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Common myths of the population debate

By Michael Lardelli - posted Friday, 13 March 2009

In any debate there are particular key arguments that are used to undermine the opponent. A debate as heated as that over the importance, or not, of population growth is sure to feature these. It should be clear to readers of my essay published last week that I regard population growth as the core issue in any discussion on sustainability. Many of the arguments used by those who wish to dismiss or lessen the importance of population growth are false, misleading or simply mental tricks allowing their advocates the comfort of self-deception.

Some of the main arguments refuting population growth as a problem are:

Consumption growth is more important than population growth

This argument is based on the idea that humanity’s impact on the environment is the product of both population size and the amount that each member of the population consumes (consumption per capita). Impact increases both with increasing population numbers and increasing individual consumption. We can have more people without increasing the stress on the environment if each person consumes less. Alternatively we can have more consumption per person but not increase our environmental impact if we reduce the number of consumers (i.e. the population).


Unfortunately we live in a world where most people consume very little (i.e. are in poverty) but want to consume more and where a privileged few (the industrialised nations) consume relatively huge amounts and will not willingly consume less. If an average citizen of Bangladesh moves to Australia then their environmental impact (ecological footprint) will increase by 13-fold. This is the same as giving birth to an additional 12 Bangladeshis (who remain in Bangladesh). Thus, it is true that consumption growth can have an impact that is equal to or more than the birth of an extra individual if that additional individual is poor.

However, there is one very important difference between growth of consumption and growth of population. Consumption growth is easily reversible but population growth is not. In other words, in a crisis where a resource (for example, energy) becomes limiting it is far easier to reduce use of that resource by reducing per capita consumption than it is to reduce it by reducing the number of consumers.

This may seem like a theoretical point but it becomes very important when efficiency gains are being used to allow continued population growth. For example, in the city where I live, Adelaide in South Australia, we are in a severe drought and we are all being encouraged to use less water. Our gardens are dying and it is difficult to grow one’s own food when watering is only allowed with a watering can and even that may be banned if things get worse. Obviously, Adelaide has reached the limit of population that is sustainable at current standards of living and that limit is set by the particular critical resource that is currently least available - water. However, the government has a plan to increase Adelaide’s population by 50 per cent by 2050. The only way they can do that is by making each person use water more efficiently and by using energy- and technology-intensive desalination to generate additional water (although the energy crises anticipated before 2050 throw the desalination plant’s future into doubt).

At Adelaide’s current population size there is obviously some degree of reserve capacity in our water use that allows us to continue to perform essential functions despite reducing consumption (if we do not regard keeping our gardens alive as important). The drought conditions have forced us to reduce consumption but we still have enough to survive on.

However, we can only increase our population if the current lower (more “efficient”) consumption levels are accepted as the new norm. If we now increase our population to the limit allowed by the new norm then, if the drought worsens, we will have to reduce our water consumption per person further but this will not be as easy to do as previously. There is, after all, a lower limit to the amount of water per person that we can consume and still have a functioning society. As we get closer to that limit it becomes harder and harder to reduce water use and so we become more and more vulnerable to the effects of reduced water availability.

In fact, a society operating at the maximum level of efficiency with respect to an essential resource (such as water, energy, phosphate and so on) is very vulnerable and will collapse if the essential resource is restricted further. To be truly sustainable and secure a society must operate well within its resource limits. In fact, the security and sustainability of a society is reflected by its capacity to waste resources. (This does not mean that it should waste resources, only that it has the capacity to do so if it wishes.) After all, one can only waste resources when the reserve capacity to do so exists and it is this reserve capacity that is the true measure of “sustainability”.


I should perhaps point out briefly that “sustainability” is, of course, a time-dependent concept. At any instant in time, everything is sustainable or it would not exist. When thinking of environmental impact sustainability is commonly used to mean the ability of an activity (such as a civilisation) to persist for a long period (indefinitely). Maybe if the environmental movement adopted the word “persistence” it might focus people’s minds more on the long-term survival of our society and be less prone to abuse by commercial interests wishing to greenwash their activities.

China’s one child policy is a violation of the human right to control ones own fecundity

We need to decide which human right is more important - the right to unrestricted reproduction or the right not to starve to death. People who reproduce at a rate that increases the population size threaten the survival of their own children and the children of all others.

People who oppose population growth are really just opposed to immigration (because they are racist)

Believe it or not, it is actually possible to have immigration without population growth. One simply operates a “one in, one out” policy. Immigrants are only allowed to enter an area if the population is kept stable by the death of inhabitants (without internal replacement) or by emigrants leaving the area. One example of such a policy in operation is for Norfolk Island (PDF 189KB) off the Australian east coast. (It is commonly said that people living on islands have a greater appreciation of the limitations imposed by finite resources.)

