15/10/2008 - 22:00

History says technology will save us

15/10/2008 - 22:00

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Bob Eagle responds to a recent article in WA business news on population and sustainability

IN his October 9 column, Briefcase, Peter Strachan makes some interesting points concerning the Dutch Disease, its possible impact on Western Australia, and more particularly the problems of overdevelopment.

He instances the Sydney Basin, the Murray-Darling River Basin, and the vicinity of Perth, all with justification.

However, his only suggested remedy is to reduce Australia's population.

Advances in technology have time and again upset the predictions of English political economist and demographer, Thomas Malthus.

Without technology, the Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia were restricted to an estimated population of 300,000 over the entire continent. Even by 1942, enhanced technological abilities enabled Australia's population to reach seven million. That process has continued, and is continuing.

In his 1942 book, The Myth of Open Spaces, WD Forsyth (from the University of Melbourne) predicted that, "the populations of New Zealand and Australia...will be decreasing before the end of fifty years".

The following section uses Forsyth's figures and predictions.

In 1939, the white population of the "four dominions" (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) totalled around 22 million. Forsyth expected their white population to increase by no more than 10 million over two generations, which increase would be matched by a similar decline in the UK.

If there are three generations in a century, then we are now at about the end of Forsyth's "two generations". He was focused on white populations, so let's compare the outcomes in those terms.

Despite the recent exodus of whites from South Africa, there were an estimated 4.4 million to 5 million whites in South Africa in 2006. Australia's white population is around 18 million, New Zealand's is around 3 million, and Canada's white population exceeds 26 million.

The 22 million of the "four dominions" has increased by 29 million to 51 million, not by 10 million to 32 million.

The white UK population in 2001 was around 54 million. In 1939, it was about 48 million. The predicted decline of 10 million became an increase of 6 million.

Forsyth predicted Australia's future population using three sets of assumptions, the highest of which predicted a maximum population of less than 9 million by 1981, after which decline would set in.

It is easy to be wise after the event, but the fact is that technological change and other factors have enabled Australia, and the rest of the world, to carry far more people than could be conceived as possible two generations ago.

Patent registrations continue to increase. There is no reason to think that technological advances will cease to be made. Australia's present population of 21 million will continue to increase, and technological advances will enable the increase to be made with a continuation of recent ecological advances. (Compare, for example, Sydney's present smog levels with past ones).

Let's return to Peter Strachan's examples. Taking a radius of 100 kilometres around Perth, as suggested by Mr Strachan, and allowing for the western half covering the ocean, leaves us with an area of about 15,000 square kilometres. This is about 0.6 per cent of the area of the state.

The remaining 99.4 per cent of the state is presently being called upon to serve the interests of that 0.6 per cent, just because that's where most people live.

The solution, it is submitted, is not to reduce Australia's population, but to spread it more evenly over the landscape.

It is largely a social and political circumstance that the vast majority of Western Australians live within 0.6 per cent of the state's area. Even if broader settlement is limited to other regions with an agreeable Mediterranean-style or sub-tropical climate, such as is enjoyed in the arc from Cairns to Geraldton, there is no reason why far greater numbers of people cannot live in virtually all localities between Kalbarri and Esperance without sacrificing ecological values.

This area is about 20 times the size of the area concerning Mr Strachan.

Even at one-10th of the overall density of the Perth region, it would support a further 3 million people, sufficient to absorb all of WA's growth for some decades to come. Water supply is a potential constraint, but underground supplies are available over wide areas and desalination is an expanding option.

That still leaves more than 2 million square kilometres of the state, which just happens to be the part producing most of the resources that could create Dutch Disease. The answer to this region's problems to date has been to introduce costly and inefficient fly-in, fly-out schemes, which serve nobody's interests except perhaps those of the airlines. That is a suitable topic for Mr Strachan's consideration of "the best outcomes for all inhabitants from a social, environmental and economic point of view".

- Bob Eagle is a Broome-based lawyer

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