Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A new type of climate debate?

Will urban settlement and economic growth take root in undeveloped areas of Australia, or are more ancient forces at work?

Attempts to ‘move the problem’ of population growth by trying to divert growth to regional areas are gathering strength. Already this year, we’ve heard Premier Anna Bligh talk about extra home buyer grants for settling regional areas; the suggestion of Townsville becoming a ‘second capital’ of Queensland got an airing at the population summit; we’ve had the new Federal Population Minister Tony Burke talk about mandating migrant settlement in remote areas, and recently I listened as conservative politician Barnaby Joyce raise the same idea, with fondness.

I think they’re deluding themselves.

The reason is that north of the tropic of Capricorn is a fairly hostile climate. It gets very hot in summers and even mid-winters are what many people would describe as ‘hot.’ Not too hot for a jobs market mind; government money or large resources booms are sufficient reason for workers and their families to relocate to even the most hostile of regions (usually at a high wage premium), but for a time only. The inclination to repatriate profits to a more benign climate once the money’s been made is always there.

With this thought in mind, I had a look at a map of the world, and something interesting suggested itself. Between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, there are almost no highly developed urban economies. This might be a bit unkind to Brazil in South America, as it is to the oil rich areas of the southern middle east, and perhaps also to the major cities of India. But even here, Rio De Janiero is only just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, likewise Hong Kong is virtually on top of the Tropic of Cancer. Only Singapore really stands out as a modern, high developed and prosperous urban economy located well within the tropics.

But a look at the United States, Europe, China, Japan, along with the population and economic concentration of Australia and South Africa reveals that all lie outside of the tropical zone. The cities of these nations and continents are the economic powerhouses of global trade and the national vaults of global wealth.

If we hypothetically excluded from the non-tropic zones anything too cold by virtue of latitude (too close to the poles), too cold or plain difficult by virtue of terrain or elevation, or simply too arid, and the probable locations preferred human habitation and economic activity narrow further.

This theory (if you’d call it that) doesn’t explain the massive populations of peoples contained within the tropics – in south east Asia, India, south America, and continental Africa. Except that these are almost universally populations of poverty or at least very low GDP per capita, compared to the rest of the world. And they tend, at least in this stage of their development, to lack urban centres of prosperity and economic power.

Could it be as simple as suggesting that people with money and freedom are the drivers of economies, and that these people tend to dictate where wealth is created by virtue of their decisions about locations - and that this has happened over thousands of years of economic and social development?

Maybe that’s doubtful, as economies and societies are far more complex. But at a domestic level, just ask yourself the question: would you want to live in Townsville, or Mackay, or Cairns, or Darwin, or Port Headland or any number of smaller regional areas above the tropic of Capricorn, permanently? Or would you consider it on the basis of a temporary relocation, to make some serious money or advance a career, with the long term plan to return to a more benign climate at a later stage?

The honest answer to that question is why I don’t believe Townsville will become “a second capital” and a population magnet capable of relieving pressure on the south east. Politicians suggesting that areas known for their hostile climate can ever attract a greater share of population (except by virtue of official mandate and government largesse) are just having you on.

I have never been a fan of the ‘Florida’ theory of regional development (said of the sun belt migrations in the USA), which suggests that people in cold climates will automatically migrate to warmer ones (a theme that’s been frequently exercised in Queensland).

But it does seem true that some places are simply too cold for people and a successful urban economy, and others are too hot. People will move between those climate bands in search of social, lifestyle or economic advantage, but perhaps not beyond them.

If that’s true, then economic and population growth in this country will be confined to areas of adequate rainfall south of the Tropic of Capricorn, but mostly north of Tasmania - much as prosperous urban societies of the northern hemisphere have avoided spreading south of the tropic of Cancer or north beyond the latitude of Scotland.

Politicians and planners looking to divert the ‘problem’ of population growth might need to keep that in mind before embarking on any costly policy misadventures designed to force a future population somewhere it doesn’t want to go.