Population growth is not the only taboo that needs addressing for humanity to overcome climate change; to do so effectively we first need to deal with Xenophobia and the inequality it creates
I am as big a fan of Sir David Attenborough as anybody. In fact it is safe to say that his mesmerising narration of wildlife programs that have fired the imagination of children for decades was no small factor in my decision to study Marine Biology and Zoology at university in the late ’80s, ultimately obtaining a Ph.D. in aquatic animal disease in the mid ’90s.
Now my sons are huge fans!
I fully share Attenborough’s strong concern for the impact of human-caused climate change on our finite planet and I agree that careful and thoughtful discussion of population growth needs to be front and centre in the discussion.
During Attenborough’s 2011 speech to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (“People and Planet: Full edit with audience Q&A”, RSA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sP291B7SCw accessed 18 October 2019), he passionately stated “Stop population increase – stop the escalator – and we have some chance of reaching the top – that is to say a decent life for all.”
The message cuts through with scientists and environmentalist, and on social media
Attenborough’s impassioned speech was received by many and various edited videos of this speech have been circulated through social media since the video became public, as has versions of the transcript of that speech. In the speech Attenborough called on all nations to develop population policies, and organisations and individuals with their agenda including to set population limits for sovereignties often spread these videos and texts.
No doubt Attenborough felt compelled in this speech to use his unparallelled credibility to inextricably link population growth with climate change while acknowledging the apparent extreme sensitivity around doing so, in fact referring to it as a taboo. The reasons for which he stated he struggled to understand but suggested that it may in part be due to even sobre actors not wanting to be singled out as being politically incorrect or even racist or xenophobic. This section of his speech is very commonly included in those circulating videos and transcripts.
I find this interesting because I can relate to this statement in the opposite direction and would suggest that in developed countries, and certainly Australia, it is at least as big a taboo to explicitly suggest that somebody is displaying xenophobic tendencies or behaving in a prejudiced manner, so that we can really only talk about it at a very high level to infer its existence when we look at, for example, differences in the pay levels across society or representation in corporate structures.
Attenborough’s message was also received in academic circles and notably a paper published in November 2019 entitled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency”, with 11,000 scientist signatories, placed a very heavy emphasis on linking population growth to the climate emergency (Ripple et al. 2019, “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz088 , accessed 19 November 2019). The report listed sustained human population increases as “profoundly troubling”, and highlighted that while “encouraging” decreases in global birth rates have been observed, these declines have substantially slowed over the last 20 years. The report concluded that “bold and drastic transformations” were needed regarding population policies so that the global population is “stabilised – and, ideally, gradually reduced – within a framework that ensures social integrity”.
Attenborough stated his lack of expertise in developmental sociology, economics and political science, and did not want to appear to overplay his hand in these areas. He did, however, note that lower birthrates are typically observed in societies where women vote, and thus have greater educational opportunities, and made special mention of contraception as a critical factor while being careful to recognise the basic human right that women and families have in deciding how many children they bring into this world.
In rightly challenging people in their private and public lives to confront the inertia around responding to climate change, however, unfortunately Attenborough appears to me to be less concerned with taking on that other social taboo of xenophobia and the impact that it has had on human progress and equality.
Human-induced climate change simply can not be dealt with in any sustainable manner without also dealing with global inequality, and that is unlikely to be dealt with without first challenging xenophobia. This is the very obvious weakness in Attenborough’s assertion to “Stop population increase.. and we have some chance of reaching… a decent life for all.”
In a study published in recent months (Jackson et al 2019, Jackson JC, van Egmond M, Choi VK, Ember CR, Halberstadt J, Balanovic J, et al. (2019) Ecological and cultural factors underlying the global distribution of prejudice. PLoS ONE 14(9): e0221953. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0221953 ), a group of 19 researchers in economics, psychology and anthropology from 8 nations analysing broad data sets found a “strikingly consistent” link between climate threats and the highest level of prejudice against minorities in societies (Jackson and Gelfand, “Could climate change fuel the rise of right-wing nationalism?”, The Conversation, accessed 16 Oct 2019, https://theconversation.com/could-climate-change-fuel-the-rise-of-right-wing-nationalism-123503)
This study provides empirical evidence for a direct link between xenophobia and climate change. It also points to a more likely cause for the reluctance of those sobre-minded NGO employees to draw strident links between population growth and climate change – that culturally aware individuals intuitively understood the consequences on social cohesion of doing so in a forthright manner.
The need to address xenophobia in order to address climate change is more basic and obvious, however.
Calls for Action: Population Policy and Population Limits
In Australia there is a movement to introduce population limits following on from the population policy that Attenborough calls on sovereign nations to develop. The motives of these proponents are said to be entirely related to their concern for sustainability of human life on our continent.
