatts.  That’s enough power for 700 to 1,000 Australian homes. Burning brown coal to generate enough power to run the MCG lights for 4 hours, results in the emission of 9 tonnes of CO2. If all of the day/night games were played at the MCG, the total CO2 emitted would be more than 300 tonnes.

In India, where cricket is almost a religion, micro-loan programs are enabling millions of families to purchase small solar panels with batteries for household lighting and small enterprises. Some of these systems are built by village cooperatives and they provide reliable power for cooking and lighting for their children to study.  These are life-changing advances in rural India, just as they were 100 years ago in Australia.  The energy consumed by one day/night cricket match at the MCG is roughly equivalent to the energy produced by 60,000 of these small household solar power units.                     

Extreme ‘Malthusian’ environmental theory tends to undervalue human life. The following is very recent comment on social media: “The Earth is responding to a parasite: Humans. In the end the Earth will survive and Homo Sapiens hopefully go extinct.” Misanthropic statements such as ‘the planet would be better off without the people’ or ‘aid programs only make the population problem worse’ are not a great distance in logic from genocide by neglect, if not by force.


Even if we accept that reducing the population would bring about a return to the Garden of Eden, how would this be achieved? Who would decide? Having reached the desired population level, presumably the ‘ideal’ demographic profile would somehow be maintained by way of consensus as it never has been before. Land, water, energy and other resources would be equitably shared in this green paradise. I have my doubts.      


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About the Author

Max Thomas, Dip. Agric. (retired) worked in the public sector and in private consulting on a range of land, water and waste management projects. He prepared guidelines for irrigation with recycled water for EPA Victoria and developed a number of Environmental Management Systems in the water industry.

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