Limits to Growth

How Many Australians is Enough?

Leigh Dayton

Letters to Editor in response

Australia's population clock is ticking up 700 people a day, 255,500 a year, and time is running out for a policy on whether or where it should be stopped. LEIGH DAYTON writes.

AS THE United Nations Population Conference in Cairo moves into its last few days, it's virtually all over bar the shouting - though there will be plenty of that as passions run high over issues like abortion and contraception.

Given the politically, emotionally and religiously charged wrangling, the point of the get-together has almost been forgotten.

Nations of the world came together to ask a simple yet fundamental question: what can be done to control humanity's lemming-like rush to the brink of extinction, courtesy of its remarkable reproductive "success"?

The numbers are stark. The world population now stands at 5.66 billion, says the UN Population Fund (UNPF).

That could grow to 8.5 billion by the year 2025, then to 10 billion by 2050. And those estimates assume a continued decline in fertility worldwide. Pessimists predict that by 2050, 12.5 billion people will walk the planet.

Whichever assumption is made - optimistic, pessimistic or middle-of-the-road - with every tick of the clock, the population grows: three people a second, a quarter of a million every day.

Put another way, one billion more people - roughly the entire population of China - will inhabit our tiny globe in the next decade.

The implications of this "population time bomb" - as it was dubbed back in the 1960s by Stanford ecologist Dr Paul Ehrlich - are complex but evident. The needs and wants of the burgeoning human population drive the overuse of the world's resources and the resultant environmental decay.

Population pressure forces debt-ridden Brazilians to log the rainforest and hungry Africans to convert grassland to desert through overgrazing. It exacerbates political tensions which may, as in Rwanda, boil over into the human and ecological devastation of war.

It is obvious that a polluted, despoiled planet cannot support human life comfortably or indefinitely.

But it is easy for Australians to pretend that we do not have a population problem. After all, we have an enormous continent of 7.6 million square kilometres in which to house 17.8 million people. That is peanuts on an international scale.

Still, our population is growing by leaps and bounds, just as other countries are struggling to cut their birth rates. UNPF numbers show that we, with Canada, share the distinction of having the largest rate of population growth in the developed world, 1.4 per cent a year. Catholic Italy checks in at 0.1 per cent, Germany and France at 0.4 and the United StatesUnited States at 1 per cent a year.

The rate of population growth in Australia is identical to that of China. We are growing more slowly than neighbouring Cambodia (2.5 per cent), Indonesia (1.8 per cent) and Malaysia (2.4 per cent), but Hong Kong (0.8 per cent), Japan (0.4 per cent) and even Korea (0.8 per cent) have lower rates of population growth.

For the record, the UNPF says the highest rates of growth anywhere are in Africa, where the West African country of Ivory Coast tips the growth scales at 3.7 per cent more people every year.

Although Australia's human biomass does not equal that of most countries, we do not tread softly on the Earth. Back in the 1980s, the oft-quoted Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, concluded that only 25 per cent of the global population lives in developed countries like Australia, yet that 25 per cent consumes 60 per cent of Earth's resources.

Scientists such as Dr Ehrlich and the Canadian environmentalist Dr David Suzuki note that when it comes to using the continent's resource capital - air, water, soil and other gifts from nature - Australians are big spenders, even over-spenders.

Professor Charles Birch, an emeritus professor at the University of Sydney, puts it more bluntly. "Our present population is the equivalent of a billion Indonesians in terms of our impact on the environment," he says.

In other words, it takes energy - and lots of it - to run cars, air- conditioners, lights, blow-dryers, heaters and all the power-driven paraphernalia of modern life. It takes millions of litres of water every day to quench our thirst, water our gardens and keep our agricultural and manufacturing sectors going.

So it is time to pose the question, how many Australians should inhabit this dusty red land?

There is an argument in economic circles that Australia needs a population of about 50 million to compete in the international marketplace. At that point, economies of scale would kick in and Australia would be an economic powerhouse.

A more extreme case was put last year in Canberra at a CSIRO seminar. The respected economist Mr Des Moore, senior fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs, claimed Australia could support a population of more than 100 million if it became a net importer of food, like the UK and Japan.

Governments, not surprisingly, have shied away from setting a firm population target for Australia. In the give and take of realpolitik, open options make electoral, if not environmental, sense.

Nonetheless, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke cautiously proposed that 25 million might be a suitable number of Australians.

Even that seemingly modest number makes many biologists and ecologists squirm. Their unease stems from current estimates of the water and soil that the continent has tucked away.For instance, Dr Dennis Saunders of the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology in Perth claims "water is the one thing that's going to limit population growth in Australia". Australians, he says, are drawing on reserves such as rivers and bore holes faster than Mother Nature can refill them.

As the population grows, farmers must wring ever more from nutrient-poor earth. To do so they irrigate, apply fertilisers and pesticides and continue to clear land. Dr Chris Watson, a soil scientist with the CSIRO, says that, ironically, these methods make matters worse.

