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The implications of the limits to growth analysis for thinking about Australia's population policy

By Ted Trainer - posted Wednesday, 15 December 1999

The following paragraphs briefly summarise the fundamentally important limits to growth analysis of the global situation. In my view this shows indisputably that the industrial-affluent-consumer society we have in rich countries like Australia is grossly unsustainable and there is no possibility of all the world's people ever rising to anything like our per capita level of resource use and environmental impact. If this case is accepted then quite radical implications for desirable social change follow, including the conclusion that Australia's present population is far higher than a sustainable level.

Over the past 30 years a formidable case has accumulated in support of the claim that the living standards and levels of production and consumption characteristic of rich countries are grossly unsustainable for resource and environmental reasons. This conclusion can be arrived at via any one of a number of lines of argument. (Trainer, 1985, 1995a, 1998a;, 1998b.) For example estimated potentially recoverable resources for fossil fuels and minerals indicate that if we were to try to increase production to the point where all people expected on the planet by 2070, perhaps 10 billion, were each to have the present rich world per capita consumption, then all fuels and one-third of the mineral items would be totally exhausted by about 2040. Renewable energy sources are very unlikely to be able to fill the gap. (Trainer, 1995c.) This means that there is no possibility of all people rising to the per capita resource consumption typical of the rich countries today.

The greenhouse problem provides a similar argument. If the carbon content of the atmosphere were to be prevented from increasing any further, world energy use for 10 billion people would have to be reduced to a per capita average that is just 6% of the present rich world average. Most people have little understanding of the magnitude of the reductions required for sustainability.


"Footprint" analysis" indicates that to provide for one person living in a rich world city requires at least 4.5 ha of productive land. If 10 billion people were to live that way the amount of productive land required would be around 8 times all the productive land on the planet. (Wachernagel and Rees, 1995.)

Figures of these kinds indicate that present rich world levels of production and consumption are far beyond sustainability. Yet the supreme commitment in rich and poor countries is to economic growth; i.e., to constantly increasing levels of production and consumption without limit. The absurdly impossible implications are made clear by asking what increase there would be in Gross World Product if by 2070 the expected 10 billion people were to have risen to the living standards people in rich countries would have, given 3% growth until then. The answer is an approximately 100 fold increase in present Gross World Product. (If a 4% average growth rate is assumed the multiple is 200.)

If we in Australia were only taking our fair share of the world's resource production we could not have anything like our present "living standards". People in the rich countries, probably totalling only 16% of world population, consume around 80% of resources produced. We get them simply because the global economy is a market system. Such a system allows those who are rich to take most of what is available by paying more for it. More importantly the global economy ensures that the industries developed in the Third World are almost entirely only those which produce for the rich, and that the productive capacity the poor once had, especially their land, becomes drawn into producing for the benefit of the transnational corporations, Third World elites and supermarket customers in rich countries. For these reasons "development" is increasingly being regarded as a form of plunder. (Goldsmith, 1997, Chossudovsky, 1997.) In any case, in view of the limits to growth there is no possibility whatsoever of all Third World people ever rising to anything like the "living standards" we have in rich countries.

There are reasons for considering Australia's situation in relation to other overdeveloped countries as being especially disturbing. We are one of the world's worst greenhouse gas emitters. We clear 3-400,000ha of woodland pa.. In addition our major export is coal. Our "living standards" greatly depend on the importation of goods from other countries. We pay for these imports by large exports of ecologically problematic commodities in addition to coal, including woodchips. and wool, beef and wheat produced in quite unsustainable ways.

Our urban life, mining, rural life, agriculture, exporting, and leisure are all highly dependent on liquid fuel. Despite clear and abundant warning Australia has shown no interest in the coming insoluble petroleum crisis. (Campbell, 1997.) There is a very convincing case that world supply will peak between 2005 and 2010 and by 2025 be down to 1/15 of the amount needed to give 2015 world population the present Australian per capita consumption.

No plausible assumptions about technical advance make it possible to conclude that a sustainable and just world order can be achieved without radical social change. (For example, affluent society cannot be based on renewable energy sources; Trainer, 1995a, 1995c.)


The implications for population and immigration policy do not need to be spelled out at length. Obviously in view of the foregoing themes a sustainable population for Australia would be a small fraction of the present number.

It follows that a sustainable and just world order must be conceived in terms of "The Simpler Way"; i.e., in terms of much less affluent lifestyles, small, highly self-sufficient communities and economies, participatory and cooperative ways, and a totally different economy. It must be a steady state or zero growth economy. (Trainer, 1995a, 1995b.)

There is now a Global Ecovillage Movement in which many small groups around the world are exploring settlements which might enable a high quality of life on very low per capita resource consumption and environmental impact. In What Is To be Done Now? (In press) I argue that the fate of the planet depends on this movement. Consumer society has shown itself to be incapable of responding to warnings that the growth and greed path is leading to catastrophic breakdown. Our hope is that by the time the problems become really acute within the richest countries people will be able to see around them impressive examples of communities following The Simpler Way.

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About the Author

Dr Ted Trainer is a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the University of NSW. You can find more on his work here.

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Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney
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