On Friday the 13th of February I attended the “Great Debate: To Collapse or Not to Collapse,” hosted by the Sustainable Living Festival at the Deakin Auditorium. The following Wednesday I attended a screening on the movie Cowspiracy, hosted by Animal Liberation Victoria, which explored the impact of industrial animal agriculture on the environment and the resistance from environmental groups to address the issue in a meaningful way.
Both events painted a grim picture of the environment and society if we don’t make considerable changes, however as in most events that prescribe change, they did a good job of focusing on particular issues whilst ignoring others. I have reflected considerably over the past week, and after summarising the two events I will share three points that I feel get overlooked by the environmental and social change movements. I believe these points must be acknowledged if we are to sustain the planet for successive generations.
The Great Debate: To Collapse or not to Collapse
The Great Debate identified climate change as an immediate crisis and six key speakers argued as to whether change should happen as a result of ‘collapse’ (e.g. a breakdown of our current complex and fuel dependent society) into a simpler, more grassroots society, or whether to work within the existing paradigm to a society run on clean renewable energy. The audience had the opportunity to vote at the end of which option they most agreed with or to suggest an alternative solution. With Bendigo Bank and Future Super sponsoring the event and encouraging attendees to divest, it was clear that the clean energy option had more support, however if the MC was hoping for a clear cut debate from the speakers she may have left a little disappointed.
Speakers David Holmgren and Nicole Foss gave the clearest arguments promoting collapse as the best option. Holmgren, who has spearheaded the permaculture movements in Victoria and abroad, suggested that a move from the middle class from grid-dependency towards self-reliance based on permaculture principles will allow a change of culture permitting a smoother transition away from capitalist growth economies that greatly impact the planet. Nicole Foss (see www.theautomaticearth.com) argued that economic collapse is inevitable as we are currently living in a financial bubble. As the bubble bursts, it will not be possible to fund the investment costs required for a large scale transition to renewable energy sources. To the contrary, people will only become inspired to take grass roots action when there is resource and fiscal depletion, she argued.
Phillip Sutton (author of ‘Climate Code Red’); Jess More (Stop CSG Illawarra) and George Marshall (author) were more inclined to argue that economic or physical collapse isn’t necessary. Sutton stated that collapse would not take CO2 away from the atmosphere. Therefore we need green tech technology to reclaim these emissions. These three speakers seemed to believe that there is a failure to talk about climate change on across the political spectrum. So a bottom-up change needs to take place through a conversation with wider society. Hopefully this would eventuate in a critical mass motivated to change society away from fossil fuels and endless economic growth.
George Monbiot (Prominent UK climate change author) had reservations for both sides of the argument and counselled attendees to abstain from voting. He suggested on the one hand how the planet will struggle to sustain our societies with current growth even with a switch to renewable energies. Further, that it is impossible to grow on a finite planet, especially now that limits have been reached. On the other hand, he had reservations about the manner in which basic demands (such as health) might be met in a post-collapse society. He believed that history has shown that post-collapse societies are not a peaceful alternative as and that feudal societies or tribal pockets run by psychopaths tend to be the norm.
Once the votes were counted, it was found that a distinct majority of 123 voted for non-collapse, and 59 voted for a third option (whatever that might be).
Why collapse might be better
I was in the minority who voted for collapse (23 votes) because I believe that the planet and other species that still live in it have a better chance of recovery if we’re in less of a position to systematically exploit it.
I learnt much from this debate and all speakers raised clear and valid points. As I anticipated however, the largest two contributors to climate change and ecological destruction, human population and animal agriculture were never discussed. This is all too common in environmental discussions. Nicole Foss mentioned the ‘P’ (for population numbers) word in passing, and George Monbiot brought up limits to growth on a finite planet, however this was couched as an economic argument rather than in terms of human numbers.
The frustration that I have with environmentalists ignoring animal agriculture as the primary cause of climate change was shared a few days later when I attended ‘Cowspiracy’, in which this was the main premise. Despite the conspiracy theory nature of the title, the movie was much better thought out than that. The documentary referred to the fact that UN reports had been repeatedly reporting animal agriculture as the leading cause of Greenhoouse Gases (GHG), with the World Institute equating this proportion to 51% of GHGs, or 32 000 million tonnes  This takes into account Methane (with a global warming power at least 23 times that of Co2) and land clearance. The Standard American Diet is much less efficient in terms of land area use compared to entirely or mostly plant based diet, with many studies suggesting the difference is quite dramatic , . livestock agriculture now covers 45% of the earth’s surface . Consider that transportation, the next highest emitter of GHG emission, contributes a much lesser proportion at 13%.
