Letters to Editor
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Nonetheless, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke cautiously
proposed that 25 million might be a suitable number of
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
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
back to top....
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
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.
Department of Agricultural Economics,
University of Sydney.
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
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.
Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population,