People are the answer, not the problem

Flickr image by niallkennedyGreen is the new black. Drive a hybrid car, participate in Earth Hour and offset your lifestyle by the conspicuous consumption of carbon credits and you are counted among the fashion forward. This turn of public opinion has given earnest environmentalists cause to celebrate, albeit in an eco-friendly manner.

However, as the global chatter continues to bring us reports of plummeting stock prices, toxic debt, government bailouts and growing deficits, there is grave concern that the public resolve to conserve, recycle, cap and offset may evaporate. Our new environmental morality is in danger of become a passing trend, quicker than you can say, 'You're not still wearing that old thing are you?'

And so, the question has been raised as to whether we can afford to save the planet, in respect to climate change and the global financial crisis.

In order to explore whether we can indeed afford to save the planet, we will look at three areas. Firstly, we will consider what we are not saving the planet from. Secondly, we will consider what it truly is that we are saving the planet from, and finally, we will consider the impact of the global financial crisis and what effect it may have in this endeavour.

Let us turn our attention to the first question, 'What are we saving the planet from?' One answer to that, according to many people, is, well, people.

This is an idea first popularised in the 1800s by Rev. Thomas Malthus. Writing extensively on this matter, he said, 'The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.' Two centuries later, population control still bubbles up to the surface of conversation, and not just at the extreme edges of social commentary.

At the end of 2007, in the Medical Journal of Australia, Professor Barry Walters put forward the idea of charging a carbon tax on babies. As an Associate Professor of obstetric medicine at the University of Western Australia, Doctor Walters said that any family who chose to have in excess of a 'defined number of children' should pay a carbon tax per child. Being logically consistent, he also advanced the notion of carbon credits being granted to those who bought condoms or who underwent sterilisation.

It is a set of notions that Doctor Garry Egger, adjunct Professor of Health Sciences at Southern Cross University, agrees with. Speaking to ABC television, Dr Egger said, 'Population control seems to have gone off the rails in the last 30 years. It's almost forbidden to talk about it these days. It's almost like smoking — you have to go out in the alleys to talk about it ... And we're ignoring the fact that the downside of that is the pollution and the carbon footprint that's created by increasing the population.'

There is an eerie lack of conversation though, at least publically, as to who decides what an acceptable 'defined number of children' is. Doctor Egger suggests that it would be two people per couple, due to the fact that this is essentially 'replacement value'. So China's one child policy could become Australia's two child policy. Perhaps more troubling though is the notion of how such a policy would be enforced.

Australia is not alone in hosting conversations about limiting the number of children born. Speaking in February 2009 with the UK Telegraph, Sir Jonathon Porritt voiced similar suggestions. Porritt, the chairman of the British Government's Sustainable Development Commission, said that, in relation to people's environmental footprint, 'we will work our way towards a position that says that having more than two children is irresponsible'.

Indeed, the suggestions that humanity itself is what we need to save the planet from are humming along. While these suggestions correctly acknowledge the need for drastic action, there is another point of view.

Some suggest that those who are, first and foremost, philosophically beholden to the idea of population control, have simply hijacked the current climate conversation to serve their purposes. For instance, Dominic Lawson, writing in the UK, said that population control is 'an idea in search of an argument' and that it has commandeered the current environmental cause. Lawson writes:

'Down the years the anti-humans have always been skilful in adapting the fashionable concern of the day to their own peculiar obsession.

'In the 1960s they based their campaign on the notion that there would be mass starvation in Africa and the subcontinent unless those countries learnt to cut back the size of their families; or, worse, they would invade the developed world in their quest for food.

'The World Population Emergency Campaign ran advertisements in the United States showing a photograph of Africans with grasping hands, with the payoff line 'People will not passively starve. They will fight to live'. The idea of the campaign was not to feed them but to make them disappear.'

Interestingly, the World Population Emergency Campaign was a private organisation of the International Planned Parenthood Foundation. It was set up to alert Americans to the danger, as they told it, of the world population explosion, as well as raise money for international birth control programs.

Their business model would, no doubt, have conveniently benefited from their campaign line regarding population growth: 'Not just another cause, but the problem of our time'.

Perhaps what is most concerning though, is that the dialogue from population control advocates, both then and now, leaves little room for the recognition of the dignity of each person. Further, their discourse stifles the pursuit of creative ways to feed and care for those without food, or to manage and reduce any harmful impacts of human activity on the planet.

After all, the 1960s 'prophesies' of mass starvation in the sub-continent were averted by the creativity and initiative of individuals discovering agricultural breakthrough. This led to increased yields and supplies of food, with India now being a net exporter for food.

