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Bob Carr looks beyond the New Year gloss and sees a bleak future for the planet


ON THE first day of 2000 was celebrated with TV beaming pictures of jubilant global citizens: tribal peoples with clay face-paint, dancing islanders, monks at temple worship, African schoolkids with huge smiles. A happy planet, it all suggested — lucky people, to be alive at this millennial moment.

These benign images are about as truthful as the floor show at a Hilton hotel in an African capital, a few kilometres from children with bloated bellies and stick-like limbs in once-fertile country now a dust bowl. The TV hype we saw on January 1 was a folkloric gloss on a very scary moment in human history

The most salient change over the last 1,000 or 100 years is simple: the explosion in human numbers. In 1900 the world population was 1.6 billion. Three months ago it reached 6 billion. It took only 12 years to add the last billion. Or, put another way, the world population has doubled since 1960.

The last millennium has one great theme: the exponential increase in the impact of the human enterprise. There is a recent decline in fertility rates, and it will no doubt be seized on by people who want to brand me alarmist. But the least threatening UN projection still has the population rising to 7.3 billion by 2050. The direst projection is 10.7 billion. The most likely is 8.9 billion.

Humankind, however, has already overshot the mark.

Only 30 years ago we had no idea how quickly rainforests would be bulldozed and no notion that CFCs destroyed the ozone layer. Acid rain was unknown. Global warming was considered a possibility for late in the 21st century. We did not dream it was already melting the Arctic.

It is the galloping increase in numbers that has multiplied all these impacts. Over the next 100 years the planet will become for a packed-tight humanity even more crowded and degraded. It is likely to be hotter as well, with much more desert and less arable land. There will certainly be a whole lot less nature around at the turn of the next century — a huge loss of plant and animal life, biodiversity, as the scientists call it.

On a visit to North-East Asia I saw this future. The landscape was simple. There were clusters of shoebox-style tower blocks. They were linked by clogged expressways in a flattened, cleared landscape. It was so bleak, so denatured, it could have been a place rebuilt after a nuclear blast. The air was heavy with smog. Acid rain fell from the nation across the ocean. This will be how more people will live in 100 years.

The populationists — that’s my term for those who continue to be cheerful in the face of these trends — argue that family size comes down with affluence and the education that comes with affluence. Wealth winds back population growth. In an age of economics, it is not surprising people will see economics as the solution. I as much as anyone want to believe this. But this optimism does not stand up.

First, the theory that affluence leads to smaller families has not been properly tested. It may cause an initial fall, only to climb again. There seems some evidence of this from China. Second, much of the Third World is not on a trajectory of economic growth anyway. Many African countries have falling — not rising — GDPs. Third, even if rising affluence did rein in population growth, the damage has already been set in train — irreversibly.

Brazil is an example. If (miraculously) it stabilised its population at today’s 166 million, it’s too late to win back the fifth of the Amazon that has been destroyed, or stop further clearing as peasant settlers are relocated to relieve pressure for land reform elsewhere. All this is happening to accommodate the existing population of Brazil. Imagine the rate of destruction if, as the UN predicts, Brazil’s population climbs over the next 50 years to 240 million.

In any case, it is impossible to lift the living standards of all the world’s people to anything like that of the West. It is not an option. If 6 billion people were to live at current European (not American) standards it would require a 140-fold increase in world steel production. The pollution would choke the planet. To feed 6 billion on the diet enjoyed by Americans would require all the world’s current oil production. In any case we now have more arable land being withdrawn from production — because of erosion and salinisation — than being added.

Economics to the rescue just in time to save the planet? Nice idea. But look at India with, according to the World Bank, one of the world’s best performing economies. The country’s family planning program, the first in the world, is now counted a total failure. India has reached 1 billion population and, getting to 1.5 billion by 2050, will pull ahead of China as the world’s most populous nation. In-built momentum means it could not stabilise its numbers for at least 40 years, some say 100. And look at the social conditions these additional 540 million Indians will be born into. When I found the data it was even grimmer than I expected. India has an infant mortality rate of 75 per 1,000, worse than China’s, Egypt’s, Indonesia’s. Infant malnutrition is worse than sub-Saharan Africa. Only 52 per cent of the population is literate, compared with a world rate of 76 per cent.

Rapid population growth robs developing countries of prosperity. Think of the Philippines. It has 73 million, expected to rise to 130 million by 2050. Yet according to the World Bank, half the women giving birth now are anaemic or malnourished. And 57 children in every 1,000 die before they are five. Thirty per cent of children are malnourished. And the number of rural poor increased between 1991 and 1997 by 2.4 million. Imagine, for a moment, if the Philippines had stabilised its population at, say, 30 million. It would be a prosperous regional power, its people living off exports of metals, electronics, copra and rice.

Ninety-eight per cent of population growth will take place in developing nations but, by one key test, the developed world is also overpopulated. With 250 million people and profligate use of resources, the United States — in terms of impact on Earth’s fragile environment — could be seen as the world’s most overpopulated nation. An American — I guess Australian too — inflicts 70 times as much environmental damage as a Laotian. What moral right have we to tell China it cannot proceed with its planned sixfold increase in energy over the next 30 years? Incidentally, two-thirds of this will come from coal. That means massive new amounts of carbon dioxide being pumped into the upper atmosphere.

On December 3, The Times in London reported new data that shows a dramatic acceleration in the rate at which the ice of the Arctic is melting. Yes, an area of Arctic sea ice the size of Wales melting every year. According to scientists, there exists only one chance in 100 that this is caused by natural climate change and not global warming. Warnings like this pile up — spring comes a week earlier in the Northern Hemisphere than 30 years ago; in the last 10 years 40 per cent of frogs on the planet have disappeared…

Population growth, of course, is the factor that drives or multiplies or accelerates global warming. And deforestation and loss of groundwater and every other indicator of environmental damage. In November, on a beautiful day, I flew at 500 feet along the South Coast. I saw coastal lakes, a forest-clad mountain range and that wonderful undeveloped jewel, Jervis Bay. Forty per cent of the State’s coastline south of Nowra is national park, as is about 36 per cent of the whole south-eastern bioregion.

One source of my love for Australia is that nature still lives over much of it. With all our problems, there is still space here, and old growth forests, and, yes, backyards. And the day will too soon come when our land is a wonder of the world: wildflowers on coastal heath, a swamp with wildfowl, rainforest that meets water’s edge. Over the next 100 years treasures like these will be erased from the planet, outside a few struggling game parks or tourist-trampled reserves. Forests torn out, grasslands ploughed under, to meet the demand of this vastly expanded human presence.

From Easter Island to Mesopotamia, the world has seen civilisations collapse because even in ancient times the birthrate outstripped the capacity of the land to sustain it.

Now, in an age of globalisation, we are doing to the whole planet what the Sumerians did to one little corner of it in 5,000 BC. In the view of many scientists the millennium sees us embarked on the riskiest experiment since our species emerged blinking from the primeval forest.

Yes, bring on the choirs in national costume. Summon the mariachi bands.

Welcome the millennium.


— Bob Carr is the Premier of New South Wales