Lack of leadership on population

10/09/01

This article has been submitted by Dr John Coulter, former Leader of the Australian Democrats. It is also published in the newsletter of Sustainable Population Australia. The DEA committee will be considering the development of a position paper on population policy as it relates to health and environmental as soon as possible.

The situation with respect to 'boat people' generally, and those on the Tampa specifically, underscores the lack of leadership and clear policy direction of all political parties in Australia in recent years. Not surprisingly therefore media comment and discussion programs also reveal a community lacking a comprehensive and integrated view of a sustainable, equitable and humane direction for Australia. I have not heard one radio, seen one TV program, or read one newspaper that interviews an ecologist or considers the environmental consequences of how we deal with immigration in general and boat people in particular. The comprehensive view which sees this problem in its wider context has been totally absent. Readers of this Newsletter will know that there have been numerous high level reports recommending that Australia develop a population policy. All have been rejected by both old parties when in government. They will also know that Australia's 19 million people are not living sustainably, either in and on Australia, or in a global context. They will be concerned about the despoiled environment we leave our children and how we balance the ethic of intergenerational with that of intragenerational equity.

Failure of human populations to live sustainably is not unique to Australia. Every country does irreparable damage to its environmental future. If one were to identify one factor that is driving the tribal strife that in turn is generating the refugee movements it is the growing disparity between available resources and expanding human populations. Of the 6 billion people now in the world about 3 billion live in poverty; more people than ever before. Some 40,000 children die each day from malnutrition and poverty related disease. At the current rate of just under 3 children per family, world population will double to 12 billion in 50 years. Even if a policy of 2.1 children per family were adopted tomorrow, because of the very young median age in most populous countries, global population would hit 12 billion in 70 years before stabilising. Ninety nine percent of food comes from the land and 80 - 90% of that is cereals. Since 1984 cereal availability per capita has been declining. Globally cropland has declined 20% in the last decade, irrigated land by 12%. Each year erosion destroys 10 million ha of cropland. Expansion of human populations is also removing between 10 and 35 million ha of arable land for houses, roads and industries. Between 1960 and the present, global cropland per capita has fallen from 0.5 ha to 0.27 ha. Each year 10 million ha is lost but an additional 5 million ha is required to feed the 84 million people added to the global population. This 15 million ha is largely coming from removal of forests with a multitude of damaging environmental consequences. Erosion can be compensated to an extent by the use of synthetic fertilisers. However, these depend upon large inputs of fossil energy, usually petroleum and this is neither sustainable nor affordable in poor countries as scarcity and price put it beyond reach. Fertiliser production has declined by 21% since 1989, principally in third world countries. What has been said of land is also true of water, the other essential input to food production. Water demand already exceeds supply in nearly 80% of countries with both surface and ground water being unsustainably over-exploited. Australia presently feeds about 60 million people, one third in Australia and two thirds in other countries. It does this unsustainably, using vast energy subsidies from fossil fuels, with massive soil loss to erosion and salinisation and with pollution of the majority of its rivers and water bodies. Some scientists, surveying this situation and recognising the inadequate resources being applied to reversal and remediation have suggested that in 25 years Australia may not have enough food to feed itself.

Into this context we must mix the fact of some 23 million refugees worldwide and ask how best can we use our limited resources so as to deliver the best outcome in terms of human and environmental welfare for the long term. I say long term for there will be far more people living throughout the millennia of the future than are alive today. For this reason I lean toward intergenerational equity being given priority over intragenerational equity. It's clear that we can not significantly reduce the number of refugees, much less reduce the rate of population growth in other countries, by immigration to Australia. To attempt to do so would render any move to sustainability useless. Given the overriding global imperative to find paths toward sustainability, given also the fortunate opportunities for Australia to blaze a trail in this essential new direction, I believe our priority should be to set our own environmental house in order. Not in a spirit of isolation from the rest of the world but in a spirit of cooperation and sharing with other countries as we explore this difficult transition. In seeking to build an environmentally sustainable Australia we must limit our own population and this means limiting immigration until we have achieved sustainability. We must also set about radically changing our profligate, resource consuming lifestyle and here government must take a lead. It must put in place carrots and sticks that a market system, properly internalising environmental externalities, would contain and so legitimately coerce us toward sustainability. Our global responsibilities are best discharged by:

* Sharing our experiences, technologies, institutional and social experiments with other countries as we seek a path to a sustainable future.
* Reducing our migration intake but within a smaller intake giving priority to refugees
* Very substantially increasing our foreign aid directing that aid toward the causes of people becoming refugees.

Australia presently spends 0.28% of GDP on foreign aid, less than half the UN recommended minimum. Any calculation shows that, dollar for dollar, between 100 and 1000 times as much human welfare can be bought in a third world country than can be had by building more infrastructure for more people in Australia. Compare the $22 million that is to be spent on upgrading El Alamein army camp at Port Augusta for a few hundred asylum seekers with the claim by World Vision that $800 will provide enough food for 40 people in a third world country for one month. ($22 million would keep 92,000 people going for a full year). Millions of women throughout the world wish to limit the size of their families but have neither the education or the means to do it. Providing help here would help tackle the refugee problem at source rather than applying a band-aid to a very sick world. Higher proportions of 'boat people' are well-to-do young men. Meanwhile a much higher proportion of those in refugee camps around the world are poor women and children. (See 'Australia and the 1951 Refugee Convention', Adrienne Millbank, People and Place, 2001, 9:2, pp 1- 13) Had Australia committed itself to environmental sustainability, developed a population policy based on sustainability, a refugee program within this, and done these things in the context of its global responsibility, we should not now be in the divisive quandary in which we find ourselves. Rather, we may be helping toward a solution to the greatest threat ever to face humankind, a threat of which refugees and boat people are just one symptom - not a cause.