Australia and Canada: Two Demographic Bulimics?


Poet and author Mark OConnor has written another important analysis of Australias ecological eclipse at the hands of the growth cult. While the continent is obviously unique in its botanical character with problems that dont challenge Canadians, the similarities with Canada that OConnor reveals in his description of the evolution of the growth ethic are simply astounding.

Like Canada, Australia was, and still is, even though much trashed and abused a treasure house of biodiversity, toward which the people have a somewhat schizophrenic attitude. On the one hand, Australians are genuinely proud of their wildlifemany people assign a very high, almost religious value to conserving nature, as evidenced by their tolerance of crocodiles which make it impossible to swim in their tropical waters. 10.7% of Australia is incorporated in a strategic network of parks.

Yet, OConnor writes, Attitudes to Australias biodiversity remain mixed. It may be inspirational to watch them in flight but people dont appreciate kangaroos eating their crops. Sadly Australian experience shows that democracy is not good at preserving other species—they dont vote. (There is) a theme that runs through Australias ecological history: the clash between the desire to protect biodiversity versus the need of an ever-growing human population to make a quid from it.

He had this warning about false confidence in the natural park system: These parks have supposedly been created in perpetuity; yet there is a risk that further shifts in ideology may leave a future government free to revoke national parks. (It would by then be able to plead the housing and resource needs of a much expanded population, plus its need of export earnings from lands that would be otherwise going to waste.) Developers constantly agitate for governments to become less sluggish in releasing more land.

OConnor reminds readers that Australias ecology was dynamic. While we might prefer to praise the Aborigines achievement in living sustainably with the land for millennia, and contrast this with the damage eight generations of European lifestyle have wrought, Aboriginal hunters had already modified ecology by the fire regime they imposed before Europeans arrived. Paul Watson, it should be pointed out here, asserts that Aborigines killed off 85% of the continents megafauna before the British hit Botany Bay, an assertion that has been contested. Nevertherless Watson is one of the very few Canadians not given to romantic illusions about indigenous stewardship of precious resources.

The foundation of Australias current ecological crisis, and that of Canada, is their false self-perception as vast empty lands desperately in need of more people. Two bloated bulimics who look in the mirror and see themselves as Twiggy with lots of room to grow. The myth is best captured by Australias national anthem Advance Australia Fair when it says For those whove come across the seas. Weve boundless plains to share.

But as OConnor notes, Australia has only 6% of its land mass proven as arable. For Canada it is 7% with soils marginal by European standards. As for wheat, because Australia provides 20% of the worlds wheat imports, feeding 40 million people, boomers argue that Australia could feed a far higher resident population than its current 21 million. But they forget that much of that foreign exchange is needed to pay for the fuel and nitrate fertilizer used for production, and soil loss, acidification and climate change will diminish yields. Every tonne of wheat still costs some 50 tonnes of eroded soil, OConnor observes.

Even so, with the drought tolerant wheat grown in fertile soils in a good year Australia produces less wheat than France, and in a bad year sometimes less than Britain. And all at the cost of fascinating bio-regions cleared and species eliminated.

So if the big empty land in fact suffers from a limited carrying capacity, if food self-sufficiency is a myth, if biodiversity is taking a beating, why then does Australia seem in a frenzy to add to its numbers? (Canada could be asked the same question). Who drives growth? Cui Bono? Who Benefits?

The answer might be found in research done by the Australian Green Party that revealed that the governing Labor Party of New South Wales received $8.78 million in 1998-99 from property developers, while the opposition Coalition Parties received $6.35 million. Not surprisingly then Sydneys councils have been instructed to accommodate an extra 1.1 million people (24%) in 25 years so that Australia offers the paradox of a huge country with urban housing prices comparable to New York of London, where land prices double in a decade and its 1.5% population growth is higher than Indonesias and indeed many Third World countries.

Local and even national newspapers run a depressing spiral of puff pieces about how we are desperately short of skilled and willing workers—alternately with pieces about how we are desperately short of projects to provide employment. The intended solution is of course an endless cycle (or spiral) of increasing population and increasing construction. If only politicians could give Australia the construction industry its population needs, rather than the population its construction industry would like.

OConnor cites Australias Anglo-Celtic property system for fuelling the drive to fill the country with people by rewarding private speculation in land. By contrast, the nations capital, Canberra, was built on a French-style system, with the government resuming land from farmers at fair but moderate prices, auctioning it as cheaply as possible, and using the profit it couldnt help making to provide roads, schools, services and an elegantly planned layout. Canberra remains one of the worlds most livable cities, and (for the developers who control much of Australias politics) an embarrassing proof that there is a better way.

To footnote this observation it should be noted that Australian population sociologist Sheila Newman has ably documented the relationship between the British property system and the population growth lobby on the one hand, and the French property system and the absence of any meaningful lobby for growth in France on the other hand. Students of Canadian civic politics know that developers virtually own city councils. What sinister role do they play behind the scenes in framing federal immigration policy or influencing it? The Urban Futures Institute, a high profile Vancouver-based think tank, is a consistent cheerleader for massive immigration. Its mouthpiece was formerly demographer David Baxter who couched his arguments in demographic statistics to prove that he was in possession of a crystal ball, in fact had no credentials as a demographer. He was merely a front man for the real estate industry which fully funds the institute. He was guaranteed an interview by every media outlet when occasion demanded it.

