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The problem of growth in a finite world

Posted on 28 February 2022 by Evan

Tag Line

Making the case for net-zero emissions.

Elevator Statement

Growth is at the core of modern civilization. Population is growing, Global GDP is growing, people want their children to have a better life than they had. We want all people to rise to an acceptable, minimum lifestyle. Growth is at the core of our hopes and dreams and our very being.

But the climatic expression of our growth is obscenely-high GHG emissions into a finite atmosphere. Although we must rapidly reduce our emissions to cap warming at "sustainable" levels, no level of reduction will ever be enough, on its own, to solve the fundamental growth problem.

We need something equally big to counter the GHG emissions we cannot eliminate. And that big "something" will have to grow as our emissions grow.

Climate Science

Life has given each of us about 30,000 days to live, consumed one day at a time. With known capacity and consumption rate, we plan our life with clock-work precision:  go to school until age 20, raise a family until 50, work until 65, pass our goods to the next generation before we exit life at age 80. We have a linear, predictable, measured sense of time and lifespan.

But what if we were offered a “better” life? More money, more fame, more of whatever people want. The cost of this Faustian Bargain? The rate at which we consume our 30,000-day lifespan grows each day by 1%: on Day 1 we consume 1 day of our lifespan. On Day 2 we consume 1% more, Day 3 1% more, … By Day 10 we consume our lifespan 10% faster/day than on Day 1. But we’re having a “better” time.

How long will our “better” life last? About 574 days, because at the compounding rate of 1% faster each day, after 574 days we are consuming our lives 300 times faster than on Day 1! The fundamental problem is mixing growth with a limited resource. Unlimited growth of the consumption of a limited resource often ends in collapse when the limited resource is exhausted (think of a growing population of rabbits with a limited food supply). Accelerated growth leads to accelerated collapse.

The fundamental climate problem

How does this relate to our discussions of GW/CC? If we accept that we must limit warming to no more than 2°C, there is a finite carbon-capacity of the atmosphere that correlates to 2°C. However, unlike other limits of growth with natural systems, there is nothing in the natural world that will limit atmospheric carbon to the arbitrary 2°C limit we're setting, beyond which it is likely that life will become unbearable for a large part of the world’s population. Nature has no mechanism for limiting the warming to 2°C. If we continue growing inside this limited world, we can easily blow past 2°C and reach 6°C warming or more.

CO2 accumulation rate at 0.0001 historical rates

Figure 1. Ice-core CO2 concentration from the recent ice age up to the start of the Industrial Revolution. During the “Unstable, exponential growth” part, historical CO2 growth rates were adjusted down to 0.01% of actual rates and extended forward until atmospheric CO2 increased to about 380 ppm. In a growth scenario, no matter how low the CO2 emission rates start out during the Industrial Revolution, they eventually grow into catastrophic rates that overwhelm any recent, historical precedence.

What if we slowed the growth rate so that starting from the Industrial Revolution CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere at only 1/10,000th of historical rates? The rates would be lower, but just like today, each year CO2 would accumulate in the atmosphere about 1% faster than the previous year. Figure 1 shows the result of such a scenario, and indicates that it would take about 8000 years to reach levels comparable to today. But we’d get there and, more to the point, at some point the annual rate of rise of CO2 would be just as high as it is today. This is the fundamental problem of growth scenarios: no matter how slow they start, they eventually progress into the same, catastrophic rates of increase. If rates start out a little slower, they just take a little longer to get to the level that constitutes a catastrophe.

Figure 1 shows another interesting contrast. During the recent deglaciation CO2 rose at a near constant rate, and then something stopped this slow, steady increase, stabilizing the climate at the level that provided a stable base for the development of modern civilization. By contrast, we know of nothing that will naturally limit the current exponential growth before we suffer potentially catastrophic consequences. Whatever halted the increase during the recent, natural deglaciation will not halt the industry-driven increase. This time around nature has left us on our own to figure out how to stabilize the climate.

