Saturday, December 16, 2017

Enhancing the ‘glue’ that slows migration

A shorter version of this article was published in the national newsletter (number 129) of Sustainable Population Australia, in September 2017. That version did not include an additional comment regarding Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, nor the three paragraphs describing my own attempts to enhance “glue”.
In 2016 the US journalist Thomas Friedman wrote a pair of articles, published in the New York Times, called “Out of Africa”. He describes a visit to a village in the far northwest of Senegal, worth the trek, he says, “if you’re looking for the headwaters of the immigration flood now flowing from Africa to Europe via Libya.” In this village he finds almost no young or middle-aged men; instead they have left for Europe, in search of opportunity. According to Friedman “the village’s climate-hammered farmlands can no longer sustain them, and with so many kids — 42 percent of Senegal’s population is under 14 years old — there are too many mouths to feed from the declining yields.” This scene is repeated right across the Sahel, including Niger, which has a total fertility rate of over 7.
Supporters of Sustainable Population Australia are unlikely to need much convincing that the human carrying capacity of much of northern Africa has been exceeded. In 2002 I co-authored a paper for a conference of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population which argued that human carrying capacity can be conceptualised as an emergent property of five kinds of capital: human, social, natural, physical and financial. Applying this analysis to sub-Saharan Africa, it is clear that its natural capital (e.g. the capacity of its soil, water, climate and human ingenuity to grow food) is not keeping pace with population growth. Nor is its infrastructure (physical capital). At the same time, word of mouth, mobile phones, and the internet provide hope to many of its people that migration to Europe might provide the means not only for a better life to those who can escape, but a means to send some money home (remittances) enabling the import of food and other means to keep life tolerable, for those for stay behind. Staying behind makes sense for the frail, old and young, who not only avoid the arduous and dangerous journey to Europe, but will not need to be housed and fed in a foreign and strange land.
The vectors that drive migration are most commonly analysed as “push” and “pull”. These are surely not hard to comprehend by non-Indigenous Australians, all of whom are descendants of people who arrived more or less yesterday, compared to the time our earliest ancestors left Africa, perhaps 100,000 years ago. But, in addition to these factors, there are two more, which I termed “glue” and “fend” (deterrence) in a report I contributed to in 2005, commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Medical Association (and wrote about in a blog in 2015). For “fend” one only has to think of the hard line approach of Peter Dutton, President Trump and in other countries such as Hungary.
But the “glue” factor seems less well understood, including in Australia. But it is surely not hard to understand. I am very happy to be an Australian living here, where my mother tongue is understood, I am familiar with the culture, and I have the means for a reasonable life, including a sense of safety. Having lived overseas for 5 years, I know that what Australia can offer me, is, in general, at least as good as anywhere on Earth. Of those 5 years, about a year has been in Asia, including in many rural areas. I know that not every Asian seeks to migrate; they are tied to their homeland by memory, affection, culture and economy.
However, looking forward, in the context of still rising population growth, sea level rise, and other manifestations of adverse environmental change it is easy to conceive how push and pull will loosen glue, in many parts of the Asia Pacific, as is already evident in much of Africa. For many Rohingya (a persecuted Muslim minority largely in Myanmar) this has already happened.
Australian politicians and the glue factor
I have met Philip Ruddock (a former Australian minister for migration) at three events organised by recent migrants to Australia. The last time I saw him he told me foreign aid from Australian was a luxury we cannot afford. In the context of intractable budget deficits (significantly due to the immorality of multinational corporations, Australia’s richest people and their tax lawyers) the position of the Liberal National coalition is that aid is a form of bad debt, an indulgent consumption. In response, I argued that aid was a glue and stability enhancing investment that would enhance global and Australian quality of life. But he gave no hint that he understood.
Sarah Hanson-Young, until recently the Greens spokesperson for migration, has repeatedly criticised Australia’s cruel, duplicitous, expensive, and unaccountable policy of deterrence (fend) to asylum-seeking but she too, to my knowledge, has very rarely if ever been reported talking about the need to enhance the glue dimension to migration. However, I have recently been told, she is in fact well aware of this dimension – if so, why does the media rarely if ever include Sarah’s comments on this? (added December 2017, this sentence is not in the published newsletter).
My own involvement in “glue”
In the late 1970s I decided to study medicine, primarily to try to improve health in the South, then called the Third World. 1989 I co-founded the non-government organisations BODHI and BODHI Australia, now two of the oldest Buddhist-influenced aid organisations based outside Asia. BODHI’s primary goal can be condensed to an attempt to enhance glue and to reduce push, pull and fend.
The arguments made here have been more or less clear to me since a long conversation in 1990 with Dr Maurice King, chief populariser of the concept of “demographic entrapment”. I won the 2001 Borrie Prize (awarded in 2002) by the Australian Population Association (APA) for a long essay that traced the rise and fall of Malthusian thinking within demography. This was an adaptation of the second chapter of my doctoral thesis (Inequality and Sustainability), which was supervised by Professor JC (Jack) Caldwell, a co-recipient of the 2004 UN Population Prize.
Despite winning the Borrie Prize, my resultant article was then rejected by a series of demographic journals, include the Journal of Population Research (the APA journal), the Population and Development Review and at least five more. Today, despite having published at least 50 articles, chapters and reports of relevance to global population dynamics, I have not yet been published in a primarily demographic journal. I share Maurice King’s opinion that mainstream demography has been corrupted by neoliberal forces who deny limits to growth, not only physical but social.
It is clear that Australian political elites have given up on global “health and wealth for all”, despite ostensibly supporting the Sustainable Development Goals, which will be a mirage if business as usual continue. It is not only shameful but stupid that Australia has thumbed its nose at the Pearson Commission target for overseas aid. Our approach of miserly aid, rampant fend (the funding of which probably now exceeds that for aid) is sewing the seed for future misery, both here and abroad.
About the author
In 2002 Colin Butler was commissioned by Frank Fenner, of the Australian Academy of Science, to write a report on Australian carrying capacity. In 2013 the Australian Academy of Science published a chapter in which he argued that the Australian population must be substantially increased, even though this would reduce the Australian quality of life, given the global demographic pressure. However, he argued, this must be accompanied by much greater engagement in the struggle for global development.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Limits to Growth, Planetary Boundaries and Planetary Health: history and future

