Limits to growth?

Limits to growth

(Published in the Geelong Advertiser, 15 June 2011 as ‘Growth scare tactics.’

By Roy Hay

Throughout history there have been times when far-seeing people have argued that there are finite limits to the growth of human numbers and the economies which sustain them. Thomas Malthus in the eighteenth century asserted that the food supply could never keep up with the growth of population and that positive checks—wars, pestilence and disease—would result, unless human beings voluntarily postponed having children; something which he thought was highly unlikely. At the end of the nineteenth century, William Stanley Jevons, argued that the supply of raw materials, particularly coal, the key mineral of the industrial revolution, was running out and that growth would come to a halt as a consequence. In the 1930s economists worried that the world was entering a stationary state, where growth would not take place. At the time unemployment was extraordinarily high in the industrial world as the Great Depression took its toll. This last phase was followed by the catastrophe of the Second World War, but that was succeeded in turn by more than a quarter of a century of rapid and sustained economic growth. When that came to a shuddering end in the 1970s with the first oil price shock, calls for zero population growth resurfaced.

Now the global financial crisis and the fears about the risks of irreversible climate change have brought predictions about the limits to growth to the fore once again. These take many forms. Some argue that the requirement to cut the output of greenhouse gases to prevent or ameliorate global warming imply that we have to switch to a model of sustainability rather than growth. Others point out that the growth of world population is now outstripping the availability of water and food—perhaps a neo-Malthusian scenario. The Australian entrepreneur and philanthropist Dick Smith, who used to consume lots of scarce resources in daredevil exploits, is now a convert to the notion that this country, and the world as a whole, must limit its population growth if it is to survive. He quotes Sir David Attenborough, ‘I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more.’

Smith’s approach is apocalyptic, selectively quoting statistics, reports and individuals to create a picture of an imminent catastrophe unless something is done to limit population growth in Australia and the world as a whole. So he discusses the future of food supply, availability of water, renewable energy supplies, and climate change coming to somewhat pessimistic conclusions about the capacity of Australians or the people of the world to tackle these in a satisfactory way. He recommends Kelvin Thomson’s 14-point plan for population reform and prints it as an appendix to the book. Thomson argued for a long-term population management plan and limits to the growth of Australia’s numbers.

Some of Dick Smith’s suggestions are very sensible, including the idea that a greater share of national resources should be put into educating our young people so that a higher proportion of them will have the skills necessary for industrial and manufacturing employment. This should reduce the need for the import of skilled labour from overseas, which denudes other countries of their trained personnel.

However a number of Smith’s claims are just plain wrong or misleading. Australia’s population has not been growing as fast as that of India. It is not clear that limits to population growth in Australia would result in a better environment or higher living standards for Australians. In general, it is the poorer countries which have the highest rates of population growth, because the high death rates are exceeded by higher birth rates. When economic development kicks in then life expectancy increases and the need for larger numbers of children—to ensure that some survive—diminishes. On the other hand, a recent Oxfam New Zealand survey found that poor and developing countries are planning to reduce their carbon emissions and greenhouse gases faster than most developed economies.

The nub of the problem is the sheer complexity and interconnectedness of it all and the uncertainty as to whether all the human ingenuity available is more likely to be overwhelmed by some geological/atmospheric or galactic event. I know that that way lies fatalism and passivity, but it is not absolutely clear which way is up. The limited historical evidence so far is that economic development tends to be associated with slower population growth, but whether this translates into a sustainable future based on better technology generally available in a peaceful way is a very moot point.

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