See http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/ for many links to some of these sobering statistics.
The documentary makers were curious as to why many environmentalist groups, such as Greenpeace, were not campaigning on the issue or even providing this information. In investigating, their conclusions were that many environmental groups were either ignorant of the issue, wilfully or otherwise, or had deliberate motives for withholding this information.
Reasons included perceived possibility of alienation of membership and fund base, due to environmental group awareness that people tend to be disinclined to change their own behaviour. Relatedly, campaigns that have a clearer ‘us’ and ‘them’ delineation (such as fossil fuel emissions from corporate giants) are easier to pursue. There was also some leads to suggest that some of the larger environmental organisations may also receive funding from the animal agriculture lobby.
Many of us in the population movement would sympathise with the frustration that the documentary makers felt at this disjointedness of priority. However, I became frustrated at the film of my own accord, because as although the filmmakers acknowledged human population growth, they took the approach of trivalising it in comparison to animal growth. As the two are so intertwined, I was once again left feeling that many loose ends were not tied. This is a sentiment that is now all too familiar to me. Although I understand that everyone needs to pick their battles and focus on particular campaigns, failure to acknowledge important and fundamental issues undermines the whole environmental movement in the long run. I have listed 3 important issues that I believe must be acknowledged if we have any chance on either a clean emission free society OR a soft collapse:
(1) We need to stop eating industrialised animal products
This won’t be a popular suggestion for many due to the fact it suggests such a profound change to our diet and a fundamental change that is difficult for most of us. But inaction now means even more uncomfortable change down the track. Unless the UN changes its statistics more favourably anytime soon, the best single change we can do individually in regards to emission and biodiversity loss is to transition to a mainly plant-based diet.
If there is any benefit to living in a global society, it is that we have an access to a variety of plant foods that allow us to have a complete diet easily. The earth unfortunately cannot sustain 7 billion humans eating at the top of the food chain. The option to change, however, is possible within our current paradigm.
If this line of reasoning sounds logical, it is mainly the animal rights movement that is relaying the message to the wider public at present. It is easy to acknowledge that a fair proportion of people would be wary of the messages conveyed by animal rights activists due to suspicions that their morality may be skewing the validity of an environmental based argument. If a recognised environmental movement were to champion this cause, especially where animal agriculture was not the only focus, than I believe more people would be convinced.
I also acknowledge that most environmental organizations do amazing and tireless work within their areas of focus, and it is impossible to fight all battles at once.
Given the proportion of GHG attributable to animal agriculture, one might have hoped that more attention would be directed towards this industry by all the environmental groups out there. Currently however, there are precious few environmental organisations advocating for this, which probably comes down to a perceived unpopularity of the issue to the membership base, where a fundamental change to the way an individual member lives would need to be advocated for.
As mentioned before, ‘Us vs them’ debates, where the emphasis is on fossil fuel usage by corporate giants resonate better with most people. This may be because it externalises the issue and the individual campaigner is less compelled to change their own lifestyle choices. I completely empathise why environmental groups choose to take this path, but anyone who successfully campaigns against animal agriculture will be much more effective in the long run for the well-being of the planet, if this is the ultimate goal.
(2) Our population growth needs to slow down or not grow at all
Many readers of Can Do Better would rightly suggest that industrial agriculture is an unfortunate consequence of feeding a large world population and would not be a phenomenon if the world’s population were less than it is today. This is theoretically true but the current reality is actually unavoidable. If global populations were to double however, than the savings we’d made on GHG by switching to a plant-based diet would be nullified. Essentially we’d be back to square one again and need to look towards another seismic change in lifestyle.
The major problem is that the demographic transition, or the plateau in global human population that we were hedging our bets on just isn’t happening. We were predicting human population to reach 9 billion and level for around 20 years, and only most recently has this been upped to 11 billion, or a 40% increase from 7 billion. Currently charts show human population growth rate as an almost exponentially rising curve since the 1990s whilst the growth curve of all other vertebrate species on the planet (with the exception of ‘livestock’ of course) going inversely the other direction by almost the same amount.