In 2002 I was a recipient of a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (AvH) in Germany, and I spent 12 months in the company of some of the brightest and most successful researchers from around the globe. Yearly the AvH funds around 500 researchers to live in Germany and collaborate on an infinite range of research topics from theology to nanobiology.
I vividly recall being challenged by a fellow “Humboldtian” from Canada to explain what our Australian politicians are doing locking up some of the poorest people on the planet for seeking a better life and requiring from me an explanation for the “children overboard” incident.
I simply said that the truth of the matter is that the Government had one of the lowest approval ratings on record (at the time) heading into the election, but the way that they dealt with the incident catapulted them to a significant victory, and, unfortunately, that said a lot more about the Australian electorate and people than it did about the politicians.
It was without doubt the low point for me in being an Australian with an international profile during my career as a research scientist.
Now we have a movement of Australians who want to have a population debate with their aim being to introduce population limits for Australia.
For me this debate shares many similarities with an issue that I confronted when my professional and personal life collided. Before I left for Europe in early 2001 I worked for Biosecurity Australia conducting import risk analyses (IRA) for aquatic invertebrates when the Plant Biosecurity Branch was conducting an IRA on bananas from the Philippines. I come from Innisfail, the centre of the most important banana-growing region in Australia, and at the time my family grew bananas commercially.
Family and friends in Innisfail were understandably emotional about the review and had the common sense to initiate the discussion by stating their concerns about the possibility of importing diseases with banana imports. However, always the discussion very quickly turned to reveal what was the true anxiety – a fear that Australian farmers would not be able to compete with the imported bananas and so it would spell the end for the local industry.
That, in itself, is a genuine concern but it is an altogether different issue and one that can only be addressed by politicians who continually shirked their responsibility. (To gain some understanding of that the reader might be interested to read in Hansard – https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;db=COMMITTEES;id=committees%2Fcommsen%2F10712%2F0002;query=Id%3Acommittees%2Fcommsen%2F10712%2F0002 – a brief discussion between myself and the politician who was my Minister before I left Biosecurity Australia – of course the Minister was happy for the young Scientist to earn the ire of farmers lest more of their anger be directed his way.)
The concerns that Australian banana farmers had with not being able to compete with imported bananas centred around their low cost of production, and it was well understood that being a poor country, child labour was one reason for why Philippine bananas were produced cheaply. Although it was difficult for family and friends to hear me say it, I believed deeply in a fairer world where all children have equal access to opportunity, and that Australia benefited greatly from having an open economy with other countries accepting our goods, so where imports can occur within a reasonable and consistent confidence (which was defined as our “appropriate level of sanitary and phytosanitary protection”) they should occur consistent with our obligations, and the obligations we expected other countries to meet, under the World Trade Organisation.
How else would poor families attain the security to be able to have their children educated?
I have long understood that for globalisation to really work both the benefits and costs must be shared across our societies fairly and that is the job of our politicians.
Is Population Policy all About Climate Change?
In the current debate I am not suggesting that nobody is concerned about the effects that Australia’s population is currently having on the climate. Nor am I suggesting that there are not physical constraints that will need to be overcome should the population of Australia continue to grow which would require significant and timely investments in infrastructure by successive governments.
What is undeniable, however, except perhaps to the flat-Earther (in Attenborough’s parlance) xenophobes, is that immigration to the landmass of Australia has been a very contentious issue for inhabitants of British descent for most of our modern history, and highly restrictive immigration policies were in place for over 130 years until the mid 1970s when Prime Minister Whitlam introduced laws to eliminate race discrimination (Lockwood, R. “British Imperial Influences in the Foundation of the White Australia Policy.” Labour History, no. 7, 1964, pp. 23–33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27507761. accessed 18 October 2019).
As recently as World War II the Australian Prime Minister Curtin strongly espoused discriminatory migration saying “this country shall remain forever the home of descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race” (The White Australia Policy, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Australia_policy. accessed 18 October 2019).
I do suggest, also, that whilst many contemporary Australians are of non-European descent, and they along with our first peoples and earlier migrants from Britain and central and southern Europe have create a melange of culture that very many Australians appreciate as our contemporary culture, there are many Australians that remain naive, closed-minded, or even ignorant, to non-Anglo and non-European cultures.
It must be accepted that in this debate there will be some, perhaps many, who passionately argue but whose anxieties are in reality focused elsewhere.
This does not invalidate their points if well considered and founded, but there can be no doubt that these other anxieties are adding to the heat surrounding the debate.
So let’s address the prospect of placing a population limit on Australia by gaming out to its logical conclusion an extreme scenario – perhaps what some would suggest is ideal – where Australia limited immigration so that our population never got above 26 million.