Education of women is the key to reducing fecundity

One key argument used by those wishing to avoid discussing the population issue in depth is that all we need to do to stop population growth is to educate women (and give them the freedom to control their own fecundity). The idea is supported by the numerous examples of decreasing fecundity in nations and states where the level of education of females is increasing.

This is a fascinating argument since it impinges on deeper issues, such as whether human society is rational or driven primarily by biological forces, i.e. can mind triumph over biology?

Two points are worth noting here. First, from a biological perspective, any society that, for whatever reason, generally discourages women from reproducing at replacement levels is not a healthy one. Such a population will dwindle and eventually disappear. From this point of view, “advanced” western industrial societies are not healthy at all. Second, also from a biological perspective, it is easier to understand that a woman’s choice of whether to reproduce will be influenced by her perception of future conditions rather than her level of education. If a woman perceives that early reproduction will affect her survival or those of her children deleteriously (even if “survival” is more a matter of the ability to afford indicators of social position such as possessions rather than direct food availability) then she is likely to delay having children.

As Mark O’Conner and William Lines write in their excellent book, Overloading Australia:

The US demographer Virginia Abernethy has shown … [that] birth rates fall “when perceptions of plenty are replaced by perceptions of thrift”. In other words when people feel pinched for money and goods - provided they are not too pinched to afford contraceptives! Oddly enough, becoming affluent can make you feel pinched - because you and your children are no longer prepared to go barefoot and illiterate. Education of children, not regarded as so important before, is now seen as necessary but expensive, and the birthrate falls.

The current, widespread and irrational belief in theories of economics that posit that growth can continue indefinitely in a finite world amply illustrates that human society is not completely rational. However, the human mind clearly has some independence from basic biological drives. While examples of societies with stable populations have existed, they have required strict adherence to population control practises (e.g. infanticide of excess children) that our current society could never accept.

If humans ever do manage to create a persistent “advanced” society where individuals voluntarily limit their reproduction to replacement levels then it will represent a true victory for mind over biology (if the two can be regarded as separate). From the viewpoint of genetics theory, it may be impossible to create such a society but that is an interesting subject for an essay on another day.

We need more younger people to take care of aged baby boomers

Peter Costello, the Treasurer in Australia’s Howard government became well known for his slogan, “demography is destiny”. He was concerned that Australia’s birth rate was too low and that this would lead to a future of lower economic activity, less tax income for the government and problems supporting the pensions of the baby-boomers and servicing their needs in retirement. His solution, perpetuated by the current government, is to encourage reproduction in the Australian population and to import as many people as possible as fast as possible. However, there are a number of things that can be said about this:

First, it is immoral to attempt to cope with the current demographic bulge in baby-boomer population by creating a new bulge of younger people to service the old. All that is doing is shifting the inevitable burden of coping with the bulge onto another generation. As resources decline, we will one day be forced to reduce our population whether we like it or not. The baby-boomer bulge is for the baby boomers to cope with and they should not try to escape that responsibility.

Second, population growth is popular with industry since more consumers mean more sales - of houses, TV’s, cars or whatever. Population growth drives growth in consumption and hence economic growth. However, it is a lazy method of growing the economy. There are other ways, such as increasing per capita education levels and productivity, that can be less damaging to the environment and lead to greater human development and individual happiness. In any case, with oil now post-peak and soon to decline quite rapidly, the days of economic growth are over (unless one is talking about “negative” growth)! If we measured economic growth in per capita terms then it would be obvious that one way to increase a society’s access to resources (“wealth”) is to reduce the size of the society. Indeed, when the resource base itself is contracting then this is the only way.

Third, the tragedy of driving economic growth by growing the population is that, ultimately, there is no theory behind it other than growth for growth’s sake. It is not as if one eventually reaches some beneficial economic threshold beyond which society suddenly takes a quantum step up in welfare. If Adelaide’s population does increase by 50 per cent (half a million people) by 2050 then what? Of course, the economists and industry will tell us that we then need another half million and so on. However, the developing economic crisis and future energy decline mean that we will never reach that figure.

The property developers of Australia donate large amounts of money to both major political parties to ensure their influence in the population debate. For example, of the ten largest donors to the Liberal Party (that recently held power) in 2007-8, four were property developers or involved in the building industry. For the governing Labor party, two of the top 10 are property developers and all benefit from the increased consumption provided by more people. Little wonder then that, even in the shadow of the deepening global economic crisis the government refuses to countenance reducing the rate of immigration. One wonders how bad the degradation of our environment and the decline of our economy will need to become before we, as a society, accept the need for a smaller, stable population.

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Michael would like to thank JC of Sustainable Population Australia for critical comments during the drafting of this article.

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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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