The new maxim: populate AND perish

Population growth, whether we like it or not, must be contained if our response to climate change is to be effective. [24 March 2009 | Peter Boyer]

Polite tea-time conversation forbids discussion of three topics: religion, sex and politics. If that’s the way you like it you’d better stop here, because this is about all three.

POPULATION EXPLOSION: It took over 160,000 years for the world’s population to reach 500 million. Today that number of people is added about every five years.

POPULATION EXPLOSION: It took over 160,000 years for the world’s population to reach 500 million. Today that number of people is added about every six years.

It’s about religion because on his way to Africa last week, His Holiness Benedict XVI took it upon himself to condemn the use of condoms in the battle against aids.

It’s about sex because the Pope’s statement was a reminder of his Church’s continuing opposition to people using any chemical or device, including the humble condom, to prevent conception – a teaching that inevitably contributes to a population increase.

And it’s about politics because the leaders of our major political parties, whatever their religion, seem united in the belief that nothing but good can come from increasing numbers of people.

In December, Kevin Rudd said Australia needed a low carbon reduction target because our projected population increase would make per-capita reductions that much more onerous. (Australia’s very unflattering per-capita emission statistics are generally avoided by government – why is it no surprise to see them dragged out when it suits government purposes?)

The question of population – specifically whether we should try to limit global and national populations – is about as vexed as you can get. Whenever it’s raised publicly, accusations of misanthropy or eugenics or good old-fashioned fascism are never far behind.

As a parent and grandfather I know of nothing more natural or more joyous than the arrival of a new baby into the family, and I appreciate the enormous sense of emptiness that afflicts many people unable to have a child. No-one can deny this fundamental need in all people.

This was a lesson learned by the Indian government in the 1970s when a hated program of enforced sterilisation brought crushing electoral defeat. China’s slightly less traumatic policy has been to limit couples to one child, with subsequent pregnancies subject to fines and pressure to abort, and to use forced sterilisation only as a last resort.

Australia seems to have no such problem: with a land area somewhere between India and China, our population is tiny by comparison. But the spectre of over-population may yet visit us. In time of climate change, our arid continent’s capacity to support more people is seriously in question.

National populations are anything but equal when it comes to per-capita carbon emissions, which in Australia are more than 70 times those in Bangladesh. It would be grossly irresponsible to advocate a population increase here without drastic emissions cuts – but that’s what our leaders are doing.

No-one is immune from population pressure, wherever on earth it occurs. In a global economy, the growing threat of future scarcity of food and fuel – energy for humans and their machines – is a global concern. With the threat of dangerous climate change hanging over us, we do not need the added pressure of rising demand from a rising population.

While personal choices about having children should not be in question, a national population policy has to be on the table. Yet in the corridors of power it’s nowhere to be seen.

The new taboo subjects in respectable circles seem to be climate and population. I’m starting to think that polite conversation is a luxury we can no longer afford.

• Climate and energy expert Professor Ian Lowe and Senator Christine Milne will tackle population and climate in a Hobart public forum starting at 7 pm next Monday week, April 6, at the Stanley Burbury Theatre, University of Tasmania.

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