In the following article, originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of The Independent Australian magazine, Dr John O'Connor draws attention to Professor Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive and the chapter in it specifically on Australia and its overpopulation woes.
Jared Diamond on Australia's Sustainable Population
By Dr John O'Connor
Perhaps the single most astonishing, ridiculously contradictory set of public policies we face, is the left hand of government promoting reduced greenhouse emissions, conservation of diminishing freshwater, soil fertility and other declining natural resources, while the right hand promotes rapid population growth through high immigration.
Is this a classic example of the left hand not knowing (or wanting to know) what the right hand is up to? One well-disposed but concerned observer from abroad (a frequent visitor to our shores) is the United States’ Professor Jared Diamond, author of (inter alia) the very influential Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). This treatise is a convincing science-based exposition of the geographical and environmental reasons for the technological ascendancy of European nation-states during the second millennium, in addition to the usual social and other reasons advanced by historians. It traces humankind’s global history since the appearance of agricultural settlements in the Middle East “fertile crescent”, Nile and Indus valleys and China, wherever our ancestors encountered domesticable animal and plant species, and the consequent spread of agriculture-based societies throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Prof. Diamond has since published Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Penguin, 2005: 574 pp) which includes a chapter, "Mining Australia" (38 pp) deserving the most serious consideration by any Australian government, regardless of its party political social theories. In this tour de force, he reviews the reasons for the disintegration of cultures with legacies of abandoned ruins in Norse Greenland, Anasazi Chaco Canyon, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and other Pacific Islands, in Mayan Yucatan, and elsewhere. These reasons - mainly overpopulation and irrational actions driving local environmental degradation - have also played their part in modern tragedies including the Rwandan genocide and the impoverishment of nations such as Haiti, while neighbour states (eg. Dominican Republic) prosper. The prospects for nations including China, the United States, and others subject to environmentally disastrous values, with failure to recognise or anticipate the consequences of irrational political policies and unsuccessful remedies, are comprehensively brought into focus.
He sees Australia, not as a nation facing imminent collapse, but as the first world’s miners’ canary: a developed country facing a rapid decline in living standards as its burgeoning population outstrips its rapidly degrading natural resource base. After consulting widely with government authorities, academics (including Tim Flannery) and grassroots farmers, graziers, and Landcare-type groups, Jared Diamond compares us with other nations, past and present. He details our problems of soil fertility and salinization, land degradation, diminishing freshwater resources, distance costs, over-exploitation of forests and fisheries, importation of inappropriate European agricultural values and methods and alien species, trade and immigration policies. He concludes that the mining of our natural resources - their unsustainable exploitation at rates faster than their renewal rates since European settlement began - gives us the dubious distinction of ”…illustrating in extreme form the exponentially accelerating “horse race” in which the world now finds itself……on the one hand, the development of environmental problems……on the other hand, the development of public environmental concern, and of private and governmental countermeasures. Which horse will win? Many readers……will live long enough to see the outcome.”
Specifically, he concludes:
”Contrary to their government and business leaders, 70% of Australians say that they want less rather than more immigration. In the long run it is doubtful that Australia can even support its present population: the best estimate of a population sustainable at the present standard of living is 8 million people, less than half of the present population.”
The reasons supporting this alarming prognosis (how long is “the long run”?) are very briefly summarised as follows.
- Non-sustainability: ”At present rates, Australia’s forests and fisheries will disappear long before its coal and iron reserves, which is ironic……the former are renewable but the latter aren’t.” And: ”While many other countries are mining their environments……among First World countries, (our) population and economy are much smaller and less complex than……the U.S., Europe or Japan……the Australian situation is more easily grasped.”
- Exceptional ecological fragility: ”…the most fragile of any First World country except perhaps Iceland……many problems that could eventually become crippling in other First World countries and already are so in some Third World countries - such as overgrazing, salinization, soil erosion, introduced species, water shortages, and man-made droughts - have already become severe in Australia.”
- An informed population: we have ”……a well-educated populace…and relatively honest political and economic institutions by world standards. Australia’s environmental problems cannot be dismissed as……ecological mismanagement by an uneducated, desperately impoverished populace and grossly corrupt government and businesses……”
- Climate change: clearly exacerbating our ”obvious massive impacts on the Australian environment”.
- Australian soils, especially their low nutrient and increasingly high salt levels. Britain as a trade partner and model society have shaped Australian agricultural practices inappropriate to the Australian landscape (e.g. agricultural practices based on high-yield British soils). We inhabit ”…the most unproductive continent…soils with the lowest average nutrient levels…old, leached over billions of years…only a few small areas have been renewed by volcanic or glacial activity or slow uplift. Agriculture has therefore depended on fertilizers and cultivation of large low-yield areas, with increased machinery and fuel costs, competitive disadvantages vis-à-vis food imports, low agroforestry returns due to slow tree growth, and relatively unproductive coastal and inland fisheries due to low-nutrient runoff.
