crowd of people population

News from the Front Desk issue 425: There’s an inherent tension between protecting the environment and democratic access to it.

You can feel it when you read about thousands of rafters tramping down the fragile banks of the Franklin River in Tasmania. Or if you try to enjoy sunrise at Uluru, amid an army of buses grinding their way along the bitumen road, audible for miles in the early morning.

Allow democratic access to everyone and they’ll promptly wreck the place, right?

The problems around us are real: the crush on the environment, climate change, affordable housing, public transport, poor infrastructure and congestion, low unregulated pay (mostly for newly arrived migrants) insecure work for all, water shortages, the Murray Darling disaster, and refugees.

Increasingly, we hear, all of these problems can be solved by lower population.

Rising on the back of this is an unusual mix of policies that resonate across previously impermeable political lines. So low population is championed by the hard right with One Nation, the so called sensible centrists (or their new moniker extreme centrists) through groups such as the Sustainable Australia Party, previously called the Sustainable Population Party, and deep greens.

For greens/environmentalists this could be the thing that could split the movement more than any “watermelon” ideology (green on the outside, red on the inside) among some segments of it.

One reason that though the problems are real and highly complex, their solutions are also complex and part of systems thinking on a grand scale. Smaller population or immigration, its first cousin, is not a magic bullet.

For instance, if Australia’s food supply could run out in a few days in the wake of a catastrophe human induced or natural, is the answer fewer people to feed? Or different more localised social structures that strive for self reliance?

Regardless there is much earnest support for the lower population/lower immigration argument. And for good reason. It all sounds so reasonable. Science based metrics such as carrying capacity and ecological footprints are deep green issues. Jared Diamond made the concept of environmental collapse frightening.

But complex problems generally require complex solutions. Beware silver bullets.

The Sustainable Australia Party

In four weeks the NSW election the Sustainable Australia has come a long way. It had just one candidate, possibly two, at its launch then. Today, according to our Oxygen Files column, it’s certain of reaching its target of 40.

But what’s this party about?

Certainly a lot of hard work. Not only does it work fast in recruitment, it’s pretty nimble on building the political “scaffolding” it reckons it needs to win influence.

In five years since its foundation this brainchild of eastern Melbourne raised accountant and marketer William Bourke, has taken the solution of lower immigration and population as the main centre of its universe and now nominates a perfect storm of problems that lower population can solve, from ecological sustainability to low wages and allowing more refugees into the country.

Support is strong

Support for this party and its premium solution is growing… Former ALP MP Kelvin Thomson joined SAP in January and economist, University of Queensland academic, author and senior economist at The Australia Institute Cameron Murray stood in the Queensland election and will stand for the party in the federal election.

Dick Smith who joined the party then threatened to support right wing populist Pauline Hanson’s population policies is still campaigning on population with Clive Palmer style pizzazz but is not so prominently cited by the SAP these days, we note.

Where did the population problem come from?

A few years back in John Howard’s day treasurer Peter Costello urged Australians to have one baby for mum, one for dad and one for the country. The reason was because we are a wealthy ageing country and our baby boomers will throw a very big tantrum if they can’t live to the standard to which they’ve become accustomed.

So down went the drawbridge. Our numbers climbed from 70,000 a year to well into the mid 200,000.

This fierce rate of growth was handy in keeping at bay the worst impact of the global financial crisis and it would help shore up a tax base as the population aged.

Developers also love big immigration numbers. They scoffed at Bob Carr when he was Labor premier of NSW for suggesting Sydney was full.

Now the current premier, approaching the next state election with the biggest trepidation a premier could muster is urging the Feds to cut back on immigration, so we can catch up.

Catch up with what?

Our breath for one. The rate of development has been furious and buckets of money have been made. But the true fuel to rampant development is the cost of money.

In each boom and bust in this country, the banks have played the leading role.

Aiding and abetting the boom mentality has been the government’s tax incentives to investors through big tax handout that further push out first home buyers from the market.

By the way this would be an excellent time to drop negative gearing because no matter what the tax incentives are, with housing prices continuing to fall, it would be a very foolish time for investors to be anything but positively geared – that is mortgages and other outgoings well and truly covered by rental income.