This is a background paper for a workshop held at the University of Sydney on December 13, 2017, in conjunction with the launch of a platform about planetary health. My slides are here.

Planetary health has been described as the amalgamation of the health of human civilisation and its underpinning natural systems. There is wide agreement among natural scientists that the current modification of nature is unprecedented, judged by biodiversity depletion, easily accessible fossil fuel, nitrogen in soil and water, and the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases, indicators which, are key “planetary boundaries”.(1) At the same time the number and average life expectancy of humans (and the numbers of the tiny range of animal and plants which humans eat) has never been higher.
Civilisation, in fact, may be likened to an enormous nature-transforming machine, with a seemingly unstoppable trajectory. But is there a limit? If so is it near?

Almost 2,000 years ago Tertullian lamented how the Mediterranean world was becoming full.(2) 219 years ago, another Christian, Malthus, published his analysis of the “principle of population”,(3) arguing, essentially, that humans would fill whatever ecological niche was available to them, limited by their capacity to grow food. Malthus informed Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution,(4) but revealed ignorance of at least one exception to his principle, that of Indigenous Australians, who appear, on the whole, at that time, to have lived within their “eco-social” limits for millennia, thanks mainly to the preventive check of child spacing rather than the “malignant” checks of periodic famine, epidemic, or genocide.(5)

In the 1960s, when global human population growth peaked as a percentage, before the success of the Green Revolution (which greatly increased crop yields due to new crop strains and the use of fossil fuel-dependent fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation) was fully appreciated, concern grew that parts of the world were destined for what some called “Malthusian” traps, as regional human carrying capacity(6) was exceeded, including in parts of sub-Saharan Africa.(7) About then, the Club of Rome commissioned a computerised study to try to dynamically and quantitatively model the human future until 2100.