Let’s also assume that only a few other wealthy countries also introduce population limits, and the global economy does not manage to de-carbonise very significantly and Australia continues to profit from selling coal and iron ore to a few countries (but not China because our politicians realised that we really do need the implicit security guarantee of the US in an increasingly fractious geopolity so the Chinese Communist Party, wanting to continue to develop its own sphere of influence, found alternate suppliers).
In 2050 the Earth’s population is 10 billion, around 30% more than today. The Earth’s temperature has increased a further 0.5 C, with rising sea levels causing further saltwater intrusion and 140 million of the poorest people in the poorest countries having been forced to migrate within and across borders, along with intensified environmental degradation and natural disasters (World Bank 2018). Global food production is struggling to keep pace with environmental change and wealthy countries have continued to secure drinking water by imports and/or desalinisation infrastructure.
These are not extreme forecasts based on currently available modelling. Worse still, the World Bank report suggests that this temperature increase is already “locked in”, and that these changes will accelerate in the second half of the century. But for these purposes let’s limit our discussion to 30 years hence forth.
Let’s also assume that we managed to continue to be the (relatively) lucky country, where trade with a post-Brexit UK and still strong – but more inward-looking – US and Japan allows us to still have a fairly good, if still not very innovative, standard of living with a Universal Basic Income delivered by our central bank, even if we have to endure more frequent and significant outbursts from Mother Nature and our kids live more of their lives indoors due to the increased number of dangerously hot days and asthmatics struggle with the smoke haze from the increased bushfires. Our conflicted intransigence on climate change policy led to the Europeans minimising trade with us, and we did not have the national wealth to sponsor co-operative links with our near neighbours – whose populations have grown significantly as extended families improved their odds of survival by having more children (discussed in greater detail below) – who have grown increasingly suspicious of us as we have appeared more insular, and who have disproportionately felt the severe effects of climate change.
Anybody remember the story of the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest? How that has impacts all over the globe?
Anybody starting to feel a little lonely – a little vulnerable?
Global Challenges Require Global Responses
Coming from northern Queensland I cannot tell you how many times I heard as a boy about the Brisbane line, the plan formulated in World War II to relinquish northern Australia in the event of Japanese invasion. (Of course it was always accompanied by a passionate call for all to have access to firearms.)
Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy. And so today, in this year of war, 1945, we have learned lessons– at a fearful cost–and we shall profit by them. We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not as ostriches, nor as dogs in the manger. We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community. We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” We can gain no lasting peace if we approach it with suspicion and mistrust or with fear. We can gain it only if we proceed with the understanding, the confidence, and the courage which flow from conviction. The Almighty God has blessed our land in many ways. He has given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth. He has given to our country a faith which has become the hope of all peoples in an anguished world. So we pray to Him now for the vision to see our way clearly–to see the way that leads to a better life for ourselves and for all our fellow men–to the achievement of His will to peace on earth.
This is the perspective gained from occasional intraspection that follows only the most serious prolonged catastrophes humanity provides for itself. In this case it was the Fourth Inaugural address of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
I don’t pretend to know what are all of the answers. But I do know that Australia alone or with some other wealthy countries introducing populations limits is nothing more than akin to riders in a car terrified of being car-jacked winding up the windows and turning up the music to drown out their sense of anxiety!
I must also admit to being somewhat surprised that the legitimacy of our islands of prosperity have not been challenged by now to a far greater degree than the relatively few terrorist attacks aimed at us within our islands or when we travel outside of them. I rather suspect that holding out the glimmer of hope that anyone might be lucky enough to migrate to one of the islands has been a factor in holding this back. It would be foolhardy to believe that if we were to shut the gates, with an increasingly inhospitable global environment, that that legitimacy would not be increasingly challenged.
Global solutions are required and that can only occur with genuine engagement in the global community. Not by trying to hide like a dog in the manger.
The only population target even worth considering is a global one and Attenborough eludes to the basic underlying truth that must be addressed if we have any chance of achieving that – to sustainably reduce human population growth all peoples will have to have the same opportunities to enjoy the same standard of living.
That’s the “decent life for all” that Attenborough mentions.
Standard of Living in Focus
Many people who I read who argue for population limits for Australia talk equally passionately about the impact on the standard of living that population growth from immigration is having on the current population.
I would also note that, unsurprisingly, proponents of setting population limits for Australia, drawing heavily on Attenborough’s assertions on the dire need for population policy, fail to mention this line from his RCA speech:
Big empty Australia has appointed a Sustainable Population Minister so why can’t small crowded Britain?
