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David Suzuki on population in Cosmos magazine

Cosmos magazine describes itself as Australia's #1 Science magazine and regularly features articles by prominent scientists including Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies and Michio Kaku.
In the current issue, David Suzuki writes a feature essay promoted as '6.7 billion reasons to halt population growth'.

So what does he have to say? Recalling Tim's earlier post about Professor Suzuki's reticence regarding Canada's population (and corresponding candour about Australia's) this article made interesting reading.

Suzuki covers the four-fold growth in human numbers since 1900 and points out that humanity's ecolological footprint (or impact; I) has been enlarged by growth in population and consumption.

He lumps technology (T) in with population (P) and consumption growth (affluence or A) as a cause of this bigger footprint and while this is probably true more often than not, it ignores situations where appropriate technology can reduce environmental impact. For example, when I was younger I worked on the same apple orchard that my grandfather had worked some 50 years earlier. We used integrated pest management (predatory mites with much reduced chemical spraying) to control two spotted mite through the orchard, with some success. I asked my grandfather whether he'd had trouble with two spotted mite in his day. 'No'. he said. 'We sprayed every couple of weeks with lead arsenate and never had any trouble with bugs'. Indeed.
Likewise, photovoltaic panels represent more advanced technology than coal fired power stations but are - comparatively - benign from an environmental point of view.

For the uninitiated, I=PAT is an important concept but given the six full pages dedicated to Suzuki's piece, some recognition that technology can cut both ways in affecting humanity's environmental impact would have been useful.

Suzuki describes how modern urbanised communities have become divorced from the reality of where the food, fibre and forestry that supports their lifestyle comes from, leading to unrealistic assumptions about how many people an environment can support. He goes on to discuss how this ignorance leads urban people to believe that the economy is the highest priority, or the real bottom line in maintaining a decent quality of life.

These points are well made - if considerably laboured - and provide the groundwork for the closing arguments in the essay, which show that while science can improve efficiency in food production and other agricultural systems it cannot do so exponentially, nor at the rate that the human population is currently growing. This leads Suzuki to conclude that in terms of taking action to rescue the biosphere, we are currently past the '59th minute', meaning that we are in urgent need of decisive action. He says ..
'When I say this to politicians and business people, they get angry. They remonstrate that our stores are filled, cities are growing and booming and we're living longer and healthier lives. So how can we be past the 59th minute? I say it without apology. We are promulgating an illusion that everything is all right by using up the rightful legacy of our children and grandchildren. That is not sustainable, it is suicidal.'

OK. Good points. So given that the essay's about population, what should we be doing about it? Well, unfortunately we're left to ponder that ourselves, because there ends the article. I turned the page, hoping for a considered prescription for managing our dire situation.. and found an article about black holes at the core of the Milky Way.

Personally, I felt that Suzuki's article had a couple of black holes of its own. Firstly, for an article supposedly about population issues there's nothing there about what might constitute an acceptably sustainable population, either internationally or within any given country. Nor is there even a hint about what might be done to achieve population stability.

The article opens with an intriguing paragraph. Having observed that human beings are a remakable species, Suzuki says..
'But we have shortcomings too. We demarcate borders that often make no ecological sense: dissecting watersheds, fragmenting forests, ..... yet we try to manage natural resources within these confines.'
Well yes, we do. At this point in history, it's national governments that have primary responsibility for the natural resources within their borders. Suzuki may not like this state of affairs (internationalists generally don't) but that's the way it is.
I found this stanza unusual because it doesn't obviously relate to anything else in the article. It seems to stand alone as a token criticism of borders and - perhaps - as a way of distancing the author from other population commentators with a national focus? But it also limits Suzuki's options when it comes to the kind of decisive action needed at this, the 59th minute. Because - to my mind at least - it will be national governments that need to take the lead on population issues. Developing a target sustainable population for their own environments and policies to achieve it. Implementing policies that encourage efficient resource usage and triple bottom line outcomes.