In the meantime, infrastructure hasn’t kept up (when has it ever kept up?), trains are full, buses ridiculous, and crowds starting to resemble densities in Hong Kong.

The headlines in the tabloids start to stack up all pointing to too many people as the cause.

It all becomes a dog whistle to people in the street who are busy running their own lives, striving to survive pay cheque to pay cheque, and who are too busy to read the nuanced analysis.

William Bourke on the problems we all want to solve

In a conversation with News from the front desk on Thursday William Bourke is a paradigm of reasonableness. At first hearing, his arguments are seductive.

He says rampant population growth is driven not by sound economics but by greed, generally by developers wanting to sell more houses, retailers wanting to sell more goods and big business wanting to push down labour hire prices.

“We always felt that what we’re trying to achieve is sustainability, everyone in affordable housing secure jobs,” he says.

And the “majority of people agree that we need to keep a cap on population”.

“Right now our population policy is being run for big business. It’s about cheaper labour, putting downward pressure on wages and more customers for big business and it’s about more customers for shopping, housing and tollways.”

So how does he suggest we keep population down?

Education for women works, he says. “So why don’t we as global community focus on that, instead of robbing developing countries of their professionals and invest in them instead?”

Our immigration policy now leaves no room for humanitarian thinking, he says.

“Let’s plan what to do.”

Besides, constant growth is unsustainable, he says.

Bourke says it’s not a party for extremes.

We don’t want right wing extremes who care about population, he told this column, “there’s One Nation for them.”

But at the party’s launch event there was next to no discussion about policy. Its mantra is to “stop overdevelopment” and from our visit to the launch event it seems to be that was the winning argument.

So while the problems are reasonable the solution remains to curb population.

Its website says:

With a sustainable environment and much more stable population, you can simultaneously achieve affordable housing (due to less buyer demand) and better planning (to stop over-development)…

But we know the price of housing is very closely tied to the price of money. Demand has evaporated from one year to the next yet prices are now expected to fall significantly, in one estimate up to 25 per cent just this year.

Economically, this would also help to achieve secure jobs and a more diverse (and resilient) economy. Why? We’d be transferring much more of our scarce economic (over)investment away from housing speculation (significantly related to rapid population growth) and back into our factories, farms and small businesses. Importantly, economic diversity is our strength.

Again, lower population would solve the problem. But would it?

Or would a differently organised society be more effective – say with more co-operatives such as are taking off in Barcelona and parts of the US, with members setting their own wages, parameters and investments.

Cameron Murray says we need governments to govern

Cameron Murray, who’s made an impact in the housing and economic sector, has some interesting analysis to contribute.

He sees a political environment that is supremely frustrated with governments that “don’t want to do their jobs”. Whether it’s controlling the banks, town planning, or other regulation.

“This results in nothing happening and less ability to do basic things.

There’s a growing demand for a vision, he says.

He’s critical of Labor’s policy to create bond aggregates to funnel money to subsidise social housing.“Why don’t you just buy some sites and pay the builder and rent them out to Ray White or a community housing provider to manage?” he asked the ALP’s Doug Cameron.

“Why not just go out and do it?”

Murray sees there is a lot of “ideological middle ground” that the SAP can capture, meshing those frustrations and elements of both the left and right.

What people want is “secure jobs and to inject money into regional towns so people don’t have to move the cities and a vision of the environment,” he says.

“We’re the only ones to sign up to the koala protection act. We want housing to be cheaper. Population pushes up the price of housing. It’s one of the ingredients.”

Fear of overdevelopment is a big thing. And Murray says his area in West End is overcrowded with schools busting at the seams. Communities were not asked if they agreed, he says.

Murray is also against the high growth strategy of the economy.

“Our view is mostly the immigration program is designed to favour big business.” With a smaller immigration intake the refugee intake could be much greater.

Let’s have a conversation

Tim Hollo, former adviser to Greens leader Christine Milne and standing for the Greens in the newly created seat of Canberra says he’s “very open to those conversations” on population and the issues causing concern.

At the same time he’s sceptical of the population argument in Australia because it’s “an attempt to isolate Australia in a geo-political situation and we cannot isolate ourselves.

“Australia has substantially less population pressure than any other comparable country.”

A problem, he says, is that the rise in immigration happened without any discussion, without anybody realising it.

Peter Costello’s entreaty as treasurer to have one kid for mum, one for dad and one for the country, was irresponsible, he said.

The talk about limiting population in Australia is that “you need to take into account global pressures and where we should focus our efforts because global pressures will indeed have a big impact on us (climate change for one).

So putting all our solutions to climate change on population growth is simplistic at best.

“There’s a question of how we do our infrastructure and how we manage society.

“The price of houses going up is not because of population.”

Wrongly focused tax policy is a bigger cause, he says.

“We have the capacity to make life better for a lot people.”

But is there ever a limit? “Of course there is but the limit is not what we have now.”

The history of the smaller population movement is not friendly

Tony Goodfellow, a masters student at Melbourne University who’s written some interesting analysis on the anti-population movement, and worked for green energy groups, told this column that the anti growth trend in population had its genesis with Paul Ehrlich and his book The Population Bomb, published in 1968.

Sustainability or the impact of humans on the environment, according to Ehrlich, was a matter of simple mathematics, a formula. He called it the IPAT equation where the environmental impact is equal to population times affluence times the technology being used. We simply didn’t have enough resources to continue to expand exponentially, he wrote.

Goodfellow says the anti population movement is riffing on Ehrlich to this day.

It’s had distinguished support

“Zero Population Growth was one group established following a visit to Australia from Ehrlich,” Goodfellow says in a paper he wrote for GreenAgenda.

“The group morphed into Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population, then Sustainable Population Australia Inc. (SPA). The SPA has some notable patrons including Bob Carr, Ian Lowe, Tim Flannery and Dr Katharine Betts, among others.

“The Australian Population Research Institute (not to be confused with the Australian Population Association) is one group that is seemingly built on Ehrlich’s proposition that overpopulation is the dominant problem.

But behind part of the original arguments were nefarious objectives.

Goodfellow points to attempts by the so-called nativist movement in the US to split the environmental movement in order to advance its own white nationalist agenda.

He quotes David Ostendorf who highlights how far-right attempted to co-opt the environmental movement through the Sierra Club.

“The greening of hate is not about the environment, conservation or population. It is about preserving the dominance of European Americans.”

Ehrlich might have had a point about overpopulation at the time, Goodfellow told News from the Front Desk on Thursday. Fertility was at its highest rate. Today the expectation is that global population will plateau sooner rather than later.

But solving our real environmental and social problems is complex and can’t rely on smaller population.

“New restrictions on immigration won’t stop the logging, mining, and oil companies from destroying the environment.”

It’s not a panacea, Goodfellow says, “It’s a distraction to the real urgent issues we face.”

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  1. Related to the articles and comments is the increasing scepticism towards the UN Population Divisions’s international data, future prjections and the UNPD’s Net Overseas Migration NOM formula (used only by the UK, NZ and Australia?) which was inflated by an unannounced definition change in 2006, creating headline spikes (due to temporaries such as international students and then being described as ‘immigrants’).

    On the NOM from the Quixotic Quant who understands data:

    ‘sometime in the mid-2000s the Australian Bureau of Statistics
    changed the definition of an official statistic called “Net Overseas Migration”. The arbitrary definition they had at the time was malfunctioning, and the next arbitrary one they changed to has been malfunctioning even worse. A blithely ignorant press didn’t even notice the change, let alone query the dysfunction that inspired it, so the entire country has been putting their faith soaring population figure that has the integrity of custard’.

    The issue is and will be more about population decline, according to science journalist Fred Pearce:

    ‘Within a generation, world fertility will likely follow Europe’s to below replacement levels and by 2040, the world’s population will be declining for the first time since the Black Death, almost seven hundred years ago.’

    Finally, the Indian fertility rate of 2.1 (supported by The Lancet 2018), is simply replacement level, but the UN, according to Canadian researchers Bricker and Ibbitson recently, continues to use ‘conservative’ modelling and overstating (again) the fertility rate as 2.4; significant difference when projecting.

    ‘The United Nations forecasts that our population will grow from 7 billion to 11 billion in this century before levelling off after 2100. But an increasing number of demographers around the world believe the UN estimates are far too high’

    Begs the question, why would the UN Population Division want to inflate headline figure of global population growth and what role did its founders play?