I personally believe that human population will continue to grow at this rate until we (a) do something decisiveabout it or (b) we overshoot and our environmental rug is swept from under us. Of course, we are at this stage heading for option b.
Population numbers is a difficult subject for many of those people fighting to save the environment. This is probably because most identify with the left side of the political system. They thus struggle to differentiate population stabilization from reproductive coercion of the majority world (on an international scale) and protectionism or xenophobia on the national scale.
There is also a persistent belief that the problem is one of per capita footprint (particularly in the West) rather the total number of footprints. Most serious research has suggested that both need to come down, with population, unfortunately, being the most powerful variable.
Canadian environmentalist Tim Murray suggests that: ‘One new citizen via British maternity ward or airport wipes out 80 lifetimes of responsible recycling’ and ‘The energy produced by a 900 machine wind farm in BC will be erased by the energy demands of just 22 days of population growth’. This certainly paints a dour picture of the effectiveness of a clean economy with today’s rapid population growth.
Another example is that found from the Union for the Conservation of Nature, whose study across the globe in 2004 found that human population density predicted for 88% of biodiversity loss, regardless of nation wealth or per capita consumption.
This latter finding complements my own anecdotal experience volunteering in Western Kenya where the Karkemega forest was being decimated literally before my eyes from a hilltop viewpoint to meet the survival needs of local people, living on a sustenance level on less than $40 per month, whose population numbers had been disturbed and boosted by the political and religious landscape. This suggests that a population living in a lower consumption, non-global or post-collapse society would cause a significant reduction in environmental impact, but as Phillip Sutton and George Monbiot suggested at the Great Debate, environmental destruction just becomes more localized in such societies and more dispersed in industrialised ones. Note that traditional societies, human and of other species, have lived for many generations in local ecologies at numbers that did not overwhelm their environment. We can deduce this from the fact that they obviously co-existed with a full complement of species in Africa, India, America and Australia before colonization. 
The good news is that population growth can be a relatively straightforward thing to manage, if the political and social will is there. The United Nations Family Planning association has found that high levels of education and access to NON COERCIVE family planning services result is lower birth rates AND lower infant mortality – essentially when women are empowered and enfranchised away from patriarchal political and religious institutions. This may be a relief to those on the left haunted by China’s one child policy and population control in the majority world as manifestation of Western imperialism. Targeted grassroots foreign aid is the key.
Population is therefore an international concern (total carbon output) and a national and community concern (effect on local eco-systems) with varying implications according to carrying capacity depending on location.
Australia has reached its 23 million carrying capacity  according to the Australian Academy for Science calculations in 1994. We are now expected to double our population in 35 years, which means to halve our national carbon output, each individual will need to consume at one quarter of what they consume now. Ironically, in the long run, human psychology would probably predict that most Australians would opt for less people than the dramatic cultural shift that would result in a short-term reduction in the very way they live.
This is, of course, antithetical to the open border ideology to many in the left. I would love to share this ideology, but one must take into account the carrying capacity of Australia in addition to the population growth rate of the world’s poor which, at last estimate, was growing at the rate of 80 million per year. Even if Australia had completely permeable borders, it could never accommodate the total annual population of the world’s poor (at almost 4 times Australia’s current carrying capacity per year).
Unless the ultimate aim is complete diffusion of the problem without addressing the root cause (which benefits no-one in the long term) than an international movement to address population and reduce poverty is the only real solution.
Totally open borders, without addressing the root issue, also don’t address the well-being of all other species and the first custodians of the continent. It may also be argued that unless aboriginal Australians have final say in our immigration policies, that this can be interpreted as further unsolicited colonization.
As it stands most of Australia’s population growth rate (388 000 per annum, or at 1.7% per annum, the highest in the OECD) derives from the ‘skilled’ or employment-related immigration channels (55%) followed by natural birth rate (40%) with humanitarian intake a distant third at 5%.
The job market has been slowing down, and it is evident that the continued push for skilled immigration is social engineering by the right of the political spectrum to raise GDP by increasing the customer base via the housing and asset markets.
This push for high housing prices and low wages is at the expense of the working and living prospects of people with disabilities, the young, the old, the first inhabitants and even our asylum seekers.
