01.03.2013 Our Earth

Feeding the Seven Billion

Adrian Glamorgan explores what the rapid growth of 'BRIC' countries may mean for Australia. Part One.

In the last decade we have seen the rise of China, and the growing economic significance of India, Brazil and Russia. These vigorous new economies, (often cast into the acronym 'BRIC'), could well upset the pre-eminence of the old ways of doing trade and financial business. Goldman Sachs suggests that these countries could be the four most dominant economies by 2050.

But there will be environmental consequences, too.

If predictions are right, at some stage, we can expect a 'BRIC bloc' to knock on the door of the International Monetary Fund, traditionally headed by a European, with the suggestion that they now take the role of telling poor countries to tighten their belts. Hopefully, BRIC will not press on Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain the same sort of IMF structural readjustment that has stimulated famines, poverty and dictatorships for decades in the Third World. But can the IMF itself be reformed to finance sustainable agriculture and social resilience?

The growing BRIC economies might also suggest to the Americans that their headship of the World Bank has now passed. Big dams might block the Yangtse and the Narmada Rivers, making millions of people homeless in China and India, but with the lessons learned, hopefully there will be no pressure to force or fund such follies on the West. But after decades of producing cheap commodities for the Europeans and Americans, would a re-orientated World Bank help poorer countries of Africa, Asia and South America regain their food autonomy? Can we stem the spread of deserts and the drying up of water resources?

Already hundreds of millions of people now live in BRIC's prosperity and their appetites for the good life will at least match ours. India's middle class constitutes a 'country' far more numerous than Australia. The subcontinent is a paradox of consumption: it has the second largest number of mobile phones in the world yet the country also rates fifth in the world for renewable energy.

The rise of wealth in BRIC countries is no simple thing. China burns half the world's coal. The mercury from its coal power stations blows as far as North America; Japan regularly suffers all kinds of pollutants from its western neighbour. In Beijing, there are days when you would be lucky to see further than 200 metres because of the pollution. At Beijing Capital International Airport, visibility can get as low as 5-10 metres - at least the pilots have radar! And waterway pollution throughout this country is estimated to be 90%.

The pollution of life processes has parallels with a wayward moral compass, too. In 2008, milk was contaminated with melamine in order for producers to fake the protein content; 300,000 fell victim to this infamous Chinese milk scandal.

Knowing that bribery, envy, exclusion and humiliation breeds social disaster and civil discontent, China's communist government has decided to "ease public concerns about the country's widening wealth gap," by banning luxury advertisements on billboards, official radio and TV. This will not stop the appetite for consumption online. It will not stop 750,000 a year dying from pollution in China. There are urgent measures to talk about - and implement. China is building coal fire power stations, but it is also becoming a world leader in wind and solar power.

Russia seems besieged by criminal elements amassing fortunes and diverting electoral processes, with the rush for cash frequently making environmental action difficult. Air and water contamination is widespread. The Commission of Ecological Security has calculated that it would cost around $26 billion to bring nuclear safety standards to acceptable levels. It will not be a priority. Many Russian middle class people like the holiday from state regulation they have been having for a couple of decades. But others show courage when there seems so little reason to hope.

As BRIC gains in strength, organisations like the United Nations, rights under international conventions, and processes such as climate change talks will be of great importance in giving balance and certainty to the citizens of the world.

There are bright possibilities, too. Brazil faces its own huge environmental challenges with willingness and creativity.

Curitiba in Brazil's south, with a population only a little more than that of Perth, is globally recognised as a green city. Air pollution is the lowest in the country. Seventy per cent of its waste is recycled. Its famous Curitiba Integrated Transport System provides dedicated bus lanes fanning out of the city, with buses sometimes running as often as every 90 seconds, getting 85% of the city's 1.7 million population around the city. That's despite Curitiba being a major car manufacturer and boasting the highest car ownership per capita in the country.

Urban planning is centred around the needs of people rather than the car, and the environment rather than the dollar has demonstrated that green cities are possible, beneficial, and profitable. In 1970, there was less than a square metre of green space per city dweller. Now there are 52 square metres of green space for each Curitiba citizen. With innovations too numerous to mention, Curitiba inspires city planners around the world.

So for all its problems, Brazil has a vibrant civil society, with innovative community groups connecting social justice, ecology, democracy and nonviolence - along with the pollution, social problems and financial uncertainties of the post-GFC world. Brazil is pioneering social innovations, while growing as the world's sixth largest economy, now overtaking the economy of Britain.

So how do BRIC countries compare with, say, Australia, in their concern about the environment? As it turns out, in a survey of consumers registering concern about the environment, Australians didn't rate very highly. The honour of very concerned citizens went to those from - Brazil, India and China, with honourable mentions from Mexico and South Korea (sometimes spoken about as similar to BRIC economies) and Argentina. It may be that proximity to environmental hazards focuses attention. The Greendex survey found 70-79% of consumers in China, India and Brazil had concerns about global warming.

So how will the climbing population of the world, and the rise of the BRIC countries, impact on our ability to feed ourselves, and provide enough water for our future?

There is talk about Australia being an Asian (read Indian and Chinese) Food Bowl. There is talk of opening up Northern Australia with massive irrigation projects. There is growing concern about the farm being sold off, giving food security to other nations, but little debate about where this is taking us, or the environment.

In thinking of our future, it would be simple to think the world might be simply drawn between the Chinese and the Americans, but our diplomacy and thinking ahead needs better than a binary Cold War approach. In a world of BRIC, there may be two, three, four, five or six major players.

Australians live downunder in a corner of the world that is not particularly on the way to anywhere else (except New Zealand!) There are desperate cries from drowning people aboard leaky vessels, but otherwise the world doesn't touch us much. And so it is easy to think that the world can go on and we will get on in our own way.

But the world is not like that. When Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, and Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defence, dropped by Perth in November 2012, they weren't being just sociable. US military planes - including those capable of carrying nuclear weapons - are to have greater access to northern Australian airstrips, and nuclear US warships including an aircraft carrier or two will sail into Cockburn Sound's blue waters south of Perth and enjoy the facilities. All low key. All softly softly. But the friends eating friands at Fraser's Restaurant, atop Kings Park overlooking Perth last November, celebrated military manoeuvring with decades of consequence.

If we are to be a military base - in function, if not name - for the US, and managing land growing food for China or India, selling wheat as well to Russia, based in our northern half, then there are consequences environmentally for all of us, and our children. The rise of BRIC may throw up new problems, but it could also be a rich generator of ideas and solutions. This should make us stop and think, while it is still all in the making - and not yet made.

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism