Population and consumption: Two sides of the one coin


The following article was submitted by Jane Addison as part of an ongoing debate around population and climate change. Addison is a member of Sustainable Population Australia. The article is written in a personal capacity.

When it comes to something as important as the survival of our species, you would think that we could have an open, honest discussion. The suggestion of population or consumption policies, however, often causes people to grow strangely silent. Why does this issue cause people so much concern?

A simple lesson in mathematics

People generally agree that exceeding the sustainable rate of natural resource consumption on Earth is dependent upon two factors: our individual rates of resource consumption, and the total number of people on the Earth. There is widespread global concern that we are coming close to (or have already started) consuming more resources than are available.

The ratio of the resources available to the amount we use is the great "sustainability equation", and it is unbalanced.

To address this imbalance, we have two options (bar intergalactic travel). On the one hand, we reduce the amount that each of us consumes. On the other, we reduce the number of us consuming. Which of these two options we should focus on remains a subject of contention. And nowhere is this disagreement more obvious than, strangely enough, within the left community.

What the consumption reductionists say

Consumption reductionists believe the individuals most responsible for environmental degradation, the big consumers, should change their lifestyle to address this unbalanced equation.

It is the ultimate arrogance of wealthy countries to preach population control to countries with high birth rates given that wealthy countries have consumed, and continue to consume, much more than their fair share of the Earth's resources, they say.

Consumption reductionists also sometimes feel deeply suspicious of the motives behind population reductionists. Discrimination based on class, ethnicity or mental illness has in the past come in the guise of population control. During World War II, more than 400,000 sterilisations of mentally ill, blind, epileptic or physically deformed people took place in Germany.

In the United States, 65,000 forced, government-sanctioned sterilizations have occurred, starting in the 19th century and with the last one as recent as 1981.

As well as concerns about reinstalling such practices, consumption reductionists also often believe that any attempt to control women's fertility, particularly when it comes from a top-down political process primarily dominated by older men, is an affront to feminist gains.

What population reductionists say

Population reductionists argue that their emphasis on population solutions to the unbalanced equation is just as humanitarian as the emphasis on consumption reduction. They argue it is morally wrong to deny developing countries — the world's majority population — a standard of living equal to that of richer countries.

The best way to balance the sustainability equation, therefore, is to minimise and eventually stop further population growth.

While calculating ecological footprints can be tricky, it is a useful concept. The Global Footprint Network estimated that in 2009 the current global population means there are 2.1 hectares of biologically productive land and water per person — this is the amount of land/natural resources we can use sustainably.

This is equal to what the average South African, Syrian or Chinese currently uses. If our population was to increase to 9 billion by 2050, as predicted by the UN, we would only be able to use about 1.4l hectares each. This is about what the average Vietnamese or Guatemalan currently uses and is fives time less than the average Australian.

For the average Australian, adapting to a lifestyle with this footprint would mean more than changing our brand of toilet paper — it would mean giving up our cars, our pets, overseas flights, backyards and moving back in with our parents (and probably our grandparents as well). Population reductionists believe that this is unrealistic.

The population versus consumption debate in Australia

Debate? What debate? The left occasionally argues the details among itself, but mainstream dialogue on either issue is effectively non-existent. In the meantime, both our long-term population and consumption rates have continued to increase.

The Australian government already tinkers with population and rates of personal consumption, with the general aim being to increase both. Cash handouts like the recent "stimulus package" are clearly designed to achieve an increase in personal consumption.

Population growth is boosted using similar incentives (e.g. the "baby bonus") and by manipulating immigration intake. These planned increases in consumption and/or population are designed to meet capitalist and political aims, not environmental or social ones.

For example, the former Coalition government of John Howard increased the skilled immigration intake, while cutting humanitarian program grants. This was done during "boom times" to address shortages in the domestic skilled workforce. In other words, immigration is far more an economic tool (seeking skilled migrants) than a humanitarian one (granting refugees asylum).

While Howard is an easy target, the planning levels of the current Rudd Labor government have also been manipulated for economic gains. Planned numbers for skilled sponsored and skilled independent immigrants are being reduced again to protect local jobs during the global downturn.

Australia's combination of high fertility and immigration gives this country one of the highest rates of population growth (1.9% per year, or a doubling time of about 40 years) of any wealthy country.

Working towards a common goal

Our current population increases and economic growth mentality bear all the hallmarks of a colonial country still seeking to exploit the "untapped" resources of the vast interior and rapidly populating the new territory.

It is time there was more constructive dialogue on both consumption rates and population in Australia, and that the population and consumption reductionists came together against Australia's growth-centred political and social system.

General objectives flow between the two camps. For example, it seems that given a certain social context, women choose to have fewer children. This context generally includes power, improved options and equality, which everyone on the left already currently campaigns for.

Paid maternity leave, soon to be introduced into Australia after years of campaigning, is a social acknowledgement that both children, and parental work, are socially and economically valuable.

A graduated system that provides less of an incentive for a second or third child would not significantly disadvantage or discriminate against women or the stay-at-home parent. But it would acknowledge that unlimited baby bonuses and maternity leave in a country that consumes so much per capita is actually a state subsidy for environmental degradation.

The left generally accepts that Australia is morally obliged to accept people fleeing persecution or trauma in their own countries. There is no reason why Australia could not, double its annual humanitarian intake (in 2007-08 there were only 13,014 humanitarian program grants) while halving its skilled and "other' immigration intake (158,630 in 2007/08).

This would significantly reduce the total number of immigrants, while acknowledging that Australia is a global citizen and is morally obliged to do more to assist refugees. In addition, any subsequent slowing of economic activity due a lack of skilled workforce would in turn reduce our personal rates of consumption.

It is shameful that we, as a country, spend more on pet food each year than we do on foreign aid. Diverting more money from the high consumption pockets of wealthy countries to opportunities and education for women in poorer countries would have dual benefits: it would reduce personal consumption rates per capita in wealthier countries, and minimise population increases in poorer countries.

Australian population reductionists could also do more to support social and political systems in our own country that are more conducive to reduced personal consumption and population growth rates.

The division between population and consumption reductionists made here is an artificial one — population and personal consumption are two sides of the same coin. With short-term parliamentary cycle, politicians are encouraged to think no further than their three or four-year term.

Current popular pressure that has encouraged them to think of greenhouse gas emission-caused climate change is a rare exception. Unfortunately, they have missed the point: this particular environmental problem is just one symptom of a much deeper (but less politically palatable) problem.

The root cause is not that humans are using inefficient light bulbs — it is that there are simply too many of us consuming too much stuff. Sections of the left have made a solid attempt to address the "consuming too much stuff" part of this equation. Ignoring the population half of the equation, however, means that we are simply tinkering around the edges of balancing the "sustainably equation" and are therefore doomed to failure.

We need a united call by the left for the government to draft up a resource-use plan set for 10, 50 and 100 years into the future. Such a plan should set a lower quota for total immigration than currently, but be one that is composed primarily of humanitarian rather than economic immigrants.

It should also outline rigorous stabilisation targets for both domestic population and personal consumption growth. Similar lobbying against cash handouts and other domestic policies that promote population or consumption increases would also help. Only in doing so can we address the currently unbalanced sustainability equation in a way that truly considers environmental, economic and social requirements.