Friday, August 20

Growing pains

Australia’s surging population more than doubled over the past 50 years fuelled by successive waves of immigration and natural increase accelerating in more recent times. Should the growth spurt continue we may triple in size over the next 50 years; prompting political parties to debate sustainable population levels and the wisdom of continued high immigration levels. Immigration has been the catalyst for growth which has transformed our nation to formally adopt multiculturism as successive waves of immigrants have enriched our culture, whilst creating a diverse range of fledgling new enterprises. But due to poor planning Australia is also experiencing cracks in our infrastructure and a chronic housing shortage. As house prices plummet elsewhere Australia’s average price increase last year in many areas was around 33%, but one day the bubble will burst.

Appropriate Immigration appropriate to sustainable population levels is a complex issue as different conditions apply to the regions. Regional centres mostly can accommodate more people but lack essential infrastructure and skilled employment opportunities which are more evident in our big cities. Overall, Australia is one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world as our large cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne make up nearly 70% or the population all huddled along a narrow land strip on the eastern seaboard.

The two sides to the argument are as follows: those in favour of continued high immigration levels on the basis immigration creates the wealth to underpin living standards, education, productivity and provides the growth to absorb higher health spending on an ageing population; versus those against who either maintain we already exceed sustainable population levels or face that imminent risk. The weaknessess in the popular view we can easily accommodate a much bigger population because we only inhabit a tiny fraction of this vast fragile land mass is abundantly evident in our depleted landscape. Prolonged droughts, salination, severe erosion and a bio diversity depletion where species extinctions exceed levels seen anywhere else in the world all point to over-use and a lack of sustainability.

Hence If we define sustainability as a system able to achieve self perpetuation and adaptation in perpetuity then clearly we have already exceeded that point. But as is often the case the quality of any discussion is predicated on asking the right questions, since the carrying capacity to support a given population level in turn reflects a multitude of factors, not least of which are our material dependency and lifestyle choices. Once you begin debating the economics of policies designed to foster more development and housing into the more sparsely populated regional and country areas, away from the burgeoning cities to accommodate more migrants, you assume the same post-war optimistic material mind-set that presided over our current lack of sustainability. Rather I think a more thoughtful approach might be to pose the question ‘How can Australia provide a sustainable home for many more immigrants for us to share our vast land and resources. ?

Overpopulation in a fragile country like Australia is not defined by population density, but by the extent sustainable resources can meet our needs, coupled by a heavy transport reliance to move essential goods and services over vast distances. However, when we talk about people’s needs we immediately run into road blocks, since what is considered a basic human need in one country is a luxury for others living literally on our doorstep with struggling economies, which means mostly they are far worse off. Can we stand by based upon our sovereign rights and demand that all of those needs are to be met before we can widen our doors to willingly share in our resources with others who are far less well off ?.

Naturally enough people conclude their basic needs are denied in times of high unemployment and where there is a large disparity in income. It is also true that sudden dislocation to an economy can have unintended disastrous effects given investments in infrastructure take a long time to build, and any strategies to exit unsustainable development requires consideration for alternatives for those adversely effected. But at the consumer and business level there are many choices we make which are adding to the problem. House sizes have doubled on average over the past 30 years while the average level of occupants have halved. This example is typical of excessive consumerism since the larger homes all need more furniture and entertainment rooms full of elaborate equipment to use more power, water and gas, which provides enormous scope for savings should we revert to more sensible sizing.


Returning to the question 'How can Australia provide a sustainable home for many more immigrants for us to share our vast land and resources?'; it is apparent a larger population can only be sustained by significantly reducing our per capita use of resources. Business will also be helpful as competency improves in accounting for the cost of carbon to preference investments in the new cleaner alternatives, which all require a much higher investment in human capital. Those dirty industries such as coal currently crowd out land that could otherwise be used for agriculture.

Presently there are nearly 100,000 job vacancies in the rural sector.

Paradoxically it is the very idea of growth as such which prevents us from achieving it. In other words by learning from the past mistakes and assessing the present opportunities we can plan a future to include a sizeable migrant intake and also achieve a more sustainable future. But that won’t happen unless there are significant changes in lifestyle and attitude.

Here are a few snippets that may be interest.

Australia's agriculture sector needs an additional 96,000 full-time workers and 10,000 part-time workers.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald in an article headed as per above on the 17th August 2010, the Australian Farm Institute reported that if the sector continues on a business-as-usual course the shortage will worsen, driving up labour costs and limiting future growth in the sector.
Executive director Mick Keogh said agriculture was competing with mining for regional workers, and he believed there was a generally poor perception of the farming sector among school leavers.

Sustainable business practices
Already sustainable business practices is a keyword to Business, Government and in the Not-for-Profit sector as organisations realise the competitive advantage of having an integrated approach to sustainability to reduce their carbon footprint within their operations. Today Business shares those objectives with employees, clients, stakeholders and the communities in which they operate.
It has now become an integral core of the reporting for all public companies in Australia.
Business expects a tax on carbon and is acting as if it is inevitable rather than waiting for government action.

