Dick Smith’s population puzzle

By Peter Meredith 15 October 2010
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A wake-up call from his daughter prompted AG founder Dick Smith to undertake a new quest: population.

THE AUDIENCE BEGAN ARRIVING long before the start of the event. By the appointed time, there wasn’t even standing room in the church hall in the northern Sydney suburb of Killara.

The event was a forum organised by Friends of Ku-ring-gai Environment, a community group fighting what it calls “inappropriate and unsympathetic overdevelopment” of its region.

The star attraction was to be entrepreneur and Australian Geographic founder Dick Smith. But he wasn’t going to speak just about local overdevelopment; he was going to expose the driving force behind it. As the title of his talk, “Populate – perish or prosper?”, proclaimed, his focus was to be population, especially the growth of Australia’s numbers.

Dick is ever a man of issues. Whether promoting Australia, its people, values and environment through the journal, encouraging consumers to buy Australian products through Dick Smith Foods, or campaigning to stop cigarette manufacturers targeting youth, he has pursued his issues with single-mindedness and passion. Population, he says, is “the most important issue in my life”.

In asking if continued population growth – former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd welcomed a figure of 36 million by 2050 – is good for Australia, Dick is questioning the very engine of capitalism. After all, doesn’t population growth feed economic growth? If so, how does a self-proclaimed “proud capitalist” come to doubt the fundamental principle of the system that made him wealthy?

The population problem

The catalyst for his conversion was a call from Jenny, one of his two daughters, at the time of the UN Climate Change Summit in December 2009. She said, “Dad, they’re in Copenhagen talking about human-induced climate change. Why don’t they mention the elephant in the room?”

“What’s that, Jenny?”

“Population, Dad.”

It was a eureka moment. Dick saw that many of the seemingly overwhelming problems facing humanity, from climate change to environmental degradation, have one cause: too many people. Yet many economists, governments and businesses perpetually want more.

“I can’t think of any of our present problems which are alleviated by more people. In fact, quite the opposite. I think unrestrained population growth will make virtually every problem more difficult,” Dick says. “The amazing thing was that I’d never thought about it before. Being a capitalist, I just assumed a growing Australia was a good Australia. But it was suddenly so obvious: you can’t keep growing forever.”

Dick believes there are two questions at the heart of the population issue: how many people can Australia cope with and, if the answer is more than we currently have, what are the advantages for ordinary Australians?

Answering the first requires research, which would allow authorities to draw up a population plan. This would enable them to prepare for future growth, if that’s what the study supports. As for the second question: “It all comes back to why,” Dick says. “It may be possible for Australia to support 100 million. We could have five Dubais between Sydney and Cairns if we were that mad. But why? What’s in it for most Australians? I believe the answer is less and less.”

Population just keeps on growing

Since 1986, Australia’s population has jumped by 6.2 million, from 16.1 million to 22.3 million with immigration accounting for about 66 per cent of the nation’s current growth.

“Our expansion last year [2009], from immigration and births, was about 500,000,” Dick said. “That’s a little less than Tasmania’s population. Tasmania has three big public hospitals, 138 primary schools and 57 high schools. If we increase our population by that amount every year, we need to build three big public hospitals, 195 schools, a university and 200,000 new homes – every year. We’re not doing that.”

Sure, growth has its pluses. For one, it’s great for business because, as Dick says, any mug can make money when the population is growing. It’s great for the wealthy because they just get wealthier. Economies of scale make many goods and services cheap and accessible.

But the minuses overwhelm the pluses. The biggest minus, Dick says, is that limited resources like water and farm-land won’t be able to sustain the flood of people. He fears his grandchildren may live to witness mass starvation.

So it’s no surprise that he favours a population of 22-24 million. Dick recommends that women should be encouraged to have no more than two kids and immigration should be slashed – but he’d like to see humanitarian intake doubled. This is the crux of the message he’s taking to the public through his website, dicksmithpopulation.com.au, newspaper articles, public forums and the ABC documentary, Dick Smith’s Population Puzzle, which aired in August.

It’s the message he hammered home in classic Dick Smith style in the hall. His 300 listeners greeted his closing words with wild applause. “I don’t want my granddaughter to say in her old
age, ‘My grandfather Dick Smith was supposed to be a person of influence. He could have done something about this but he did nothing.’ She won’t be saying that, I tell you.”