Herein lies the paradox with the approach that people are an intrinsic problem for the planet. It is people, and only people, who can discover creative solutions to the scientific and environmental dilemmas we face. While breathing may produce CO2, it also means that these living breathing people possess the creativity and initiative to discover ways to mitigate or reverse any negative environmental impacts they generate.

It only takes one person's creative idea, innovation or scientific breakthrough to allow us to solve what currently seems unsolvable. The problem becomes the solution.

Perhaps then, it is the attitude of people, rather than the existence of people, that we may need to save the world from.

In his essay, 'Attitude and Gratitude', Theodore Dalrymple writes:

'After a little reflection, I came to the conclusion that my dislike of waste arises from a whole approach to life that seems to me crude and wretched. For unthinking waste — and waste on our scale must be unthinking — implies a taking-for-granted, a failure to appreciate: not so much a disenchantment with the world as a failure to be enchanted by it in the first place.

'To consume without appreciation (which is what waste means) is analogous to the fault of which Sherlock Holmes accused Doctor Watson, in A Scandal in Bohemia: You see, but you do not observe.'

Herein we discover a fundamental issue which, when addressed, would help to solve a mismatch in our relationship to the earth in which we live and for which we are to care for.

We do not need to establish a quasi-religious view of the earth in order to love and care for it, as the earth was not designed to be worshipped, but to be stewarded. Careful, responsible use of the earth and the natural resources are not evil, nor are they to be unthinkingly avoided. Rather it is unthinking waste, and consuming without appreciation, that leads to a crude way of viewing the earth. It is this mindset that should be avoided and resisted.

As Dalrymple suggests, this type of waste, and the whole approach to life that this springs from, is about seeing, but not observing. It sees the parts of the earth that we may use, but fails to observe the true beauty and wonder of the world in totality, perfectly positioned in the universe so that we do not boil or freeze.

The current financial crisis, precipitated fundamentally by greed, reminds us once again of the falsehood of the 'greed is good' mentality, which was popularised by Hollywood yet was in existence long before it hit the silver screen. Similarly, approaching our natural environment with a sense of unthinking greed and entitlement has led to many of the climate concerns we see today.

However, in an interesting reversal of fortunes, it may be that the global financial crisis could be a boon for environmental advocacy and practise. With less 'fat in the budget' and much tighter profit margins, corporations and individuals are, and will be, looking where they can trim operations, all of which is good news for the planet.

In June 2009 the following effects of the global financial crisis were reported:

AIRLINES, desperate to cut costs, have gone to the extraordinary lengths of reducing the size of spoons to make planes lighter to save fuel.

According to the International Air Transport Association, Northwest Airlines in the US has excluded spoons from its cutlery pack if the in-flight meal does not need one.

JAL, Japan's national carrier, has also looked to shave off any extra weight, The Daily Telegraph reports.

The carrier took everything it loads on a 747 and laid it out on a school gym floor to find, and strip, any extra weight.

JAL then shaved a fraction of a centimetre from all its cutlery.

IATA director of environment Paul Steele said the seemingly minor cuts did make a difference.

'When you are talking about a jumbo jet with 400 people on board, being served two to three meals, this can save a few kilos,' he said.

'You work out how much fuel that consumes over a year, and you can be talking about a considerable amount of money.'

It will indeed save a considerable amount of money, which is good for companies trying to survive the global financial crisis. But significantly, it reduces the amount of fuel used. And perhaps what has been a culture of unthinking waste is turning into a culture of thinking conservation. If people use less, and waste less, then we are being more careful stewards of the world in which we live.

Additionally, as households feel the bite of the global financial crisis, they too will start to implement cost-saving measures, which in more cases than not, are also waste-saving measures. The problem of the bottom line produces the imperative to change, and implementing environmental concepts such as reduce, reuse and recycle becomes a way of life, rather than a passing trend.

Can we afford to save the planet? While it seems cliché to say that we can't afford not to save the planet, it's true. It is our home and we need it. However, the first step to implementing real change is realising what we are saving the planet from. Secondly, for social change to stick, it must become more than a passing trend.

Perhaps history will reveal to us that the global financial crisis ended up as the 'crisis the environmental movement had to have'. Fundamental shifts in the way we see and exploit natural resources could lead to a reformation of global proportions as environmental stewardship and responsibility enters the psyche of the everyman.

Ruth LimkinRuth Limkin is pastor of Nexus Church, a large contemporary Christian church in Brisbane. She is a freelance contributor to the Brisbane Courier Mail. She was the winner of the 2008 Margaret Dooley Award. The above essay was Highly Commended by the judges of the 2009 Eureka Street/Reader's Feast Award.

