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Why a Big Australia is No Panacea

Sad to say, but economic orthodoxy about the need for a Big Australia is fatally flawed. It might appear sensible to argue that economic growth requires population growth, but there are terrible consequences of assuming there are no limits to growth.

Over-population of any species necessarily encounters limits determined by lack of available resources. Demographers agree that global population will plateau by the end of the century somewhere between 9 and 10 billion people; there is less agreement about what Australia’s limit will be - somewhere between 30–50 million, it would seem. Needless to say, those advocating population growth are not usually those most affected by overcrowding and urban stress.

Generally speaking, no matter what the reasons for wanting human population growth, declining resources will force adjustments to life style and standards of living for large numbers of people - now (as it has in the past), and into the foreseeable future. This point is axiomatic in any ecological framework. No one can know the precise nature of these adjustments, but already we see the mass suffering caused by famine, migration and war in over-populated areas. What can be said is that these events are occurring as global population is still sharply increasing. It seems likely that future events will be more rather than less chaotic. In that light it is remarkable that public policy makers are so silent about limits to population growth.

The historical case for the reality of ecological limits for human populations has been well made by anthropologists (e.g. Jarred Diamond), historians (e.g. Thomas Homer-Dixon), and many other respected commentators (including a continuing output from the Club of Rome, and environmental activists such as Bill McKibbon). The devil, of course, is in the detail – how long can technological innovation increase industrial output and production efficiencies, how much can be gained by globalisation, how well can economists and journalists fiddle the figures, how long can wealthy countries pretend that war and famine are non-ecological in cause and effect, how long can increasing costs of climate change be regarded as collateral damage of a capricious nature, and so on. The one detail that politicians and media refuse to confront is the idea that all physical places and spaces have a biological ‘carrying capacity’ determined by available resources.

It is highly alarming that the idea of any limits to human population continues to be effectively denied by orthodox economic theory, and ignored by most other people. For example, in Australia economists, economic journalists, politicians – and indeed all those who need a happy story to tell – regularly trot out well-intentioned homilies about the need for economic growth fuelled by population growth. The normally sensible economic journalist Jessica Irvine provides a recent example of this awful orthodoxy:

‘Australia in 2017 ranks highly in almost all international measures of wellbeing. In truth, we are a beacon of the good life, attracting young skilled and enthusiastic migrants. Population growth always requires good planning to ease growing pains. But it is a much better problem to have than the alternative’ (‘Why a Big Australia beats the alternative’, Sydney Morning Herald, July 17, 2017, p. 17).

Nonetheless, at some point in the future Australians will have to start adjusting to a stable population which will be set by the limit to Australia’s carrying capacity; this is not an ‘alternative’, or ‘fake news’, or apocalyptic alarmism. It’s an ecological fact of life. Of course, not many really want to know because it is reassuring to assume that standards of living can always improve, consumption can always grow, and there is no upper limit to the carrying capacity of any country. If populations do decline, as they often do in various places around the world, it’s so easy to blame external forces such as wars, politicians, bureaucrats, or the vagaries of nature. And they may indeed be causes – but rarely do we hear about over-consumption, over-population, or unsustainable wealthy lifestyles. This is an ideological problem that wealthy countries refuse to contemplate and poorer countries strive to achieve. Basically it’s all too hard – endless growth is generally advanced as a panacea for any systemic fragility in contemporary society, rich or poor.

Yet there are many awkward facts to consider. Population growth in some countries does not lead to an increase in standards of living for the majority – dramatically illustrated in India, Africa and South America. Resource shortages in all countries occur regularly and cause hardship, even in a wealthy country such as Australia. For instance, gas shortages in Australia are currently causing rising electricity prices; water shortages across urban Australia have been dealt with by rationing, and are now forcing expensive desalination plants into existence. Market forces can allay but not remove resource shortages. New technology can help, but always it takes a crisis to stimulate major capital investment in sustainable development projects.

There are so many problems caused by population pressure on scarce resources. In Australia we see agricultural land being swallowed up by mining companies. We see over-fishing, the degradation of waterways, increasing quantities of pollutants such as CO2 and phosphate and nitrogen runoff from fertilizers. No productive sector is immune from population pressure.

Large populations increase stress levels as people become crowded in high density living; high rise living may even create loneliness as people are physically separated from their extended families; more vehicle numbers cause increasing road rage; larger populations correlate with higher numbers of unemployed people; the elderly may become increasingly vulnerable to corporate profiteering. The list can go on and on.

In the end there is little to recommend a Big Australia. The major beneficiaries of policies advocating endless growth are politicians with short-term mandates and vested interests in the status quo. What we desperately need is a public conversation about the carrying capacity of Australia, region by region. More research needs to be done – on, for example, subjects as difficult as carrying capacity as a function of standards of living. Politicians need to pursue such issues and media need to respond positively. Population growth and economic growth cannot be allowed to blind us all to the ecological facts of life.

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