Bob Carr launches Mark O'connor and William Lines' Overloading Australia.

Author:Carr, Bob

Thank you ladies and gentlemen, a great pleasure to be with you.

In my book, My Reading Life, which I know you've all read, I talk about seeing Paul Ehrlich on Australian television in August 1971. He was on Monday Conference, and he was very, very strong. And for me, he was someone bringing together all the evidence emerging in the world around us, and relating it to one underlying factor. And that is the unsustainably high rate of growth in the world's population. And who can say Ehrlich was wrong? He was talking about this in 1970. And what has happened in the years since 1970, we've gone from having 3.5 to 6.6 billion people on this planet.

Who can say Ehrlich wasn't, as I describe him as in My Reading Life, the prophet. I said the prophet has spoken. And the linkage, I'm sure you understand, is this remorseless rate of population growth on this small planet, and a doubling of the human population in that fantastically short period, 1970 to 2008. It's been a shock; it's been a trauma to the planet, a doubling in the human numbers.

I was honoured to see Paul Ehrlich on that memorable day, in November last year, the day Barack Obama was elected. The only thing that could have persuaded me to have taken time away from TV was the honour of introducing Paul Ehrlich at Macquarie University where he spoke about his latest book.

What Mark does in this book is relate those broad population arguments, the fundamentalism of population growth, the fundamental importance of population growth to this planet to Australia. (1) And he disposes of this persistent myth in Australian history that we are an empty space just waiting to be filled up. The myth that we are comparable to the United States.

You've only got to go to the Rocky Mountains, that huge watershed, those snow-capped peaks in all directions as far as you can see, providing rivers cascading down on either side, to know that Australia is not like North America. Our topsoil blows away. In America, the topsoil runs very, very deep. Then there are the mighty river systems of North America--by comparison ours are grudging streams. I sometimes surprise audiences by saying you could take all of the Australian rivers and put them into the Mississippi, and America would not notice the difference, that's how grudging our streams are.

We nonetheless had this silly view, that only began to be challenged in the 1920s, that we could be filled up, that our history would echo that of North America. The funniest part of the book is where Mark describes the famous Australian entrepreneur, William Cole, the author of Cole's Funny Picture Book, who said roundabout the time of the First World War, that irrigation would turn our barren soils into rich soils, and rain always follows agriculture. Well these are two propositions that have now been tested, and they don't work.

Ian Armstrong, former leader of the National Party in New South Wales, told me recently that he was in an area where 20 or 30 years ago, you could look out to the horizon and there was no agricultural activity. And we laid out farms on that space. And we're now realising the cost of it. It's economically unsustainable, and it's environmentally atrocious.

There's a lot of discussion that I think is equally funny of the economist (so-called), Colin Clark. He took on Paul Ehrlich in that Monday Conference exchange in 1971. And he argued that the world didn't have a population limit--that we could all live in the densities that characterised Holland. And Ehrlich said, but where's the food going to come from? It was a devastating rejoinder.

Years ago, as premier, I went to the Ku-ring-gai, I was actually launching my own book in a little hall there. And some...

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