This stark local reality puts environmentalists and the left at a seeming crossroads: open borders vs diminished social rights, vested interests and worse conditions for asylum seekers.
Whilst environmentalists and the left remain silent on the subject, or continue to confuse all debate on population with refugees, ironically big business benefits at the expense of most of the social rights that the left are campaigning for in addition to the environmental goals which are diluted by impacts of rapid population growth.
If the left are concerned by Australia’s population growth and the political ideologies that fuel the wrong kind of growth, the good news is that any concerted campaign that succeeds in toppling the property developers, financial institutions and media moguls from power would mitigate the pressure on politicians to promote socially engineered growth without ever having to mention the dreaded ‘p’ word. Currently the cause is championed by single issue advocacy group such as Sustainable Population Australia and a major hurdle for such groups is in enrolling the wider public, many of whom are skeptical that such groups are using environmental green wash to promote a culturally protectionist agenda. Whilst this assumption is false in the most part, multi-campaign environmental groups who also campaign for population sustainability would probably present the message easier, as their true agendas are more trusted by the wider community.
A final consideration would address our national birth rate. Whilst it is already slightly under ‘replacement level’ (1.9%) further cultural change would allow for a more generous humanitarian intake without affecting the population growth rate.
A cultural change would be possible where people did not feel that raising children was the societal norm and that having less or no children was considered an equally valid life choice from the perspective of mainstream society. A community focused upbringing, where a wider network of trusted adults assisted in the raising of fewer children, could be a better alternative to the nuclear family arrangement that is the current norm . Furthermore, the education system could assist, where students could be facilitated in opening considering the many positives in raising a family, alongside the many costs, including financial pressures, changes to lifestyle, and the environmental impact of additional people on the planet. If we are considering that enormous change will happen in most of our lifetimes, including the possibility of economic and environmental collapse, this is something that people will need to carefully consider before deciding on having children.
Summary: we are not going to save our society from collapse if we are catering for a population heading towards a long term goal of infinity people, even with all the green tech in the world.
3. We have to keep our Ego under check
This last point comes more from my own philosophical outlook than through factual research that has resulted in my views on animal agriculture and population. However I do strongly believe that human ego has been at the core of all our problems and issues throughout history and fundamental to our ability to see through transition, whether through a clean capitalist economy or a soft collapse.
If we approach our problems from a place of empathy and compassion for each other and other species on the planet, we are in a better position to accept the facts of our predicament and make the necessary changes, regardless of how difficult the changes may appear to us personally. We’d also be able to work proactively with others and accept different opinions and factual evidence even if it initially conflicts with our own pre-existing beliefs.
I also believe there is some reason for optimism when it comes to addressing ego in what appear to be strong recent western trends to pursuing Taoism, Bhuddhism, mindfulness, and other spirituality which aim to mitigate ego and reconnect the individual to the planet. Not that this pursuit is reserved for spiritualists at the expense of atheists; most modern science, whether it be iquantum physics or biological science, is shifting from a Spencerian (false-Darwinistic) model of competition and reductionism towards one of mutual interdependence, symbiosis and balance.
If we come from a place of ego, we are ultimately coming from a place of insecurity and fear and tend to seek validation of ourselves and our beliefs at the expense of others. It makes us dogmatic and stuck in our beliefs, fearful of letting go and embracing change and the unknown.
These rigid characteristics are associated with big business, seeking short term profits at the expense of a future planet. The challenges for the environmental movement are to engage the wider public, of whom many are culturally conditioned, stuck in their ways and brittle in shifting their schemas.
Yet it would be delusional for those of us active in social change not to see the finger when it points back at ourselves.
Amazing though the work may be that we all do in our respective fields, if we are not addressing fundamental questions required to save ourselves, due to ego and fear, our efforts in other areas to save our planet can only be thwarted.
Ego is an issue everywhere, even in the animal rights and population movements. The animal rights and vegan movements are plagued by internal debate over many issues that can get personal, where this energy would be better diverted towards the animal agriculture industry. Some involved in population sustainability may be motivated to do so from a fear of losing their culture and lifestyle, however we all need to embrace that culture is a constantly changing phenomena, on those who currently live in Australia must also acknowledge that massive cultural shifts that we imposed and continue to impose on Australia’s original custodians. It was interesting at the Great Debate where there was much discussion from many of the speakers of the ongoing issues of promoting a dialogue to the wider public that is empathetic to their current beliefs and life circumstance.
