Friday, 30 April 2010

Liberals are closer to reality than Labor – how strange!

On the front cover of today’s Age, there are forecasts that Australia’s population will rise as high as 36 million by 2050. Despite demographic problems in Europe, East Asia, Canada and New Zealand, it is simply not possible as most people carelessly or unknowingly do to apply the same logic to Australia. Tim Flannery argued in The Future Eaters that Australia can sustainably feed only 20 to 30 million people, and that ecologically it – under climatic conditions which I must emphasise as much more favourable than those prevailing now – should be supporting no more than six to twelve million people.

What Flannery does not grasp, however, is that as he says Australia’s relative quality of life may decline, most people outside the intellectual community prefer it to the high-quality lifestyles of Europe and Canada. Economists who speak of “inefficiently high quality” are describing exactly the factors that lure so many immigrants to Australia:
How can this be? Isn’t high quality a good thing? Yes, but only if it is worth the cost. Suppose that suppliers spend a lot to make their goods of very high quality, but that this quality is not worth all that much to consumers, who would rather receive the money spent on that quality in the form of a lower price. Then this represents a missed opportunity: suppliers and buyers could make a mutually beneficial deal in which buyers got goods of somewhat lower quality for a much lower price.
Even should, as paleoclimate models predict, Melbourne’s climate become like the Simpson Desert by 2050, people would still prefer to live in cheap suburban housing which offers twice as much or more space as flats in the cooler climates of Europe at a around one-seventh the price. People, especially those who birth future generations, hardly care about the long distances travelled or the untenably poor standards of transport services when looking for these low living costs. Thus, no matter how dusty and barren the environment in southern Australia become because of global warming, people will still want to live here for the same reason they moved in the past in huge number to cities with extremely hot climates like Phoenix and Tucson.

The only way in which Australia has any chance of halting its population growth and at the same time helping to diffuse the demographic time bomb in Europe, East Asia, Canada and New Zealand is to raise living costs. The difficulty with this is the surfeit of land for housing Australia has. If we exclude
  1. land covered by glaciers or permafrost where building is impossible or extremely expensive because of the lack of stability of structures on ice
  2. steep land where building is expensive
Australia has orders of magnitude more space for housing than any European nation or New Zealand, and several times more than Canada. Thus, the non-intellectual majority who cares less about quality than cost is driven in what could be called a “heart drain” to Australia. It has left Europe, East Asia, Canada and New Zealand with a culture that is exceedingly selfish and shallow because its people prefer quality and specialised items sufficiently that they have no time or space or money for nurturing future generations.

In the context of what I have been saying and The Age’s revelations at the top of the text, it is remarkably surprising to see a devoutly Catholic man like Tony Abbott appearing (at least) to be more rational about this issue than Rudd. Abbott has opposed Rudd allowing for an Australian population of 36 million, saying rightly that such a number is too much. Given his devout religious faith and opposition to birth control, that can only mean Abbott is far closer to reality about immigration.

Whilst we will have to see what Abbott would do for immigration policy, it is a good sign that people are awake to this issue.

Still, as I see it even Tim Flannery is not far enough when he calls for zero net immigration. Australia’s historical cultural similarities with Europe (at least “Germanic Europe”), Canada and New Zealand combine with our current climate crisis to make Australia potentially the best source of immigrants for ameliorating these nations’ demographic crises. For this reason, Australia should aim for net emigration, ie. negative net immigration. It would both solve Australia’s overpopulation and what in Canada and especially New Zealand can almost be described as underpopulation: their economies suffer in innovation and even in efficiency because there are so few people that more efficient systems of transit and electricity use are economically unviable. More than that, there is simply no fundamental difference ecologically that should require (southern) Canada and New Zealand to support lower population densities than Europe, although even in most of southern Canada the climate is admittedly very unpleasant.

On the other hand, it is hard for Australia to support even 3.6 million people - let alone 36 million – without major ecological damage. This means we have a win-for-all possibility in trying to encourage net emigration from Australia.

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