The purpose of Fig. 1 is to show that any growth scenario coupled to a finite system (i.e., Earth’s atmosphere), eventually exceeds the allowed limits. We’ve already exceeded the atmospheric concentration corresponding to 1.5°C! Yes, there are optimistic discussions occurring suggesting that if we do this or that, then we might be able to restabilize the climate at 1.5°C. But these are long-shots, and considering the degree to which the Keeling Curve has completely ignored all of efforts so far to encourage it to slow down, the best bet is that we are looking at 1.5°C in the rear-view mirror, and we had better focus hard on stabilizing at 2.0°C before we are looking at it in our rear-view mirror. If there is one lesson we should have learned by now it's that the Keeling Curve is a very tough negotiator.

For any chance of stabilizing at 2.0°C, we must stop net human GHG emissions so that the atmospheric GHG concentrations can stabilize. Although we talk about goals of limiting warming to either 1.5 or 2°C, the real goal is stabilization at any level, because by nature, growth systems don't stabilize. They want to keep growing!

The core problem? Human growth is continuing unabated. Global population is increasing, people are consuming more, more people in the world are raising their standards of living to achieve a better life. Growth happens and regardless of how successful we are deploying renewable-energy technologies, we will not stop human growth, we will not eliminate GHG emissions. Human growth drives growing GHG emissions.

The fundamental climate solution

After we've done all that we can to reduce our GHG emissions, the only chance for stabilizing the climate is by actively countering our growth with methods for removing GHG’s from the atmosphere at the same rate we emit them. As GHG emissions grow, so must the systems used to remove them. They are collectively called Negative-Emissions Technologies (NET), and we must deploy them to stabilize the climate.

Some may look at Fig. 1 and proclaim that a “slower” rate would be acceptable, because we should be able to move cities as sea-level rises, build ocean barriers quickly enough, adapt to changing weather patterns, change the locations of our farmlands, etc. But Fig. 1 represents a “what-if?” scenario and nothing more. There is no dial we can turn to adjust the amount of CO2 increase/decrease. We describe human growth in hindsight, but it is nothing that can be precisely controlled, especially in democratic countries. Even though we have some emissions-reduction tools to deploy (e.g., wind turbines, solar panels, proposed new farming methods, proposed new energy-efficiency technologies), as of 2022, push-back in the media and in the voting booths is slowing deployment of the limited resources we have. There is no feasible way to dial down our emissions to the low rate shown in Fig. 1: it merely shows that growth eventually overwhelms a limited resource, regardless of how small the initial rate is.

Some will quickly start quoting “S-curve this” and “limits of growth that” to assure us that all will be OK and that our CO2 growth curve won’t go on forever and that something will limit it. If we wait until the growth of fossil fuels and human population reach their natural limits, however, we will likely blow past any atmospheric GHG limits that provide some guarantee of climate stabilization. Remember that as we warm Earth we risk increasing natural GHG sources and/or reducing natural GHG sinks. This will cause further warming that may be beyond our control.

We must deploy NET systems to limit the negative effects of the growth we cannot limit. There is no other option.

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Comments 1 to 14:

  1. The selected topic is an excellent way to present the problem and potential solutions.

    I am preparing some thoughts that may improve the presentation. But I need to ask about: "...after 1.5 years we are consuming our lives 300 times faster than on Day 1!"

    With the growth rate being simple growth (after 10 days of 1% growth the result is a rate of 1.1000 days per day) after 1.5 years the rate would increase from '1.0 day per day' to '6.47 days per day'.

    Using coumpounding increase (each day is 1% more than the day before), which is more like the growth pursued by investors, a compound rate of 1% per day would result in a consumption of life rate of '232 days per day' after 1.5 years.

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  2. OPOF, you are too clever. :-)

    It is indeed a compound rate. But 1 day * 1.01^10 = 1.1046 which when rounded down, is 1.10. So the first example comes out about the same whether is grows arithmetically or geometrically. And whether the rate is 232 or 300 after 1.5 years, I hope you agree that the message is the same: growth always leads to catastrophic consumption, emissions, etc.

    To get from 232 to 300 days consumed per calendar day at a compounding growth rate of 1% requires just an additional 26 days. The actual number was 1.57 years. Because I did not expect anybody to check my math, I used a convenient, easy to remember number of 1.5 year, instead of writing the nerdy number of 1.57, or rounding up to 1.6.

    Thanks for keeping me on my toes. :-)

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  3. Reading Evans article I recalled this:

    "The world’s biggest carbon-removal plant just opened. In a year, it’ll negate just 3 seconds’ worth of global emissions....Put another way, Kalmus told Insider, “at any given moment, it will capture one 10-millionth of humanity’s current emissions. ”

    This doesn't look very promising even if efficiency improves. You would obviously need considerable reliance on other technologies as well. There are other negative emissions technologies like enhanced rock weathering, planting trees, BECCS and regenerative agriculture, and a combination looks feasible to me and reduces pressure on planetary mineral resources. I believe it could be done in theory if the motivation is there. The operative word is "if".

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  4. Evan @2,

    In addition clarifying that the evaluation is a compound rate, it may be better to say that:

    The 30,000 days are used up on the 574th day. And the rate of living is almost 300 days per day on that last day.

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  5. nigelj @4 brings up a very good point about the legitimacy of expecting that the future generations will develop the ability to undo the harm that is being done. That is as disingenuous as expecting the future generations to be able to adapt to whatever climate changes end up being imposed on them.

    The latest IPCC report is reported on in the BBC item "Climate change: IPCC report warns of ‘irreversible’ impacts of global warming"

    That report indicates that 1.5C, not 2.0C, needs to be the understood target of maximum impacts ... to be fair to future generations.

    The lack of effort and sacrifice to limit the harm done through the past 30 years has already caused levels of impact that, to be fair to future generations and the already harmed members of the current generation, require those who are 'more fortunate because of fossil fuel use and other actions that have impacted climate change' to give up the harmfully obtained perceptions of grandeur and extravagance of the lives that the 'supposedly more advanced' people live. That will limit the magnitude of the created problem and set sustainable objectives for less fortunate people to aspire to develop towards.

    And the current generation also owes the future generations and others already harmed reparations, including starting the actions that draw-down the harm already done even if those actions cost a lot for very little being accomplished, and only implement draw-down technology that does not produce other harm as it attempts to reduce a harm. A new technological solution for a 'technology-use problem' must not be a new problem.

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  6. OPOF and Nigelj, thanks for your input. I am not hopeful about NET systems counteracting our full GHG emissions. But, even if we are successful replacing fossil-fueled energy production with renewable energy production, there will remain baseline GHG production that is largely related to agriculture. That will have to be offet by using NET. And as the global population grows, NET systems will also have to grow to keep up with the continued population growth.

    When writing these posts, however, I am trying to keep my feelings out of the writing as much as possible, and simply present the challenge that faces us. Getting to net zero will likely be much more challenging than most people realize, partly because we are growing at the same time we are trying to reduce GHG emissions.

    OPOF I changed the post to explicitly use days, as you suggested, instead of rounding off to years. Reader feedback is always welcome. :-)

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  7. It is good to see this post acknowledge the importance of population growth.  Professor Ian Lowe and colleagues have just released a discussion paper, commissioned by Sustainable Population Australia, about the urgent need to bring an end to population growth, as an essential part of an integrated strategy for climate mitigation and adaption. As this report says, "The sooner we end population growth, and at a lower global peak, the better for climate mitigation and adaptation.... Population stabilisation alone can’t solve climate change, but ignoring population will ensure we fail."

    I urge everyone to read this paper, which is argued in-depth and with the latest evidence, before coming to judgement. For too long there has been a 'population denial'.  Full version of the paper here (PDF).

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  8. Building on, and responding to, Peter Cook's comment @7,

    A relevant related report is the following which was published in the Lancet on October of 2020 "Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: ..."

    The report essentially presents the case that the population problem has been understood for a while now. And the report presents in detail how the population problem is being effectively dealt with, unlike the climate change impacts of the highest impacting portion of the global population.

    The expected peak global population is less than 10 billion, and it is expected to be reached in the 2060s. Also, and more importantly, the report acknowledges that the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (established in 2015), will reduce the peak global population.

    The highest impacting portion of the global population (primarily composed of Australians, Canadians and Americans along with a significant portion of the richer people in other nations like India and China) has not collectively responsibly responded through the past 30 years.

