Welcome to the world of exponential growth

G Magazine

By the end of this week, the world’s population will reach seven billion. With population and economic growth rapidly expanding across Australia & the world, Dick Smith confronts the staggering part we have played & are yet to as a wealthy Western nation.


Credit: iStockphoto

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On 1 October 2009, Australia reached a little-noticed but significant milestone. Sometime just after 2pm a child was born who caused our population clock to tick over 22 million.

Perhaps it was in the District Hospital in Broome, the Mater in Brisbane or the Alfred in Melbourne, in fact any of the hard-pressed maternity wards in Australia experiencing the highest number of births ever seen in this country – nearly 300,000 in a single year. That new arrival – more likely to have been a boy than a girl – was one of nearly 220,000 babies born around the world that day. Before his third birthday, our young Australian will be part of another milestone, as the population of our planet passes seven billion. Whatever his future, he will never be alone.

The raw figures hardly give a sense of the environmental and resource pressures we are putting on this planet, and the other animals we share it with. Even if you don’t care about other species – and that seems unlikely if you are reading this – consider the fate of many of the 80 million children born each year. While the young Australian can look forward to growing up in one of the richest nations on Earth, this is sadly not the reality for many of the other children born that October afternoon. Of the nearly quarter-million babies born that day, 25,000 will be dead before their fifth birthday, with nearly half of those not surviving beyond their first month. Sixty thousand will not be protected against disease by immunisation, while 40,000 will be denied an education of any kind. Tens of thousands will be homeless, and more than 3000 will be trafficked into child slavery or prostitution. Nearly 160,000 of those children will not even have their births registered. They will be forgotten, all but invisible to the rest of us. The one common denominator linking all these terrible childhood outcomes is poverty. Despite decades of economic growth, there have never been more people in extreme need, lacking access to the very basics required for a decent, happy life.

More than one billion human beings have nothing like adequate nutrition. And despite Thomas Edison’s invention of artificial light 130 years ago, one quarter of the world’s population still has no access to electricity. We have created a world where 1.8 billion people use the internet, while more than a billion people still lack access to an adequate supply of fresh water. Just pause for a moment and let those figures sink in. How can it be that after many years of progress that have brought so many of us so much, 80 per cent of the population of the developing world still does not have access to the necessities of life, surviving on less every day than the rest of us spend on a cup of coffee? Why are we no closer to being able to feed, clothe, educate, house and protect so many of the world’s people?

Then consider that between now and mid-century, we are likely to add two billion more people to the planet, and nearly all of them will be born in the poorest nations. Those people will be condemned to a life of desperate poverty, made worse by the accelerating use of natural resources by the rest of us.

Humanity’s consumption of the planet’s resources, our ecological footprint, has doubled since 1966, while at the same time the variety of animals has declined by a third. We humans are using more than the world can restore, are out-competing other species and producing more waste than we can dispose of, yet even at this rate the gap between rich and poor is growing. While the poorest go hungry in ever-increasing numbers, the Western world is facing an epidemic of obesity. But perhaps not for long. As we have seen in Australia, the pressures of population growth have been putting unprecedented stress on our river systems despite recent good rainfalls. Our cities have been forced to implement more or less permanent water restrictions while our farmers are being paid to stop growing food and surrender their land.

Every year Australia imports more and more food. And if that is happening here, in one of the most productive agricultural nations on Earth, what does it mean for the rest of the world? The simultaneous growth in population and consumption threatens the long-term health of our society. Yet I don’t see our leaders discussing the issue, let alone trying to deal with it. There is barely a politician anywhere with the courage to argue that we must find alternatives to growth-at-all-cost economics, and find them quickly.

We have so geared our culture to demand growth that, even when faced with ever-approaching limits, we have no Plan B. In fact we are making it worse by pretending that our dream of wealth is available to all. Understandably, developing nations such as India and China are demanding their own share of what we have long kept for ourselves. If they and other poor nations lift their consumption to levels currently enjoyed by Australians, we would require three new planet Earths to supply the needed resources.

Despite all this, there are many who insist that it is the role and purpose of human beings to go forth and multiply. I ask these people just when will they be satisfied? Just how many people do there have to be before we exceed our limits? They don’t have an answer.

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