Survive or perish? Bob Brown on the greatest choice facing humanity.
Bob Brown’s Eureka moment came in 1973, when he and a local dairy farmer went chasing thylacines in the Tarkine wilderness of north-west Tasmania.
“We did a bit of snaring and caught a lot of Tasmanian devils but no Tasmanian tigers,” Bob recalls. “He wanted to go into untracked country.
“That was pure rainforest, in rain. It’s emblazoned in my mind, the magnificence of it. Everything glittering, everything shining, and a thousand shades of green; the browns and the colours in the rivers and in the forest floor. And fungi. And glow-worms. Not to speak of leeches. I’ve never forgotten it, so here I am, fifty years on, with so many others campaigning to protect that very place.”
THE HUMAN PLAGUE
It's salutary, every now and then, to remember what we are biologically: a species of hairless, large-brained ape. Homo sapiens are the most successful of all the mammals, so successful that we have destroyed a vast number of other species. According to a study published in the journal Science, at least 477 species of vertebrates have become extinct since 1900, including 69 mammals, 80 birds, 24 reptiles, 146 amphibians and 158 fishes.
We have now, according to both that study and the United Nations, embarked on the sixth period of mass extinction in the history of Earth, with over a million species now in danger of disappearing forever.
I ask Bob: is H. sapiens a plague species?
“The short answer to that is yes. When I was born in 1944, there were 2.5 billion of us, which had doubled in a century. Now there’s eight billion, and we’re headed for somewhere between nine and twelve billion before it tapers off.
“It’s the biggest herd of mammals ever to graze the planet and it’s not as if that meadow we’re grazing is getting any bigger. It’s not. It’s actually shrinking. Less forests, less fisheries, less species, less arable land, and more mouths to feed.”
Population data compiled by the United Nations show the global population, now at eight billion, has increased by 218% since 1950. Most of that increase has come from middle-income countries, which now include China and India.
The UN’s demographers now expect the population to continue to increase, though at a much slower rate, until the mid-2080s before a very slow, slight decline. The decline in middle-income nations is projected to be almost completely countered by a rise in the numbers of the world’s poorest.
Two quite different trajectories are expected for the world’s most populous nations, China and India. China’s population is now close to its probable all-time peak and, by the end of the century, would be 40% lower than it now is. For India, it’s a different story.
If you think all this doesn’t look too bad, think again. As people move from poverty up the income scale, they tend to have fewer children but each person consumes much more of the earth’s resources. Populations may decline, but consumption continues to increase.
“We’re now using earth’s living resources at almost double the rate it can provide,” Bob tells me. “Everything’s going backwards except more mouths to feed, and the wish by Homo sapiens to get more stuff. It’s instinctive. It was necessary not only for our survival but for our road to the predominance we now have on the planet. But it’s our downfall.”
One way of measuring that deficit between what we are using, and the earth’s capacity to go on providing it, is in looking at the number of ‘earths’ that would be needed to supply our present lifestyles. By 2018, according to the latest calculations, we were using 1.75 ‘earths’ – that is, 175% of the global capacity to provide.
This graph shows how it breaks down. The biggest contributor to humanity’s resource deficit is carbon emission (shown in grey). Second is the over-use of cropland (green), followed by forestry, grazing and built-up land.
It’s not, of course, equally distributed. As the following graph shows, Africa is the only region where consumption does not exceed the earth’s capacity. In North America’s case, the earth would have to be over four times bigger to meet current consumption.
Total consumption is driven by the number of people in a region, and the amount each of them consumes. This graph shows how the behaviour of individuals varies from region to region.
A NEW ECONOMICS?
“As a global species, we have to reverse the 175% use of resources back to 100%, a steady state,” Bob says. “But it’s not a matter that can be discussed in politics. There is not a single government on the planet that doesn’t support growth economics. That means more extraction, to make more goods to supply a public hooked on more stuff.”
Data from the Global Footprint Network show the ecological impact of Australia’s consumption is seven times that of Nepal or Somalia.
“There’s a billion people living in poverty, roughly, and a billion people living in gluttony, roughly. [People living in poverty] can see what we’ve got and aspire to it, and why shouldn’t they? But that will increase the consumption of resources by 300%, ten times as much as the population growth itself.
“If we don’t act on the sheer impossibility of the planet providing twice its resource capacity [as it now is] going to 300% – that’s six planets that would be required by the end of this century.
“It will not happen. We are headed rapidly for a great downfall. And yet the answer of the average politician and the voters who put them there is ‘let’s put the foot on the accelerator, I want more’.
“We have here a very big question in front of ourselves: are we going to save ourselves?”
