By Graham Matthews
SYDNEY — The University of New South Wales was the setting for the public day of the 32nd annual conference of the Australia New Zealand Solar Energy Society on December 3. The keynote speakers were prominent environmentalists David Suzuki and Paul Ehrlich.
David Suzuki began his speech with a warning. "The World Watch Institute in Washington designated the '90s as a turnaround decade", he said, "a 10-year period during which countries around the world should massively shift the directions in which they were going if we were to preserve any of the underpinnings on which our civilisation is built".
Half way through the '90s, Suzuki could see little evidence of improvement. In many cases, the situation is getting worse. The ecologically destructive impact of the world economy is growing.
Population growth, non-sustainable resource depletion and over-consumption are threatening our very survival, Suzuki said. "Nowhere can you go to escape the toxic debris of this society."
Suzuki explained the world ecological crisis as the result of a failure of human society to recognise its own place in the world. Humanity's problems can be ascribed to belief in a range of "sacred truths", which Suzuki argued were neither sacred nor true.
Primary among these, Suzuki asserted, is that humans are different from animals. Humans are animals, he said, with no rights greater than any other animals. Yet humans continue to act as though they were above nature, as though nature's laws did not apply to them.
Suzuki's analysis led him to a number of conclusions. First was that humans can not go on polluting and destroying the environment as though it were limitless. Suzuki blamed "the economy" for this distortion, suggesting we need to demand different priorities from our governments. He particularly criticised the Australian government, which has abandoned strict greenhouse gas targets; Australia is now the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the industrialised world.
Suzuki's argument inevitably led him into an ecocentric position. Humans having no greater rights than animals means that humans have no right to consume resources at the expense of other species. Humans should not presume to be able to "manage" ecological resources, but instead should adapt to our natural role. Humans are living beyond the planet's carrying capacity, and should limit their activity so that they do not impact adversely on the natural world. The "exponential growth" of the human species was the greatest threat.
The issue of population was taken up uncritically by every speaker on the day. Even those who recognised that the key reason for the ecological crisis is the unrelenting profit drive of business, such as Professor Ian Lowe from Griffith University, also felt it necessary to ascribe a causal relation to human population.
Of the five guest speakers on the day, Lowe was the only one to directly address the sustainable resource question. Solar and other renewable energy forms have to be utilised, Lowe argued, if human society is to enjoy any reasonable standard of living in the future. The greatest obstacle to such development is the vested interest of big business.
The public day concluded with a speech from population biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and The Population Explosion.
Ehrlich argued that the ecological crisis should be attributed largely to human numbers, affluence and technology (I=PAT). "Today we are exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth", Ehrlich argued. Science, he said, is not going to solve the problem. We are not going to find ways to feed, clothe and house 5.5 billion people.
"Per capita quality of life has gone down across the world" as a result of population increase, Ehrlich asserted. "Only those whose memories are spotty think that things are better for the majority of people than they were 20 or 25 years ago."
"Some of the rich have got richer ... birth rates [among the poor] continue to outstrip death rates" Ehrlich said. "The population is likely to stabilise at between 9 and 14 billion, sometime next century."
The inevitable result of 5.5 billion people is that we are destroying our environment, Ehrlich argued. "An optimum population size would be in the vicinity of one to one and a half billion people ... The population today is much too large ... the crucial question confronting humanity is, can we change our trends to population growth and can we change the way we consume, the amount we consume and our technology?"
There is still time to change, Ehrlich asserted, despite the onset of AIDS, which he regards as a disease brought on by overpopulation. Ehrlich expects "even more unpleasant surprises over the next 25 years".
"Equity" has an important part to play, Ehrlich recognised. Improving the status of women is paramount in lowering dependence on large families. Aid that acts to develop the poorest sections of the economy in Third World countries is needed to reduce population pressure. Ehrlich avoided the question of how capitalist enterprises might be persuaded to offer such aid, describing it as "a very complex question".
Inevitably Ehrlich cannot but fall back on population control, even while his arguments are increasingly tinged by the rhetoric of social justice.
Overall, the 500 people attending, at a minimum of $35 per head, might well have wondered where to go from here. Both of the international speakers flown to Australia specially for the conference, while very entertaining, offered few real insights into a way out of the mess.