Dick Smith obscures causes of ecological crisis  

Issue 
Dick Smith.

Dick Smith’s Population Crisis: The Dangers of Unsustainable Growth for Australia
Allen & Unwin, Sydney
2011, 228 pages
 
Those who say today’s big social and ecological problems stem from there being too many people on the planet face a special difficulty.

As the Australian ecologist Alan Roberts once said, populationist authors need “to persuade their readers that the main thing wrong with the world was the existence of those readers themselves”.
 
But the “too many people” argument keeps cropping up partly because it gives a neat, simple solution to our environmental problems.

It has often been used to shift the blame for ecological destruction to the poorest parts of the world where the human population is growing the fastest.
 
Once you accept that “too many people” cause our environmental problems, the next question is which people are surplus to requirements?

Which people pose the most threat to the planet? Invariably, the answer given is “somebody else”.
 
“When an ecologist, a population theorist or an economist voiced [their] alarm at the plague of ‘too many people’,” said Roberts, they were “not really complaining that there existed too many ecologists, too many population theorists or too many economists: the surplus obviously consisted of less essential categories of the population.”
 
Millionaire businessperson Dick Smith’s new book on population, Dick Smith's Population Crisis, never escapes this framework.

It claims to be a book about making the world a more sustainable and healthy place. But it’s really an extended argument for slashing immigration to Australia to protect living standards and the environment. 
 
Smith is genuinely worried about climate change and the broader ecological crisis, and wants to find solutions.
 
He says population growth is at the root of the most serious environmental problems. For Smith, more people will equal less food, more pollution and more pressure on frail ecosystems.
 
His explanation for the cause of the climate crisis is typical: “If the answer to accelerating climate change is a reduction in carbon emissions, then it is absolutely ridiculous not to consider who is causing most of those emissions in the first place.

“And that, of course, is humans — yes, all of us.”
 
Nowhere does Smith try to prove this “people equals pollution” argument. He simply says it’s true.

But the argument does not bear up to scrutiny.
 
In 2009, Dr David Satterwaite from the  International Institute for Environment and Development crunched the numbers on population growth and carbon emissions.

He found that between 1980 and 2005,  sub-Saharan Africa had 18.5% of the world’s population growth but contributed just 2.4% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions.

Meanwhile, the United States had 3.4% of the world’s population growth but accounted for 12.6% of growth in carbon dioxide emissions. China’s had 15.3% of the world’s population growth, but 44.5% of carbon emissions growth.

Clearly, a focus on human numbers does not explain very much at all.

Smith also repeats a falsehood often made by other populationist writers: that the world’s population is growing at an exponential (ever-increasing) rate.

The mistake is hard to fathom.
 
The world population growth rate is slowing down, not growing exponentially. The United Nations says global population will likely peak mid-century at somewhere between 9 and 10 billion people and fall thereafter.
 
Smith’s arguments illustrate what the US ecologist Alan Schnaiberg called “thinking in nonsocial ways about social systems of production and consumption”.
 
That is, if we are to find solutions to the climate emergency, the food crisis and other environmental ills, we have to explore and act upon the causes. These lie in the unequal relationships that exist between different groups in society.
 
We have to look at the huge differences in power between the super-rich and poor, the First World and the global South and, crucially for understanding population growth, the relationships between men and women.

Of course, endless population growth is not sustainable or desirable on a finite planet.

But the answer to this also lies in fundamental social change, as the US population writer Betsy Hartmann has pointed out.

“The best population policy is to concentrate on improving human welfare in all its many facets,” said Hartmann. “Take care of the population and population growth will go down.

“In fact, the greatest irony is that in most cases population growth comes down faster the less you focus on it as a policy priority, and the more you focus on women’s rights and basic human needs.”





Smith does not neglect this argument entirely in his book.

He says the quickest way to address population growth is to address poverty, admits “the rich westernised countries created the [ecological] problem” and argues “the god of capitalist economic growth is a false god” that puts ecosystems in peril.
 
