The Warning Lamp on Population and a Failing Environment

“I’ve made a fortune out of this growth, but I’ve suddenly realised, when I’ve got young grandchildren, that it’s not sustainable, that I’ve been irresponsible.”

The amazing words that Dick Smith [1] expressed in a debate over population growth on Monday evening’s Triple J Hack segment [2] (listen to the podcast). Another key point that he raised earlier in the debate was;

“…the productivity gains of capitalism are two or three percent per year. They were used, up until the Second World War to reduce working hours, to have a better quality of life. Since the Second World War, we’ve used it to produce more stuff, more junk. Go into a huge shopping centre. Half the stuff that’s there is rubbish, but if you stop buying it you create unemployment and recession.”

Indeed the conundrum of the current economic models is that they are ultimately self-destructive. They undermine their principle resource bank – both the non-renewable and renewable resource supply – and under-appreciate humanistic values to maintain the ideology of perpetual growth [3 – 11]. We’ve come to associate prosperity with running the supporting biota haggard and with throwing rare and otherwise useful materials into landfill or contaminating the environment through liquid and gaseous pollution.

It shouldn’t take a genius to see that baking a cake, taking one bite before throwing the rest away is greedy and stupid. Nor should you require more than a couple of functional brain cells to realise that a boom will hit bust sooner or later if you continue removing biological resources faster than they can regenerate.

And yet, the debate is raw and agitated even though, as Dick Smith and his co-debater, Bernard Salt [12] demonstrated, there is vast agreement on most of the fundamental points.

Stability of our global population size will need to happen eventually sometime this century, which in turn will define our personal space and resource quota [4] and perpetual growth economic models simply cannot be part of that equilibrium.

In fact the only real cause for debate, it seems to me, is in addressing how and when we make these changes. We should stop kidding ourselves that it is a theoretical debate about some far off problem or that it’s only concerned with population.

Population size merely sets the confines within which we must then develop a new economic model that is prosperous, sustainable and stable.

The rift that has created both camps, however, seem to largely focuses on the coming influx of dependent citizens; the retiring Baby Boomers. One camp (eg. Salt) urges us to utilise this growth economy model to weather the influx, while the other (eg. Smith) suggests that it is poor planning to continue to rely on a self-destructive model that is only likely to exacerbate degradation of resources further, leading to even larger problems.

I cannot help but side with the latter.

Do you fork out a little extra for fuel at the country town or risk running empty in the middle of nowhere on the way to acquiring cheaper fuel in the suburbs? How much confidence do you have in both your fuel gauge and your awareness of your long distance fuel consumption?

Scientific methodology has already turned on the low fuel warning lamp [13 – 14] which leaves the question of how confident we are in the estimates of our consumption levels. No doubt there will be added costs to pay, but putting it off only increases the tab and could leave us with an empty fuel tank a long way from anywhere useful.

On the bright side, the baby boomers have done the best of all subsequent generations from the post Second World War era [14] and so this should be an ideal period to develop and adopt new economic structures that promote population equilibrium and general equality, which will in turn have far reaching positive consequences on the happiness and wellbeing of communities [11]. With many environmental issues already acknowledged, a global population size close to seven billion, more than a billion of which who live in perpetual malnutrition and a coming wave of well-off retirees, we’ve never been at a better point for change and development.

Dick Smith left the question open over what such economies should look like. As I’ve said on many occasional previously, I truly believe that the best economic models have been running and self-improving for close to four billion years on this planet.

Ecology is in reality a more dynamic and intuitive entirely resource based economy than anything our species has attempted to create. More importantly, it truly is sustainable and adaptive to a dynamic planet. As I explained in chapter 15 of The Human Island [16] our economic models have been at best parasitic offsprings; like a cuckoo chick in a host species nest. Yet we can improve upon this.

Michael Pawlyn has provided some tantalising examples of this in his presentation, Using nature’s genius in architecture [17]. Linear processing pathways are not sustainable and if we are to improve our activities, we must close the loops in our processe pathways. Like nature, we must provide societies that are encouraged to exploit new niches within this loop to create further avenues of job and wealth creation (Pawlyn’s reference to “Cardboard to Caviar” is an example of this).

Likewise, investing (financially, materially and spatially) in biodiversity and energy security (especially in research and development of renewable sources, but also to a lesser degree, non-renewable sources – efficiency and waste reduction) should be a primary function of such societies, which in turn provides extra incentive for closing process loops [8].

Part of this would require such places to be increasingly biophilic [18] (ie. greater synergy between urban landscapes and productive biodiversity) providing greater access to goods and services to the community.

In that way, wealth would not be about accumulation, but access [6]; potentially the greatest difference between the current economic models and those necessary for a stable population. To repeat Smith again, “…the productivity gains of capitalism are two or three percent per year. They were used, up until the Second World War to reduce working hours, to have a better quality of life.”

We will need to return to such a paradigm rather than continue this mindless and wasteful habit of junk accumulation. That political leaders were encouraging “consumers” to spend (rather than reduce personal debt) on the back of the global financial crisis exemplifies further the point Dick Smith was getting at. We currently require longer working hours, lower pay and perpetual spending to keep this economy growing. It’s not working for us at all, but we for it.

