Labor’s environmental denialism? Should we limit population and economic growth?

Jan 4, 2023
Circular economy concept. Arrow infinity symbol of grass texture with man pushing colourful globe, isolated on white background.

The call for a steady state global and national economy and even degrowth is a distraction unhelpful to the environmental cause. The challenge is to inspire and sustain ingenious strategies to decouple economic growth from environmental harm. The sorts of programs championed by Environment Minister Plibersek are heading in the right direction.

Stephen Williams praises Tanya Plibersek’s commitment to a Nature Positive Plan, a Threatened Species Action Plan and the development of a Circular Economy. But he says these initiatives will inevitably fail as they do not recognise “the underlying causes (drivers) of environmental harm, which are nothing less than mainstream growth economics and, indeed, the capitalist system”. He suggests a steady state economy, static or declining population and degrowth are the real answers.

This argument goes back at least as far as Thomas Malthus the nineteenth century British clergyman who argued that population growth was exponential while growth in food production was at best linear. This, Malthus argued, would inevitably lead to famine, social uprisings, war and a population collapse – until the whole cycle started again. The obvious answer was birth control.

Malthus was unapologetically anthropocentric – writing about human suffering. His central proposition of the risks of exponential human growth ultimately conflicting with finite natural resources struck a chord with emerging twentieth century concerns about pollution everywhere and hunger in developing countries. One result was the famous Club of Rome report “The Limits to Growth”. Once again this contrasted an exponential population and economic growth with estimates of a finite capacity of the natural environment to provide resources, nourishment and ecological services.

The Club of Rome’s particular projections were rapidly proven wrong. They failed to recognise the adaptability of human systems and the impact of technology on the productivity of natural ones. The Green Revolution saw global grain production alone rise by 160%. Effective controls over pollutants including sulphur and nitrogen emissions and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc saw dramatic improvements in air and water quality in the capitalist world. Day by day we can see human ingenuity at work finding solutions as we respond to environmental problems. Take two global challenges – ozone depletion and climate change. Successful action to replace ozone depleting substances has flowed from the ground breaking Montreal Protocol backed by regulation and the technologies it stimulated. No one foresaw when we signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 the extraordinarily rapid drop in the cost of solar and wind power and battery storage. Environmental problems and resource constraints inspire solutions that modellers cannot foresee.

It has also become clear that the relationship between demography, the economy and the environment is much more subtle than the projectionists assumed.

Take the case of China.

China has claimed that its decision to control population growth had great environmental benefits. In practice the reverse is true.

Population control was an important factor in China’s remarkable economic growth and poverty reduction over the past 40 years. Around one third of the East Asian economic “miracle” (measured in GDP) flowed from the “demographic dividend” as birth and dependency rates dropped and working age cohorts grew strongly. Up to one quarter of China’s per capita GDP growth between the 1980s and now might have been due to changes in its age structure.

China channelled this workforce into energy intensive export industries, prioritised rapid urbanisation and the development of mega-cities and delayed effective control over the emission of pollutants and coherent management of water basins. It was a conscious policy choice to “grow rich first, clean up later” with severe impacts on the environment – not just in China. Lower population growth doesn’t guarantee better environmental outcomes.

Nevertheless the central idea of a finite global “carrying capacity” being overwhelmed by population and economic growth has lingered among some in the environmental movement. With populations across much of the developed world static or declining and a continuous downward revision in the UN’s estimates of future population growth the focus of concern has shifted to the dangers of economic growth.

The call for a steady state global and national economy and even degrowth is a distraction unhelpful to the environmental cause. We are simply never going to be able to convince humans that they should not strive for better material living conditions. We cannot deny less developed economies the opportunity to pull people out of poverty and it is wishful thinking of the highest order to imagine that the developed world will sufficiently reduce its living standards to provide ecological room to allow that to happen. To suggest capitalism is uniquely destructive of the environment flies in the face of history – it is the liberal capitalist democracies who have most rapidly improved many environmental outcomes.

The challenge is to inspire and sustain ingenious strategies to decouple economic growth from environmental harm. The sorts of programs championed by Plibersek are heading in the right direction.

But there are grounds for criticism. For example it is not clear what achieving a “circular economy by 2030” actually means. Certainly it is not no net call on additional resources, nor is it zero waste. There is a continuum of resource reuse and product stewardship but where on that continuum we can declare that we have achieved “circularity” is undefined.

Similarly it is silly to enshrine a target of “no new extinctions”. Australia is a mega-biodiverse country and many species are clinging to a precarious existence – in Darwin’s waiting room to extinction. It is doubly silly to think you can do this with a puny budget of $245m over 4 years. While listing threatened and endangered species is important, we have been far too dominated by single species recovery plans. The greatest effort should go into place based initiatives with the scope for protecting and repairing the habitats of multiple species with a particular focus on providing pathways for climate adaptation – I warmly welcome the emphasis on Priority Places in the new plan. But I resent the time and money (including possibly foregone development of renewable energy opportunities) spent on maintaining individual charismatic species like the orange bellied parrot in the wild.


Editor’s note:  This article is a response to Stephen Williams ‘Labor’s environmental denialism‘, December 28, 2022.

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