Along with other experts, Dr Watson believes that unless farmers mend their ways, the productivity of the land will drop catastrophically.

At present, 22 million hectares of arable land is under cultivation in Australia and roughly 70 per cent of that land is degraded. At most, there is another 55 million hectares that could be used, says Professor Henry Nix of the Australian National University.

What this means, says Professor Nix, is that Australia can feed 50 million people, tops. And to achieve that goal, every scrap of arable land must be turned over to cultivation, food exports must be stopped and degraded land restored immediately.

But what of an optimum population? In his forthcoming book, The Future Eaters, Dr Tim Flannery of the Australian Museum in Sydney argues that given the vagaries of climate, a safe bet is a long-term population of six million to 12 million, a range that many ecologists and biologists espouse. And retired CSIRO researcher Dr Chris Watson suggests that the Aboriginal population in 1788 - between one million to three million - could be a useful "guide" to a sustainable population.

The problem with such low optimal targets is obvious. It means Australia is already overpopulated and must design a population policy to cut back on the number of Australians.

Such a task is unlikely for a country that has no population target, of any level, in its sights. Senator Nick Bolkus, the Federal Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, states that Australia has the "constituent elements" of a population policy in place.

Yet in a document prepared for the Cairo conference, he writes: "Australia does not have an explicit or formal population policy directly aimed at influencing the level of population".

The Federal Government, however, is tippy-toeing towards a population policy. The slow journey began in 1990 when the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, asked the National Population Council (NPC) to "examine the major issues which flow from an increase in Australia's population".

The NPC did its homework and in 1991 produced Population Issues and Australia's Future. In the report, the NPC, which has since disbanded, concluded that Australia required a clear population policy and outlined the "form" that population should take. It left the search for a magic number up to later investigators.

That quest has been taken up by Mr Barry Jones, the chairman of the House of Representatives Standing Committee for Long Term Strategies. Along with 11 other committee members, Mr Jones has barnstormed across Australia, sounding out experts and the public. The committee collected 261 submissions and will make recommendations about policy and targets to Parliament in December.

The recommendations cannot arrive too soon. The population clock keeps ticking. Australia's population grows by 700 people a day, 255,500 a year. Tick, tick, tick.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday,10 September 1994

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Letters to Editor in response

Page 14 Monday, 19 September 1994

Leigh Dayton's article (Herald, September 10) reported some science-oriented predictions about Australia's future population.

One scientist was reported as claiming that "water is the one thing that is going to limit population growth in Australia". Based on current water use, this may appear obvious. But most of Australia is profligate in its use of water, partly because most Australians do not pay a price for water that reflects either the cost of providing the water or the value that others might place on it. Not surprisingly, much water is wasted.

If Australians did pay the real price for water, then they would use considerably less (especially in urban Australia). And more water would be recycled. (Academic) Bruce Davidson used to argue that Australia was the bestwatered continent in the world (in terms of water per head of population). In this well-watered continent, it is unlikely that water supply per se would constrain population, even in the absence of seawater desalination.

Scientific information and analysis is crucial in evaluating options for Australia's population. But science cannot be the final arbiter on population (or other social issues) because the population issue is about choice. Natural science is poorly equipped to evaluate social issues like population because scientific analysis rarely involves situations where participants have choices. Hence scientists tend to approach social issues as if there were no choices, but only a single course of action. Their solutions are frequently authoritarian because scientific methods have no way of resolving trade-offs among these choices.

The future for Australian and world populations clearly needs further analysis and requires scientific analysis as a tool. However, we should not be blinded by scientists' prognostications masquerading as social analysis.

David Godden,
Senior Lecturer,
Department of Agricultural Economics,
University of Sydney.

September 12

Congratulations on a number of articles recently about population, particularly Leigh Dayton's "How many Australians are enough?" and Jim McClelland's "An unholy alliance against women" (September 10). Both added significantly to the debate.

This was not the case, however, with the article by Radek Sikorski, "John Paul's strength is his strictness" (September 12). We might have a lot more sympathy with papal apologists such as Mr Sikorski were they more honest in debate about the relationship between population, development and environment. To argue, as he does, that certain densely populated countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan are wealthier than less densely populated countries such as Chad and Mali is beside the point. The latter are Saharan countries with few resources - the former either centres of trade or rich in agricultural resources. Density of population is an irrelevance. It is the amount of resources available to a given population that determines whether a country is overpopulated or not. Too many countries, not least Rwanda and Haiti, are encountering severe social breakdown because available resources have been insufficient to meet the people's needs.

In this context, the Pope's denial of the right of people to control their fertility by artificial means is to contribute to poverty and misery in these countries. His attempt to take the high moral ground is doubly offensive.

Jennifer Goldie,
Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population,
Downer, (ACT).

September 13