As Bob Brown says, economic and fiscal policy everywhere aims to increase production and prosperity. A key ingredient of that is the “demographic dividend” – which is when people of working age outnumber those of non-working age. A younger, more productive population means the economy grows.
The reversal of that – when retired people outnumber those still in the workforce – is behind the sluggish economic performance of Japan over the past several decades. And there are serious concerns that this mechanism is about to be felt in China, with massive implications for Australia and the world.
In practice, this means populations must continue to increase. But there’s little recognition in economic and financial circles either that this has its limits, or that those limits have already been reached and surpassed.
There is another way – at least in theory – of obtaining economic growth without increased depletion of natural resources. It’s by increasing productivity – producing more with the same inputs. But that’s usually measured only in terms of labour productivity – using workers more intelligently, or just getting them to work harder.
But labour is only one of the three classic factors of production. The others are capital and land.
Capital productivity is less analysed, but most national statistics agencies produce figures on it. The use of land – that is, of natural resources generally – is almost totally ignored. But you can’t have productivity without land, even in enterprises – like tech firms – that don’t dig up minerals or till the soil.
If there is to be a transition to a more sustainable economics, the use of land and the sustainability of natural resources must become at least as important as labour when calculating productivity. Otherwise, the world will go on as it always has – until it can’t any longer.
THE CLIMATE CRISIS
Climate change is the most pressing aspect of the eternal-growth economy.
“We’re not in the ball-park of correcting the absurdity of the onrush of climate change at our own hands,” Bob says. “There’ll be lots of lip-service. But sea-levels will rise between one and three metres by the end of this century. That will put millions of people around the world out of house and home.
“We’re seeing the impact now of much worse environmental calamities – floods, fires, typhoons, drought. And we’re going to see mass migrations of people because in desperation, people will not obey the laws. We’re starting to see the start of that.
“There’s no recognition of this among either the government or the governed, in Australia and globally.”
On a per-head basis, Australia leads the world in carbon emissions. In the developed world, per-capita emissions are falling – not fast or far enough, but there has been a beginning. But look at China, where emissions are still rising. And the slight downturn in India – most probably a result of the pandemic – is being swept away as its population continues to boom.
In each new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, forecasts are more pessimistic than before. As each report succeeds the last, what were once worst-case scenarios become instead the most likely outcomes.
“The forecasts for the impact of climate change,” Bob says, “are all proving to be too optimistic. They’re all wrong. The international scientific groups work by consensus, so they tend to be conservative. But there are a lot of highly qualified scientists, here and elsewhere, who are desperately worried.”
The current consensus shows that current policies will deliver a disastrous outcome, with average temperatures rising by between 2.5o and 2.9o by the end of the century. Even if all current pledges are adhered to – and there’s little sign of that happening – temperatures would still rise to 2.1o by 2100. There seems little hope, on current trends, of limiting warming to the 1.5o outcome promised in the Paris agreement.
THE TRIUMPH OF HOPE
In 1978, Tasmania’s Hydro-Electric Commission – “the Hydro” – announced plans for two dams on the Gordon and Franklin Rivers, wild and pristine waterways in the rainforest of south-western Tasmania. The new green protest movement, born during the failed campaign against the damming of Lake Pedder a few years earlier, rallied. Bob Brown was its de facto leader.
The two-dam proposal was changed to one, supported by the ruling state Labor government, the Liberal opposition and the federal government of Malcolm Fraser.
| Bob Brown and the locals
By 1983, the year of the federal election, the Franklin dam was a leading national issue. One of the first acts of the new Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, was to prohibit construction. A High Court challenge by the new state Liberal government failed. The conservationists had won.
This victory showed Bob and many others that the most powerful interests could be taken on and defeated. It was this realisation that led to the establishment of Greens parties around Australia, and to the pattern of environmental protest ever since.
The possibility of triumph against adversity also buoys Bob Brown’s personal mood, and fuels his surprisingly sunny attitude to the overwhelming task he and others now face.
“You can either be pessimistic or optimistic. I don’t know what the future of the planet is. What I do know is that we human beings have got the brains, the common sense, the empathy, the love of life, the enjoyment of existing, to be able to make things work.
“But that is up against a very powerful materialistic, me-not-you philosophy of growth economics that we have at the moment.
“And of course it’s very daunting. But I have to tell you that so was the 26 May 1982, when [Liberal leader] Robin Gray swept to power to build the Franklin dam. Both political parties, both houses of parliament, all three newspapers [were against us]. There seemed to be nothing at all that we could win on.
“Eighteen months later, the river was saved.”