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Dick Smith (with friends) reveals $1 million to be awarded to a person under 30 who shows leadership in tackling Australia's "population crisis", 2010. © Paul Miller/AAP Image

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Dick Smith’s Population Crisis

By Guy Pearse 
 

Stick to the generous speed limit approaching the bucolic village of Gundaroo on the Yass River in NSW and it takes nearly two minutes to pass ‘Bowylie’ – Dick Smith’s well-known rural homestead. Bowylie is as idyllic as it is unfamiliar to the lifestyle most Australians know – sandstone gates, long sealed driveways, grand old trees and manicured gardens, as well as a kilometre-long bitumen runway and a private railway running from the aircraft hangar to the house. When I drove past, a rainbow rose above the homestead, perhaps from a pot of gold, outdoing the autumn colour, then zooming off towards Sydney – Smith’s lifelong home. No one was around but a little flock of sheep, looking unusually contented, perhaps because they have this plentiful land to themselves. There’s no ‘population crisis’ out here.

With the coverage Smith’s means and profile afford, he’s said population is “the biggest issue facing our country”. He’s choked back tears, calling his campaign “the most important thing I’ve ever done”, lamented that “Australia’s no land of plenty anymore”, and seized on Treasury’s 36 million population projection for 2050. He depicts a nation already bursting at the seams – a place where “battery kids” are raised in high-rises while we spend good money on free-range eggs: “We value the chickens more than our children.” Comparing population growth to “a plague of locusts”, he forecasts “sheer misery and starvation”. “The crime rate will go up, health will go down – all of those problems caused by too many people.” We’re “sleepwalking to catastrophe”.

Uluru is surrounded by suburbia on the cover of his characteristically self-branded new book Dick Smith’s Population Crisis: The Dangers of Unsustainable Growth for Australia (Allen & Unwin, 240pp; $19.99). The Dick Smith’s Population Puzzle documentary, controversially aired on ABC1 prior to the last federal election, depicts skyscrapers rising triffid-like over crowded, polluted beaches. As an ominous portent of what’s in store, Smith went to Bangladesh, gathering footage of Dhaka slums where 250,000 people cram into a square kilometre, and warned “Australia is currently growing even faster than here.” Conflating economic, population and consumption growth as transposable evils, he likens his campaign against them to some of history’s great moral causes.

In June 2010, flanked by five inexplicably smiley ‘blonde bombshells’ wearing T-shirts declaring “Constant Growth = Doom”, Smith offered $1 million for a young Australian to get famous communicating alternatives to our “growth addiction”. He named it the Wilberforce Award, after the British anti-slavery campaigner. “I’m looking for a modern Bob Geldof or a Gandhi,” he told reporters. Meanwhile, you sense he’ll fill in. To Australians stuck in check-out queues, on hospital waiting lists and in traffic, it’s a handy takeaway scapegoat-and-panacea wrap. Think twice before swallowing.

Australia is not the “gold medallist in population growth” that Smith suggests – population is growing faster in well over 50 countries, and our population growth comes mostly from migrants whose presence here doesn’t increase global population. The same can’t be said of China, which increases by Sydney’s population every ten months – and yet stands behind us on Smith’s podium. His exponential global population growth story downplays that falling growth rates worldwide since the 1970s will level off global population from around 2050. Smith is right in saying the world faces a gargantuan challenge providing the 2.4 billion people arriving before then with food, water, shelter and good living standards, whilst dealing with climate change. Where he’s wrong is concluding that rapidly stabilising Australia’s population by slashing migration by more than half somehow helps the world.

Smith speaks as if nearly 500,000 extra people annually is the new norm, as if we’re having too many kids and depriving them of a ‘free-range’ childhood. He calls our migration program a “giant Ponzi scheme”, whereby Australia imports young people to fund our ageing population, they stay, grow old, and so we import more to fund them. Yet migration mainly involves temporary visa holders who mostly don’t grow old here; we’re already having fewer than two kids per family; and the vast majority of children aren’t high-rise ‘battery kids’. More than 80% of abodes in Australia’s capitals are separate or semi-detached, our new houses are the world’s largest, at 200 square metres on average, with relatively fewer people living in each home. In making so much of the 480,000 population increase Australia experienced in 2009, Smith plucked a scary upturned icicle from a graph, glossing over what made that period an aberration: Australia’s economic strength during a global recession, and the surge in foreign students using vocational education as a path to permanent residency before the Gillard government clamped down. While Paris houses 10 million people in an area the size of Melbourne, Smith’s manufactured sense of crisis suggests it’s next stop Dhaka for Australia.

Citing desalination plants as proof that we already “don’t have enough water”, Smith used Murray–Darling footage of cracked mud, dead animals and orchards being torn up in arguing that “we could run out of food”. Saying that government expects climate change to cut agricultural production by “a further 17%”, he implores us to “do the simple maths” of feeding lots of extra mouths. Flagging an end to food exports, he says two-kid families ensure “a good chance that your kids and grandchildren are going to have enough food to eat”. So grim is the situation, though, there’s still “a 30% chance my little granddaughter won’t have enough to eat by the end of the century”. What she deserves to know is that the driest inhabited continent is also the wettest per capita. The largest water user is agriculture, mostly for food exports, so marginal increases in domestic population needn’t compromise national water security. As the Water Services Association notes, “Australia can confidently and sustainably meet our water needs even with the most ambitious population increases – we just need to start planning for it now.” Similarly, we already feed a population much bigger than our own, and government isn’t projecting 17% less ‘agricultural production’ due to climate change, but 17% lower ‘agricultural productivity’ than without climate change. That equates to a 77% increase in agricultural production by 2050 – not “sheer misery and starvation”.

On climate change, Smith somehow never mentions Australia’s largest contribution to the problem. He rails against importing more people, saying population growth at anything like recent levels makes it “virtually impossible” to reduce emissions by even 5%. However, there’s no word about the projected doubling of coal exports, which will have vastly more impact on global emissions than any projected population increase in Australia. It’s an extraordinary oversight since Smith acknowledges that burning coal “could result in hundreds of millions of people dying” and doubts carbon capture and storage “will ever exist”. Somehow, the most vocal critic of foreign-owned Australian agriculture and food production ignores a much larger and more damaging foreign-owned coal industry. Somehow, Wilberforce’s devotee overlooks the black energy trade to which his own economy is addicted. It’s especially ironic since coal exports dominate the resources boom–driven ‘skills shortage’, now explicitly cited by the Gillard government to justify more migrants.

Maybe Smith’s crusade fits his ‘Australian as you can get!’ business philanthropy, but it sure looks a lot like ‘Do as I say, not as I do’: “Go into any big shopping centre. Most of the stuff is junk … We need a plan which moves us away from being addicted to junk.” Says he who got rich feeding the addiction, and richer through property deals to accommodate population growth. Even his population crusade seems another self-branded pitch: buy the book, buy the DVD! A grandfather of six recommends two kids per family; the environment can’t take it, lectures he with multiple homes, cars, a steam train, private jet and helicopter (in which he sometimes arrives to deliver lectures). After a recent 40,000 kilometre drive across 15 countries in a gas-guzzling Ford F-550 EarthRoamer, Smith joked about the fuel bill. He says finger-pointing is unhelpful but well he might: by his own numbers, if 22 million Aussies lived like Dick Smith, our carbon footprint would be 50% bigger than India’s.

Smith has pushed population higher up the agenda and, among other things, shone light on the madness of baby bonuses and the need for family planning in overseas aid. He’s also highlighted the lack of planning to sustainably meet Australia’s infrastructure needs while maintaining our quality of life. Yet, so diminished are these positive contributions by his cherrypicking alarmism, the man arguably most responsible for eliciting the Gillard government’s new Sustainable Population policy has received a level-headed repudiation in it. Happily, the government seems to recognise that it’s a self-serving chimera to think that rapidly stabilising Australia’s population somehow helps to combat global population growth. It doesn’t avoid 500,000 extra people per year, reduce fertility rates, save battery kids, cut our contribution to climate change, or fend off starvation and thirst. This reasoning just dissolves into a colourful cocktail of excuses to keep Australia to ourselves.

In a world like the one the happy little flock of sheep enjoys out at Bowylie, the impulse towards a ‘small Australia’ seems fair enough. It seems less fair in a world struggling with 7 billion people, and having to accommodate the population equivalent of another 520 Sydneys by 2050. Australia should stabilise its population over the coming decades, but in a way that helps the world manage the enormous challenges of doing likewise. For one of the world’s richest, least populated, best fed and watered countries per capita, to do otherwise is neither reminiscent of Wilberforce’s fight against slavery nor worthy of the generous can-do spirit we associate with Dick Smith.

About the author Guy Pearse
Guy Pearse is a research fellow at the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, a former political adviser, lobbyist and speechwriter, and the author of High & Dry and Quarterly Essay 33, ‘Quarry Vision’.

Coalminers' world tour
Phillip Adams and Guy Pearse in conversation on Late Night Live