Topic tags: ruth limkin, climate change, global financial crisis, population control



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Existing comments

There is a nice slogan here, in the headline and the argument. But it's just a slogan, and cannot bear much analysis. The term "people" is used by this writer to mean two things: the total population of the planet (the problem) and particular individual people (the possible solution). You don't have to dislike people (to be an "anti-human") to think that there are too many of us for the planet to sustain. Whilst there's no doubt that many people and societies could live less wastefully, persuading most people to do so (without some religious /moral impulse) would seem as difficult a job as controlling population. The question is, should we attempt either or both of these things thoughtfully and peacefully before events intervene?

Paul Tankard | 02 December 2009  

Thank you for the article. I am 83 years old, and evidently lived in the great depression. Mum and Dad had 10 children over about twenty years. We always handed down clothes to the next child, had two pairs of shoes sometimes, good and school. We had no sports shoes , except football, and ran in bare feet. It was easy. My grandmother made me a smart dress one time out of grandfather's shirt worn out at the collar. Everything was patched and darned.

Marie Dullard | 02 December 2009  

The question, "What are we saving the planet from?" is indeed the core question. Ms Limkin has done well in exploring one facet of a complex problem. I would add that misdirected environmental zeal may actually cause more damage to our planet. Carbon trading is sold to us like a surgeon asking for consent for life-saving surgery - "This surgery is risky, and may leave you scarred, limping or completely disabled, but without it you may die!" But the diagnosis of anthropogenic climate change is being questioned more and more. Earth has reportedly cooled since the mid 90's and the hack into the emails of the Climate Research Institute in the UK case doubt over the science underlying AGCC. Attacking a "problem" like CO2 may actually be like a surgeon removing both kidneys because it hurts to pee a little. People are a problem, and as the essay eloquently portrays, there are many ways to help our planet. I think the environments vitals signs need to be remeasured and our approach revised. We need to save ourselves from ourselves before it is too late.

Christopher Pitt | 02 December 2009  

I'll begin with a quote from Ruth's article: 'It only takes one person's creative idea, innovation or scientific breakthrough to allow us to solve what currently seems unsolvable'. With respect Ruth, we don't need any more 'innovative or scientific breakthrough[s]', the 'scientific' community know what we need to do to solve the problem.

It will not be solved by the people because as you rightly point out, they get bored with trends, including one as important as green consumerism. However, one longterm part of the mix of solutions is population control. I suspect that behind your comments stands the Pope's edict on birth control. If one thinks clearly on this, Malthusiasm for the control of population is inevitable, the planet is round, and therefore limited, not flat and infinite.

David Akenson | 03 December 2009  

This is a very good article, though I wonder if the real issue in climate change really is the total volume of world population? Perhaps it's more caused by the plundering and polluting tendencies of the developed world? (Not to mention the rising middle classes of developing nations who are starting to emulate our consumerist lifestyles.) A reevlauation of the ways we use the earth's limited resources for profit might be a good place to start. For example, as a boy, I used to get great catches of salt water salmon between March - May. The schools of fish were enormous. Now they are gone, having been purse seined for pet food & big profits. On a flight from KL to Australia, I looked down on brown Indonesian islands that were once a deep green before they were denuded of trees in the name of big profits. While it is true that we can all help save our planet by consuming more wisely, we also have to tackle the attitude that it is allright to plunder the earth (& pollute it in the process) all in the name of making a very large pile of money. In short, greed is very much at the root of the issue rather than volume of population. As Christopher Pitt observed in his comments, this article exlores "one facet of a complex problem". It would be great to see a much wider debate on the causes of this complex issue and who is primarily paying the price for our consumerist ways.

Dave Martin | 03 December 2009  

Thanks for this, Ruth.

You pose a worthwhile question "... who decides what an acceptable 'defined number of children' is ..."?

The correct answer is, of course, that people decide for themselves.

Should we correlate real household income with family access to clean drinking water, we will find that the correlation is positive.

Should we correlate real household income with educational levels of women, we will find that the correlation is positive.

Should we correlate real household income with women's access to health services, we will find that the correlation is positive.

Should we then correlate real household income with children per family, we will find that the correlation is negative.

Whodathunkit? No wonder Mohammed Yunus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics ahead of all the Treasurers and Chancellors of the G20.

David Arthur | 15 December 2009  

Makes delightful and thought provoking reading. Congratulations Rev. Ruth Limkin!

Herby Lingham | 12 March 2010  


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