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Population: At the Edge

November 5, 2010

Honoured to speak last night at the “At the Edge” Q & A Panel with Ross Gittins (Sydney Morning Herald) and Dick Smith among others on the issue of population and sustainability. As I left I was handed a brochure from Sustainable Population Australia, quoting me to this effect:

Population growth, of course, is the factor that drives or multiplies or accelerated global warming. And deforestation and loss of groundwater and every other indicator of environmental damage. We’ve got to dispose once and for all of the notion that Australia is an underpopulated continent, an empty continent waiting to be filled up.

Always good to be quoted accurately.

One Comment
  1. Nicholas Car permalink
    November 7, 2010 3:46 pm

    Hi Bob,

    I met you just as you were leaving the “At the Edge” panel discussion and, as I had raised the issue of developing world food affordability in a question to the panel, you suggested I leave a comment on your blog, so here goes!

    My main point was that as populations grow world wide, the cost of food will go up. This is certainly the case as the rate of agricultural efficiency increase is not expected to keep pace with population growth. Irrigation efficiency increase (my field) for example, which is a good indicator of world food production increase, is just less than 1% p.a. where as population growth world wide is just more than 1%. This efficiency rate is not expected to increase (there are no more green revolutions on the horizon that we can see) and most people expect it to fall or for any further increases to be more costly as all agricultural imports, chiefly fossil fuels, fertilisers and water become more expensive and scarce.

    In irrigation circles, it is well known that places like the Punjab, India’s rice bowl, are at or close to maximum cheap production as almost 100% of the possibly productive land is in use and, even though technology will allow more production per unit area, their water table is dropping and the prices of fuel and fertiliser are rising so the total cost of production per unit produce will rise and continue to do so for a long time yet.

    We know that Australia is producing more food than is environmentally sustainable – see the MDBA reports – so even a country such as ours may be past peak cheap production too.

    That said, in Australia, the cost of food for families is small, something like 10% of their income, so that even a 100% price rise, despite what the hysterical papers say, won’t really affect people much. In the developing world however, where food costs demand a much greater proportion of people’s incoming, people will simply starve.

    While I think that we could actually produce enough food to feed everyone on earth for a while yet, I personally do not consider more equitable food distribution to occur as needed as history shows that people who can afford to waste food do so while others starve – think of the 1770 Bengal famine which say rich British and Indians do nothing to feed the poor unless compelled. My guess is that with rising middle classes in India and China who can afford to pay for food and with rising poor in countries like Bangladesh who cannot, us, the rich, won’t notice rising food expense much, the new China & India middle class will notice and be unhappy but the very poor really will starve.

    I also believe that there can be no amount of direct food aid for countries like Bangladesh, Burma, Zimbabwe, Sudan etc. and out neighbours like Tonga (where I have worked) too that will forestall famines long enough to allow them to increase domestic agricultural production to levels that will allow them to feed themselves in the long term. Countries such as these are moving further from agricultural self-sufficiency with time as population growth far outstrips food production growth and they will suffer acutely with oil prices increases of course. Direct food aid masks the issue that they will inevitably have to face (well, we may be able to feed Tonga at 100,000 people but not the others) and we do them no good overall in supplying it so I advocate a withdrawal from aid other than institutional training.

    I’m writing up the above for a New Matilda article.

    On a separate note, I hope that the federal government will be pressured into action on population as local and state issues of population pressure come to bear. I recently saw the Mayor of Hornsby take refuge from a barrage of criticism on increased density by saying the issue was out of his hands and was a result of federal policy of population increase generally. People hearing this understood that the local issues can only be solved by federal action.

    Michale Stove, who’s campaign dinner I also met you at briefly, is a potential Labor MP who understands these issues too and if he were to get into office at any level, he would explicitly make the link between local issues and federal policy.



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