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Population Environment Politics in Australia

From the ABC Environment opinion by Perter Burdon:

Population is not the problem. It is the footprint of Australians, not their number that is the problem.  “POPULATION GROWTH is the most important issue we face. If you can’t get your head around that your words are empty and meaningless!”

Surely I am not the only one who has been harangued by these words. They usually come at the end of a public lecture from an older wealthy white man who has been waiting with increasing agitation for his opportunity to talk. It is usually also followed by some call to implement punitive measures for “the breeders”.

I really hate this argument…and not just because I have two children of my own….

…An exclusive focus on population not only obscures this complexity; it also plays on people’s prejudices about who the “breeders” are and shifts attention away from our own significant responsibility for the environmental crisis…..

….. It is also important to understand that the world is in the process of a dramatic demographic transition. In just 60 years, the global average number of children each woman bears has fallen from 6 to 2.5. Population growth rates are slowing almost everywhere and the great majority of forecasted growth will take place among those who consume almost nothing.

This does not mean that everything will be fine or that we should not support policies that will cause population to peak sooner rather than later. However it does mean that we should be clear about why we are supporting these policies and the impact we can reasonably expect them to have.

In other words, policies that promote sex education, access to contraception, lift the social status of women and empower them to make free choices over their bodies are all crucial to tackling the myriad of issues that surround poverty and gender inequality. These problems demand our attention more than ever. But, as a 2010 paper from the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences stated, “even if zero population growth were achieved, that would barely touch the climate problem”.

Population is the issue that gets blamed when people cannot confront their own impact. Rather than demonising the poor, why don’t we dedicate our energy to thinking about how we can best accommodate the billions of babies, which through the lottery of birth will have so much of their future prospects determined before they have even taken a breath. How might such a shift in perspective alter the way we think about the environment and the way we share resources?

We might also take a hard look at our own consumption patterns, which unlike population, is growing at a rapid rate and showing no sign of slowing down. The impossibility of sustaining this system of endless, pointless consumption without the continued erosion of the living planet and the future prospects of humankind is the conversation that we need to have.

In sum, it’s not just population, it’s consumption. And it’s not the poor, it’s the rich.

Peter D. Burdon is a senior lecturer at the Adelaide Law School’


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