    So this new report may help, but it is a little late to the game. I have not read it yet. I look forward to seeing if it refers to the above well established understanding about the successes to date on population limits and the importance of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (which means global pursuit of leadership objectives like the USA Green New Deal, but more comprehensive than the Green New Deal). I will be particularly interested in seeing if it effectively identifies the problem as 'the highest consuming and highest impacting portion of the population'.

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  9. Dear One Planet Forever

    The Lancet scenarios are only one set of projections, and well below the UN projections.  It would be unwise to place great reliance on the former, in order to conclude that the population issue is settled.

    Without wanting to rehash to detailed arguments in the discussion paper: funding for family planning programs has declined since 1994. There is a misunderstanding by many that economic development and women's education necessarily causes reduced birthrates.  In fact, the evidence supports the view that the causal relationship is often the other way round: availability and funding of family planning programs (and promotion of smaller family norms) causes economic development and women's education.  The evidence is presented in detail in the discussion paper.

    The question of timing in relation to the effectiveness of population measures, is also discussed in detail in the discussion paper.  Sure, in the short term we must be reducing per capita emissions in rich countries. In longer term (mid- to late- century), population size will make a big difference to mitigation and adaptation. 

    As we point out in the paper, only models using the low population versions of the IPCC's ‘shared socioeconomic pathways’ (SSP) can prevent >2°C warming.

    I understand that some may find these conclusions challenging, when they may have thought population 'settled' and would have preferred to avoid some difficult conversations.  All I can do is to invite people to read this discussion paper. Happy to hear feedback and comments.

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  10. I have given up hope as the more I learn about all the many forms of human consumption/destruction the more I realize this situation is so far out of anyone's reach.

    I recently watched a documentary highlighting the processes of the cruise ship industry. During a one-week voyage with 4-5K people onboard the massive amount of waste and environmental destruction/pollution was astonishing.

    This industry is just one tiny slice of the pie contributing to earths demise.

    The more the population grows, the more dire the problem becomes.

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  11. If in just 7 days, 4-5K people cause the staggering amount of consumption, waste and pollution that was shown in the cruise ship documentary...imagine what 7.7 billion people generate in 30,000 days!

    One can't look at those numbers and remain hopeful. 

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  12. About four years ago I read a study on population trends in an African country. I can't remember the country or find the study but the government gave away free conraceptives to two rural communities, and despite them being poor and the women badly educated and having few rights, birth rates fell dramatically, and this trend endured. This seems to support the idea Peter Cook mentioned that family planning is the key factor in encouraging small families. Of course womens rights and education are important for many reasons and should be encouraged.

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  13. Dear Peter,

    I have quickly reviewed the Intro and Conclusion of the paper and skimmed the contents, my standard way of starting to read a Report. I have yet to do a full reading, but I will.

    I will open this response by confirming that we appear to be aligned regarding measures that will help limit population growth and the importance of limiting the total global population.

    I will start by presenting the context of my perspective which is always open to improvement. But it is based on a significant amount of experience and learning. My name on this site reflects that perspective.

    Awareness of the bigger picture is needed when looking at any part of the bigger picture. And for humans the bigger picture is the need for human activity to be governed (limited) to not harm Others or future humans, including not harming their ability to live a decent a life. And people will naturally be tempted to aspire to the examples set by the portion of the population that has developed the impression of being the highest status. That is important understanding since this planet is likely to be habitable for more than 100 million years. Sustaining humanity through that long period (almost forever) is the big picture. Many developed human activities are inconsistent with that understanding. And they would be inconsistent with sustained living on any other planet. The unsustainable nature of what has developed is not new. The growing awareness and understanding of the growing magnitude of the harmful unsustainability of what has developed is what is new.

    Total Harmful Impacts of the Total Global Population are a developed problem that requires the development of solutions. The Sustainable Development Goals are a fairly comprehensive presentation of the solution that is open to further improvement.

    We appear to be aligned regarding actions that would help limit global population. What you mention are understood parts of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Millennium Development Goals. Those sets of goals are steps in the constantly increased awareness and improved understanding of what is harmful and unsustainable. The pursuit of sustainable development understanding became a global coordinated collaborative effort 50 years ago with the Stockholm Conference.