  2. I would suggest planning for a stable population rather than hoping for a larger population to change their patterns to achieve the same impact. If both can be done then so much the better.

  3. Managing population is as close to a magic bullet as there is. At whatever scale you are looking at, every other problem (climate change, waste management, water management, food security, congestion, resource consumption, species loss, pollution etc) becomes progressively harder to manage as population increases. It really is that simple. It is not the only lever we have, but it is one that should not be dismissed because some groups like a similar approach for the wrong reasons.

    1. Again, and again, the same question: What do you suggest we do about it? Global population is expected to stabilise at 10-11 billion soon. Education for women is already a major global program and working. We are part of our region and it’s possibly unwise and unethical to shut our doors to everyone else, or even bigger numbers as climate pressures build. And as for sustainability we have rampaging technology and venture capitalists all trying to solve efficiency problems: energy, water etc (let’s get rid of cotton farms for a start and replace them with low water consuming hemp, or whatever…investigate, get creative) There are alternatives to all our consumption patterns. We can change the patterns. We can dramatically reduce our consumption of resources and make a growth economy out of clever things like better ideas, imagination, entertainment, movies, books, clubs to pursue great activities. All these things can generate economic returns without consuming the earth. We can think of entire new economies…

  4. This article and the comments take an anthropocentric view of the world: humans have a first right to the planet, are their masters, their chosen species.
    We forget that with every additional human some other form of life, or a member of some other form of life, has to go into retreat or even into extinction. We live in the 6th extinction and the growth of extinction is commensurate with the growth of the human population.
    The ‘magic of Oz’ showed us how possums adapted to urban living. But why should possums have to adapt to urban living? Why can we not have fewer humans and then give additional space to possums? Just an example.
    In my view most humans are useless anyway, act like sheep and do not contribute to society and the environment commmensurate with what they take from both. So managed downsizing of humans is mandatory in the interest of balance in nature and that includes humans. After all we are just one species of some 30 million odd species. What arrogance and narcissism to be so all consuming.

  5. Good article, and much of this ‘population movement’ is based on pseudo science, the old eugenics movement and rebranded as ‘liberal and environmental’ via the Club of Rome. In fact a colleague of Ehrlich’s at ZPG was John Tanton, who was hosted by SPA some years ago, and admired the white Oz policy:

    From ‘How a network of conservationists and population control activists created the contemporary US anti-immigration movement.’

    ‘…John Tanton, who has been called “the most influential unknown man in America.” We explore the “neo-Malthusian” ideas that sparked a seminal moment for population control advocacy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, leading to the creation of Zero Population Growth (ZPG).

    After rising to the presidency of ZPG, Tanton, and ZPG spun off the Federation for American Immigration Reform*. After leaving ZPG’s leadership, Tanton created additional anti-immigration advocacy groups and built up connections with existing organizations such as the Pioneer Fund. We trace Tanton’s increasingly radical conservative network of anti-immigration advocates, conservationists, and population control activists to the present day….

    …We contend that this history of Tanton’s network provides key insights into understanding how there came to be an overlap between the ideologies and activist communities of immigration restrictionism, population control, conservationism and eugenics.’

  6. This debate ignores the problem of global population and its distribution. While the global population looks set to plateau mid century, surely Australia has a key role to play in taking its fair share of immigrants to help lift them out of poverty. This is a key factor that should be considered in any debate on ‘right-sizing’ our population. Its not one you’ll hear One Nation spruiking of course!

  7. Ehrlichs equation seems pretty good to me, but it is not population that is the key factor it is affluence – we can prove this by comparing countries with different populations and affluence. Affluent countries with moderate populations have disproporionate impact whilst the poorest countries with huge populations have bugger all impact. Greenhouse gas emission growth correlates with China’s increasing affluence, not its population. So, for me this movement is founded on the wrong premise – that its all about population – its all about affluent population. Also, affluent populations rend to be well educated and stable or declining. Prosperity is the problem and the UN SDG’s dysfunctional for having no poverty as goal 1 whilst climate change is the most immediate existential threat to our entire species and all other goals.