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Common myths of the population debate

By Michael Lardelli - posted Friday, 13 March 2009

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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