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Australia’s ecological footprint – Editor

The following letter was sent by Dr John Coulter to journalist Geraldine Dooge on 17th August, in response to a TV program by her on infrastructure. The program did not mention that population pressure is not a given but a deliberate policy of the Federal Government and the Opposition.

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Your program about infrastructure on yesterday’s ‘Breakfast’ program did a great disservice to your audience. It perpetuated myths not supported by facts and failed to mention the real alternative context in which matters like this must be considered.

As a former medical epidemiologist, I am very familiar with statistical analysis. Among OECD industrialised countries there is no statistically significant correlation between the rates of population growth and per capita growth of GDP. Among poor countries there is a significant and strong negative correlation between population growth and growth of per capita GDP. It is therefore misleading to claim that population growth is causing increases in per capita GDP, i.e. is making the average Australian materially better off. This myth serves the interests of those who do benefit from population growth.

GDP and per capita GDP are themselves misleading indicators of real benefit. The costs, yes costs, borne by people as a consequence of growth of population and expenditure on infrastructure are added to GDP. Travel times are reported to have increased by 23% with increases in fuel costs, car maintenance, insurance etc. These are real costs but are added to GDP. The costs of a growing economy have exceeded the benefits for many years for ordinary people, explaining why so many feel worse off even while governments and programs like yours keep telling people they have never had it so good.

Your program and so many on the ABC ignore the real prospect of widespread social, economic and environmental breakdown consequent on a human population having exceeded the long term carrying capacity of Nature. The ABC in its general coverage assumes a continuation of Business as Usual.

Climate change, if the present trends continue, will lead to a world which is 3- 4 deg warmer at the century’s end (note that David Attenborough in his recent TV program on climate change used the figure 3-6 deg). Together with the declines in soil quality, water availability, food shortages and massive biodiversity loss, these things have many scientists foreshadowing an imminent reduction in the global human population and a world in chaos. Despite this evident danger every government in Australia and most around the world continue to make decisions based on an assumption of business as usual, so that they can go on driving both population growth and economic growth, the two primary causes of our worsening situation. How do you reconcile that prospect with a continuation of unquestioned population growth in Australia.

Climate change is likely to impact upon Australia’s ability to grow food quite severely. We may have difficulty even feeding the present population let alone a much larger one before century’s end.

Australia’s overall ecological footprint has varied between 4.0 and 5.6 Earths over the last decade. Do you think it is morally right for us to go on increasing the total size of our demand on Nature by seeking both to increase our popul- ation and our per capita demand (grow- ing GDP as our main goal)? I invite you to do the sums which show that we could achieve more human welfare by massively increasing our foreign aid and addressing that aid primarily toward education for girls, family planning and contraception than to spend that same money on building more infrastructure in Australia for the purpose of accommodating a much larger population.

Here is a far saner voice on the issue of infrastructure from a fellow journalist, Crispin Hull:

John Coulter

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