    It appears that the efforts to identify and limit harmful developments also sparked some harmful resistance to learning to be less harmful, particularly in the supposedly superior, more advanced, nations. But the resistance to that learning also appears to be strong among the supposedly superior, more advanced, portions of many less developed nations. And people who develop their thinking inside systems that promote smaller shorter-term perspective can struggle to see the bigger picture beyond their developed worldview. And, indeed, a part of the problem is the development of political groups that appeal for support by opposing, or not supporting, abortion and family planning. Some of them argue for 'abstinence' as the solution. But that is like arguing that 'not living' is a solution to the 'total climate change impacts of the total population' problem.

    So we may also be aligned regarding the need to identify and try to reduce the popularity of political groups that would act in those less helpful ways. That would be good since it appears that 'these days' the political groups that are less supportive of measures to limit population growth are also less supportive of measures that would limit the climate change impact growth. And they also appear to be less supportive of actions that would limit or correct many developed harmful activities. They appear to be opposed to almost all the Sustainable Development Goals, one issue at a time (they even oppose limits on plastic use – the next globally acknowledged problem needing a global agreement to correct).

    That brings me to a point I wish to make regarding something I noticed in the paper: “Emissions = Population x GDP/capita x Energy/GDP x Emissions/Energy”. That presentation can make it difficult to see the important need for superiority and advancement to be recognized as "reduced energy use per person" and "reduced harm done by the energy that is used" (because any use of technologically produced energy has the potential to produce harmful results).

    I offer the following sequence of changes as a way to more comprehensively present the issue (guided by Einstein's advice to keep things simple, but not too simple):

    "Emissions = Population x GDP/capita x Energy/GDP x Emissions/Energy + (a similar evaluation of all Other Emissions causing activity)".

    That corrects for the over-simplification of only focusing on energy. However, fugitive emissions related to natural gas extraction, processing and transport also need to be counted. So Emissions/Energy is too simplistic. It could miss impacts associated with energy use that need to be counted. A more comprehensive statement would be:

    “Global Warming Impacts = Population x GDP/capita x Energy/GDP x Global Warming Impacts/Energy + (a similar evaluation of all Other Global Warming Impact causing activity)”

    That captures Evan's accurate point that many other things, particularly agriculture, cause global warming impacts that result in climate change. I noticed that the paper includes awareness of land use impacts on global warming. So the above would appear to be aligned with the understanding presented in the paper.

    But there is also more harm done by energy use and agriculture than the climate change impacts. So a more comprehensive "Bigger Picture" presentation of the issue is:

    “Total Harm Done = Population x GDP/capita x Energy/GDP x (Total Harm Done)/Energy + (a similar evaluation of all Other Harmful Impact causing activity)”

    Now we get to the simple crux of the over-simplification that can be understood to apply to all of above presentations. The simplest way to present the above appears to be:

    "Total Harmful Impacts = The sum of the harmful impacts attributable to each person"

    That leads to understanding that there will be a diversity of degrees and types of harm that would be hidden by averaging the impacts of a group of people. And, as Evan also accurately points out, everyone wants a better life for themselves, their children, and others they identify closely with. So people can be expected to aspire to live like the people who they identify as being more advanced, more superior. And there is ample evidence that the current norms for identifying superiority and advancement, like the measure of GDP per capita, are harmfully misleading. People have been working to correct that misunderstanding about what deserves to be considered superior or more advanced, how to measure improvement, for a while now. The 2020 Human Development Report points out some of the efforts to correct that harmful developed misunderstanding.

    That also leads to understanding that the people with the highest amount of harm attributed to their actions need to be the focus of efforts to limit harm done (Rule of Law works best when it is done this way). And it leads to understanding that people who act in ways that cause harm are not made acceptable by Other people acting to undo or adapt to the harm that is done. Reducing harm done requires the harm to be ended and, as much as possible, it requires those who benefit from the harm done to do what is required to undo the harm done.

    Averaging the per capita impacts of a nation helps compare nations to identify which nations should be most focused on for harm reduction. But per capita does not identify the people within a nation who should be the focus of harm reduction efforts. As an example, immigrants into Australia may have remained as lower than average impacting people, which means their addition to the population actually disguises the increased harm done by the more harmful members of the population.