Buying back water for the environment
There is consideration being given to purchase Cubbie’s water licensees under the government’s $3.1 billion program to buy back water for the environment. Cubbie has more water than Sydney Harbour. The water was previously used for cotton crops prior to Cubbie entering into receivership but could be used for other crops that require far less water. The outcome will not be known until after the election.

Food and groceries
The local industry is aiming to achieve an enhanced system to ensure sustainability, to address environmental concerns and remove inefficiencies which will achieve lower costs. Accurate food labelling is now a permanent feature for consumers and the industry is particularly concerned about the impact of deforestation in the South East Asian region and supports the development of certified sustainable palm oil.

Recycling
Most replacements for ageing equipment today can save up to 80% in energy use and in many instances are 97 % recyclable. Domestic recycling in Australia is well below optimal levels. It's up to us the consumers of this country to ensure all of the recycling programs are working well. That means accurately sorting the items into the various coloured bins so that recyclables don’t finish up in landfills. So far the news is good with a reported steady increase in materials recovered for recycling.
But the big test is to learn to live with less.

Housing and transport.
Maintaining a house is expensive when you think about painting, roofs, bathrooms, kitchens, gutters, lawns, hot water systems, drains and so forth but If you have half the size and half the land you eliminate half the headache. We seriously need to downsize in Australia and the same is true in relation to our transport. People have tended to regard their homes as investments rather than simply as places to live and bring up a family as the case may be.

11 comments:

孫邦柔 said...

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chet Holmes said...

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Rachael Byrnes said...

A very interesting and thought provoking article. Perhaps there should be income tax breaks for people who chose to have more moderate consumption lifestyles eg..smaller cars, no car, smaller homes etc.. That way people could be encouraged to participate in a healthy economy of spending but on non material services, such as arts and entertainment, education, community sports clubs etc.. rather than luxury items.

Rachael Byrnes said...

In addition to my previous comment I was discussing with Chris how how tax breaks for sustainable consumers could be governed. He pointed out that Carbon tax schemes would achieve a similar end however I argued that it's not grass roots enough to influence and motivate all people. It focuses on industry and puts the responsibility on higher level people. Whilst this is necessary and important I still think everyone needs to change as you have said in your article. Tax breaks for sustainable consumers could be governed as part of an annual tax return. Eligible people would have to declare their net worth and annual income and then declare all sizable outgoings with receipts.

White Square said...

Dear Lindsay,
Interesting and thought provoking as ever. We need to think and innovate constantly so that our systems keep on evolving.
I am back to India after spending 5 yrs. in Russia. You can visit me at www.abhayk.com
Regards
Abhay

張王雅竹欣虹 said...

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Gary said...

Terrific analysis Lindsay. I think there has to be room to grow in affluent societies like ours (and yours), but all these issues are very important to address.

With you fascinating election, it will be interesting to see who will actually govern... and how. Sometimes coalitions get more done because compromise is the only way to avoid the polls too soon.

Gary said...

Should add... I really like Rachael's ideas and think we should pursue them. Reward those who use less - now there's a concept!

Mercutio said...

From my view, it looks as if the amount of potable water would provide a natural limit for population growth.

Carbon taxes have their benefits, but are not without drawbacks. I tend to favor the cap-and-trade system, which has the net effect of providing more capital for growth to utilities with lower pollution levels.

In general, I'm a bit leery of tax incentives for this or that, as the revenue must be made up elsewhere.

That data I've seen suggests that the average price for a home in Australia has fallen by 5% since the first of the year. Is this accurate?

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Chet, Zhu Yan Hong Zhang Wangya, Rachael, Gary. Abhay & Mercutio

Thanks for your comments:

Rachael,

What Chris said is correct but at the consumer level there are also additional ways of rewarding people who use less energy, recycle and consume fewer materials.

Gary

After this election I am sure more attention will be paid to regional Australia. I agree that sometimes coalitions can get more done because compromise is the only way to avoid the polls too soon.

Abhay
Welcome back to your homeland – I daresay you have seen quite a lot of change?
I will visit you shortly
Mecutio
The big cities have reduced their overall use of potable water in the past few years but there remains much more in savings to be achieved e g. we still use 50% of portable water for sewerage systems as most people recoil at recycled drinking water despite assurances from scientists there are no health hazards. In the far north there are vast reserves of potable water amidst just a handful of inhabitants.

Presently China it seems wants to cut prices for vacant apartment buildings to ensure government developers sell their stocks onto a market at prices which buyers can afford. If China does succeed in reducing its housing prices, the Australian housing market may well emerge as one of the very few countries whose housing stock remains unaffected by the global financial crisis. However the index is slightly below par (not quite 5% in a reduction ) presently with prices expected to remain soft.

It would not be bad thing in my view if they continued to fall modestly.

Best wishes

lindsaylobe said...

Out to-day the national house price index increased by .4% for July