Which is the more urgent crisis: the number of people in Australia, or the way in which they choose to live? Photo: Paul Rovere
Most people crave feedback about their work, and journalists are no different. We want readers to tell us if our news reports are wrong or if they lack context.
And then there's that other form of feedback: hate mail. I don't often receive it, but there's an exception. Whenever I write about population growth or, as I did last month, about the merits of subsidising families, I apparently become something akin to a war criminal. Or, as one reader put it, an ''utterly selfish consumer hell-bent on destroying our planet''.
I've tried to understand the arguments of such people (and there are many of them). However, I can't help but conclude that they're simply racists in green clothing. They mention environmental crises, but the only solution they want to talk about is stopping ''other'' people from coming to Australia, and preventing them from breeding. They warn of pending catastrophes, such as those caused by global warming, which must be staved off urgently. Yet they never detail how they intend to dramatically reduce the world's population within a decade or so. Spanish flu? Nuclear weapons? Perhaps a mass sterilisation program? That's the trouble with spruiking genocide: you end up sounding like a mass murderer.
I agree that everyone must act swiftly to prevent further destruction of the Earth's life-giving systems: forests, oceans and the atmosphere. This is an urgent task and it relates directly to the way in which we live. Population size matters but it is a lesser priority, because it takes generations to alter the cultural influences that affect the size of families. By most accounts, we don't have that long.
Yet we can, if we're genuinely determined, reduce our ecological footprint over a short time span. However, we must first admit that we are the problem and stop outsourcing the blame to China, India or to anyone else except us.
Instead, I often hear Australians argue that accepting immigrants from poorer countries damages the environment because our lifestyle encourages them to be wasteful. Not only is this view selfish (''we're entitled to be wasteful but they're not''), it lacks evidence. Most immigrants from developing nations are middle-class workers who had comparatively lavish lifestyles: motor vehicles and large houses with modern, energy-intensive appliances, just like us. The ecological footprint of this narrow class of people has never been measured, but it's likely it remains relatively unchanged after they move here.
Our two main parties support gradual population growth, though they try to avoid saying so publicly. During the 2010 election campaign, populism got the better of them. Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott both spoke, in vague terms, of their ''concerns'' about the size of Australia's population, yet failed entirely to mention the real problem: our massive appetite for non-renewable resources.
Yet two signs emerged in Canberra this week that this debate is maturing. The Legislative Assembly's environment committee finished its inquiry into the ''ecological carrying capacity of the ACT and region'', and resisted calls from many to recommend limiting our population. Instead, it pointed out that ''consumption patterns and environmentally sustainable behaviours of individuals are likely to change over time … Case studies, including Australian ones, have shown that populations sometimes significantly reduce their rates of consumption and, in turn, their ecological footprints.''
Also, federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh wrote an essay in his party's policy journal that speared the myth that all growth harms the environment. ''If it were the case that all workers produced goods requiring non-renewables and if we never became any more efficient at producing those goods, then rising incomes and population would eventually use up all the world's resources. But it turns out that neither of these things are true … Today's cars use less fuel. Our computers use less electricity. And, thanks to recycling, our paper uses fewer trees.''
We do face an extraordinary ecological challenge. But it's not about how many of us live on this planet. It's about how we live and whether we're ready to change.
Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant.