Last night I went to Population Growth and Climate Change – A Debate at Politics in the Pub at the Gaelic Club in Surry Hills. I had had a long day at a Post-Graduate Law Conference where I presented my paper A Breach of Child Rights? Fundamentalist Christian Schools in Australia (preparation for which has deferred my recent attention from this blog).

Although I was exhausted I pushed through to have a beer and check out this great debate staring:

Ben Spies Butcher, Sociology Macquarie University, argued that Australia should not limit its population growth and intake of immigrants as this will not help slow down climate change and might even be detrimental to that cause.

Mark Diesendorf – Professor, institute for Environmental Studies, author of Climate Action – A Campaign Manual for Greenhouse Solutions argued that population growth is completely related to climate change and Australia must put down some number restrictions.

Both put through incredibly convincing arguments.

Ben’s concern was global population – to which limiting Australian populations he argued would be counter productive given that when people move to Australia they have less children than they would in their own country. (Given a higher education and the higher costs related to a higher standard of living reduces population growth.)

He said we need to engage in a collective global process. The political implications of restricting Australia’s population would be to negate our credibility when it comes to global cooperation and negotiations. Not wanting more people to come to Australia is like saying you don’t want to increase people’s standard of living.

It’s our consuming lifestyles that increase carbon omissions – dealing with what we omit, not preventing more people from having better lives. Hence, we should NOT restrict Australia’s population growth.

I was convinced. But then Mark took to the podium…

He provided a formula for climate change levels:

“Number of people” X “Energy per person” x “CO2 per unit of Energy”

Great formula hey!!! So there are three issues that need to be addressed:

1. Population

2. Consumption

3. Technology

And he later said in response to an audience member’s question, that underlying this equation comes the influence of issues like our values, culture, greed, and education.

Let me pause for a moment and consider this formula with some examples:

Australia = 20m x LOTS x LOTS                                 = LOTS

Africa = LOTS x ZERO x LOTS                                    = ZERO

So if we decrease populations, we decrease climate change.

If we decrease consumption (energy per person), we decrease climate change.

If we find technologies that allow us to consume energy at zero CO2, we decrease climate change.

If a population is in massive but the people live in the jungle or in poverty with an energy per person at 0, their impact on climate change = 0. Does this mean we should all move to Sub-Saharan Africa?

I understand why the most appealing solution is the technology one – but if we don’t find such solutions are we be doomed?

Back to Mark.

Mark said Australia’s population has doubled in 30 years – one of the highest in the OECD. Most of the increase is due to immigration of skilled middle class or rich people from other countries – which in turn impoverishes their own countries both materially and intellectually.

A tiny fraction of the world’s population Australia can go unnoticed in graphs of carbon omission, but Australia is the biggest per capita emitter – so we have to take the lead. China has said they are watching us, and as they suffer the poisons that result from our demand for Plasma TVs all they see is that we are doing fuck all about our consumption and omission levels (he didn’t use that language, but I’m pretty sure he wanted to).

Given I was going to buy a plasma last month, and instead I chose a massive new iMac, I definitely don’t separate myself from this enjoyment-through-consumption society. I don’t particularly want to think about the consequences of this lifestyle – and give the consequences are easy to close one’s eyes to it’s easy to do. But is that right?

Mark addressed some of what he saw to be fallacies and myths surrounding population restrictions in Australia:

a.     That it makes you racist

b.     No it doesn’t – we talking NUMBERS NOT RACE

a.     That it’s anti-multicultural

b.     No it’s not – for the same reason as above

a.     Aging population (that we need more immigrants to support the high numbers of retirement)

b.     This is a Ponzi scheme driven by greed, not a good argument

a.     We have lots of land, the population of Taiwan could fit in Tasmania

b.     Would you really want to take the moist lands that are left and turn them into a concrete suburban jungle? Most of our land is inhabitable now anyway – thanks to the European invasion and the desert.

Regarding global population, what is better: to help people in over-crowded countries come here, or to help them where they are?

I agree with Mark’s argument – it does seems far better to help people to live higher quality lives in their own country, rather than over-crowding our own. This can be done, as one of the later questioners suggested, through family planning and abortion law reform – both of which could be (and should be) provided to over-crowded countries as a form of aid.

But then, is it fair to not let the skilled people of other countries who want to come to Australia into our country, and let refugees in instead?

Another questioner from the audience mentioned that any over-population is bad for the planet. Planetary issues are not only about carbon emissions, but the diversity and continuance of all our planetary resources, and the lives of over species. As means of survival for the poor can often cause other animals to become extinct, eg if they burn the only wood available to keep them warm through the winter, a forest and all the life it enfolds may be gone forever.

Another questioner asked when it comes to the three elements of Mark’s equation, where our priorities should lie? What will make population stabilize?

If we are all entitled to the same living standard then what will happen when the poor start consume more?

Shouldn’t we therefore focus on technology and decreasing consumption, rather than restricting population?

I personally think we need to focus on all three elements, on quality of lives not the quantity of lives lived, and on creating a life style that is sustainable and desirable for all.

The question that wasn’t raised was in regards to the “pyramid” structure society and civilisation is based on. But I might leave that for another day.


I recently took pile of cool close-up fire shots of a massive bonfire – they’re pretty psychedelic. Any one have an opinion on whether should I should blow some up and display in an exhibition somewhere?