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Can we trust the Greens on population?

By Michael Lardelli - posted Friday, 20 August 2010

The Australian Green Party presents itself as the leading advocate of environmental issues, so you would expect it to have a strong policy on stopping population growth. When even the Liberals say net migration should be reduced to about half what the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded last year, one would expect the Greens to demand at least as big a cut, as well as the abolition of Costello’s baby bonus.

That they do not is odd. After all, population growth undermines environmental sustainability. Growing populations ultimately overwhelm any efforts to reduce our use of resources. More people need more food, housing, water and energy. As Sir David Attenborough put it, “I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more. … I wish the environmental NGOs would … spell out this central problem loud and clear.”

Some years ago when I was a member of the Greens I raised the issue of population on an online forum and was strongly condemned. Years later, the “terms of dismissal” that were hurled at me (“eco-fascist” was an interesting one) still resound in my memory. But the spirit of the times is changing and the societal taboo against discussing population issues has broken down. Nowadays (and very belatedly) even the Greens seem to be talking about population. So I was curious to see what their policy on population has become.


The Greens’ policy on population can be found online. But it is disappointing and reads more like an apology for daring to have a policy at all. Below, I have copied their population policy (in bold italics) and inserted my critique. Their policy statement is divided into “Principles”, “Goals” and “Measures”:


The Australian Greens believe that:

1. Australia must contribute to achieving a globally sustainable population.

This is obvious, but focusing immediately on the global problem is puzzling in a national population policy. National parliaments are responsible primarily for the quality of life of their own people. They have no authority and little influence over what other nations do. It should also be obvious that achieving a world where every nation agrees to end population growth is a remote goal (albeit a worthy one). What willing countries can do now is to bring their own populations under control, and set a potent example by demonstrating the social and environmental advantages that result. This is the free enterprise model, which surely offers more hope - not only for ourselves but for our ability to influence other nations - than the "socialist" assumption that no one has the right to escape overpopulation until everyone does.

2. our environmental impact is not determined by population numbers alone, but by the way that people live.

True, but the neutral (unapologetic) way of stating this would simply be, “our environmental impact is determined by population numbers and the way people live”. Both factors matter, and neither is easy to control, so both must be addressed.


3. consumption patterns and levels, distribution of resources, agricultural practices for domestic consumption and export, levels and types of industrial activity, urban design and transport options determine the ecological footprint of a group of people.

False. The ecological footprint/impact of a group of people is determined by all of the above and population size! The relationship between population size, per capita consumption levels and the influence of technology was originally simplistically portrayed by Erlich and Holdren using the expression I = P x A x T where I is impact, P is population size, A is affluence (per capita consumption) and T is technology (e.g. resource intensity of the activities supporting affluence). The fact that population size was left out of the Greens’ statement indicates just how reluctant they are to consider this issue.

4. there are complex issues involved in population policy, including:

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(Disclosure: Michael is now a member of SPGN. Thanks to MO, DK, JC, JT, DF and HS for comments)

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About the Author

Michael Lardelli is Senior Lecturer in Genetics at The University of Adelaide. Since 2004 he has been an activist for spreading awareness on the impact of energy decline resulting from oil depletion. He has written numerous articles on the topic published in The Adelaide Review and elsewhere, has delivered ABC Radio National Perspectives, spoken at events organised by the South Australian Department of Trade and Economic Development and edits the (subscription only) Beyond Oil SA email newsletter. He has lectured on "peak oil" to students in the Australian School of Petroleum.

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