Friends of the Earth sees that any debate on population in Australia must occur with full recognition of the responsibilities that come with being the highest per capita producer of greenhouse gases of any industrialised nation on the planet. They also need to address the rising numbers of environmental refugees, and international perspectives that involve global equity in terms of access to resources.
While the actual number of people living within an ecosystem obviously impacts, how the environment is used remains the dominant factor. The minority world, including countries in North America, Western Europe and Australasia, has only 23% of the world's population and yet uses around 80% of its resources. Australia produces around 26.7 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person, whilst 1.7 tonnes would constitute a fair amount if the world's population were to stabilise at 7 billion people.
In terms of overall impact, it can be argued that the average Australian has more than five times the impact of the average Indonesian based on consumption levels.
We therefore need to think about population in association with historical ecological debts owed by the minority world to the majority, including the population powerhouses of China and India. This is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that the political (and resulting economic) systems of the last 500 years have created patterns of resource extraction and material flow which unfairly benefit Northern countries at the expense of other nations.
Consumption is, of course, not just about disparities between the North and the South. It is also about gaps between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' in industrialised societies. This issue of domestic social justice and the link between lifestyle and environmental impact is usually absent from debates about population and immigration, yet is fundamental to finding equitable solutions.
In terms of social justice, we must ask how we can create the situation where all people have access to the resources needed for a dignified existence. The pivotal question is how can we do this without living beyond the world’s carrying capacity?
While many see population growth as being the key issue in situations like this, a holistic approach would recognise that this influx of people is occurring in an ecologically unsustainable manner – that is, impacts arise largely from the nature of the development, not simply because of the arrival of these people.
It is possible to radically reduce our impacts with true ecological design of urban infrastructure and appropriate control of developers. This will require hard political decisions, not through pointing at ‘population growth’ as the problem.
What are we doing?
Friends of the Earth encourages discussion about the ways in which population growth may impact upon our environment. We believe wealthy nations, such as Australia, have a responsibility to assist those who will be most impacted upon by climate change. You can join us in calling for a sustainable and just population!