Allen & Unwin, May 2011, $19.99
Dick Smith argues in this book that population is the most overlooked issue in the environmental debate. All of the world’s looming environmental problems would be easier to solve if there were fewer people, he says, and we Australians in particular are being really short-sighted if we think our dry continent’s population can continue to grow at its present rate. These are not new ideas but have been quietly allowed to drop off the radar since they were discussed under the ZPG (Zero Population Growth) banner forty years ago.
Smith looks at desertification, water supplies, energy supplies and climate change, and shows that Australia is closer to the limits on all fronts than we would like to admit – and then points out that we are growing faster than any other developed nation. We are growing faster, in fact, than either China or India, let alone Europe, and are likely to exceed 36 million people in 2050. Worldwide, consumption is growing even faster than population as Asia tries to catch up to our standard of living, and that consumption growth amplifies the impact of population growth on resource depletion.
Dick Smith summarises the consequences thus: “We are reaching a crisis point and … failure to make a carefully planned transition away from unrestrained population and economic growth will very likely result in being forced to make the change later at far greater cost and with much less chance of success.”
The solution? In developing nations, empowering women by educating girls and improving access to health care and family planning. It’s a proven way to reduce fertility rates while simultaneously reducing poverty and infant mortality. Here in Australia our natural growth rate is as slow as that in other developed nations, so the solution is simply to reduce immigration. Smith supports the plan suggested in 2009 by Melbourne MP Kelvin Thomson who proposed cutting skilled migration, temporary migration and over-stays by foreign students, while increasing refugee admissions slightly; the aim is a stable population of 26 million.
Dick Smith admits he is not an expert but, as he says, he has had the wisdom to consult the experts. He presents their findings clearly and simply and his book is a worthwhile step towards restarting an important debate. Perhaps its greatest fault is that global issues, about which we can do little, are not always clearly distinguished from national issues for which we can and must accept responsibility.
This review was published in a slightly different form in the Townsville Bulletin a month ago.