On my first economics-related website some 12 years ago (homes4aussies) I expressed a related concern – that our shortsighted politicians were using immigration to backfill the growth required to fund infrastructure – in a never-ending cycle which is really meant to keep up our high house prices and conventional measures of economic growth to give the illusion of them being good economic managers and to appease the powerful business elites (and thus ensure profitable post-politics careers).
My concern was never with immigration. In fact, I am and always have been very supportive of well planned immigration, with equal representation from all corners of the globe and all cultures, where the infrastructure is in place as the population grows.
Having said that, even though I consider this to be the preferred process, I believe the recent high migration period to have been very successful and my heart warms whenever I see a recent migrant busily beavering away at making a success of his or her new life, and I feel especially proud and my heart smiles when I hear the kids speak with a broad Aussie accent!
While the under-investment in housing has been corrected, the simple truth is that infrastructure development has lagged in Australia. For a period up to a decade ago that was likely due to governments not wanting to cause inflation while the resources boom was under way. Governments wasted the proceeds of the resources boom instead of saving for a rainy day – in the form of a sovereign wealth fund – and now are playing this game of chasing their tail in a vain attempt to appear industrious and wise.
Two points are critical here: firstly, it is not the fault of our newer migrants that the provision of infrastructure in the country has lagged, and secondly, even though it may be reasonable to argue that this lag has resulted in a reduction in the quality of life of “existing” Australians, to the extent infrastructure contributes to it, the loss is in reality only minor (and may be temporary) while the increase in quality of life for those who migrated is almost certainly many orders of magnitude greater.
This goes directly to the main point of this article – we cannot achieve a sustainable population that reaches a stable and habitable situation on the planet without all human beings having the same opportunity to have the same standard of living as all others.
It would be wonderful if all peoples could be lifted to have the same opportunity to have the same standard of living as us Australians currently enjoy and would enjoy into the future if it were to progress at a similar rate. But I am rather sceptical that that will be possible on this finite planet, and I believe Attenborough has already delivered his opinion on that in the negative.
In that case we are going to need to accept that we will be required to trade off our quality of life for a sustainable planet and by inference Australian continent.
I would argue that morally we have never had the right to enjoy a higher standard of living than others. Now that we understand the consequences, having developed our own economy with little regard for the impacts on our environment and the factors which affect our environment, we certainly have no moral authority to insist other (mostly poorer) countries cannot further harm the environment with their development.
Herein lies the most serious flaw in Attenborough’s arguments as presented in his speech, and indeed in most discussions surrounding population growth by environmentalists.
Selfish Genes and Game Theory
Any naturalist will tell you that it is an entirely natural response by organisms when under threat to attempt to increase their fecundity to increase the probability of survival of their genetic line. This relates directly to the Selfish Gene Theory which underpins our scientific understanding of evolution.
Interesting to this discussion, in 2017 in a public poll to mark the 30th Anniversary of the Royal Society book prizes “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins outranked Darwin and other luminaries to be declared the most significant book of all time! (Armitstead, Claire (20 July 2017). “Dawkins sees off Darwin in vote for most influential science book”. The Guardian.)
Yet In Attenborough’s speech he says the following:
But [the Global Food and Farming Futures Report] doesn’t mention what every mother subsisting on the equivalent of a dollar a day already knows – that her children would be better fed if there were four of them around the table instead of ten.
And then in his speech, Attenborough recommends that contraception be encouraged and promoted to poor people in poor countries to reduce population growth. The 11,000 scientist signatories emphasise the same by highlighting the importance of access to family planning resources.
The main targets for these efforts are the same poor people in the same developing countries which are well understood to be most at risk of the most severe impacts of climate change.
In other words, on the one hand naturalists understand that the natural impulse by these people will be to increase the rate of births in order to increase the chance of survival of their genetic line, yet they recommend that these people be encouraged to not just resist this natural urge but, in fact, decrease their fecundity.
Attenborough’s argument would be correct if it were the sole responsibility of the parents to secure resources with which to raise children.
That is not how large families work, however, and it is the reason why even people in Anglophone countries had significantly larger families earlier in their development. My Great Grandfather, a first generation Australian after emigrating from England in 1883, had 12 children and then my Grandparents had 7 Children (my father 3 and me 2). Being farmers, my Grandmother worked in the fields and my father, the youngest in his family, was essentially raised by his elder sisters.
For struggling families with immediate severe threats that challenge the very existence of the family, education of children is a distant concern and obtaining the resources for survival is a day to day challenge. In other words, the family subsisting on $1/day/person in a family of 4 hopes that it might become $1.10/day/person in a family of 10. But even if resources do not increase on a per person basis, the probability of some of their offspring surviving to maturity is increased by the larger initial number of offspring which is a significant positive for the parents (as was experienced in my own Great Grandfather’s family when only 9 of the 12 children birthed survived past 18 years.)
