Populate and perish? The debate we must have

Before the 2010 federal election, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced that she was not in favour of a ‘big Australia’, and would look at options for a ‘sustainable population’.  Unfortunately she stopped there without providing a definition of what she actually meant by the term.  She then leapt on the Western Sydney bandwagon, sympathising with the problems of urban sprawl, traffic congestion and lack of adequate services, which all kind of implied that a ‘sustainable population’ would ease traffic, make backyards bigger and deliver an Australia not unlike Howard’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’ version.

The ‘sustainable population’ announcement was smart – or rather, slick – politics:  it drew a warily positive response from the Greens, and played to the Western Sydney gallery.  It wrong-footed the opposition, who really hadn’t thought much about population generally and were still trying to pronounce the word ‘sustainable’ without choking, letting the PM get away with a populist political statement with no definition or strategy.

In the four months since the reelection of the government, dependent now on the support of the Independents and Greens, sustainable population seems to have dropped off the policy agenda.  There is a very good reason for this:  no one in any decision-making role has the faintest idea what it is they are pursuing.

Concern about population is not new.  Garrett Hardin raised the spectre of unchecked and unregulated exploitation of the ‘commons’ in his 1968 paper, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, in the same year Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb and in 1972 the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth.  In the four decades since, the world’s population has almost doubled – yes, doubled:  from 3.5 billion in 1968 to 6.8 billion in 2010.  In the same period Australia’s population grew from 12 million to 22 million, with a slightly lower rate of increase than the global population.  Australia also has one of the lowest population densities in the world – 2.9 people per square kilometre.  Compare this with New Zealand (16), USA (32), China (139) or the UK (255) and a picture emerges of a vast and under-populated land.  Sure, about two-thirds of Australia is desert, but the other third is still a large area.

A policy to guide sustainable population growth is needed, but it cannot be a standalone policy.  It needs to be developed within the context of, firstly, the global population, and secondly, policy measures in other areas which are inextricably linked to and affected by population growth.  These include:

  • Immigration – Australia’s fertility rate is currently 1.9, meaning that our natural population rate is in slight decline.  However, it is not only unrealistic but unethical, immoral and dangerous for us to think that shutting the gates on the rest of the world will stabilise our population.  Over 40% of the world’s 42 million refugees are hosted in developing countries.   Australia currently accepts .03% of the world’s refugees.  As a developed nation with a healthy economy and (as the national anthem goes) “boundless plains to share”, this is a disgrace.  Refugees, as well as settler immigrants, contribute to the economy and generate employment, not the reverse.  There is no conceivable economic argument against immigration and refugees and in a global context we cannot restrict sustainable population policy to the simplistic scapegoat of immigration.
  • Environment – we lead the world in species extinctions (although given the current cricket debacle at least it’s nice to know we lead the world in something); the largest river system in the country is a basket case; we’ve allowed our natural resources to be exploited for the short-term economic gain of a few multi-national serial plunderers; and we have the highest per capita greenhouse emissions and waste generation rates in the world.  A bigger population is going to add to these problems if we continue the business-as-usual approach.  Environmental concerns must be a major part of any population policy, but it requires a shift away from business-as-usual.  Policies to conserve natural resources, reduce waste and emissions, stop unsustainable water use and make development greener are vital.  These areas too, will generate economic growth and employment.
  • Food and agriculture – much has been written and said about Australia’s capacity to continue as a net exporter of food and indeed, our capacity to feed ourselves in the long-term.  Two centuries of broad scale and industrial agriculture have rendered much of our soil infertile and unviable.  Add to this the fact that we are covering our most fertile and temperate areas with urban development.  Australia can continue to export food and feed ourselves if we accept that the days of broad scale industrial agriculture are numbered.  It is simply not cost-effective to maintain an industry that is totally reliant on fossil fuels, requires government subsidy and regular assistance and cannot withstand the extremes of climate to which it is regularly subjected and which will increase and become more extreme as climate change bites.  Small-scale and intensive food production near and within urban centres needs to become a major part of Australian agricultural and population policy.
  • Urban planning – successive governments have grappled with the problem of urban sprawl in the major cities including the idea of making rural settlement a condition of immigration approvals.  Our major cities are not overcrowded but they have been allowed to expand geographically beyond where they can be sustainable.  Better urban planning, resource use, allowance for urban agriculture and community supported agriculture, better transport services including facilities for non-motorised transport, decentralised services and higher density living would go a long way towards making our cities sustainable at the same time as being able to sustain a greater population.

The population debate is not going to go away, nor should it, but it can and should be carried out with consideration to as many related policy areas as possible and not restricted to the kneejerk reactions to refugee arrivals and traffic congestion in Western Sydney.

While reading some articles in preparing this blog post I came across the following comment to a recent article on refugees in The Tasman Times:

This is exactly what they do in America. They want to overflow the welfare system, thus bankrupting our economy, just so they can steal all of our resources with insane profit.

I guess the fact that ‘we’ stole the resources from the original owners for an insane profit doesn’t count.

Useful links on some of the topics here:

Sustainable Population Australia

Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance

Refugee Council of Australia

Australian City Farms and Community Gardens

Australian Government Dept of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population & Communities

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About Coffee with Ruby

Ruby is a writer, lecturer and thinker who blogs mostly on politics, environment and social philosophy. She has been at the coalface of the political process, but is now strictly an observer. Join Ruby for coffee and musings over whatever is going on at the time ...
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