So how should we tackle capitalist economic growth?

Smith says: “It’s estimated that fewer than 1000 corporations are responsible for about 80% of economic activity … they will object to change and do their best to prevent it, but ultimately they will come to accept that a sustainable economy is in their own best interests too.”
 
Again, we are confronted with a double standard. Chinese bricklayers, Filipino nurses and Fijian shopkeepers searching for a better life must be turned away from Australia’s borders because they will supposedly cause too much environmental damage.
 
But the world’s biggest corporate polluters that make billions by driving greenhouse gases up, bulldozing forests and worsening social inequality — they “will come to accept” that they should voluntarily relinquish their power and privilege for the greater good.
 
Smith’s brand of “border-control ecology” may be well intentioned, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous or naive.
 
It suggests the main threat to natural ecosystems and social welfare lies in the relatively powerless people outside Australia’s borders who may migrate here sometime in the future.
 
This obscures the real problem, which remains the tiny “home-grown” minority that hold political and economic power and are resisting sustainable change.
 
Like most populationist explanations of the environmental crisis, Smith’s book urges us to worry the most about the world’s least powerful people — the so-called over-breeding poor.

Because of this, Smith's “too many people” argument is most likely to weaken environmental movements and presents a barrier to finding real solutions.
 
[Simon Butler is the co-author (with Ian Angus) of the new book Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis. The book will be launched at the Climate Change Social Change conference

Comments

Simon, what were you thinking?

"...Dr David Satterwaite...crunched the numbers on population growth and carbon emissions. He found that between 1980 and 2005, sub-Saharan Africa had 18.5% of the world’s population growth but contributed just 2.4% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, the United States had 3.4% of the world’s population growth but accounted for 12.6% of growth in carbon dioxide emissions. China’s had 15.3% of the world’s population growth, but 44.5% of carbon emissions growth."

Fifty percent of Africa is rural with no access to electricity. Africa generates 47 GW of electricity, less than 0.6% of global market share.

That fact alone should explain how straight forward and obvious overpopulation arguments are... are you aware how many people on this planet go hungry everyday? I doubt Dick Smith seeks to weaken any environmental movements nor seek barriers to find real solutions - just the opposite - lets solve those environmental issues without adding pressure to already crumbling infrastructures. Developed countries cannot help less developed countries while in crisis themselves obviously the stronger a country is the more aid it is able to offer.

If you need to have population control explained clearly take a look at Bindi Irwin - she can help you understand.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9-FcfT9inU&feature=player_embedded

I see your credentials as "Simon Butler, Chairman & CEO of leading SaaS contact center provider and Microsoft global development ISV Sydney Area, Australia" - is this a conflict of interest?

Hats off to Dick Smith for displaying the common sense this planet sorely needs!

Why is the single quote you use to substantiate your point of view two years old?

I'm not sure what your point is about Africa and emissions. Sub-saharan African countries have high population growth rates, but very low rates of growth in emissions. I cannot understand how you can interpret this fact as evidence *for* the proposition that population growth = emissions growth. Satterwaite's research indicates that simplistic population arguments don't explain very much, clearly something other than population growth is responsible for most of the growth in emissions.

I am keenly aware of how many people go hungry everyday - at least 25,000 die from malnutrition daily.See this article I wrote in 2009: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/41971

But if you are suggesting that Africans are starving because there are too many of them, then you are simply blaming the victims of the world food crisis instead of focusing on the powerful corporate interests that control food production globally.

That's the ugliest side of the too many people argument: victim blaming.

There is enough food produced to meet everyone's food needs. People starve because its not profitable to have their needs met.

Simon Butler

ps. And no, I am not the other Simon Butler you referred too - that would be pretty unlikely don't you think? It's not a good look to demand "proof", but offer none yourself and then make a false accusation based on a wild guess.

