On Ockham's Razor on ABC Australia, today, 30 October 2011, hundreds of thousands of people would have heard 24 year old Fiona Heinrichs blast the mainstream media's failure to provide a voice for the younger generation and its promotion of of an ideology of unending growth. Fiona also delivered a blistering critique of Bernard Salt's unscientific promotion of population growth and his failure to respond to her challenge to debate him, which was recently the subject of an article on OnLineOpinion. This is the text of the talk. You can also download the podcast here.On Ockham's Razor on ABC Australia, today, 30 October 2011, hundreds of thousands of people would have heard 24 year old Fiona Heinrichs blast the mainstream media's failure to provide a voice for the younger generation and its promotion of of an ideology of unending growth. Fiona also delivered a blistering critique of Bernard Salt's unscientific promotion of population growth and his failure to respond to her challenge to debate him, which was recently the subject of an article on OnLineOpinion. This is the text of the talk. You can also download the podcast here.(This introduction by Sheila Newman)
Text of Fiona's speech on Ockham's Razor
Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’d know that Professor Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay Bad News greatly upset The Australian. Manne argued, persuasively in my opinion, that on many topics of key national importance The Australian lacked journalistic objectivity. In particular on the topic of climate change, he sees the paper as pushing the skeptics’ view of the received scientific position.
The Australian responded to Manne’s critique with a near booklet of articles. Seriously, cut them all out and staple them together if you don’t believe me. I don’t recall an essay or a book being subject to such an intense critical reply in any newspaper. A nerve was no doubt struck by Professor Manne, and struck at the right time, following in the wake of the British News Ltd scandals.
However as useful as Professor Manne’s essay is, it does not address the main weakness not only of this newspaper, but all other Australian papers such as The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and so on. So this is where I come in, finishing up where Professor Manne left off. I wish to discuss today two subjects that particularly bother me as a gen Y female: First, the lack of voice to my generation in these papers (and I will focus on The Australian), and second, the religious faith in the possibility of unending growth. On the denial of the limits to growth, The Australian is more hard-line in my opinion than say The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald, but in general the major dailies push this line, especially with respect to immigration and population issues. So lend me you ears, I implore you, for what I have to discuss today affects not only human beings, but every single species on the planet.
Okay, firstly let’s start with Bernard Salt. This columnist for The Australian serves as a good example of an ageing baby boomer who is a supporter of big Australia and the ‘growth is good’ philosophy. His book The Big Tilt, published a few months ago brings all of these themes together. Each week his columns in the business section of The Australian develop his theology of growth. Of course, sometimes he relaxes and writes an amusing news item. One such piece was about ‘hotness delusion syndrome.’ This supposed disorder is where men in their forties have an inflated sense of how ‘hot’ they really are; on the basis that there are 15 percent more single women than men at that age. This, I suppose, is Salt’s type of human interest article.
The modern day woman is a common theme in Salt’s writings on demographic issues. Thus he is concerned at the social trend of women not marrying and conventionally having children. The family for him seems to be the conventional nuclear family. I can’t recall any worthy discussion of gay relationships and alternatives to the nuclear family.
Salt’s writings on my generation are even more flawed. He sees gen Y as self-absorbed, indulgent and preoccupied with technology – mobile phones, iPods and the like. This generation is very well off, he says, and has a great time ahead. But in recent articles he has moved to take a different line for Australia as a whole, because with the rise and coming global dominance of China, Australia will be ‘attendants’ to the Chinese empire providing services that the Chinese want. So if Australia doesn’t shape up – watch out!
Now there is no objective statistical attempt in Salt’s book The Big Tilt or his articles to justify his generalisations about gen Y. Where is the index of ‘indulgence’? Where is the empirical research such as survey work actually measuring levels of indulgence, compared to a control group, like his own generation of ageing baby boomers? One attempt by Salt to back such claims involved his observations from the KPMG Nine Rewards Lifestyle Survey. Supposed evidence from this survey that gen Y is reckless in its spending included findings that people aged 18-24 are most likely to eat out at a café or restaurant. Hmm, yes, because treating yourself to a $15 chicken parmigiana and chips is so indulgent isn’t it? The same indulgent students struggling to afford the petrol to fill up their second hand car they drive constantly to get from uni to a part time job and somehow squeeze in enough study to pass the course somewhere in between. The other indicator of supposed excess was that people aged 25-29 are most likely to take a holiday. Come on, we’re talking Bali youth hostels here, not the penthouse suite in Paris. Such simplistic summations are hardly evidence of reckless spending.
