Population Puzzle distorts reality

August 28, 2010
The fact is that the UN projects global population will peak mid-century and then decline. Birth rates in most Western countries

Dick Smith’s Population Puzzle, a documentary that aired on ABC1 on August 12, made no modest claims. It went for the direct, hard sell. Its message: “Cutting immigration to Australia is a great product, and you should buy it.”

It said a smaller Australia would not solve just one or two social problems, but more than a dozen.

The documentary claimed cutting immigration would reduce overcrowding in our cities, end urban traffic jams and make houses more affordable. It would reduce hospital waiting lists and crime, improve public health and put a stop to unsustainable development.

It would help prevent water shortages, avoid expensive fuel imports, stop Australia turning into Bangladesh and ward off the prospect of widespread starvation by mid-century.

Having fewer people in Australia would also improve public transport, stop climate change and help Third World economies develop. Smith even appealed to unemployed Australians who, he said, were losing jobs to higher-skilled immigrants.

He spent little time trying to prove the link between population size and these various issues. Instead, he raised the alarm about a country bursting at the seams.

“We’re in the middle of a population boom, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1950s”, said Smith. “Australia is the gold medallist in population growth. No other major economy is growing at anything like the pace that we are.”

As a nation, Australia (population 22 million) is “setting a terrible example in a world already struggling with too many people” by “even out-populating some of the poorest nations”.

Smith said Australia needed a plan to stabilise population: immigration should be cut to 70,000 a year (down from 270,000 in 2009), he said.

Immediately after the hour-long documentary, the ABC’s Q & A program hosted a debate on population that featured Smith; Liberal shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison; Greens' leader Bob Brown; Labor’s sustainable population minister Tony Burke; former Liberal Party president John Elliot; and Curtin University’s Suvendrini Perera.

Morrison, Burke and Brown all said Smith’s documentary made valid points, but Perera asked the audience to look closer at the documentary’s argument. She compared it to a “rather long, negative commercial”.

She said: “I think [the documentary is] ingenuous in that it speaks to real concerns that people have about the environment, about overdevelopment. But I think it collapses them into a rather simplistic focus on population. And for that reason I think it’s rather manipulative and rather dangerous.”

Smith’s documentary is manipulative because it advances a false solution to deal with very real problems.

The issues raised reflect many worrying things about our society: falling public investment in services and infrastructure, the strong corporate influence over government, undemocratic planning laws and the continued use of dirty fossil fuels.

But Smith tries to say he has the silver bullet, an easy way to deal with these problems in one hit: stop migrants coming here.

The documentary is dangerous because it distracts attention away from the real causes of social and environmental decay. Instead, migrants are cast as scapegoats, even though they are the least responsible for causing any of Australia’s problems.

Part of Smith’s technique was to ignore any facts that contradicted his call to hit the panic button on population.

But the fact is that the UN projects global population will peak mid-century and then decline. Birth rates in most Western countries, including Australia, have already fallen below replacement levels.

The global “population bomb” has been defused. Yet human impact on the planet is gaining pace.

The ecological crisis is worsening. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising. The polar ice caps are melting. Extreme weather events are multiplying … and all while population growth rates fall.

This speaks against the idea that population growth is the main factor driving the environmental crisis.

Perera also pointed out that Smith had disregarded the immense waste and consumption in countries like Australia.

She said: “It seemed to me that the real elephant in the film and perhaps in this room is consumption, because we talk about population but we don't talk about the need for us in the rich world to reduce consumption.”

And it is quite unbelievable that the documentary left this out. Australia is the world’s biggest coal exporter and emits the highest greenhouse gas emissions per person in the OECD.

Australians are the world’s most overweight people, but up to 40% of our landfills are made up of food we throw out. Australians have the largest houses of any country in the world. We have the world’s best solar energy resource, but we hardly use it.

If the rest of the world consumed like Australians, we’d need the resources of four or five planet Earths.

In the face of this unsustainable consumption, to suggest that population is the key factor in Australia’s high ecological footprint betrays a distorted view of reality.

This high consumption serves a deeper purpose: to maintain the endless economic growth that is the stated policy of most governments and is the top goal for every corporation.

Australia’s high consumption is driven by the needs of the profit system, which has an inbuilt drive to grow and can accept no limits to its expansion.

So to deal with consumption we need to deal with its deeper economic cause. In the end, it’s a struggle over who controls production: corporations or people?

It’s about who makes the decisions on whether we dig for coal or build solar plants, bulldoze new highways or plan train lines and cycleways. It’s about popular control over decisions ranging from development in our local communities right up to Australia’s international role.

The problems raised by Smith are not caused by overpopulation, but reflect a much bigger crisis to do with our entire profits-based system, which is threatening us with oblivion.

The alternative is to refashion the economy, so it serves to maintain the integrity of ecosystems and improve human welfare. But this also means a drawn-out political confrontation with the corporate elites who will not willingly give up their power and privileges.

Smith’s documentary drew much of its power from the way it tapped into people’s understandable feelings of powerlessness and alienation in the face of these big dilemmas.

The tragedy of the film is that it tried to foist the blame onto migrants — another powerless group of people.

During the Q & A debate, Smith acknowledged that capitalist economic growth is unsustainable.

“The problem is we’ve had 150 years of addiction to growth”, he said. “The god of capitalism is growth, but it’s a false god because it’s a finite world and you can’t always grow using resources. It’s impossible.”

It’s true that endless growth is impossible. But Smith’s assertion that cutting migration would help solve this problem too is his wildest claim of all.

He lets the real culprits for capitalist growth — the corporate interests who benefit most from the status quo — off the hook.

Smith’s documentary obscures the most important “population problem” in Australia. The scandal should be that such a small, wealthy part of the population has such overwhelming power and influence over our lives and future.

To win a sustainable future, the enemy is not the young migrant family, who, with a mixture of nervousness and excitement, plans to start a new life in Australia.

Our real target “population” should be the coal company CEO, the oil executive, the big property developer, the finance mogul and the media tycoon.

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