AUSTRALIA is at the crossroads in making key decisions about
population levels, resource use and environmental quality, says a
new report from CSIRO’s Future Resources Program. The report,
Future Dilemmas: Options to 2050 for Australia’s population,
Technology, Resources and Environment, models the future in a way
that has put more than a few conventional market economists
offside: it uses the ‘physical economy’, the array of
physical transactions such as food, soil, air, water and energy
that underpins the monetary economy.
The CSIRO team identified six core dilemmas facing the nation based
on three population scenarios—low, medium and high—in
50 years time. These relate to ageing of the population, physical
trade balances, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, material
flows, resource availability and environmental quality. While the
report is not all bad news, it does point out areas of concern
particularly regarding over-use of fish, oil and gas stocks, and
degraded agricultural and environmental resources.
It points out that Australia moves over 200 tonnes of material per
person per year, an amount it says is not sustainable in the long
term. By contrast, Japan moves around 40 tonnes of material and the
US moves 80 tonnes.
The aim of the team’s work was, according to co-author,
Barney Foran, to create a useful tool for successive governments
"We believe that we have at last begun to get a handle on the
extremely complex relationships inherent in Australia’s
economy and ecology," he said.
However, for those who tuned into 4 Corners at the beginning of
November for an in-depth look at the report, it became apparent
that the economists interviewed were less than impressed with the
Chris Murphy, director of Econotech, was one of two economists who
sat on the report’s review committee and will be dissenting
from the findings. He, along with two other market economists
interviewed by 4 Corners, was dismissive of the report’s
methodology and conclusions—inspiring a lively debate on the
efficacy of modelling such complex variables as the economy,
ecology and population so far into the future. Dr Roger Bradbury, a
complex systems scientist, former Chief Scientist at the Bureau of
Rural Sciences and now Visiting Fellow at Australian National
University, gave the report a warmer reception, noting that the
seven-member team had for the first time come up with a model for
the future of a whole continent.
The CSIRO model, the Australian Stocks and Flows Frameworks,
measures long-term sustainability by quantifying slow-moving
variables such as population momentum and infrastructure inertia.
It took into account 50 years of historical data on the
country’s population, infrastructure and physical resource.