No, just like 5 year-olds in Victorian-era England dredged through faeces for coins and other resources, and did other jobs which we nowadays find disagreeable, having more children increases the likelihood of survival of the family as a whole if they can, in net terms, reasonably quickly add resources to the pool of resources on which the family seeks to survive.
If there is a reasonable chance that that will occur, then for that family to have more children is an entirely natural and prudent response to severe threats.
I suspect that Attenborough’s own internal conflict over this obvious contradiction is on display in his speech in his use of the example of the Blue Tits in his own garden laying 20 eggs annually in the hope that 2 offspring will survive to reproduce, for the principle to which he eludes is the same as the one I use above.
Sadly, I do consider that the Selfish Gene Theory is very much at work within this contradiction by many environmentalists, but let’s be very clear that it is the poor people who are being encouraged to be unselfish, and without the reward that the worker bees gain in promoting their own genetics by assisting other individuals to survive and breed.
While this position will be considered extreme by some, it is patently both logical and proportionate.
Moreover, I am in no doubt that greed and selfishness is a malaise of the wealthy and/or powerful, and as an ex-scientist I am enormously offended by the hijacking of The Selfish Gene Theory to infer in a Gordon Gekko-esque market-based society that selfishness, if not necessarily good, is at the very least natural.
Wanting your offspring to survive to maturity does not mean that you will seek to screw over others in continual competition to get another win over another person, whether it be when driving or in your kids’ sports or in a salary negotiation. In fact, as social beings we have evolved to place a very high value on collaboration and thus have reached the point where The Selfish Gene Theory for us infers the opposite – that a highly collaborative society, built on empathy and compassion, delivers to us a higher probability of our lineage surviving than if we act selfishly.
Of course this is dependent on the perception being widely held that everyone (or at least most) wishes to and will co-operate, and it is likely the weakening of this perception within developed societies that is now leading to weakening social cohesion.
It is agreed by the scientific community (as in the paper with 11,000 scientist signatories, Ripple et al 2019) that: 1) poor people in poor countries are at greatest risk of severe impacts from global climate change; 2) human-induced global climate change is due to the cumulative effects of the development of all humans, and by definition much of that damage was done by the developed countries; 3) poor people in poor countries, being the populations where higher birth rates are still common, are the focus of efforts to reduce population growth as a means of addressing climate change by encouraging them to have fewer children; and 4) any improvement in the factors affecting climate change will be to the benefit of all people.
While poor people in poor countries are the most precarious with respect to climate change, they also have the most to lose by not doing the one thing they can do biologically to respond to it as having fewer children in increasingly adverse conditions increases the likelihood that family lines, communities, and even ethnicities will cease to exist.
It is the poor who are faced with the most awful and immediate dilemma of all of us.
Is it not, therefore, reasonable that poor people in poor countries would question whether the burden of responding to the global climate change crisis is being spread fairly and that rich people in wealthy countries are sacrificing significantly, too, for the greater good of mankind?
Of course game theory is highly relevant here – even if it remains debatable whether it is the prisoners’ dilemma or the stag hunters’ dilemma that is most pertinent – where to address climate change both the developed and developing world need to co-operate in absolute good faith.
(And please note that here I am using developing or poor countries synonymously with non-powerful countries, and so China is explicitly not included in my discussion – that is an altogether different issue.)
The developed nations’ dilemma, from the perspective of their leaders, is this: if I publicly accept that we face a climate crisis that we have the possibility to overcome, then I will need to build a consensus in the electorate and amongst potentially disaffected businesses to accept that their standard of living will fall, and that business models will be irretrievably broken, and that consensus will need to be extremely strong and durable for my political party to remain in Government as opposition parties will be tempted to seek advantage by a move towards populism.
In these era of particularly weak leadership in the developed world – in skill, character and/or intellect – it is, therefore, unsurprising that many of these lesser quality politicians are denying the risks humanity faces due to human-induced Climate Change.
As has been the case perhaps since time immemorial, wealthy countries are instead inclined to shift a disproportionate burden onto the more vulnerable poor in poor countries, and I would suggest that the population growth aspect of the response could be interpreted as just that.
Scientist’s publications and recommendations on population policy to reduce birthrates in developing countries provides a shroud of credibility to support the agenda.
In many ways this can be seen as collective collaboration to enforce collaborative behaviour by using the reputation of a respected sub-community of humanity to resolve the impasse or dilemma in the favour of the developed and more powerful nations.
However, the intellectual and moral flaws are not subtle and the more desperate these people become the more these agendas will be challenged. In fact, as the main source of opinion on population used in the paper with 11,000 scientist signatories states, Bongaarts and O’Neil (2018) state that there are already signs that this is occurring as the “consensus on population policy ended in the 90’s”.