During the drought in Australia many farmers were going broke having to truck in grain and hay to feed their starving cattle. They were slowly going broke and looking to the federal government for hand outs.

Every ones knows that a cattle farm that cannot produce its own fodder on site, due to inadequate rainfall is not economically viable in the long term.

Nations, humans and food are NO DIFFERENT.

Other nations cannot susbsidize African over population indefinitely without risking their own long term food security.

And let's remember that peak oil is upon us when it may not longer be able to run a global economy in which massive amounts of food cannot be shipped to over populated regions.

Africa's population WILL fall to long term sustainable levels whether you like it or not.

The only choice we have will be whether it is via war, famine, disease and genocide or whether it will be through more humane fertility control.

Actually hardworking, poor African farmers subsidise the corporate elites of the West. Between 1990 and 2003, African countries received US$540 billion in loans, paid back $580 billion in total and still owed $330 billion.

Overpopulation has absolutely nothing to do with why large amounts of food are shipped from one place to another.
Western aid and loans come with conditions … [including] ending protective tariffs for agricultural imports, while Western countries continue to massively subsidise their agricultural sectors.

Every cow in the European Union receives a $2 daily government handout — twice the income of 1.2 billion people. In Ghana, this means imported food is cheaper than that locally produced, destroying Ghana's agricultural industry.

African agriculture is also geared away from food production by Western-imposed policies that give land over to export monoculture. Sometimes this is by institutions like the IMF and World Bank. Kenya is currently undergoing a serious food insecurity crisis. It is also where much of the flowers sold in European flower shops are grown.

Mozambique has also become dependant on food imports. 183,000 hectares of agricultural land in Mozambique has become foreign-owned commercial plantations growing jatropha, a toxic plant used to make biodiesel … The profitability of this new industry is ensured by European Union emissions reduction schemes that classify biofuels grown in Africa as renewable energy.

Dick is spot on.
The author of this article attempts to pervert Dicks intention of global population control into a proposed selective breeding campaign with nazi style genocidal overtones...

Not only will population control facilitate ecological recovery it will also enable us to rectify EVERY other man made crisis we currently face. (Except the impending climate change effects we have already banked)

I challenge everyone to come up with one single man made problem that cannot be controlled and rectified by the introduction of population control that leads to actual sustainable use of natural resources.

So: war. racism. paedophilia. population control will end these? Nuclear waste. If we run nuclear power plants at half capacity for half the size population, is the nuclear waste problem solved? No, half the amount of deadly waste will still need to be managed for tens of thousands of years, regardless.

It is a stupid argument to say that "population" causes anything. People cause problems: people in positions of power who make decisions to the detriment of the majority. "Population" as the number of people is an abstraction: those people do many different things. Some drive Hummers, some don't even have electricity. Some start wars, some are the civilian casualties of wars. Some make huge profits by running coal power stations, some of us just have to switch on the lights with whatever's available.

Population control? The wrong part of the population is being controlled. If you were to blame just one cause for all our problems, wealthy power elites would be more on the mark than "population".

War - yes, you probably think most wars are over religion or territory but they're not. All wars are about resources, particulalry oil and soon food and water. Less people = less demand.
Racism is a much smaller problem than you think. The real problem is the oxymoron that flies under the banner "Multiculturalism". History will show that its peoples behaviour and values (culture) that offends and threatens not the colour of their skin.
We wont need nuclear ....
As for paedo's your being ridiculous
As for your politician argument your point is valid but your solution is impotent as our elected govt's have no power and are controlled plants of the corporate elite. We (the people) don't own our own countries anymore so the change you moot will never ever ever happen. So largely a waste of time and I would suggest that you are infact a pro growth ideologist, who probably doesn't believe in climate change either. The only power that the people possess now is choice. Choice not to breed.

Perhaps the west bare some blame in Africa's predicament in our constant interference, including emergency aid.

I.E. By providing food and medical aid without compensating by reducing average fertility.

