You are here

Populate of perish -the fallacy of a big population as the route to prosperity

Populate of Perish?

Since the slogan ''populate or perish'' was coined during World War II we have forged a consensus that a growing Australian population is mainly good for national prosperity.

The populate or perish policy is nothing new, of course. Under various guises, it has driven growth in Australia for more than 200 years. However, those who argue that big population equals better everything are wrong.


(photo: Perth in 1968)
In 1968 we had a population of around 12 million. The year 1968 was a tumultuous one in the world beyond Australia. Nothing so dramatic occurred in this country!
Officially, the economy was ‘buoyant’, with an 8 per cent growth in GDP in 1967-8. Private spending rose sharply (especially for cars and consumer durables), average weekly earnings continued to rise by 6 per cent, and private fixed investment leapt by 11 per cent in 1967-8.

(photo: Billy Snedden)

Billy Snedden, the Minister for Immigration, said that Australians, and certainly the government, did not want a multiracial society. Prosperity, the gathering mining boom, job security, an increasingly comfortable lifestyle had protected most Australians from imported excitement.

People on a reasonable income (slightly higher than median) can no longer afford to purchase a reasonable house (2-3 bedroom, one bathroom), a reasonable distance from where they work. In 1968 interest rate was 5.38% and steady. Homes were in good supply and inexpensive, and there were jobs for everyone who wanted one. We had “full” employment. There was no real waiting time for hospitals and emergency services were all first class.

(photo: PM John Gorton)

Under the Liberal Government, Prime Minister John Gorton (1968-71), the Australian dollar was worth $ 1.25 US.

The trains and buses were uncrowded, as were beaches and public facilities. People could afford holiday houses. Public transport was not yet privatised. The drought had ended and water was not even an issue in the big cities. The crime rates were very low and and violent crimes as it is seen every day today were almost unknown.
In 1968 the average price of a vacant Melbourne home site was $3659 and the average after-tax earnings $2825.

The culprit of higher housing prices in Australia was clearly identified as being the price of land which had been driven up by planning controls often designed to create more compact cities.

Our lifestyles, for the most, are spiralling downhill due to the stress of population growth and the associated costs and loss of social capital. Once ecosystems melt down, they are gone. It doesn't depend on what we want, but how many people our land can realistically and desirably support. Big is not necessarily better. Bigger populations can be harder to move away from disasters, like the financial crashes, natural disasters and climate change.

Peak Oil

 The US military recently warned that the world faces a "severe energy crunch" and looming oil shortages. The military predicts a "Peak Oil" scenario - where demand outstrips the world's supply capacity - as soon as 2012.

The world's oil reserves have been exaggerated by up to a third, according to Sir David King, Britain's former chief scientist, who has warned of shortages and price spikes within years.   Peak Oil is not some doomsday myth. It is a very simple equation based on supply and demand related to a very finite resource.

Australian Conservation Foundation

Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) president Professor Ian Lowe says the belief that population growth leads to economic prosperity is flawed. You don’t have to be Dick Smith to realise that our continued reliance on population growth as a key economic driver has serious environmental and societal implications.

Nation building?

The argument that a nation-building government would be bold enough to choose a bigger Australia has absolutely no merit at all, because as we can see today all what was good about Australia in 1968 are not good today, yet our population has almost doubled which proves conclusively that more is NOT better.

How fraudulent this model of limitless growth is! There is unwillingness to consider the finite nature of our material world and properly value negative externalities and the non-material factors that contribute to our well being.


Charles Berger’s valuable piece “If Norway can prosper with a stable population, why can’t Australia?” On Line Opinion, February 22, 2010 highlighted the lack of evidence supporting the supposition that population growth stimulates economic prosperity.


Economic modelling conducted for the Intergenerational Report concluded that lower population growth would mean lower per-capita GDP for Australia, among other ills. If you look at what's happened to real gross domestic product per person, you'll see it has fallen in three of the past five quarters.

Over the past seven financial years, real GDP has grown by 23 per cent, but real GDP per person has grown by less than half that. So we haven't been doing as well as the headline growth figures imply. In fact, there is now more mortgage stress and increasing costs of utilities, rates and charges.


