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The sweet spot’s sour underbelly

By Ted Trainer - posted Thursday, 1 December 2011

The claim that Australia has built probably the most prosperous and civil society in the world is indisputable...but very misleading. The message is that we should be mightily proud of ourselves; we are doing well, running a great society and setting a glowing example for all to admire and follow.

Most of those making the claim can be excused because, having the well-trained mind of the conventional economist, they have great difficulty in taking into account anything but dollar costs and benefits. They know that economic growth is good, necessary, and can go on forever. That our high "living standards" are the just rewards for our enterprise and talent, and that the best way to solve any remaining problems is to crank up the economy so we can accumulate more wealth to spend on them.

Well let me mention a few considerations that this self-congratulation somehow overlooks. The first is that our "prosperity" is built on extremely unsustainable practices. There is not the slightest chance that Australia's per capita levels of production, consumption, resource use and ecological impact can be kept up for much longer, let alone be spread to all the world's people.


If all the people in the world today were to rise to the present Australian per capita energy use, world energy production would have to be four times as much as it is, and if we take the probable 2050 population and Australia's energy use growth trend the multiple is around eight.

By the way you might not have heard but we probably went through the peak availability of oil in 2005. How are you going to run the world with less and less of it while demand skyrockets? Don't just assume we will do it on renewable energy; there is a very strong case that that is not remotely possible. And if you think we'll do it with nuclear reactors, do you realise that they only produce electricity? So how are you going to power the other 80 per cent of the economy?

It's the same with just about all the other resources. Minerals, land, forests, fish, water and food are all increasingly scarce and costly. How "prosperous" would Australians be if we had to get by consuming the world per capita average production of copper or tantalum or nickel? Obviously the level of resource consumption enabling our "sweet spot" is far beyond that which all people could share.

And, more worrying, our "prosperity" is built on ecological practices that are unsustainable in the extreme. "Sweet spot" theorists would be well advised to find out about the Footprint concept - they obviously haven't heard of it. The amount of productive land on the planet averages about 1.2 ha per capita, and by 2050 the figure will be about .8 ha (assuming erroneously that we will not lose any more of it).

The Australian Footprint is now about 8 ha. In other words, our sweet lifestyles involve the per capita use of 10 times the amount of productive land that will soon be available to the world's people.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the world is now consuming ecological resources at a rate that would take 1.5 planets to provide sustainably.  If the expected 10 billion people were to rise to the "living standards" Australians would have by 2050 if we average 3% p.a. economic growth until then, we would need 20 planet earths.


Another minor point they seem to have overlooked is solving the greenhouse problem. In 2007 the IPCC recommended at least a 50% reduction in emissions (and possibly 80%). Because at that time feedback mechanisms could not be taken into account, that target is now widely considered to be far too soft. But if we take it, then a global reduction of 50% would mean that the average per capita emission would have to be about 6% of the present Australian per capita level.

So our sweet spot prosperity is built on the world's biggest per capita contribution to the destruction of the atmosphere. How convenient that the national emission calculation does not include the additional huge volume of emissions caused when the coal we export is burned somewhere else. Drug pushers are condemned; fortunately for us carbon pushers are not.

That's just the tip of the ecological iceberg. How prosperous would we be if we were farming in a sustainable way? We farm in a way that has helped to give Australia just about the world's worst ecological record; the highest species loss, acidified and salinised soils, the Murray-Darling crippled because we refuse to allow it enough water, and the now just-about-inevitable loss of much of the tropical rainforest and probably all of the Great Barrier Reef. How much agricultural and coal export income would be supporting our sweet spot if we were not doing these things?

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About the Author

Dr Ted Trainer is a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of NSW. You can find more on his work here.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Ted Trainer

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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