As a student of environmental studies in Australia, I have come to the conclusion that calling Australia a "first world" country really is at best very, very questionable and at worst utterly misleading because of how different its environment is from other wealthy nations.
I am all too aware of how fragile and resource-poor Australia's environment is. I am well aware that its soils, being formed in the Carboniferous and subject to 280 million years of continuous leaching and weathering, are totally different from most soils today which are a renewable resource constantly forming due to glaciation and orogeny.
Whilst this extreme poverty of resources was understood at only a very shallow level for so long, we now understand it sufficently well that we can question whether it is even possible for agriculture to be sustainable on such soils.
Moreover, but for the immense, practically inexhaustible and barely explored mineral resources, would there have been so much incentive to continue with so many efforts to clear further land in Australia after the major droughts of 1902 and 1914. Given that Europe, Asia and North America can produce more than enough food to feed the world and have much less or no need for huge stockpiles due to more reliable climates, beyond the ability of Australia's almost inexhaustible resources of iron, aluminium and titanium ores. Alumimium and especially titanium are especially harmful to Australia's environment because they are exceedingly difficult to smelt (titanium metallurgy was not developed until the 1920s) and this is a major factor in Australia's refusal to comply with the need for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Without a reduction of at least 60 percent in CO2 emissions, the water supplies of Melbourne and Perth (both of which normally have the most reliable rainfall in the whole continent ouside of Western Tasmania) are likely to become unviable within 10-20 years.
The whole fact of Australia's growing dependence on mining and the fact that its environment is the exact opposite in character of the fertile, glaciated environments of Europe and North America makes me reluctant today to accept that Australia can properly be called a "First World" country at all. The very nature of Australia's land is bound to make it dependent upon minerals, and I believe honestly minerals could support Australia even should environmental degradation completely destroy its farming sector. Today, Australia's population is growing whilst that of fertile Europe, Canada, Japan and New Zealand is declining, which does largely reflect the vast mineral resources and the higher living standards these have brought to most Australians. Large deposites of industrial metal ores are mutually exclusive of fertile soils because the very factors that make one destroy the other. Though some metal ores, like mercury, occur only in geologically young regions, such metals are of exceedingly low abundance and their ores are so rare that resource depletion tends to occur very rapidly.
Paleopedology, even with a far-from-complete record shows that a great deal of bauxite has been destroyed by glaciation in Europe alone, and no doubt the same processes have occurred on a larger scale in North America and Antarctica.
The vital point is that Australia's virtually inexhaustible and not fully discovered mineral wealth makes it, whilst the ultimate "have not" in a pre-industrial world, the ultimate "have" in an industrial world. This is almost the opposite of Western Europe, where all available deposits of metallic minerals have been subject to resource depletion at a rate impossble in geologically ancient Australia.
Thus, because of its diametrically opposite environmental characteristics to Europe, Japan, New Zealand and North America, I feel that everybody would be well advised to seriously and thoroughly question referring to Australia as a "First World" nation. It is important that, for all its cultural and social characteristics being derived from Europe and North America, the source of its wealth and high living standards is, at least totday, of a completely different nature (minerals). Moreover, with an environment totally unsuited to practices that work well in Europe, Japan, New Zealand and North America, environmental lobby groups and databases are obliged, I feel, to consider Australia a totally distinct case from all other continents, and one for which management must be done in a completely different way to achieve any sort of sustainability.
Yet, even those ecologists, like Tim Flannery and Diamond, who admit the peculiar nature of the problems Australia faces, do not address the question of whether Australia should or should not be called a "First World" nation. Re-classifying it as something peculiar or in a new category would, as mentioned above, only be a step in the right direction in my opinion.
Interesting, but the problems are far larger than you convey. It is an open and important question to ask, "How many humans can be sustained on earth, given the existing political and societal structures present today?" We are bumping up against that limit; some of which you have wisely expressed in your discourse. Think carefully when you say, "Europe, Asia and North America can produce more than enough food to feed the world." We do so by depleting these soils of vital nutients which are not replenshed fast enough. Therefore, the scientifically proven tests that organic food is richer is these nutrients and has fewer contaminates. But organic methods are more costly which leads us back to the fact that we are too many. Population control is a topic that seems to be untouchable, yet if we do not find a way to breach that wall, the last days will be all the worst. G'day mate.
You've touched on an issue that is quite pertinent when you mention the Earth's current human population levels and limits thereof. I strongly believe we have already passed the sustainable human limit that the planet is capable of maintaining an equilibrium with. I think the increased quantity and severity of natural disasters occuring in the present day are a consequence of this. Possibly Earth's natural defence mechanism, if you like, working to try and rid itself of an attack on its OWN survival. Our increased raping of the planet's natural resources, and consequent expulsion of byproducts into our atmosphere coupled with land clearing and wholesale dessimation of the forests not to mention damming and improper regulation of our rivers and water-return systems, all cause to have a seemingly irreversible result on our own environment. Whether this is an unconscious, self induced culling of our species is something that may never be proven but it begs the question... Are the wheels in such fast motion now that the process cannot be stopped?
To quote the author of the Gaia Hypothesis, Professor James Lovelock: "To attempt to farm the whole Earth to feed people, even with organic farming, would make us like sailors who burnt the timbers and rigging of their ship to keep warm. The natural ecosystems of the Earth are not just there for us to take as farmland; they are there to sustain the climate and the chemistry of the planet."
If one says : "The natural ecosystems of the Earth are not just there for us to take as farmland; they are there to sustain the climate and the chemistry of the planet", one must take into account the IMMENSE difference in soil age and chemistry betwen Australia and other present-day continents (with the partial exception of Africa south of the Zambezi).
Shallow-rooted annual grasses like wheat are able (with some restrictions I will accept) to sustain the soil chemistry of Europe, Asia, North America and New Zealand. They ABSOLUTELY CANNOT, however, sustain the soil chemistry of Australia in any form whatsoever, because flora adapted to such infertile (and usually very acidic or saline) soils MUST have completely different characteristics from flora adapted to continually forming, nutrient-rich soils. These characteristics, most importantly very high rooting density and small leaf area, serve to sustain and stabilise soil chemistry and vastly slow down depletion of nutrients and salinisation.
High-yielding, fast-growing annual grasses (in evolutionary terms a VERY RECENT development) destroy this equilibrium completely in Australia in a way impossible in most other present-day continents. By contrast, in North America, New Zealand and southern South America the native flora has the same low rooting density as cereal crops or pasture grasses and DOES NOT alter the soil chemistry in any fundamental way.
This alone means that sustainable population levels in Australia are a TOTALLY DIFFERENT AND SEPARATE issue from those on any other continent: it will be a big step forward when demographers and international environmental organisations accept this view, I feel. Sustainable agriculture is, as I have emphasised, quite possibly unachievable in Australia but fairly easy to achieve in other continents.
"First world," of course, refers to the way people live, not to the resources, either type or amount, within the bounds of the country. Australians' lives more resemble those of Americans or the English than those of New Guineans or Bolivians.
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