Science, not vested interests, must shape population policy
Many doctors are concerned that an overcrowded world will be unhealthy, unhappy and hungry; we must not allow Australia to make this mistake.
In Australia our concerns over the effects of a growing population are just part of our concerns for the health of all our patients. For these reasons Doctors for the Environment Australia has a population policy which explains the links between population and health.
It is fairly obvious that the present rate of population growth in Australia has imposed considerable strain on existing health services in terms of trained personnel, finance and administration. Any increase in population must be constrained by the rate at which services can be maintained.+
The projected increase in size of some Australian cities - Melbourne, for example - can be seen as imprudent, as it is likely to impose adverse health impacts on their populations. Unsustainable population growth also brings secondary economic consequences with health impacts from pollution, overcrowding, loss of green space and lack of recreational facilities.
Many contemporary concepts of planning for urban living are likely to be unsustainable and unhealthy under peak oil and rapidly increasing energy costs. The Mount Barker development in South Australia may eventually fall into this category.
Western civilisation uses scientific discovery as a cornerstone of its functioning and we accept and use the discoveries of aeronautics, prosthetic joints and communication systems in everyday life.
In making policy the scientific facts must form the basis of decisions. The 20-year debate over the management of the Murray Darling River still fails to recognise there is little point in fighting over the cake when its size is in doubt. The bottom line is the scientific assessment of the projected flow in the river being sufficient to maintain its health and clear its salt.
The population debate has unfortunate similarities. The bottom line is that Australia’s optimal population should be based upon facts - medical, scientific and demographic - and not on the opinions of community sectors with conflicts of interest. Human health is dependent on a healthy environment with adequate water, food and ecological services. There are limits to Australia’s population because of water shortage, climate change and loss of ecological services.
Conflict of interest on population growth is obvious to all. The resource industries press for skilled immigrants to service booms and the government supports this growth because of revenue. Population growth is the fodder of the development and real estate industries; governments think that population growth will make their tasks easier by providing the necessary tax base to support an ageing population.
Then how do we decide upon Australia optimal population? Biological science tells us that the population of any species will grow till all available resources are consumed. We must recognise that human history tells us that we are no exception.
The health of the world’s population is related to its rate of increase and the presence of sustainable ecological resources. Current use of natural resources, however, means that humanity is now not only living off its interest, but on capital as well, the result of which will mean that adverse health impacts will continue to increase in scale and severity.
Australia is not immune to these constraints. The Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council says Australia could become a net importer of food if the country’s population continues to grow and climate change cuts agricultural production.
The recent events in Queensland illustrate the vulnerability of food production to the expected increase in adverse climate events. Even so, we continue to gobble up productive land in urban sprawl, for open cast mining and for hundreds of coal seam gas wells.
This raises the issue of what exactly a sustainable population is. The government’s Sustainable Population Strategy issues paper was produced in late 2010. It was intended to “draw out community views about the challenges and opportunities created by changes in Australia’s population”.
Three advisory panels prepared reports on examining: Demographic change and liveability, Productivity and Prosperity, and Sustainable development with an intent to “untangle the array of impacts and influences”.
The fundamental flaw in this approach is to believe that decisions can be based on a negotiation on the competing aims of prosperity, development and the environment. As with the River Murray Darling bottom line of available water, the first consideration for population is the carrying capacity of the environment. Once this is assessed as best it can be by current science and modelling, then the economists, developers and governments can decide on their priorities.
The government’s approach ignores an appropriate definition of sustainability - a population is sustainable only when the environment, that is nature’s life support systems, are maintained to meet its needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Doctors for the Environment Australia’s population policy recommends that a national task force be formed to prepare a scientific report on an environmentally sustainable population for Australia. The Government’s Sustainable Population Policy does not fulfil this need.
This task force should take into account the increasing urgency of Australia’s international obligation to reduce its carbon footprint.
The deliberations of the task force should be both nationally and regionally based. For example, some evidence suggests that the population of southern Australia may have already reached its sustainable limit. Beyond these limits, it is likely we will see increased adverse health impacts associated with water insecurity and long term desertification. By contrast, population limits in northern Australia may be influenced by national security and the advent of environmental refugees.
In his opening remarks in the Issues paper, Mr Burke calls for community input and asks a number of questions - for example, what do you think are the key indicators of an environmentally sustainable community? And what lessons have we learnt that will help us to better manage the impacts of population change on the environment?
This smacks of political focus group policy formation.
These are questions for a scientific task force.
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