We either reduce fertility as well as providing aid, or we stop interfering entirely and allow nature to take its course and reduce the African population to sustainable levels.

Our interference has caused the African population to grow beyond sustainable limits and this has degraded much of the African environment thus making it even more diffiult to sustain the current number of Africans.

Unfortunately whilst your intentions are noble they will not work.

The changes you allude to (you didn't actually state your solution) remind me of those who continuously bang on about gains in efficiency and reduction in consumption as being the way forward, but who ignorantly and steadfastly fail to acknowledge that those same gains in efficiency and consumption reduction levels are quickly consumed by the increasing population resulting in no net reduction in consumption, more people sharing the limited resource and this equates to a reduced quality of life!

"History will show that its peoples behaviour and values (culture) that offends and threatens not the colour of their skin."
This sounds like the modern incarnation of racism. Now that biology finds all people equal, the modern "sophisticated" racists trade on their alleged cultural superiority.

My original comment said nothing to the effect that wars are over religion. In fact your comment (quoted above) is closer to saying that than anything I said.

And I'm not a pro-growth or climate denial ideologist. I'm a socialist. I think people (in general) are the solution, in that they can overthrow the corporate elite. It's interesting that you have no faith in the ability of people to ever do that, and think that somehow "not breeding" can overcome all the problems caused by capital. Clutching at straws I would say.

Despite obviously having genuinely felt good intentions, the whole argument here is just so much racist drivel. "let nature take its course and reduce the African population to sustainable levels"? Don't you think the African population might have something to say about that? Or do you suppose they are just semi-animals, savages and children, like the colonialists of old that caused so many of their problems, and their numbers will re-adjust like wildebeest or rats? This is a disgusting racist pile of shit argument.

"Our interference", if you take "us" to be the imperialist west/north, has in fact killed millions upon millions of Africans by enslavement, war, genocide, starvation and disease caused directly or indirectly by the rapacious colonial and imperial domination of Africa. For sure this interference ought to stop. Without it there may be many more Africans alive, in Africa, today. And they might have a stable economy and society that does not degrade its environment like the current imperialism-dependent economy does.

So now the premise of your argument is that if I find somebodies behaviour offensive then i'm a racist... Get real. Culture shapes attitudes, which manifest as behaviour. Its a circle of influence culture > beliefs/laws > attitudes > behaviour > culture > beliefs/laws..... and so on. BUT the sum of all the individual behaviours equals the culture. That's why people are starting to say "enough is enough, your bad behaviour is starting to influence our culture in negative ways". The perpetrator may not think its bad behaviour but that is their responsibility to educate themselves and muster the required self motivation and discipline in order to modify their behaviours appropriately to assimilate into their new culture. You best remember your disrespect of our culture when your being persecuted under some new law for some transgression against a state sanctioned law about speaking out or having a non approved relationship or religious belief etc etc etc.
I never said our culture is superior but if freedom of speech, dress, religion, political persuasion, sexual orientation and a genuine desire for preserving and defending the rights of woman are on the scorecard well then yes I guess we are superior and I'll fight for it

The different sexes clearly have their particular evolutionary functions ('viva la difference'), just as different races have evolved to maximise their survival capabilities for the region in which they evolved. Your facile catch phrase "Now that biology finds all people equal" is a load of bollocks... Biology certainly does not. (Tell that to the schoolyard bully)

People are not the solution, they are the problem. I'm not clutching at any straws. I'm convinced that it's a pipedream that mankind can make any tough decisions before time. It will be nature that implements the cruelest kind of population control you can imagine. I'm not clutching a straws, I have absolute clarity. It is yourself that is delusional and as you scavenge over the scraps of society apologising profusely to your starving, disease riddled children for bringing them into this mess, I hope you'll remember that it was the type of distracting, stalling, impotent propaganda that you're peddling that facilitated No action from government and thus this miserable existence that OUR children will now have to endure/survive.
Some legacy, how do you sleep at night?

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