A big Australia?

Mark Diesendorf

Long before population became a public issue, debate had been stirring behind the scenes. There had been internal arguments within the environmental movement, with tension between those who recognised population as one of the three drivers of environmental damage, and those who wished to avoid taking a public position against population growth for fear of alienating some of their members.

The debate was brought into the open when Mark O’Connor and William Lines published their book, Overloading Australia. Kevin Rudd made the issue newsworthy with his Big Australia speech, and Julia Gillard attempted to hose down the subsequent public concern by making reassuring noises, appointing a Minister for Population and trying the turn the issue into one solely about infrastructure provision.

It is, however, much more than that. Possibly because population is simultaneously an environmental, social and economic issue, it has been misrepresented in many different ways by those who wish Australia to continue with one of the fastest rates of population growth among OECD countries. Some claim that to oppose growth is racist or anti-refugee. Others argue that we need more births and young immigrants to look after our ageing population or to defend Australia or to provide the workforce for mineral development. Some assert that the real issue is the excessive consumption per person. In conversation at the launch of a wind farm project, I was even told by NSW Premier Kristina Keneally that population growth from births is much greater than from immigration. All these claims are false.

There is nothing inherently racist or anti-refugee about limiting total immigration. Indeed, one could argue more credibly that the existing immigration system is biased, because it allows unlimited entry to New Zealanders, facilitates the permanent residency of overseas students who graduate in Australia on the debatable grounds that education is an ‘export industry’, and restricts the entry of refugees escaping from devastated regions of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. The system makes it easier for wealthy, well-educated people to enter the country, while excluding the needy and desperate.

Both major political parties are treating refugees, especially boat people, as some kind of threat. The reality is that our refugee and humanitarian intake is only about 4 per cent of immigration and the boat people make up a tiny fraction of it. So there is no necessary contradiction between making a home for refugees on non-discriminatory grounds and limiting our population. On compassionate grounds, we could and should double or even triple our refugee intake, while severely cutting skilled immigration to stabilise our total population. Instead of attracting highly skilled people from the Third World (where they are greatly needed), we should be investing more in educating and training Australians.

We should also contribute much more in overseas aid: not selfish ‘aid’ to assist Australia’s exports but genuine aid to address poverty, foster education and training, promote health and reduce environmental damage in the Third World.

Many years ago environmental scientist Paul Ehrlich and energy expert John Holdren showed that there are three forces driving environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, peak oil, urban traffic congestion, air and water pollution, destruction of biodiversity, and loss of soils. They showed that environmental impact is equal to the product of population, consumption per person (sometimes called ‘affluence’) and the ‘dirtiness’ of technology. Each factor is potentially equally important, in the sense that if we double any one of them, we double the impact. If we double all three, we get eight times the impact. Therefore, to be serious about protecting and restoring our natural environment, upon which we humans are totally dependent, we must address all three factors. For specific environmental impacts, each factor can be measured separately and each requires different policies to address it. So the disaggregation of environmental impact into these three factors is meaningful and potentially useful.

Take, for instance, the most important environmental impact of burning fossil fuels for energy: the amount of carbon dioxide emitted. This figure can be obtained by multiplying together the size of the population, the energy consumption per person, and the CO2 emissions per unit of energy consumed. The second term, comprising per capita consumption, can be addressed by programs to increase the efficiency of energy use and to reduce unnecessary energy use. The third term, comprising dirtiness of technologies, can be addressed by phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable sources of energy: wind, solar, bioenergy from crop residues and, in due course, wave and hot rock geothermal energy.

In practice the relative impact of these three driving forces varies between countries. For instance, total emissions from the USA are very high because of very high consumption per person, high population (over 300 million) and a quite a high proportion of fossil fuel in the energy mix. Total emissions from China are very high, despite low average consumption per person, because of a very high population (about 1300 million) and a very high proportion of coal in the energy mix. Australia’s total emissions are much lower than those of the USA and China, because of a relatively low population – but our unenviable record-breaking per capita emissions result primarily from our very high percentage use of coal for electricity generation and high per capita consumption.

An additional person in Australia makes on average a bigger contribution to greenhouse gas emissions than an additional person almost anywhere else in the world. Those who claim that Australia’s population growth is irrelevant and that we should focus on controlling world population growth are attempting to divert attention from Australia’s responsibilities as a high per capita emitter.

