Population and resources: She won’t be right, mate



While most political attention is focused on things such as health and education — despite the fact that we have among the best health care and education systems in the world — the medium and long-term national issues always get second-class treatment. Energy, transport, urban planning, water and environment (indigenous species loss, feral-pests, salination, loss of soil fertility, forests) are some of the major challenges we face.

Energy is one of the most important but it is implicit in any scenario that by 2050 we should have largely solved the energy issue. There is really no excuse because solar and geothermal technologies only need investment to deliver on their promise in that timescale. Supplemented by other renewables (wind, tidal, biofuels) our dependence on fossil fuels, especially coal, will be under control by then. Although there are huge opportunities for Australia, the government remains extraordinarily tardy — a much delayed $153 million investment in solar and geothermal technologies compares to a subsidy of $150 million on a single brown-coal plant for Victoria, not to mention billions on the fake promise of “clean coal”.

Water is perhaps the issue most worrisome for both the experts and the public. Yet for cities it is also one of the most exaggerated. And unlike pessimism about the complacency of the Australian public, in this case city people have shown they can respond admirably. In the case against further population growth many cite Brisbane’s experience in the recent prolonged water concerns. Yet it shows the exact opposite: people responded beyond expectations in going from about 300 to 140L/cap/day. No new dams, desalination plants, pipelines, recycling or rainwater harvesting were needed to get us through one of the worst dry spells in our history. (Southern readers should be in no confusion on this — much of this infrastructure is being built but none were in operation before the water crisis easing.)

The interpretation of this is incontestable. With just some of these actions — say pipelines for redistribution, recycled water (if only in industry who are profligate users of potable water) and much greater domestic rainwater collection — a twofold increase in population for South East Queensland will not be a problem.

Although not so long ago most Brisbane homes had rainwater tanks, among capital cities today it is has the lowest percentage of homes with installed tanks. In addition long-term rainfall patterns have been delivering less rain to dam catchments and more to coastal urban areas making it an imperative to capture that water. Industry is not a keen supporter of this because it cuts them out of their preferred rent-seeking “solutions” such as expensive desalination plants for which they extract government agreements to purchase, at 10 times the cost of rainwater, the full output of the power-hungry plants even if the water is not required.

These simple and low-tech solutions are applicable in all east-coast cities to definitively solve the water problem. Very few houses use rainwater for toilet and laundry, which account for about 50 per cent of household water use. In Melbourne, Stuart McQuire, using rainwater capture and recycling, has reduced his daily use of articulated water to four litres per person. His house is a net exporter of electric power to the grid. Currently solar photovoltaic cells are too expensive to promote or prescribe widespread domestic deployment but this will certainly change in the next 20 years if not 10 years. The coming revolution in energy generation will itself save significant amounts of water, which today’s coal-fired generators use profligately.

The final part of The 7.30 Report’s investigation was an extended discussion with a panel of demographer Bernard Salt, eco-warrior and former Australian of the Year Tim Flannery, Australian Industry Group CEO Heather Ridout and director of Griffith University’s Urban Research Program director Brendan Gleeson. This was a high quality panel and a high quality discussion. But in their summation the panel made the most blatant discombobulation.

They all professed great faith in the Australian people and that we would pull through. This is the equivalent of “She’ll be right, mate” and is a de facto endorsement of business as usual. It was hardly surprising in the week of Australia Day but is a damning indictment of our inability to take the hard truth or any criticism. The panel members could not rise above the tyranny of public opinion that attacks anyone who is willing to state the truth — that Australians are an extremely complacent people.

This is exactly the reason why our politicians are so spineless. On all the issues listed at the beginning of this article — energy, public transport, urban planning, rivers and water policy, environment — the Australian record is not just average, it is appalling. And the evidence for our current trajectory is all in the wrong direction.

Australians also seem not to be able to join the dots. We have almost $1 trillion in debt on property loans that have been encouraged by poor tax policy that amounts to middle-class welfare. Instead of tying up so much of our wealth in this totally unproductive property bubble we could have been spending on infrastructure. Every dollar invested in public transport, energy and urban planning will be repaid for decades into the future in a virtuous circle of improved energy use, better economic productivity, better health and fitness and overall better quality of life. By comparison we could spend our entire GDP on our current form of health care, with its focus on hi-tech intervention, hospital care and expensive pharmaceuticals, with very little true improvement in health metrics — indeed in all likelihood a vicious circle of medical dependency rather than preventive measures.

In contrast to the ABC panel, David Marr was closer to the truth when he said that Australians are a timid and fearful lot, but that if given strong leadership with appropriate action, they can be accepting and adaptable. He was speaking last year in the context of boat people, which contrasts to the success of our multicultural society, one of the few home-grown aspects of Australia that we can be unequivocally proud of.

Australians need to understand that our lifestyle is unsustainable. Until they truly accept this and convince politicians they are serious it is a copout to just blame politicians for what is essentially a mirror reflecting our own intransigence. It is a form of denial to think that we do not have to change our extravagant and destructive lifestyle if we simply freeze our population — which in any case is not possible unless plagues and wars descend upon on us.

The 7.30 Report’s host Kerry O’Brien asked if our system of government is up to the job of implementing the necessary changes. An equally valid question is whether Australians are up to the challenges.

Michael R. James is an Australian research scientist and writer.