It would also be interesting to fully understand whether powerful nations are using other carrot and stick measures to enforce collaborative behaviour on population in the poorer nations.
There is no doubt that the poor in poor countries face the most serious immediate effects from climate change and at the same time will have the strongest biological impulse to break with any social compact.
So even those less inclined to act on moral grounds surely must see the logic within game theory that the developed world can not shift much of the responsibility to carry the burden for responding to climate change to the poor in the developing world, and it will be absolutely critical that the developed world acts with great honour and decency so that it is perceived to be taking on a fair burden in the global response.
To achieve this the developed world leadership will need to display all of the authenticity and sincerity displayed by President Roosevelt in his 4th Inauguration.
The answer does lie in Attenborough’s essay, specifically in his example of increased education of women; when all people have access to opportunity – either in their country of birth or after migrating to a more prosperous community – they tend to make decisions which result in lower birth rates.
Here, however, it really is absolutely critical what comes first. It must be equal opportunity to the same standard of living that all peoples enjoy that comes first, leading to personal security, which then leads to the rational decision to reduce birthrates.
If this is perceived not to be the case, then the social compact will unravel and poor people will be better served increasing their birthrates.
To be clear, whether the situation is analysed according to game theory or just plain old fashioned common sense, unless the developed world makes very definite and significant efforts to ensure that all people, irrespective of their country of residence or birth, have equal opportunity to enjoy the same standard of living, so much so that there is little chance that the situation will be perceived in any other way, then all attempts to significantly reduce population growth will ultimately fail as poor people in poor countries will do the one thing that they can do to increase the chance of their family surviving – have more children!
If you believe that we are in the midst of a Climate Crisis, and if you believe that population growth must be addressed to combat that crisis, then you must also accept that xenophobia must first be overcome so that all people have equal access to equal opportunity to experience an equivalent standard of living.
What can be done?
Recently, the peoples of the world were united in shock to learn of the massive fires in the Amazon rainforest and for a week our social media feeds were filled with facts relating to this wonder of the natural world. One amazing factoid which received a lot of attention was that the Amazon produces 20% of the globe’s oxygen. As an ex-scientist I did ponder how this figure was determined and was not surprised to learn that it’s role in supplying oxygen to the globe is considerably more complex. What is undeniable is that it is an immense resource and is of critical importance to all of us not just the peoples that live in and near to the Amazon.
This value, however, is very significantly underappreciated in a global humanity where market-based societies rule, using the terminology of Yannis Varoufakis in his book “Talking to My Daughter: A brief history of Capitalism”. So it’s value to “the market” is being extracted – it’s timber is logged and sold, and the cleared ground is used to produce crops and livestock for sale.
Some industrious market proponents are suggesting that market-based solutions be applied to give a market value to an aspect that the Amazon contains such as a store of carbon which will mean that it is valued by the market and market participants are thus incentivised to maintain the Amazon. Perhaps that is possible to construct but to me it seems strange and open to market vagaries including occasional market dysfunctions and the arbitraging of that chosen factor against other potential offsets somewhere else in the market (because the market is just about one particular factor).
It would be far more authentic for the global community to simply identify resources of global significance to humankind and for all sovereignties to contribute fairly to their preservation and/or maintenance by paying a fair contribution to that value and thus creating the incentive directly to the country/ies and peoples involved. Of course there would be a cost in auditing but it would be significantly less than that charged by the ticket-clipping investment bankers and market makers that will extract their portion from any market-based solution.
Most importantly such a process in identifying vital Global resources will outline all of the aspects which we currently understand to be of significance to mankind rather than picking just one or a few of them to trade.
There would be, I suggest, many parallels with the aims of the Common Agricultural Policy in the European Union which seeks to protect culture and especially rural livelihoods from the harsh realities of global markets by simply adopting the principle that this is worth protecting for our society irrespective of market forces.
I suspect that, besides the issue that the powerful elites are always looking for new products to facilitate the trade in and pick up their facilitation taxes, the politicians would equally be reluctant to explain to their people that their income taxes are being directed to foreigners in a foreign country to preserve and manage resources of significance to all of humankind. The “foreign aid” component of the Federal Budget is, after all, always a contentious issue in Australia and an easy target for cutbacks.
The rapid emergence of “Green Bonds”, if well managed and regulated, may well be an effective “back door” attempt at what I describe. However, it would be preferable for world leaders to actually lead and bring along their populations so that efforts can be sustained.
No matter how the funds flow to the countries with the natural endowment which is of value to humankind, it is essential that the benefits flow to the people giving them the same opportunity to develop the same living standard as all others.
