26 November 2009

Immigration, population and climate

It's the big thing to be talking about now. The buzz words are "footprint" and "carrying capacity".

Both are based on wrong assumptions. My footprint has been a nine and a half since I was a teenager. It doesn't change. Carrying capacity also implies a fixed limit. Human society isn't like that.

There is only one way a cow can be a cow. It eats a certain amount of feed, blows out a certain amount of methane, tramples a certain amount of pasture, etc. What goes for cows goes for all other species, except us. Humans can be humans, and can interact with the rest of the planet, in an endless variety of ways.

Before the middle of the 19th Century, any city with more than a couple of hundred thousand people was a stinking, disease-ridden hole with raw sewage running down the streets and pouring into the nearest waterway. Unchecked pollution of the atmosphere continued a bit longer, leading to incidents like the Great London Smog of 1952.

But blaming everything on numbers is stupid. One person = x amount of environmental damage, so more people means more environmental damage, less means less. The overall success of the international effort to get rid of ODCs (Ozone Depleting Chemicals) shows that, just as humans are capable of doing vast damage to the planet, we are also capable (unlike any other species) of seeing what we are doing and doing something about it.

The various "ecologists against population increase" or "environmentalists against immigration" or such groups are actually a cop out. Funny thing, they usually come to the conclusion that we (that is, us rich white folks, apologies to any less exalted races who might be reading this) aren't really to blame. After all, we take our contraception and keep our birth rates below replacement level. Apparently the real culprits are all those other people out there, breeding like rabbits. Point out that we have much higher levels of resource consumption and carbon production per capita than the rest of the world, and the argument switches from population to immigration. Whatever you do, don't let any more of those people move from their countries to ours! They might start living like us! Heaven forbid.

Am I crazy, or is there something very wrong with this argument?

I heard it put very strongly by Prof. Tim Flannery and others during one of the IQ2 debates a couple of months ago. By the end, I was expecting Prof. Flannery to announce his imminent emigration to Bangladesh. He didn't, but that seemed to be the logic of his position. The debate took place in Sydney. I wonder what the audience response would have been if they had staged it in Karachi?

I suspect it may well turn out in the end that it won't be our decision anyway. If we carbon-munching Australians don't take responsibility for the impact of our lifestyles on the rest of the planet, the day may soon come when others decide that they will not stay poor, will not stay put, will not take their contraception, and instead will get into their boats and come over here whether we like it or not. I guess you could call it Pemelwuy's last laugh.

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