Humans not the enemy in climate change debate

Published in the Courier Mail 12 October 2009

SOMEONE has to say it sooner or later. “We are not the enemy.”

By we, I mean you, and me, my neighbour and, well, everyone really. So often that is what we are perceived or promoted as – the enemy, the problem, the plague.

In just the past few weeks, Sustainable Population Australia declared: “There is not a single environmental problem that benefits from increased population.” In other words, you are intrinsically bad for the environment. Carbon credit time perhaps?

It’s interesting, and a little disquieting, to observe the undercurrents that sometimes bubble to the surface in the climate change conversation. These undercurrents are vastly removed from a healthy and desperately needed message of care and stewardship of the earth.

In these conversations, we are positioned as antagonists – people versus the environment – and methods such as how we can stop people having children are seriously discussed. For instance, in 2007, West Australian professor Barry Walters suggested a carbon tax on babies and advocated carbon credits for those who bought condoms or underwent sterilisation. He wasn’t joking.

The “more humans are bad” concept, referenced by Sustainable Population Australia, is in no way a new idea. In 1798, Reverend Thomas Malthus was writing about population control. At a time when the global population was about 800 million, he said: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

Population control is an idea that the indulgent West is happy to theorise about, and a conversation the developed world is happy to host. However, like most global scenarios, it’s the poor who would suffer the most if we move past rumination and into application. In the same way that we would be aghast at suggestions to discard our superannuation, those in most developing nations would be horrified to have to limit their number of children to one or two. When your family is your social security system, population control contains ominous overtures.

What if we took a different perspective, though? Could people ever be the solution and not the problem?

What if we invested in innovation and respected reproduction?

The inherent potential in humanity itself is stunning if ever appreciated in its breadth and depth. The genesis of a truly great, revolutionary idea for energy generation, for agricultural technology, for waste reduction or for recycling methods may lie in the person you met yesterday.

Or it may lie in the fourth child of a family in Africa or India. What if, instead of controlling population, we created opportunities for education, established cultures of creativity and encouraged responsible, careful use of the natural resources around us?

I don’t have all the answers for the environmental problems we face. I guess that’s my point.

Perhaps you have the answer, or part of it.

Someone else may have part of it too and that someone else may just be the child being born while you read this. In that case, an increased population was exactly what we, and our planet, needed.

I respectfully suggest that Sustainable Population Australia is wrong. We are not the enemy, and we would do well to remember that.

Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer