Ag resources 'finite', warns Smith

15 Aug, 2014 04:00 AM
Now that's clearly not sustainable - it's a finite world ... you can't have endless growth

FARMING is central to the catastrophic fears about unlimited population growth and unsustainable capitalism held by two prominent Australian entrepreneurs.

High profile businessman and philanthropist Dick Smith and Flight Centre founder Graham Turner spoke at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday, warning Australia’s annual population growth of 400,000 people was unsustainable.

They called for a national debate on the topical issue to develop an action plan underpinned by a new form of sustainable, capitalistic growth.

Mr Turner said farming was a prime example of issues key to perpetual population growth due to the practical limits of base resources like land and water.

“If you've got a 5000-acre farm there is a very clear limit to how much you can grow”

He said a recent article stated the Australian agricultural market can never become a major food basket for Asia - where the UN has predicted most of the forecast population growth of 9 billion by 2050 will occur - because “we just don't have the arable land”.

But Mr Turner said Australian farmers can produce premium products for the Asia food market “and that makes sense”.

“We've got a very high cost (system) of producing this sort of stuff so it does make sense to aim for the premium side but not the mass market,” he said.

“If you've got a 5000-acre farm there is a very clear limit to how much you can grow.

“If you've got 500 head of breeders (cattle) on there now you can't just grow that limitlessly; you've got to work in with what you've got for it.

“So I think farming is a very good example of where the farmers ought to realise that sustainable farming is not about endless growth.”

Mr Smith said he basically agreed with Mr Turner’s viewpoint. Earlier, the 1986 Australian of the Year warned Australia’s current population of 23 million could reach 80-100 million by the end of this century, “if we keep growing”.

“I think actually we could hold 100 million in this country,” he said.

“It'd be great for wealthy people because they would have more customers, but for most Australians it'd be worse.

“The cake is a certain size, mainly coming from our mineral reserves and our primary production from farming, and by doubling the population, I believe everyone's worth half as much.”

Mr Smith says the economic system used since the Second World War required endless compound population growth and the use of resources and energy, “otherwise it will go into recession”.

“We're starting to get to the limits of easy growth”

“Now that's clearly not sustainable - it's a finite world,” he said.

“You can't have endless growth and even my right-wing capitalistic mates who believe we should have growth all the time all admit ‘Well yes Dick, you're right, there is a limit, but it's a distance away so let's not worry about it’.

“It's clearly not sustainable, what we're doing, and as we're starting to get to the limits of easy growth, we're getting to what I call extreme capitalism.”

Mr Smith said Australia’s two biggest retailers Coles and Woolworths also agreed with his views on the issue, privately.

“It's this madness that we're in, where you have to have endless growth in profits otherwise the shares will drop down in value,” he said.

However, Mr Smith said it is possible to create a viable economic system based on “a different form of growth” in quality and efficiency, and not endless growth in population and the use of resources and energy.

“Capitalism needs a few more controls that say ‘actually you don't market or sell anything unless it's done sustainably’,” he said.

“I believe there must be experts around who can tell us how to do that.

“I want the government, I want journalists, to be calling for this group, everyone, to be telling us how we do this and then I want to plan so we move to that system which is truly sustainable where we live in balance.

“I truly believe the whole world society can live in balance. Just about everything in nature other than locusts lives in balance. Their (locusts) way of living in nature is to breed in billions and die of starvation in billions.

“That's ridiculous - so we've got to live in balance.”

Mr Smith said with a population forecast to drop from 120 million to 90 million, Japan was showing it was possible to reduce population, while improving the quality of life.

“I'm not saying for a second that we should stop growth - we can't,” he said.

“But we should have discussion on how we move to a system that's truly sustainable where we're actually living in balance, or as Prince Charles would say, harmony.

“Once we do that we can have a great future for our grandchildren.”

Mr Turner also stressed the critical importance of developing a national population plan or holding a federal Senate inquiry into the issue.

“I know (Queensland Premier) Campbell Newman is looking at a 30-year plan for Queensland but we should be looking at a 100-year or even 1000-year plan for Australia,” he said.