Care must also be taken to ensure that people in countries or geographical areas without large natural endowments – or at least which humankind is yet to appreciate – have the same opportunity to develop the same living standard as all others.
I can already hear the hard-liners retorting “well how are you going to ensure that money and resources actually reach the people”, the same tight-fisted individuals who never give a dollar to charity. There is one thing I know for certain – a dollar which stays in the pocket of the wealthy rather than given to charity is a dollar that will never be held by a person in need.
Scoundrels and Fake News
As a final exercise I ask the reader to compare two very similar pieces of writing attributed to Sir David Attenborough, the first the final paragraph in an essay entitled “This Heaving Planet” (which is identical in most parts to the RCA speech) which was published in The New Statesman on 27 April 2011 (https://www.newstatesman.com/environment/2011/04/human-population-essay-food, accessed 18 October 2019)
Make a list of all the other environmental problems that now afflict us and our poor battered planet – the increase of greenhouse gases and consequential global warming, the acidification of the oceans and the collapse of fish stocks, the loss of rainforest, the spread of deserts, the shortage of arable land, the increase in violent weather, the growth of mega-cities, famine, migration patterns. The list goes on and on. But they all share one underlying cause. Every one of these global problems, social as well as environmental, becomes more difficult – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.
… to this second piece, a transcript of the final paragraph of Attenborough’s RCA speech, which is consistent with every text of the speech that I have been able to view on the internet, which Attenborough delivered the month before his Essay in The New Statesman was published (e.g. from https://www.populationmedia.org/2011/04/27/david-attenborough-talk-on-population/, accessed 18 Oct 2019) :
Make a list of all the environmental and social problems that today afflict us and our poor battered planet – not just the extinction of species and animals and plants, that fifty years ago was the first signs of impending global disaster, but traffic congestion, oil prices, pressure on the health service, the growth of mega-cities, migration patterns, immigration policies, unemployment, the loss of arable land, desertification, famine, increasingly violent weather, the acidification of the oceans, the collapse of fish stocks, rising sea temperatures, the loss of rain forest. The list goes on and on. But they all share an underlying cause. Every one of these global problems, environmental as well as social becomes more difficult – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.
To the first sentence in the text of the speech to the RCA “social” problems is said to be added to the list of environmental problems, and in that list, along with oil prices, traffic congestion, unemployment and pressure on health services, is “immigration policies”.
In the transcript in this list of “all of the environmental and social problems that afflict us today”, I was surprised to see a naturalist mentioning these purely social issues, and it raised red flags with me. It seemed odd that his speech would deviate from the almost identical The New Statesman essay so I listened closely to the YouTube video of the speech published by RSA (People and Planet: Full edit with audience Q&A, RSA, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sP291B7SCw accessed 18 October 2019) and it is clear that what Attenborough actually said in this final passage was identical with the text published in The New Statesman.
Thus it is clear that someone or some group(s) with a “flat-Earther” xenophobic agenda took too literally his advice from an earlier passage suggesting people should add a few words to ensure the population element is not ignored when discussing the environment, and clearly sort to suggest that Attenborough had said much more than he did in order to further push their own divisive agenda.
In Google searches of the internet I was unable to locate even one account of Attenborough’s RCA speech with an accurate transcription of this passage (see Appendix 1 below).
Misquoting people to support agendas is certainly not scientific, nor is it ethical, moral or decent. It is simply appalling and all readers should be offended and disgusted by these actions!
Besides feeling these emotions I have to admit to being rather saddened by this realisation, and I have sympathy with Attenborough that, in trying to constructively progress the debate by taking on a taboo, he, his words and his credibility were all exploited by people who have altogether different agendas, and may not even really share his concerns for the environment, and much less likely share his obvious concern for the poor on Earth.
It is ironic that he would learn from the way his words were altered in recounts of this speech the reason why so many “worthy and intelligent” people from NGOs are so very, very careful in this area.
It is not a fear of not being “PC” (politically correct) or even described as being racist, it is in fact the opposite. It is an awareness that xenophobes will pounce on anything, and twist words or even make up altogether “fake news”, to suit their absurd and despicable agendas.
It is also interesting to note the shifting political landscape in many countries where connections are being established between groups that would have previously been considered inconceivable, such as between previously progressive “Green” (environmentalist) groups and trade union movements and ultra conservative right wing political movements. It is clear that the issue that unites these groups is an aversion to immigration, and previously more progressive groups really should have been more alert to their loss of “human values” in this political drift. My sincere hope is that this essay helps these groups to realise that they have not progressed the issue closest to their heart in doing so; in fact they have set it back.
The Authentic Leader In All Of Us
I realise that humanity, often led by powerful self-interested elites, is very prone to repeating the mistakes of the past. The obvious concern is that one of these days that mistake is going to have progressed beyond the point of no return.