The notion that we can solve the ‘problem’ of an ageing Australia by encouraging more births and young immigrants ignores the fact that these young people will also age, thus making the problem much worse. As others have pointed out, the idea is a kind of Ponzi scheme. Several European countries with stable populations manage to look after their older people while maintaining high standards of living. Why can’t we? It seems that the real problem is the meanness of Australians and their political leaders in refusing to raise taxes a little to look after older people, in one of the lowest taxed countries of the developed world.

Some argue that because Australia has a large land area it could sustain a population of 100 million. Indeed, if the rates of population growth reached under the Rudd government were continued into the future, they could lift the country’s population to well beyond that level by 2100. The population boosters seem to be blissfully unaware that Australia has ancient, infertile soils, further depleted by over two centuries of exploitation and misuse, and very limited fresh water supplies. It is for good reason that the vast majority of Australians live in the thin green coastal strip, much of which has already been covered with asphalt and concrete. A large part of the remaining coastal zone has outstanding beauty and merits protection in national parks.

Environmentalists and many other Australians recognise the vested interests pushing greenhouse gas emissions: coal, oil, electricity generators, aluminium, steel, cement, forestry and large-scale agriculture. Yet many people are unaware that most of the population myths originate from vested interests too. These population boosters include the property and housing industry; industries seeking cheap labour for low-skilled and dangerous jobs; businesses generally seeking a large pool of labour so that wages and other working conditions can be diminished; the Roman Catholic church; and governments seeking revenue from wealthy immigrants.

One of the peak bodies of population boosters is the Australian Population Institute. It has a name that could be easily confused with the Australian Population Association (the demographers’ professional association) and uses the motto ‘populate and prosper’. It sets out a large array of population fallacies as if they were fact. On the other side, raising awkward questions about population growth, is Sustainable Population Australia, whose members include scientists, demographers and environmentalists.

The employment needs of the minerals industry is sometimes cited as a justification for importing more labour. But, as environmental researcher and author Guy Pearse has pointed out, this industry contributes only about 5 per cent of GDP. While the revenue from Australia’s modest taxes on mineral exports is welcome, it is hardly the foundation of the economy. Anyway, the minerals industry is not particularly labour intensive and is unsustainable in environmental, social and economic terms.

To avoid further escalation of our environmental problems, we must implement policies to stabilise and then reduce Australia’s population to a sustainable level. The government should terminate the baby bonus, slash immigration in the skilled category, remove special immigration privileges for New Zealanders and overseas students who graduate here, remove discriminatory restrictions on refugees from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and greatly increase overseas aid. Of course we must at the same time clean up our technology, making a rapid transition to a sustainable energy future, and transform our economy into one with no further increases in the use of materials, energy and land.

Andrew Bartlett

Julia Gillard’s suggestion that ‘Australia should not hurtle down the track towards a big Australia’ was a politically motivated comment based on a false premise. ‘Hurtling’ implies moving at great speed, blindly, or in a barely controlled manner. But it is simply wrong to suggest rates of population growth over the last decade or two are out of control or that we have not given thought to where we might be heading.

Equally inaccurate language is used to claim that a few thousand refugees arriving here each year in boats – not a single one of whom enters our community undetected or unassessed – somehow shows we have ‘lost control of our borders’. Some who argue for drastically cutting Australia’s migration intake seek to maintain their progressive credentials by also demanding big increases in refugees. But the public debate during the recent election showed the difficulty of separating numbers of refugees from numbers of other immigrants, in an argument that, at its core, is solely about numbers of people. Furthermore, because refugees tend, on average, to have more children than other migrants (at least until the second generation), attempts to cordon them out of a debate about total local numbers become inevitably artificial.

In any case, the quickest way to reduce Australia’s population – and the most politically palatable (at least in the short-term) – is to dramatically reduce the number of people allowed to enter Australia, particularly those hoping to reside here on a long-term or permanent basis. While Gillard’s statements – like similar ones by Tony Abbott and others – were deliberately left imprecise, no-one could deny they were first and foremost about migration and refugees.

Yet each person who comes to Australia is one less person living somewhere else. In itself, migration has zero net impact on overall population numbers. From an ecological perspective, what matters are the resources that person consumes, and the impacts upon biodiversity, water, soil, pollution etc. In itself, nationality or street address is irrelevant.