This study, called the Limits to Growth, became an unexpected best seller, but was intensely criticised by an emerging generation of “neoliberal” economists. The Limits to Growth found that the supply of natural resources, obviously essential for well-being, would become scarce by 2100 under all but the most optimistic scenario, in which human population growth was slowed. Critics dismissed this core assumption, arguing that even if scarcity did occur, market forces would evolve substitutes.

By 2000, the Limits to Growth was almost forgotten, considered by many experts to have been discredited as civilisation still persisted at that time. Among these critics was the 2003 Global Environmental Outlook 3, the flagship report of the United Nations Environment Programme, which incorrectly claimed that Limits to Growth predicted world collapse by 2000.(8)

In contrast, The Limits to Growth concluded that collapse, were it to occur, would be well after 2000. In the “standard run” (see figure) collapse commences by 2050, though this may be postponed by more “enlightened” policies, even if introduced late. Under all of its range of assumptions the study concluded that global food supplies would keep pace with population growth for at least several decades into the new millennium.(8, 9)

Figure The standard run of the Limits to growth finds that human population size declines in the 21st century. If so, this implies a phenomenon of “peak health”(10), likened to peak oil. After Turner.(11) Figure forthcoming.(12)
Although the long version of the early Planetary Boundaries study(13) acknowledges a debt to the Limits to Growth,(14) the Planetary Boundaries work only hints at the effects on health, well-being and civilisation, should too many boundaries be transgressed. Perhaps its authors (of whom few if any would be recognised as leading social scientists) wisely sought to leave such considerations to other writers, aware of the furore encountered by the authors of the Limits to Growth and other bearers of bad news, from Malthus to the Ehrlichs(15) and Lester Brown.(16)

Planetary Health literature draws extensively on the Planetary Boundaries framework, but seems to shy away from mentioning the Limits to Growth.(14) Nonetheless Planetary Health courageously extends Planetary Boundaries towards a domain where controversy and perhaps vilification await, fates experienced by other health writers who have attempted to sound the alarm.(17)

Malthusian checks in 2017 and the role of inequality in shaping Our Common Future

Optimists contend that market forces and ingenuity will continue to long outwit limits, even as famines have returned to parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Yemen,(18) and as awareness and apprehension of the enormous scale of future refugee numbers increase, including by the military.(19) The suffering of 600,000 Rohingya, driven from Myanmar in 2017, is but one recent example, a flightnot driven by climate change, but other aspects of Limits to Growth, including limited tolerance and co-operation.(12)

It is important to recognise that policies and views are shaped by those with the greatest military and economic power, whose influence permeates the scientific literature and academic appointments. Civilisation remains extremely unequal, with a global Gini co-efficient (a widely used measure of inequality) which far exceeds the most unequal individual nation.(20) This inequality is mentioned in planetary health scholarship but is probably generally interpreted as a call for greater health justice. This call is valid, but in my view, there is insufficient appreciation, including within planetary health writing, that the extent of inequality helps propel civilisation towards a brink, essentially because elites feel disconnected from the masses, and immune to whatever perils lie ahead.(21, 22)

The release of the Paradise Papers(23) shows, again, the scale of legal tax evasion which results from and fuels global inequality.(24) Prestigious companies and at least one anti-poverty campaigner, Bono, have been revealed as participating in this. It is as if powerful individuals and companies distrust society, thinking their personal control of resources will do more good. But such individualism is a recipe for collapse. We need a return to the idealism at the birth of the United Nations, born from sober judgement, following two World Wars,(22, 25, 26) and we need more courage in academic and political spheres.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Dr Graham Turner for providing the data in the figure, Dr Devin Bowles and Professors Andy Morse and Jouni Jaakkola for helpful comments


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