In many ways Australia is an empty continent. A bare 23 million people clinging to a coastline leaving the vast interior virtually unpopulated. Little wonder that there are those who would argue that there is plenty of room - Rudd’s 35 million by 2050 is a mere bagatelle; why we could easily accommodate three times that number.
Or could we?
If you look at Australia through the prism of someone from overseas all that one can see is a sparsely populated continent. However, we in Australia should have a more nuanced view of these vast open spaces. We should be well aware that even with all this space we struggle to feed ourselves. For those who question this, these links here and here unpack that argument. However, those arguments should reinforce an idea of which we would have an intuitive understanding, namely, given that we live on the driest populated continent on Earth the capacity of this land to support life is strictly limited. Yet, whereas most farmers have an accurate understanding of the carrying capacity of their land, we really have very little idea of what level of population this land can support: what we can deduce from our current knowledge is that our present population is already more than enough.
Despite this there are those who argue that we can support many more people. Their claims appear to be based on a rather optimistic assumption that our technological knowhow will enable us to increase our agricultural production. What our technophiles overlook is that the very resources on which we depend for our 21st century lifestyles are rapidly being depleted. Furthermore, world phosphate production on which the “green” revolution depends is unlikely to last much beyond 2050. If we factor in climate change we are facing an extremely uncertain future with respect to our capacity to feed Australia’s population.
Another aspect that is rarely mentioned is the way government policy is undermining primary production - the family farm is just about a museum piece; few younger people are seeing the value in farming as a career so even if we were not busy turning our prime agricultural land into residential areas we still face the problem that our primary industry is in deep, deep trouble.
Yet these intuitive understandings of the problems that Australia faces are not backed up by any thorough going demographic research. In fact there is little systematic research in this area. See Katherine Betts' excellent paper (Demographic and Social Research on the Population and Environment Nexus in Australia: Explaining the Gap). The reason for this may be found in the fact that Australia’s population growth is largely driven by migration. Therefore to challenge the wisdom of population growth is also to challenge the wisdom of our migration program; migration remains our sacred cow.
What is even more puzzling is that the very people who one would expect to spearhead any campaign on stopping population growth - the environmentalists - are those most likely to favour an increase in Australia’s migration intake. These are the people who are concerned about the impact that population has on habitat, yet at the same time resist the conclusion that we may also need to be prepared to reduce Australia’s population. (Betts’s paper found that 55 per cent of those who are concerned about the environment also favoured an increase in Australia’s migrant intake.)
One of the reasons that people are reluctant to mount an argument against migration is that they may be regarded as racist. It is a risk I am prepared to take. An immediate moratorium on all migration with the exception of our refugee intake and family reunion program is the only way we can ensure that our population stabilises at around 22 million.
The most compelling reason for a moratorium is that we need, as a matter of urgency, to determine how we are going to ensure that we can satisfy the needs of our existing population. There is ample global research that demonstrates if a population exceeds the carrying capacity of its particular habitat then the only way law and order can be maintained is by force. To continue on our present growth trajectory is to open the possibility of a dystopian future - it is a risk that we simply cannot afford to take.
All levels of government need to be engaged in the development of a population strategy that is not based on wishful thinking but one that is focused on developing policies that ensure that we are able to meet the needs of our existing population. All that we can say at this stage that we simply do not know what level of population is sustainable.
For some this argument is sufficient. People routinely engaged in strategic planning understand the need to have accurate data at their finger tips - the aim of all planning is to eliminate as much uncertainty as we can. Our biggest threat remains the climate - we really have no idea what the impact will be on our agriculture.
However, there are those who argue that regardless of uncertainty with respect to our food security it is unjust to call even a temporary halt to migration. Some couch their support in the following terms: “we should not slam the door shut on those people who would like to enjoy the sort of lifestyle that we have.” It is an odd sort of social justice argument for the people that we allow to enter are generally quite well off in their country of origin. If we really wanted to open the door to people who are genuinely unfortunate why not open the doors to the slum dwellers from Cairo, Soweto or Mumbai or indeed from any number of other places? Yet we are recruiting the very people who have the skills and expertise to help their countries escape out of poverty.
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