I cannot escape the conclusion that a high proportion of those who disagree with the legitimacy of the science surrounding human-induced climate change do so because they do not want to confront the societal issues that must be overcome. Chief amongst them is global inequality. And since these problems are so entrenched and complex, so-called leaders take the easy option of playing on our relatively few and ultimately minor differences rather than promoting our shared humanity.
Nationalism at its essence asks one to care more about the group of human beings who share the same geographical location than others who do not live within that geography. In reality it extends to a view on what constitutes a person typical of the region – the way they look and behave – and suggests that one should be prejudiced against a personal not fitting that typicity.
I personally have never understood why I should care more for one human being over another based on anything other than whether in my life I have developed some form of personal connection with them. I do not believe for a moment that someone sharing the same suburb, shire/electorate, city, state, country, continent, timezone or hemisphere is more deserving at a chance for a secure and satisfying life than anybody else.
Surely there are enough of us now who understand the lessons of history, so brilliantly articulated by the leader of the most powerful post-WWII nation in his 4th Inauguration, that we can lead a change in culture so that there remains no doubt that human beings are always at their best when they seek to unite, and not divide. And that any plan which will ultimately divide us should be taken with scepticism and must be very critically examined.
As just one example, I would suggest that an authentic progressive leader would argue for the inclusion in all democratic oaths in all nations a “Roosevelt clause” that says that we know that to do the best by our constituents, or electors, we must treat their interests equally with that of all other human beings (past, present and future), for we know from our shared history that we can not live alone in peace and prosperity, and so we must all endeavour at all times to be compassionate and thoughtful members of the human community.
Surely that is what Roosevelt wanted for us – to “profit” from their lessons learned at a fearful cost!
So I, too, have a challenge for my peers – in private and public – to the best of your ability – as well as being brave and talking about your concerns about climate change, be equally courageous and mention your concerns about xenophobia and inequality. Do so in absolute clarity and conviction that the truly grave challenges facing us on our wondrous planet can never be sustainably overcome without first overcoming xenophobia, and be equally certain that a turn to a more divided humanity ensures greater misery than any of us, including the greatest story-tellers, have ever imagined.
My cynicism towards elite leadership of the world is only surpassed by my optimism of humanity, but be in no doubt that we are running out of time.
Also be in no doubt that these problems can not be overcome without leadership responding to humanity’s plea to lead in an authentic and sincere manner.
In this age of social media-centric, focus group-obsessed elected leadership, it is critical that we all recognise the power we each possess in having the one thing they desire above all else – our vote – and thus lead the elected elite to do the right thing by all of humanity, accepting no less.
It certainly is all getting too serious for such fastidious niceties, nowhere moreso than in big empty Australia.
Dedicated to my sons, Roshan and Navin, two young men who I am certain will make a difference in this world in their own ways. After my sons, I consider this essay my most significant contribution to mankind. I pray that my message is heard widely and in time.
“People and Planet: Full edit with audience Q&A” RSA (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sP291B7SCw accessed 18 October 2019) – Sir David’s Attenborough’s speech compared to “This Heaving Planet” an essay by Attenborough published in The New Statesman on 27 April 2011 (https://www.newstatesman.com/environment/2011/04/human-population-essay-food, accessed 18 October 2019)
The following are the only significant departures in his speech from the essay:- at 2:50 in the video, Attenborough commences reading the essay (prior to that he made some salutations and introductory comments)
– at 5.50 he goes off script momentarily to acknowledge Prince Phillip’s involvement in The World Wildlife Fund- at 12.25 he goes momentarily off script to mention that few in the room are likely to have suffered food shortages
– at 16.10 he uses acres instead of hectares as a unit of measure
– at 18.40 he goes off script to highlight his frustration at, and lack of understanding of why, there is in his perception a taboo on mentioning population growth in the context of combating climate change, suggesting that many are concerned “it’s not quite nice, not PC and possibly even racist to mention it”
The remainder of the speech is entirely consistent with The New Statesman essay and he finishes with the final passage from the essay.
Google search results on 23 October 2019 were instructive. A google search for “Make a list of all the other environmental problems that now afflict us and our poor battered planet” found just two links, one being to the original essay in The New Statesman and the other to a blogger who discussed Attenborough’s essay. On the other hand a google search for (the doctored transcript) “Make a list of all the environmental and social problems that today afflict us and our poor battered planet” resulted in 15 actual links. And a Google search for “It’s not quite nice, not PC, possibly even racist to mention it” resulted in 11 actual links (and of course this section has appeared on many videos circulated on social media). In other words, no full transcript of Attenborough’s RCA speech, or of his final passage in that speech, that I could find on the internet is accurate.
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2019
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