Speaking last year at the launch of Overloading Australia, the book he co-authored with William Lines, Mark O’Connor argued that, in fact, moving people around the world does affect the global problem of population. He went on to ‘explain’:

Immigrants, when they change countries, characteristically suffer a huge loss of culture, language, self-respect and simple know-how of how to operate in their own society. What compensates them for it is increased energy use, water use, land use – increased affluence in a word. Characteristically they are met at the airport by relatives with furs and rings eager to show that they haven’t sold out culturally, or if they did they sold out for a very good price.

The statement has nothing to do with any future impacts on population levels. It openly suggests that ‘problem’ migrants are those who speak a different language or come from poorer places. It also shows ignorance about the reality of life for the vast majority of new migrants in Australia, and ignores the fact that globally most migrants move between developing countries, not from poor to rich countries.

Given that the vast majority of Australians are either migrants or the descendants of relatively recent migrants, it is strange that hopes of having a better life for themselves or their children are portrayed as an intrinsically bad thing. But O’Connor’s statement does (unwittingly) recognise that the real ‘problem’ isn’t increased population but increased affluence.

I presume that, in outlining a progressive approach to the issue, there is no need to explain why it would be wrong to ‘solve’ environmental problems by keeping people poor. Yet arguments identifying population growth as the cause of problems, rather than a symptom, can lead in this very direction. The major correlation with greenhouse emissions and resource consumption is not population but affluence, while high birth rates correlate very strongly with poverty and powerlessness. As the British writer George Monbiot has pointed out, in a global context, the claim that population growth is the big environmental issue shifts the blame from the rich to the poor.

The most effective and rapid way to reduce high birth rates is to increase education and health services, especially for women and girls. For those who see the problem solely in terms of overall numbers, it may seem counterintuitive to argue the vital importance of lowering infant mortality. Yet reduced infant mortality remains one of the key drivers in rapidly reducing birth rates, as evidence provided to the recent UN Summit examining the progress of the Millennium Development Goals demonstrated once again.

If, just for the sake of argument, one was to agree that population size or growth was a core problem, any progressive response could not just look at what the so-called ‘carrying capacity’ of a country is without examining how that relates to other countries. The term is often used to suggest there is some set limit on the number of people our continent can sustain. But the notion that carrying capacity can be defined as a single figure – whether for the nation, a region or a city – is highly dubious. There are many factors which affect the level and nature of environmental impacts, not least of which is the lifestyle that Australians live – on most measures amongst the most profligate, inefficient and wasteful in the world.

To give just one, very poignant, example, a recent study revealed the average floor area of Australians’ houses to be the largest in the world. The city with the largest average house size is Sydney, the home of the so-called McMansion. Poor planning followed by an unwillingness or inability of governments to provide adequate infrastructure has created significant pressures in our largest cities. Given that Australia is one of the most urbanised nations on Earth, with – unlike most other developed nations – very few mid-sized cities, it is no surprise that the majority of the population who reside in a small number of very large cities have become more and more concerned about the impact of rapid population growth.

To argue about how many people Australia can ‘fit in’ while ignoring the rest of the world risks asserting that people living in Australia have a right to a far greater share of the world resources than those living anywhere else.

Environmentalists have long argued that very rich countries such as Australia cannot demand that people in poorer countries must stay poor, solely to make it easier for the world to reduce greenhouse emissions. Such an approach has rightly been seen as both insular and unjust. Yet an insistence that Australia is already at or above our ‘carrying capacity’ and that we are therefore ‘full’ and must curtail the ability of others to come here – without regard to people or the environment anywhere else – is equally insular and unjust.

While it is often said Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent, the claim is usually not followed up with an acknowledgement that it is also the least populated by a very, very long way. Significant parts are arid and low in soil quality, it is true, but there are still substantial areas of arable soil and available water. To use just a few simple comparisons, the population of Tasmania – hardly the driest of places – is just over half a million, with a total area of 68 401 square kilometres. By contrast, mainland Denmark has a population of around five and a half million in an area of 43 098 square kilometres. More starkly, Taiwan has a population of around 23 million – similar to all of Australia – in an area of 35 980 square kilometres.

No-one is suggesting Australia (or Tasmania) should be required to have population density the same as Taiwan’s. But equally, in the face of such realities – let alone the situations which many far poorer countries face – it is just plain silly to call Australia ‘full’.