Has any voice of caution or restraint been raised against this mad rush to ecological oblivion? Well there was the Whitlam Labor government of 1972-75 which reacted to the first Global Oil shock by limiting immigration and population growth. Then the Australian Academy of Science made a major public statement in 1994 that advised that Australias population not exceed 23 million and that immigration be half of what it was during the Hawke-Keating era. The Science Council of Canada issued a similar report in 1975 when it warned that Canadas population should not go beyond 30 million. The government responded by abolishing the Science Council and then proceeding along a path that saw the land of frozen tundra, lakes and mountains fill up one-fifth of its Class 1 farmland with subdivisions and become a nation of 33 million with the fastest growth rate in the G8 group.

The Australian Democrats came out in favour of zero-net-migration, but the political culture was poisoned. Under the Hawke-Keating Labor governments of 1983-1996 Australia was essentially a plutocratic democracy where voters were presented with a Hobsons choice between parties who were servants of business-growth lobbies. While cognizant of conservationist sensibilities, Hawke dared not offend the growth lobby. But even the large immigrant communities were among the 73% of voters who in 1991 said immigration levels were too high, or the 71% in 1996 who held to this opinion. Again, Canadians have affected consistent opposition to immigration in the same proportions, but like Australians, have been presented with a solid parliamentary front in favour of a policy they detest..

But nevertheless, given the scale and persistence of this discontent Labors spin-doctors needed to give the old myth of Australia as an empty land a make-over. There was no farmland available and urban land prices were beyond reach, so alright then, it would no longer be Australias manifest destiny to build a great nation but rather a diverse one.
It would become a United Nations of ethnicities and races sustained by permanent immigration long after the pioneering period had past. But the obsession with cultural diversity would trump concern for preserving biological diversity.

Thus instead of being ashamed that we have lost so many of our marsupial species, many Australians on the left seem more ashamed that we do not have flourishing Inuit or Bantu community in their particular city. Quite why it should be Australias duty to turn itself into a representative sample of the cultures of the earth is never explained. Instead, there are constant shouts that any reduction of immigration will lead us tumbling back into an abyss of racism and boring monoculturalsim. Thus Labor was able to disguise a right-wing policy of relentless growth as left-wing tolerance, OConnor writes.

Hawkes and Keatings spin doctors even took advantage of the Anglo-Celtic guilt over having immigrated upon the Aboriginal tribes without their permission and violently displaced them. Somehow this became a further reason why high immigration, so long as it was no longer Anglo-Celtic, was essentialas if inviting in the rest of the world would legitimize it.

OConnor forecasts that the incoming Labor government of Kevin Rudd will continue to the traditional quest for economic growth, only addressing GHG issues if they do not compromise this goal. He compares Australia to a cruise liner whose captain is required to sail in the direction chosen by a deck-steward whose priority is to keep the sun shining on the deckchairs in the saloon section, so that their occupants will order more drinks.
The metaphor is an interesting one, for Canada too could be compared to a cruise liner. The HMS Ecological Titanic still robotically stopping to pick up more passengers as it ploughs forward toward the iceberg of over-population.

We may, albeit in diminished numbers, adapt to climate change, but we will not adapt to biodiversity collapse. OConnor spoke of Australias botanical and ecological fragility, but this is what environmentalist Brishen Hoff said of Canada: Our boreal forest continues to experience wholesale clearcutting and relentless road expansion. More water is being diverted from the Great Lakes watershed than what is being replenished, causing the highest lakes (Nipigon, Superior, etc.) to dramatically drop their water levels. I could go on with thousands of examples of species extinctions and worsening environmental quality right here in Ontario and Algoma-Manitoulin all because of human population growth.

In fact most of the more than 500 threatened species dwell within the range of Canadas major urban centres where they are imperiled by sprawling subdivisions roughly 70% of which are occupied by immigrants. But remember, mass immigration is to be celebrated in Canada as, in the words of Green Party leader Elizabeth May, our great multicultural project. Like Sydney, Vancouverites are told that they must move over and accommodate another 800,000 migrants in the coming 23 years (24% growth) and appreciate the newcomers for the diversity they bring. But at what cost this cultural diversity? An infinitely richer, more vital heritage. The biological diversity of the species that this growth will extinguish.

Whats the answer? OConnor quotes Gordon Hocking of NSW: As long as we stick with an economic system that needs to perpetually grow we will remain trapped on the road to ecological and climate disaster. Brishen Hoff would add None of these symptoms can be reversed without shrinking the size of our economy and then moving to a steady state economy.

Bulimics gorge, then purge. Lets hope our national binging ends soon and our demographic weight loss is progressive and incremental rather than dramatic and deadly.

Watch for the upcoming book by Mark OConnor and William Lines, Overloading Australia.