- Salinity, i.e. salt mobilization. Increasingly, low soil nutrient fertility is worsened by salt, from three causes: sea-salt blown inland over south-west W.A. wheat belt; repeated past marine inundations of the Murray-Darling basin and evaporation of inland lakes; mobilisation of salt by land clearance and irrigation agriculture. ”Salinization…already affects about 9% of all cleared land in Australia……projected under present trends to rise to about 25%.” And: ”The total area in Australia to which salinization has the potential for spreading is more than 6 times the current extent and includes a 4-fold increase in W.A., 7-fold increase in Queensland, 10-fold increase in Victoria and 60-fold increase in New South Wales.”
- Fresh water as a population-limiting factor: ”Australia is the continent with the least of it.” Most readily accessible water is already utilised - domestic, agriculture and industry. For instance, our largest river, the Murray/Darling, has two thirds or more of its flow drawn off each year (in some years no water is left to enter the ocean), and becomes progressively saltier downstream towards Adelaide, with increased burden of pesticides from cotton farming and irrigation practices. Further high-energy desalination plants now seem inevitable for urban requirements. Historically, “Australian land use has gone through many cycles of land clearance, investment, bankruptcy and abandonment” from early colonial times, due to low soil productivity and a disproportionately large fraction of pastoral and arid lands subject to low-average unpredictable unreliable rainfall. This is due to the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) climatic factor, resulting in uncertain crop returns, bare soil, and consequent soil erosion and salinization. South Australia’s Goyder Line and parts of Western Australia’s Gascoigne provide two of many examples.
- The “tyranny of distances”, imposing large extra costs, both within Australia and between our trading partners. These costs also mitigate against medium-sized towns, producing the world’s most urbanised nation (about 60% of us dwell in the 5 major cities).
- Introduced species: cattle and sheep have been of great economic value, while also damaging fragile ecosystems. Whereas rabbits, foxes, cane toads, carp, feral buffalo, camels, donkeys, horses, goats, blackberry, “Paterson’s curse”, mimosa in Kakadu, and other weed species (about 3000, alone causing economic losses of about $2 billion annually), are expensive disasters.
- Land clearance (encouraged by tax incentives), overstocking and overgrazing have resulted in dryland salinization, soil erosion and land abandonment. ”Rotting and burning of the bulldozed vegetation (in 2005) contribute to Australia’s annual greenhouse emissions a gas quantity approximately equal to the country’s total motor vehicle emissions.”
- Marine overfishing: species which have been “mined” to uneconomically low levels include coral trout, eastern gemfish, Exmouth Gulf tiger prawns, school shark, southern bluefin tuna, tiger flathead, and orange roughy. Damage to freshwater fisheries, e.g Murray cod and golden perch, may also be irreversible.
- Forestry: with only 25% of 1788 forests remaining intact, and still being mined, half our export products are wood chips (as low as $7 per ton) sent mostly to Japan, where the resulting paper sells for $1000 per ton; we import nearly 3 times our forest products exports, one-half as paper and paperboard products. ”One expects to encounter that particular type of trade asymmetry ……when an economically backward non-industrialised unsophisticated Third World colony deals with a First World country……buying their raw materials cheaply, adding value……and exporting expensive manufactured goods to the colony.”
- Trade: ”In short, over the past half century Australia’s exports have shifted from predominantly agricultural products to minerals, while its trade partners have shifted from Europe to Asia.” We are exposed to unprecedented new national security and economic factors.
- Population policy: ”The fallacy behind the policy of “filling up Australia”, despite ”compelling environmental reasons” to the contrary, arises from our aspirations for national security and economic power (with only a few millions each, Israel, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Singapore already outstrip us, implying that quality is more important than quantity?) Some politicians and business leaders still call for a population of 50 million, regardless of our declining natural resource base! This may rapidly convert us to “a net food importer rather than exporter of food”, in a world already struggling to feed an expanding population of some 6.6 billion. It will also dilute our per capita earnings from mineral exports.
Professor Diamond sympathetically reviews the many remedial policies, individual and group activities which are attempting to control these and other problems. No doubt some items need some up-dating. But his main point remain valid: because it is all happening so rapidly here, he regards our nation as a warning and an example to the developed world. For this reviewer, one local need stands out above all others: the need for a rational population policy, with numbers in balance with our diminishing natural resource base, having due regard for limiting factors listed above. Indeed, this need applies not only to Australia, but to our Earth entire, recently imaged by the outbound Voyager 2 space probe as a single pale blue pixel, a dust mote suspended in a sunbeam. On this damaged dust mote, we and our descendants will continue our species’ history, our unfolding comprehension of our origin, present existence and attainable future. Or so we hope.
Dr John O'Connor had 25 years lecturing, research (specialising in air pollution, plant stress), and consultancies (government and industry) in the environmental sciences. Now retired, he is active part-time in adult education. When submissions were called for the 2020 Summit, he sent in a précis of Diamond's chapter on Australia.