While Bernard Salt has a point worthy of concern – that the Baby Boomers are soon to retire – it is not just cause to continue this pattern of junk accumulation and waste production. A bigger population only means a greater influx of retirees later on, when we have even less extractable resources available and even less of a personal footprint available per capita [4]. Going big and working harder isn’t in our best interest.

Forking out the extra money now rather than putting it off for a later date is by far the wisest option. Our current crossroads is prime for such a change and the young adults – tomorrow’s industry and political leaders – have voiced their concern and passion to get onboard and address the issues at hand (for example The Australian Youth Climate Coalition, with close to sixty thousand members [19]). It is inevitable that an equilibrium society will function different to that today and such a society will need to be developed this century and all the pieces are coming into place to start such a transition over the coming decades.

For a wealthy entrepreneur, such as Dick Smith, to admit that he has been irresponsible is impressive, but it should be noted that there should be no blame in association. For much of the post Second World War period, no-one willingly lead us to these issues. It has been a long and slow process for science to develop an understanding great enough so that we should take the warning signs seriously. Where the economic model runs the worker into the ground to perpetuate growth, why wouldn’t we aspire to accumulate wealth to overcome the “rat race”? We ended up where we are today through no-one’s fault.

The same cannot be said about inaction and pro-business-as-usual noise of the twenty first century. That is true irresponsibility; continuing to lead us down a path that the youth have made clear that they don’t want. We’re now at a point where we can no longer ignore the warning lamp and I, for one, don’t want to have to tell my grandchildren that I’m sorry that I continued to support such irresponsible behaviour.


[1] Dick Smith
[2] Triple J, Hack
[3] Efficiency is Truly Virtuous: Planning Prosperity
[4] You Know What They Say About a Man with a Big Footprint
[5] How Greenwashing Really Can Make a Difference
[6] Sustainable Growth Not as We Know it
[7] The Price of Sustainable Cities
[8] The Resource Cycle Flow Chart
[9] Lifeboat Cities by Brendan Gleeson
[10] A Blueprint for a Safer Planet: How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity By Nicholas Stern
[11] Unjust Rewards: Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today
[12] Bernard Salt
[13] Rockström et al. (2009)
[14] 400+ Genuine Scientific Papers Supporting Confidence in the AGW theory and Relevant Environmental Concern
[15] How rich are the baby boomers and how poor are their children?
[16] The Human Island
[17] Michael Pawlyn: Using nature’s genius in architecture
[18] Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning By Timothy Beatley
[19] Australian Youth Climate Coalition


6 thoughts on “The Warning Lamp on Population and a Failing Environment

  1. Great. So now Dick Smith will give up his millions and depart into a cave. No? Did I get it wrong? Oh, I see he is just another wealthy ‘environmentalist’.


    1. I understand that he’s in a lofty position and I personally have little time for philanthropy – it’s patronizing at best. However, I have to disagree with you on a few points.
      Firstly, you’re comment has little to do with the article (his point is on societal prosperity and persistence and nothing to do with being an “environmentalist” – I make the point that the subjects are linked) – yours is more rich person bashing / jealousy.
      Secondly, do you live in a cave? I suspect not.. why would you expect him to do otherwise? I make it clear in the post that his position is very much the desired position encouraged within our current economic model. It would be pointless for him to give give up his wealth – there’s plenty of others waiting to take his place. If you had listened the podcast and actually read the article above, you would’ve seen that it’s his position that has allowed him to become a wide reaching communicator – including putting the boot in on the PM. You and I don’t get that opportunity because we’re not in his position. It would be stupid for him to leave it, when he can use his weight to stand up for what is required (ie. a change in human activity).
      Keep it sensible, relevant and intelligent if you’d like to comment here. Thanks.


  2. I wrote ten doublings two years ago — in essence says much the same as you do here. Three years ago, I wrote never mind the planet, save yourself. (I’m nobody special, just another glitch in the matrix.)

    We should be well beyond noticing the ‘warning lamp’ by now, and well into action. But here we are still talking about it — and still trying to get those to whom the alternative is ‘live in a cave/ desert island’ on board.

    The main problem is Big Media, much of which which continues giving more time to the standard, broken, economic model and only using ‘sustainability’ as a means of entertaining an audience.

    Until the conversation moves from discussing the problem to discussing how to act on solutions, we’re still on the path of ‘business as usual’ — and heading for a fall.


    1. A few years ago, I was actively involved in a number of projects on addressing change – largely focus on education on industrial activities and public awareness regarding many different environmental impacts. Being in that position, I can see now that it lead me to have fair rose-coloured goggles on as I was surrounded by the actively engaged on a daily basis and saw some really promising work.

      And then Monckton did his tour of Aust, the BS we refer to as “climategate” and the failure at Copenhagen smashed this vision – and I started blogging…

      You’re right of course; the media has been behind a lot of it. You just have to look at Andrew Bolt and this article looks into the antic (bullying) carried out by Alan Jones. Reinhart has played a major role in recent years within Australia. The main story always being an old (and why not yet discredited after being proven continually wrong) meme that “X” regulation/policy change will ruin the economy.


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