O’Connor and Lines frequently quote from Tim Murray, a member of Sustainable Population Australia, as well as the Population Institute of Canada and Optimum Population Trust UK. Murray argues that migration does increase global population growth since ‘open doors offer developing nations an escape hatch to exit their surplus population and avoid confronting their own rampant population growth.’ He concludes that overseas aid should not be provided to any country unless they agree to stabilise their population by having fewer children – or, as he puts it, ‘no food aid without birth control’.

Murray, at least, has the intellectual honesty not to hide from the inevitable end point of his mathematical determinism. ‘To hasten the demise of this civilization to any degree is,’ he says, ‘the best favour one could perform for humanity, which must be scaled down by a major die-off of 6 billion or more in order that a remnant of biodiversity is still available to the handful of survivors.’

Those of us who wish to advocate for workable, evidence-based protection of our environment – locally and globally – must be far more assertive in dissociating environmentalism from such views. It is not ‘political correctness’ to criticise these ideas. It is an insistence on justice (not to mention logic and accuracy), and a recognition that appeals to insular selfishness and ignorance should never play a part in the sort of change we want.

Mark Diesendorf replies to Andrew Bartlett

Andrew Bartlett implies that Australia’s current rate of population growth is acceptable while avoiding a discussion of the actual rates. For the year ended 30 June 2009, Australia’s rate peaked at 2.1 per cent per year, almost double the global average (1.2 per cent) and three times the OECD average (0.7 per cent). It is the highest in the OECD and greater than growth rates in many of our less developed neighbours. If this rate of growth were allowed to continue, it would ‘hurtle’ Australia’s population to 176 million in 2109. Even the longer-term average growth rate of 1.2 per cent should be of great concern on environmental, social and economic grounds.

Bartlett makes the obvious but irrelevant point that ‘each person who comes to Australia is one less person living somewhere else’. However, because Australia has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of the developed countries, every additional Australian has on average a bigger greenhouse impact than an additional person almost anywhere else. This demonstrates the combined effect of the three drivers of environmental impact, which equals population multiplied by affluence (that is, consumption per person) multiplied by dirtiness of technology. All three factors are important and all must be addressed by progressives who care about the environment. One cannot simply pull out affluence from this product and claim that it is ‘the real ‘problem’.

An irresponsible alternative is joining the population boosters – including the property development, mineral and other industries – while hoping that somehow we Australians will dramatically cut our per capita consumptions and transform our highly polluting energy and industrial system into a clean, green one. Well, despite many of our efforts, it’s clear that both these long hard struggles are far from over, and are being made more difficult by our failure to rein in population growth.

Bartlett’s article oozes complacency, implying that there is no problem apart from the high average floor size of Australian houses. It offers no solutions to our environmental crises, not even a policy on floor sizes. It’s not helpful to suggest that the population of Taiwan (23 million) could be easily accommodated in Tasmania. Sure, there is plenty of unoccupied land between Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair, but not all progressives would want to see it converted into suburbia.

Australia’s very high rate of population growth is primarily due to immigration. At least Bartlett and I agree that the population debate is not primarily about refugees, who are at present a tiny fraction of immigrants. The real divergence is about the very high rate of immigration of skilled workers. Bartlett makes the illogical claim that reducing the rate of immigration ‘solely to make it easier for the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions’ is equivalent to demanding that ‘people in poorer countries must stay poor’. In reality, the majority of immigrants are skilled and quite well off. By coming to Australia, they seek to increase their own incomes while inadvertently impoverishing their countries of origin. Furthermore, it is naive to argue that we could help the billions of impoverished people in the Third World by throwing open our borders.

I submit that a genuinely progressive policy is for Australia to expand its intake of refugees, currently only 4 per cent of immigrants, while greatly reducing the intake of skilled migrants, until we stabilise our population. Yet Bartlett attempts to denigrate this approach by claiming that the two categories of immigrants are indistinguishable. In reality they are separate in both official and ethical terms.

Of course we must expand our overseas aid programs to provide education, health and infrastructure in the developing world where it is most needed. But to argue that Australia should restrict its population policy to overseas aid and not limit its own population growth, because its population density is low, is logically similar to arguing that Australia should not cut its own greenhouse gas emissions because it only emits 1.5 per cent of global emissions. Both arguments are wrong, because Australia is an infamous world leader in depleting the global environmental commons. It is the responsibility of Australia’s progressives to facilitate social change towards clean technologies and industries, low consumption per person and a stable population.