“I can’t see us being able to double our population in the next few decades and sustaining our current quality of living. There's no way we can.

“Do we want an Australia of 40 million people by 2050, which will mean for people who live on the coast, almost endless coastal urban sprawl, lower standard of living, I believe, and many areas much poorer quality of life?”

Mr Turner said a plan for sustainable population growth needed to be achieved sooner than later, for environmental, economic and quality of life reasons.

“We need to talk about population firstly, but we need to do something about it as well,” he said.

“And as David Attenborough says, ‘only flat earthers deny we have a population problem’.”

“I don't think we have any excuses. We have to take some action in our lifetime, there's no doubt for me.”

Mr Smith said the Prime Minister wouldn't be game to discuss the population growth issue publicly “because if he doubted growth for one instant he'd be absolutely attacked by anyone”.

“I would suggest to him that he says, ‘look, we all know that we can't have perpetual growth in the use of resources and energy. Don't worry Australians, I'm not going to stop growth, but we all know we can't have it forever so let's get the best experts to tell us how we move to a slightly different system that's sustainable’,” he said.

“Most politicians I talk to say, ‘oh Dick I agree with you 100pc about this growth issue, you're absolutely right, but I couldn't say it’.

“If the major parties won't take on the major issues that affect most Australians, and you have to get new parties, and you end up with the situation we have in Parliament at the moment, it's because there's something wrong with our present politicians.

“If one party suddenly moved to a policy of having a study population, you’ll find they’d get a lot of votes I reckon.”

Mr Smith also questioned the lack of appetite to report on the topical issue in ‘mainstream media’.

He said there was no conspiracy theory behind it – but economists and journalists weren’t educated to doubt economic growth principles.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


15/08/2014 8:13:28 AM

Humans are meant to be intelligent, and of "higher" order than animals. The Earth's limits are obvious, and there's over-confidence in technology and science to overcome the constraints of Nature. Farmers know there's a carrying-capacity of their land, and overshoot means hunger and land degradation! Humans must control their assumed rights to reproduce, and governments must rein in their quest for never-ending perpetual economic growth -and stop meddling with our demographics! Politicians are cocooned in their privileges and wealth, and their addiction for endless growth is fatalistic.
15/08/2014 9:28:06 AM

Actually population growth is linked to living standards. The higher the living standard the lower the population growth. For most of the developed world population growth has almost stopped, and the main increases are coming from immigration. The key factor in living standards is energy.
15/08/2014 9:35:13 AM

The main driver in the desperate quest for endless economic growth is debt. Business with debt have to try and grow at a rate faster then their interest payments, otherwise their debt overwhelms them. If you can reduce interest rates, you reduce the need for growth.
Peter Comensoli
15/08/2014 9:40:07 AM

What utter fact, did you know that Western food rubbish would give all the starving one good meal a day? We haven't even started to produce yet. Danish greenhouses, Israeli irrigation, ethical GM, improving transport mechanisms and future irrigation using just a fraction of monsoonal run-off...seriously, population isn't our problem, it's equability. Drive tariffs down and watch the way food will move!
15/08/2014 10:00:26 AM

They used to say that it was 'the final straw that breaks the camels back'. then ask which puff of hot air really caused the balloon to burst.
15/08/2014 10:08:48 AM

The world only needs to run out of food ONCE to address all the problems of overpopulation.
Frank Blunt
15/08/2014 10:27:31 AM

I wonder when all the big new dams Tony promised us will start ?
15/08/2014 11:16:17 AM

The big issue here is they way we use the land (or dont). Australia has a large land mass but we dont use what we have available in the smartest way. I would have thought this would be abvious to Mr Smith and Turner. Problem is the lack of infrastructure coupled with consumers not wanting to pay the correct price for goods that make farming in Australia viable. Most consumers will happily accept lower quality produce for the lower price. Bugger the stuggling Australian farmers!
Bim Joyd
15/08/2014 11:24:18 AM

Good on you Peter. These two are way off beam.
Cap'n Ahab
15/08/2014 11:50:47 AM

Human Population is the BIG problem facing all of humanity. What kind of world are we going to leave behind for our children and grandchildren.
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