This discussion looks at a number of environmental issues of world-wide importance and suggests some radical action that can be taken in Australia to help alleviate them.
Why Australia ? Well, it is the sixth largest country in the world, but with a population of only 22 million (3 persons per square km) it is also one of the most sparsely populated. It is an arid country, with a very uneven distribution of water. Much of the soil has been significantly damaged and has lost value for growing food. Forests have been degraded by clear-felling. Many plant and animal species are endangered due to loss of habitat. Power supplies are mainly derived from coal (some of it the dirtiest coal in the world from the point of view of CO2 production) or oil. It has physical features which are similar to those found in parts of Saharan Africa and Central Asia. However, unlike many of these countries, it is relatively wealthy, has a very stable government and is an island.
All of these features make Australia the best possible laboratory for developing techniques, processes and products for combatting the various environmental problems that the planet is faced with. Any investments we make in these fields will have a pay-back on any or all of three fronts; first world countries can buy them, third world countries can be given them as aid and finally, they will contain an insurance premium component, by helping to reduce the risk of catastrophic collapse of the environment which is essential for the survival of humanity.
The scientist James Lovelock worked for NASA on projects aimed at determining whether there was life on Mars and other planets. In the course of these, he looked at the ways in which life had evolved on earth and in particular, how it had been fostered by an extraordinarily stable environment over millions, indeed billions of years. His findings were published in many papers and at least one book in the 1970s. He reached the conclusion that the biosphere consisted of a huge number of processes which interacted in many ways, but in sum were held in balance. If some processes accelerated, threatening to narrow the boundaries of the livable environment, others would also accelerate, moving to counter them, so restoring the balance. In other words, it was a typical positive/negative feedback model. Because it was analogous to a single living organism, he named his theory the Gaia Hypothesis, after the old earth goddess Gaia. A good account of the Gaia hypothesis appears in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis).
In his publications, Lovelock pointed out that many human activities are either directly components in the Gaia model or they indirectly affect other, natural processes. In his latest book, “The Revenge Of Gaia”, Lovelock looks at these activities and draws the conclusion that those which foster Gaia’s positive feedback movements have effects which far outweigh any which operate in the opposite direction. From this he predicts that there will be catastrophic consequences for the (relatively) comfortable life we lead today. In particular, he believes that due to desertification, unreliable water supplies, declining food supplies and so forth, nations will be fighting for access to living room (and particularly that with agricultural capability), because humans are essentially a competitive species.
It is this last thought which has prompted the setting up of this blog. The current government policy in Australia is to limit the population to something like 35 million people (about 5 persons/sq km.). However, this is predicated on maintaining the lifestyle currently enjoyed by the vast majority of its citizens. Features of this lifestyle include; proximity to the coast, crowding together in a relatively few towns and cities, centralisation of commerce and services, importing much of our food (though we do export some food), emphasis on a service economy, and so on. The main exports which pay for this are minerals and fuels. Until the 1970s (give or take a decade), Australia had a thriving manufacturing industry, had initiatives in place to foster technical education of all sorts and had a world-class community of inventors and researchers. With the advent of global commerce, most of this has disappeared and we seem to have returned to the business model of pre-Second World War days, wryly known as Quarry Australia.
It may be that in the end, this policy is the best option. However, we will never know this until we have done the research which will establish the absolute maximum number of people the continent can house, the agricultural, commercial and service operations necessary to support an acceptable lifestyle, the costs of infrastructure and establishment and the likely returns on investment. If we find that the maximum is not affordable under any circumstances, then we can progressively reduce the target population, its activities and its support proportionately until we achieve a level that is. We may not be attracted to the lifestyle that the expenditures imply and may elect to adopt a population that is still lower, but this must be on the understanding that other, poorer countries may find the more modest lifestyle that we have rejected quite acceptable. We must then bring into the equation the cost of defending our territory against invasions of various kinds and scales, from refugees (called “boat people” in Australia) up to outright inter-nation war.
The creation of this blog was prompted by reading an article on the population debate by Tim Soutphommanes (The Australian, 21/04/2010) and another on global food production problems by Greg Hertzler (Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, 21/04/2010). I was also intrigued by (1) an article by Leunig (Sunday Age 09/05/2010) which addressed what one might call the spiritual or emotional aspects of high-density living and (2) a review of a new book called Eaarth (sic) by Bill McKibben (A2, Saturday Age, 08/05/2010) which is now on my reading list.
In posts to follow, I will suggest a methodology for estimating the true population carrying capacity of the country, defining the infrastructure required to support that population and identifying whatever activities can produce the returns which will justify the investment. I will also describe my own experiences as an engineer and IT practitioner to illustrate and justify some of the positions I have taken. This material will be set out in notes at the end of the relevant post. A brief professional CV also appears in my About page.