Without nations and national governments, solutions to the population problem will not be achieved. It must be difficult for people who've grown up thinking of nations and borders as somehow ideologically suspect to conceive of them as the means of achieving a solution to such a significant global problem. Suzuki's article, for one, is short on answers.

Overall, though, it's refreshing to see the problem of overpopulation given coverage in a (fairly) mainstream science publication - and by such an eminent person as David Suzuki. Taken with Bob Brown's recent question in parliament about Australia's population, can we dare to hope that this signals a change in the traditional Green code of silence on population matters?

Time will tell.


I find it hard to believe that technological change will add up overall to improvements when we have, for instance, replaced durable and reliable clockwork technology for watches with disposable high-tech, materials intensive, toxic-battery-fed electronic watches. These new watches are redundant for most purposes and they have become the source of mountains of indigestible rubbish. And we keep adding to these mountains as we provide for a growing population which has been taught to consume all manner of fuel-intensive technology without regard to the fact that all this consumption is degrading the environment upon which our basic survival depends.

Whether technological advances increase our environmental footprint depends on the nature of the technology.
I agree that in general, technology has tended to increase humanity's impact over the last 100 years. However, while I=PAT is perfectly valid, advances in technology do not always result in a higher environmental impact. The examples of integrated pest management vs widespread use of extremely toxic sprays and photovoltaics vs coal fired power stations demonstrate the point. So T can either increase or decrease I, depending on how environmentally appropriate the technology is.
From a mathematical point of view, then, advances in T can result in a multiplier of either;
. more than one (net harm to the environment),
. one (no change in environmental impact over the previous technology) or,
. a fraction of one (reduced environmental impact over previous technology)
This puts technology (T) in a separate category to either population (P) or affluence (A). 'Advances' in population (ie growth) can only increase our impact, if the other factors remain the same. Likewise, increases in consumption levels - or affluence - must result in greater environmental impact if the other factors remain the same.
In a 6 page spread dedicated to the environmental impact of population growth, I think Suzuki could have spared a paragraph to explore this in more detail.

There's a lot worth commenting upon in this post but much of it, i.e. how to act to reduce population, deserves a dedicated post or even structured series of posts. It can't be addressed within any summary comment.

Thus I'll comment on just a couple of things.

One reveals the immense power of perspective to both energise and restrict our approach to or response within any vital discussion.

Suzuki's comments on arbitrary political borders in relation to dynamic resources such as rivers, forests etc. can be seen in various ways. Dave responds to just one of these, a tacit advocacy for no borders, and assumes this to be Suzuki's intent.

The comment can also be seen simply as a simple observation of evident fact, or even as a tacit advocacy for border re-alignment commensurate to bio-physical realities. Personally I'd bet Suzuki's understanding of ecology would align him with this first alternative view, and possibly even the second.

The point being that the diversion consumes a lot of bandwith within a hugely important and already vexed topic. How we manage and review our own personal perspectives within any contention of great import is a huge factor toward optimal progress.

Secondly it is not just the intrinsic effect of technology that carries a positive or negative effect upon bio-physical impact. It is also the socio-economic application of that technology.

For example, water efficiency technologies are generally deemed to be benign, if not clearly positive. However if the water saved is allocated to greater population or production the technology is negative as it leads to greater embedded impact and risk than would otherwise be the case.

Similarly solar energy technologies allow people to live modern lifestyles in remote off-grid areas. This local population increase then develops demand for services like roads, and thence elevated visitation and ultimately normal grid power into hitherto pristine areas. The Daintree in Northern Queensland provides a classically tragic example.

I think it is fairly accurate to state that no technology can be impact negative when applied by a social attitude that is inherently unsustainable. There is no such thing as 'sustainable' or benign technology. There is only the 'sustainable' or benign use of technology.

Technology cannot save us. We have to save ourselves. Once we know how to do that, and presently we really have no idea most significantly because we do not care enough about it to adequately consider the matter, we can appropriately use technology to assist.