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Tilting at population windmills

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Thursday, 16 April 2009

The current obsession with the environment has had some odd results, including one segment of the green movement emerging as population doom sayers. According to this segment the world in general, and Australia in particular, is over-populated, and that unless we reduce that population we are all doomed. Instead of populate or perish, it’s populate and perish.

Of late these greenie harbingers have been suggesting that population is outrunning food supply to such an extent that even Australians must choose between high levels of immigration and being able to eat. Besides various articles in this forum I have recently seen Overloading Australia by Mark O’Connor and William J. Lines, and Hot, Flat and Crowded by American journalist Thomas L. Firedman (which is mainly about solutions to climate change rather than overpopulation). In The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People (1994), Tim Flannery argues that Australia’s population should be less than six million.

Then there is the web site run by a group called Sustainable Population Australia. I am sure there is much more. Not all of these groups will hold all the beliefs I outline here.


First off, concerns about over-population are nothing new. One example of the vast amount of hand wringing that has occurred on this subject in previous decades is the minor science fiction classic Make Room! Make Room! Written by American author Harry Harrison in 1963. Turned into the successful film Soylent Green in 1973, the book is set in a vastly over-crowded New York which had also been partially flooded by rising sea levels. In his book Harrison says that he based his nightmare world of 1999, then far in the future, on the best data available.

But perhaps Harrison was right, but just a few decades out in his calculations? Those who go looking for more information on this matter in 2009 are soon overwhelmed. Harrison’s nightmare world is still just around the corner: climate change is about to destroy the agricultural system; our resources, particularly oil, are about to run out and so on.

Whatever anyone may make of those arguments (we will return to them in a moment), we can all agree that, as far as population is concerned, they are being ignored. The Government recently trimmed back the annual allowance for skilled immigration due to the economic situation, but the change will make very little difference. Australia’s annual immigration intake is now more than 1 per cent of total population, which is more than the proportion achieved during the great migration waves of the 1950s and 60s.

Despite economic circumstances, there is little apparent community interest in changing this. If there was, it is unlikely anything would happen. Pauline Hanson owed part of her success in Queensland politics in the mid-1990s to tapping into widely held community fears over immigration. However, those fears were not concerned with over-population as such, did not translate into any change in the quotas (which were lower than they are now) and, in any case, seem to have dissipated.

There is also little hope in getting any policy adopted that might discourage natural population growth, or limit families. There is an amusing note on the Sustainable Population site about how much return fire an author received when he suggested, in one forum, that families should limit themselves to two children. His experience would be a small taste of what would happen if a member of this anti-population movement ran for Parliament on a platform of, say, removing tax concessions for dependent children. Worse, the candidate might simply be ignored.

This is not a matter of left wing or right wing, or fascism versus communism or any other ideology you care to name. Unless voters can see the ocean creeping over their front gardens, or they can’t get water from a tap, then radical policies such as removing family tax concessions or limiting the numbers of children per family have no chance of general acceptance in Australia.


In Overloading Australia O’Connor and Lines also complain strongly about “growthists” who push for growth in the economy. Assuming we can agree this is a problem, it is even harder to do anything about economic growth than it is to do anything about population. The system is simply not set up to contract - the present, hopefully brief, credit crunch aside - and no amount of berating by those concerned about a growing economy putting strain on resources is about to change that.

Those who do not believe this should sit in on a company strategy meeting - any company will do. It’s always about “where is the new revenue coming from” or “how can we expand”. It’s never about “how can we contract because the environment is being affected”. At most, management in some of the larger companies may ask “how can we expand without creating any additional strain on the environment?”. But even then the desire to be green is, in fact, part of the company growth strategy. These companies hope that by being seen to be green they will be more attractive to customers.

Faced with this deep seated preference for growth about the only possible option, for those who consider growth a problem and want to make a difference instead of being ignored, is to push for adaptation.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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