Andrew Bartlett replies to Mark Diesendorf

The environment movement must avoid playing into the right-wing myth of an innate conflict between conservationists on the one hand, and social justice advocates and internationalists on the other. Effective environmentalism and isolationism do not mix, and green policies cannot be considered in isolation from social justice, without undermining all the work done to negate perceptions that environmentalism is predominantly a middle-class NIMBY self-indulgence.

Diesendorf’s article makes the bizarre claim that ‘those who claim that Australia’s population growth is irrelevant and that we should focus on controlling world population growth are attempting to divert attention from Australia’s responsibilities as a high per capita emitter’. In fact, the opposite is true – it is those arguing Australia should not receive more migrants because our emissions are too high who seek to avoid our responsibilities to dramatically reduce our emissions per capita. It is equivalent to a gluttonous man arguing that no-one else can join his feast because there won’t be enough food to go around, even while admitting he eats more than his share.

The population debate was in the open well before some environmentalists started promoting Mark O’Connor and William Lines’ book Overloading Australia. O’Connor was making exactly the same anti-migration arguments back in the 1990s. For example, in a speech from 1996, he said:

immigration sends a most negative message to the community. How can the ordinary citizen see having a small family as a contribution to the community’s well-being when he or she must also watch (and pay taxes to help) the government increasing our population through immigration)?

In reality, budget papers in recent years show that the vast majority of new migrants – apart from refugee and humanitarian arrivals – provide a clear net gain to the taxpayer.

The fact that most people disagreed with the extremist zero-net migration line that O’Connor and others have pushed for so long does not mean the debate was somehow suppressed. Pauline Hanson expressed identical views regarding immigration numbers and their supposedly negative social and environmental impacts, and I don’t recall her having much trouble getting her views reported.

Many environmentalists in Australia – motivated by fairness as well as conservation – are seeking greater support for Pacific (and Torres Strait) Islanders to deal with the threats from climate change. Yet O’Connor says, ‘it is a common ploy for islanders to pretend to be escaping from rising sea-levels when they are really asking to be rescued from their own over-population’, that their difficulties are ‘due to their not doing what most Australians have done for decades: consult their budget and strike a balance between the number of children they’d like to have and the number they can afford,’ and thus it would ‘wrong (and a false kindness) to rescue people from their own wilful folly’.

In Lines’ previous book, Patriots, he rails against what he calls the ‘myth of the ecological Aborigine’. He has also labelled Aboriginal Land Rights laws as racist and treacherous. Both he and O’Connor accuse those who highlight the injustices of Aboriginal dispossession as ‘presenting this as an evil specific to Anglo-Celtic Australians’ and ‘making people feel guilty about Aborigines’, whilst equating ongoing immigration to ‘continuing colonisation’.

Diesendorf rightly notes that our immigration laws make it ‘easier for wealthy, well-educated people to enter the country, while excluding the needy and desperate’. But it is total naivety to suggest that, if the government changed the laws to permanently slash the numbers of people allowed to enter, it would be to make immigration easier for the needy but harder for the wealthy.

Indeed, Diesendorf’s fellow travellers argue the opposite. US anti-migration advocate Garrett Hardin proposes a policy of rigorously excluding most of those immigrants who come from those countries with ‘irresponsible birth rates’ – countries which also contain most of the world’s ‘needy and desperate’. Mark O’Connor approvingly describes this as a policy of ‘tough love’.

Environmentalists who do believe over-population is a serious problem in Australia must clearly repudiate views such as these, which are ignorant and offensive on a number of levels. If they do not, they can hardly blame others for assuming they share them.

The environmental movement rightly sees itself as having a progressive perspective. Apart from anything else, this recognises the reality that people and the environment are not disconnected. The need to assess the impact of policies on human beings does not disappear just because environmental issues are at stake.

Mark Diesendorf

Mark Diesendorf is an Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at UNSW, His latest books are Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy and Climate Action: A Campaign Manual for Greenhouse Solutions, both published by UNSW Press.

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Andrew Bartlett

Andrew Bartlett was a senator for Queensland and immigration spokesperson for the Australian Democrats for 1997-2008. He stood as a Greens candidate in the recent federal election and is currently a Research Fellow with the Migration Law Program at ANU. He has a weekly show on community radio 4ZZZ FM.

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