Ego is most certainly an issue for myself. It was frustration which motivated me towards writing this article, itself a manifestation of ego, which means the finished article may be affected by judgment and fixed thinking. I still have a long way to go before I am a paragon of environmental sustainability - although I think I’ve addressed the two ‘biggies’ in regards my diet and my choice not to reproduce, I’m still sure that if everyone lived my carbon footprint that the earth would have been underwater decade ago, and there is still much, much more I can be personally doing. My aim is an ambitious one, to tread lightly on the planet and be as free from hypocrisy as I can. I would invite those inspired to join me in weaving all pieces of the puzzle together, and for those unconvinced, I would invite constructive debate on the thoughts I have raised, so long as it invites further constructive discussion towards a common goal of saving the planet.
In order to authentically save the planet and ourselves, either through green tech, zero growth or through soft collapse, we need a holistic view of change, of which elements such as fossil fuels are more of an accepted given whereas animal agriculture, population, and ego are not given the platform I believe they deserve. These are very difficult issues to address, and history has not given much confidence in our capacity to live rationally and harmoniously with ourselves and our environment, but they are necessary to avoid a hard collapse, as predicted by Nicole Foss and George Monbiot at the Great Debate. If we are unsuccessful, that is perfectly fine in the longer term for the future of the planet itself, as I’m cautiously optimistic it will repair itself in an event where we are no more. It would just be a dreadful pity for the human race if we didn’t face facts and worked together to be authentic about giving it a good shot.
It is ultimately those issues that we find most difficult to confront that are the most essential issues for us to open up to.
Michael Bayliss is Vice-President of Victoria First, an NGO decicated towards better stewardship of Victoria through highlighting population concerns to the wider community. He is a former committee member of Sustainable Population Australia (VicTas Branch) and member of the Sustainable Population Party. He is also actively involved in many animal rights campaigns such as Coalition Against Duck Shooting and grass roots post-growth movements such as Doing it Ourselves.
 Reference: “Livestock and Climate Change” World Watch Magazine, 2009. http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6294.
 Reference: Robbins, John. Diet for a New America,StillPoint Publishing, 1987, p. 352
 Reference: “Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003, vol.78 no.3, 6605- 6635. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/660S.full
 Reference: “Livestock and Climate Change.” International Livestock Research Institute, Issue Brief, 2011. (https://cgspace.cgiar.org/bitstream/handle/10568/10601/IssueBrief3.pdf
 Reference: Sheila Newman, Demography, Territory, Law: The Rules of animal and human populations, Countershock Press, 2013.
 In 1994, Australian Academy of Sciences held the Symposium, "Population 2040: Australia's choice". They issued a joint statement said: “The quality of all aspects of our children's lives will be maximised if the population of Australia by the mid-21st Century is kept to the low, stable end of the achievable range, i.e. to approximately 23 million. If fertility remains at its current level ‘a little below replacement’ and immigration is set at the low end of the postwar range (50,000 net per year) Australia’s population in 2040 will be 23 million and almost stationary. Australia can thus achieve a near-stationary population free of disruptive bulges of population groups (which require a sudden expansion of education facilities when young and sudden expansion of care facilities when aged) by a managed mixture of fertility and immigration.” Entire book source is: Population 2040 : Australia's choice / proceedings of the Symposium of the 1994 Annual General Meeting of the Australian Academy of Science by Australian Academy of Science. General Meeting Symposium, (1994: Canberra, A.C.T.)
Canberra : The Academy, 1995
Sheila Newman tells me that Jonathan Stone and others publicly stated that Australia’s population at the time of the event, which was 17 million, was probably already at carrying capacity. According to her memory, Dr Stone prevailed on those present to suggest they needed to appear generous to refugees and therefore should allow some leeway for immigration which, he felt, would take Australia to 23 million.
 In other species and in many traditional human communities, including Australia between the two wars, there is a long tradition of extended families helping one breeding couple. This is known to anthropologists as ‘cooperative breeding’. (See ) Aunts and uncles not directly involved in reproduction are able to engage actively with their local communities and wider politics. Status, position and identity need not depend on reproduction.