Salt’s columns in The Australian describe him as a ‘demographer’ but he does not have a PhD in demography and apart from his popular books, he does not have a research record of publications in high impact factor peer reviewed demographic journals. Demography is a scientific study of population, but Salt’s approach is merely ‘pop’ demography.
Salt has recently focused his writings on the virtues of good manners, expressing anger and frustration towards people who don’t respond to messages. He assures us that he is ‘normal’ not engaging in such rudeness, even creating the manners-minded Facebook group Society for Normal People which has been heavily spruiked on television, radio and in the print media. Yet apparently such rules for politeness do not extend to people of different beliefs, for I have both publicly and privately challenged Bernard Salt to a debate regarding his world views. To date, he has not responded to my challenge. Silence. The words ‘pot’, kettle’, ‘black’ come to mind. Now before you say, ‘But wait, maybe he didn’t receive your message?’ And offer the following explanations such as: ‘Maybe it went to the spam folder? Or maybe his inbox was clogged that day with dozens of messages? Or maybe it didn’t even send properly at all?’ The answer is still unfortunately ‘No’. Even if Salt somehow didn’t receive my email, I also wrote the same message on his public Facebook wall. In fact, it’s quite interesting that my wall post was one of the very few with absolutely no response. Now I know what your next question is, ‘How can we trust that you wrote a courteous, dignified message that was deserving of a response?’ I assure you the message was perfectly civil; if you don’t believe me, check it out for yourself. Go on, add ‘Bernard Salt Demographer’ to you Facebook, scroll down the page and read my message for yourself. Last time I checked it was still there. Okay listeners, I know what your final question is, ‘why make such a big deal out of this?’ Well other than the outrageous hypocrisy, it’s simply unethical that such figures in their ivory towers continue to get away with these misleading articles while well researched counter-replies are ignored. The public has an inherent right to hear both sides of any argument. So I offer again: Come on Bernard, don’t be scared of a 24 year old female uni student – I won’t bite! In fact, I propose we hold the debate at the Society for Normal People function room.
My generation is sick and tired of being stereotyped. Many of us are students not yet employed or are unemployed and desperately searching for work. Rather than being self indulgent, gen Y is actively involved in charity work while deeply concerned about the environment and the prospects of human survival.
This is the other area where The Australian is particularly bad as I document in my online book Sleepwalking to Catastrophe. The idea that there are no limits to growth, that both economic activity and human population numbers should continue infinitely, is received doctrine. Almost all of the journalists writing for The Australian (with the exception of Phillip Adams) follow the Julian Simon mode of thought in his The Ultimate Resource, that the human mind is just that, therefore humans can solve any problem. Reality check: World population is likely to multiply by 1.5 by 2050 but if the rich countries maintain their present resource/consumption and other countries replicate it, resource consumption for the world increases by a factor of around 8. As Ted Trainer points out in his recent book The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, if all strive to the standard of living of the West at a 3 percent growth rate, then by 2070 resource consumption increases by a multiple of 60! Even the attempt to reach this level of resource consumption is likely to exhaust irrecoverable coal, oil, gas and uranium. Some petroleum geologists believe that peak oil, for example, has already occurred in 2010, and if this is so, modern society is moving awfully slow to deal with this challenge.
The Global Footprint Network has estimated that humanity’s demand on the ecological services of the Earth is now such that it would take 1.5 Earth’s to ‘generate all the resources humanity consumes and absorb all our CO2 emissions’. An ecological overshoot has occurred such that it now takes 18 months for the Earth to regenerate what was used in 12 months. The Network has further observed: ‘The urgent threats we are facing today – most notably climate change, but also biodiversity loss, shrinking forests, declining fisheries and freshwater stress – are symptoms of this trend.’
This message is not to be found in The Australian in journalist comment. The paper may give small news item coverage to such reports, but most of the words in the paper are devoted to justifying and glorifying growth, global capitalism and the love of money, wealth and affluence. A lavish magazine regularly comes with the paper aptly called Wish, a glossy celebration of high priced consumer goods that only the rich could afford and that ‘wannabe’ consumers are to merely lust over. This makes no ecological sense, it is simply wishful thinking.
In dark moments I suppose that the corporate elites and those who scribble for them really do know that the party is over. But they talk on as they do because they intend to make the most of the limited time they have left. They will party on as the Titanic slowly sinks and the icy waters of ecological reality start to consume them. They will be in defiance to reality to the bitter end. Ironically, as they pass through the void they are the lucky ones as they won’t have to face the full consequences of the environmental crisis that lies ahead for my generation and those that follow. I personally am determined to show leadership through this catastrophe by giving gen Y the much needed public voice it deserves.
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