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The Prophet Visits

November 1, 2011

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.

  1. Kim Redman permalink
    November 1, 2011 11:23 am

    Ok, we know the problem, but what is the solution and how do we implement it?

  2. Robert Lewis permalink
    November 1, 2011 6:48 pm

    ‘The Population Bomb began with this statement: The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate . . . In the book Ehrlich presented a number “scenarios” detailing possible future events, many of which have been held up as examples of errors in the years since. Of these scenarios, Ehrlich has said that although, “we clearly stated that they were not predictions and that ‘we can be sure that none of them will come true as stated,’ (p. 72) – their failure to occur is often cited as a failure of prediction. In honesty, the scenarios were way off, especially in their timing (we underestimated the resilience of the world system). But they did deal with future issues that people in 1968 should have been thinking about.” Ehrlich further states that he stands behind the central thesis of the book, and that its message is as apt today as it was in 1968.’ Wikipedia entry.

    I would like my ‘prophets’ to get a few things correct occasionally!

  3. November 1, 2011 10:40 pm

    Yes it was entertaining to hear him today on ABC FM @ 10 am and PJK the day before but I missed most of that programme.

    I remember the profound effect he had on me in High School and the 1971 ?/ appearance on Monday Conference?

    I look forward to your next post on the gOP race Bob, my man herman C is now in front but of course facing real scrutiny, some cracks appearing the GOP seems split between Mitt R and the search for a tea bagger to carry the flag.

  4. Lynda permalink
    November 4, 2011 6:22 pm

    It was an excellent lecture and some interesting questions were asked. I also noted two references to ‘tribalism’. The term itself wasn’t used, but Ehrlich did express the sentiment that we needed to recognise our common humanity. Would have liked to have heard him expand on this.

  5. Peter Pando permalink
    November 7, 2011 12:32 pm

    Dear Mr Carr,

    The population of Australia has multiplied by more than 20 since settlement (based on the unconservative estimate of 1,000,000 original indigenous inhabitants, & taking whatever current headcounts you like), and our living standards are still passable. If internationally-populist policies of freer immigration, urban consolidation and laissez-faire multiculturalism are any guide, it seems the Australian government might be conceiving this land to be a buffer zone between the environmental ignorance of cultures which produce over-populated nations and a future of worldwide shortages. However, if panic sets into those nations upon awakening within their environmental end-game, how will Australia cope with the resulting demand – especially from the immigrant cultures still deeply wedded to their homelands? Surely Australia owes it to the world to teach values which cultivate a greater respect for modern science and cultural liberty, yet the government is still going on about making poverty history through increased consumerism and the false freedom of cultural insularity.

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