The Prophet Visits
Paul Ehrlich came to Australian in August 1971 and spoke on the ABC’s Monday Conference. I remember watching as an ABC radio reporter. As Ehrlich described the dizzying rate of population growth, I easily grasped its fundamental importance.
The world then had a population of 3.7 billion. Today, it officially reaches seven billion. Think about that. In 40 years, the world population has doubled, as Ehrlich said it would.
Even worse, it has grown much faster in undeveloped countries. I recently reported on Kenya’s breakneck population growth. It has 41 million today and that will grow to 85 million by 2050 – jeopardising its hopes of becoming a middle income power by 2030. According to The Financial Times there are a million additional Kenyans every year, and their arrival chokes off any chance of generating economic growth.
Last night I was honoured to introduce Paul Ehrlich, giving the Jack Beale Lecture on the Global Environment at the University of New South Wales. Forty years on, still arguing population is fundamental, Ehrlich dismissed the myths about population:
- The myth that it isn’t population, its consumption. In fact it’s both.
- The myth that it’s not a population bomb, but a population cluster bomb (that is, only a problem in poor countries). But the biggest population problems are global: global warming, the build up of toxins on the land and in the ocean, the possibility of nuclear war over water and resources.
- The bigger problem is population ageing. We often hear the only way you avoid population ageing is by rapid population growth. Nonsense, says Ehrlich. The dependency ratio is calculated not just on those over 65 but those under 15. If the population grows more slowly there are more people over 65, but to balance that, there are fewer under 15.
Ehrlich said, “We are toxifying the entire planet from pole to pole. And toxification could be worse than global warming.”
“Population shrinkage in rich countries like those in Europe is a good thing. We need sustainable shrinkage.”
Ehrlich said, as the population grows by another two billion, the planet will be living on food from marginal land and drinking desalinated water. We are into diminished marginal returns.
He mentioned that on earlier visits to Australia, he and his wife Anne could count over 20 species of butterfly fish while diving in the Great Barrier Reef. Recently diving in Micronesia they could count none. Everything had been fished out. That’s what happens on a planet struggling with four times its long-term carrying capacity.