Let's consider NSW's population growth, which increased 80% from migration last year. Its needs for upgraded and new infrastructure are arguably more pressing than anywhere else in Australia (new land release, infrastructure for higher housing density, transport, water; tax revenue for health care, education, law enforcement etc).
Effectively, Australia has to go into debt to provide the infrastructure for a growing population. Why is this so?

Please explain, Mr Rudd

The main mechanism through which the economy benefits from immigration is the lowering of wages by increasing the supply of workers. Cheaper labour costs eventually mean lower consumer prices... but also higher profits to business. The fact the economy is slowing and inflationary pressures easing, the Rudd government needs to explain its justification for an acceleration in the immigration program.
There are already too many people on the planet and in Australia, but all we hear is that we need to increase our population dramatically if we are to survive. This mindset is a slippery slope to oblivion!

Allied with the attitude that too much growth is never enough is the belief we need all the growth in population we can get, particularly through immigration.

The evidence to sustain the view that national well-being is best achieved by high GDP growth cannot be found.


It is because the increase in the world's population has been accompanied by such a rapid rise in the quality of life on earth that the population of the planet is larger than ever before. Economic growth brought by the Industrial Revolution and by capitalism's triumphant march through the 19th and 20th century has vastly bettered the conditions of human existence. However, cause and effect are hard to trace in human affairs. The industrial revolution was spurred on by the availability of energy and human resources. The continuation of growth and industrialisation are assumed will continue to bring prosperity despite world-changing conditions and crisis that exist today. Once we are over our optimum level of growth, and finite resource on our planet are compromised and exhausted, there will be nothing to gain by expanding. There are no more potential nations to colonise, and no more new oceans to plunder. Lack of water and peak oil should rein in population growth in Australia, and elsewhere, and let's hope it destroys globalisation and brings back local manufacturing, local jobs, home-grown renewable energy sources, national pride and patriotism.

A very interesting overview and contrast of 2 periods in Australia with different population levels.

re Peak Oil- A US oceanographer interviewed on the ABC the other night said (among many things) regarding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and as though it was a given fact, that oil exploration and extraction is going into places that are decreasingly accessible.
I guess we can expect more of these oceanic disasters as we desperately try to obtain oil from diminishing reserves for an increasing global population.
The extent of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico seems to be a graphic indication of the strife we are really in.

The populations of Queensland and Western Australia are expected to more than double within the next 50 years.
The Queensland Government must consider an increase in taxes to manage future population growth, a new report has found. Population expert Professor McDonald warned that population growth "could not be slowed and the imposition of higher taxes may need to be considered".
Professor McDonald said that the Inquiry recognised community concerns about the pressures of continuing population growth and impacts on the quality of life. However, future growth is already "embedded in the state’s economy" and that there appears to be little immediate prospect of current growth rates in Queensland. In words, the addiction to growth is already set in to the mind-set and like the Titanic heading towards the iceberg, they can't change the course!
If we are supposed to get more "prosperity" from population growth, why must the Queensland government consider more taxes? It is a matter of limited supply and increasing demand for finite resources - environmental and infrastructure-wise! It probably spells disaster for Queensland's remaining wild koala populations.

Sometime round the second world war a law was passed to make it possible to deduct tax from wages. In many other countries people can withhold their taxes if unsatisfied with the government. This right has been removed from Australians. We need to get it back. No Queenslander should pay rates, parking fines or any other monetary levy until Campbell, Bligh and the rest of the unrepresentative swill in power are removed from government or agree to stop population growth.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
home page
Copyright to the author. Please contact sheila [AT] candobetter org or the editor if you wish to make substantial reproduction or republish.

Fantastic work, Vivienne!
You have summed up the problem in a nutshell.
The past was better than the present.
The future looks worse still.
The media and our politicians are mostly trying to sell us a pup just to get us to fork over our last dollars to their rich friends. That may not sound really technical coming from a sociologist, but that's how it really is.

Trying to reduce or stabilise our population by reducing immigration does nothing to help the global problem of over-population.

I heartily agree that we need to abandon the absurd principal of constant growth, however this should not be done at the expense of compassion and humanitarian obligations.

What is really required is to lower the global birth rate.

To do something serious about overpopulation we should aim towards an average fertility rate of 1 child per couple, and not just in the 3rd world.