    That brings me to my concluding point.

    It is fundamentally unacceptable for a person to benefit from something that Other people will be harmed by, or be at risk of harm from. And regarding climate change impacts, it is unacceptable for people to be benefiting from creating the impacts even if Others are acting to reduce the impacts. And an averaging of a group of people can be harmfully misleading by hiding what the different people in the group have done.

    Achieving Sustainable Development, developing a truly lasting future for humanity that can be improved by the development of truly sustainable improvements, can legitimately maintain or increase GDP per capita. Achieving those goals is likely to result in a lower peak population than would otherwise develop. And the per person impacts of that smaller total population would be lower. But to achieve that the harmful developed activities need to be identified and corrected.

    The fundamental rule of "Do No Harm - Help Others" needs to be governing the actions of people. Everyone self-governing that way would be great. But that is a fantasy world. And the lack of that rule governing what has developed to date has produced an significant need for corrections, particularly corrections of the ways that the supposedly more advanced and supposedly superior people, who everyone looks up to and aspires to be like, live their lives.

    That is the fundamental understanding I will be applying, and have been applying, to the reading of the paper, or any other presentation of thoughts. It is not the norm ... but it would be helpful if it became more of the norm.

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  14. Dear Peter Cook,

    I have completed reading, and considering and evaluating, the paper.

    From my perceptive, presented @13, the majority of the content of the paper is well reasoned and aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And the parts that are less well reasoned, of course, do not give me reaosn to change my perspective and understanding.

    I will share a few suggestions regarding the paper from my perspective (this should help you find and adjust other parts that could be improved form my perspective). I have not provided pointers to specific parts of the document because each point applies to more than one location in the document. I also have not presented them in the order that they first appear in the document.

    • Wording should be revised to clarify that population action like Family Planning is to be in addition to education of women and girls, not instead of it. Note that SDG 3.7 is: “By 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes”.
    • Revise the wording to reinforce the importance of meeting all the SDGs, not just this one point about Family Planning.
    • When listing Family Planning actions, include condoms and vasectomy (men also have the responsibility to limit how many children they father).
    • If the objective is fewer births, add the action of ‘stopping medical and technical assistance to people who struggle to become pregnant’. That is primarily an action for already developed nations to set the example for developing nations to follow (reducing new births, not expending special effort to produce new births).
    • Claiming that education about, and access to, family planning is important extends to understanding that immigrants to a country like Australia would be less likely to have children than if they did not become immigrants. They would be moving to a society that has more access to that education and assistance. They would also be closer to people who present examples of women who have fewer children, women who never have children, and women who can live independently.
    • Expecting people in developing nations to be unaware of the higher consumption and more harmful ways of living they can aspire to develop to is fantasy thinking. How the supposedly superior and more advanced people live is hard to miss. And people can be expected to want to develop to be like the people who appear to be superior and more advanced. Not becoming an immigrant would not reduce their development aspirations. Having the supposedly superior and more advanced people ‘all’ set better examples is required.
    • Agreed that immigration to Australia is not a required reparation for European colonial actions. However, harm requiring reparations was done by ‘European competitors for superiority pursuing resources beyond their borders and failing to keep the growth of their population under control within their regions – they sent their excess people to the colonies where they continued the example of population growth and attempts to dominate Others’. That requires significant reparations for populations of regions harmfully impacted by the colonization. Those reparations include development aid. Note that while NATO members are pushed to expend 2% of GDP on ‘means to kill others as a deterrent to nations trying to harmfully benefit like the colonizers did’ most of the nations fail to come close to delivering the agreed minimum 0.7 of GNP as Official Development Aid.
    • Immigration to Australia would shift the location of infrastructure building, not produce it exclusively in Australia. The presumption that the developing nations will not create impacts by building infrastructure is the result of not considering the big picture.
    • The concern about Australia’s food security is misleading. Global trade of food is required to respond to temporary regional shortages anywhere, as is correctly stated in the paper. Having the ability to get food to those who need it is the issue. And the infrastructure of a nation like Australia makes it easier to obtain and deliver imported food as required.

    I hope that helps improve the paper.

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