See also Population Fact Sheets
Since Europeans arrived in Australia they have massively transformed this land resulting in environmental degradation and species loss.
It has become a well understood concept that we need to step more lightly - that our environmental footprint needs to be lighter than it is now.
We have a constantly increasing population.
We can make efforts individually to reduce the impact on the environment but if all our efforts are negated by more people then is it an exercise only in at best maintaining the current effect we have?
Just over half of our population growth comes from natural increase which means the number of births minus the number of deaths. We have little control over these demographic facts, nor would we really want to as in a few decades the natural increase will go down as there will be fewer women in their childbearing years. With natural increase alone we would then have a stable and gradually declining population of about 20,000,000 around mid century.
Just under half of our population growth comes from immigration - Australia admits about 130,000 immigrants a year, many of them skilled. (the net immigration figure - i.e immigration minus emigration = 110,000 ) Only about 12,000 are from the refugee or humanitarian categories. With this level of immigration our population will continue to increase to about 26,000,000 by mid century. The business lobby wants much higher immigration than we have now and if the government continues to accede to their push, the population of Australia would grow to over 30,000,000 by mid century and over 50,000,000 by the end of the century.
These population numbers don't seem so large?
Consider that the majority of Australians live in cities. Most of the population lives on the coastal fringe. Although Australia is a large continent, much of it is desert and largely uninhabitable without importation of food and water from other places. The pressure is therefore on the much smaller area around the coast and in the more temperate regions.
Population growth in these finite areas means that people need to live closer together, that natural spaces must be sacrificed for higher density. At the same time with our rapid population growth of 1.2% p.a .(one of the highest in the developed world) housing must occupy areas that were previously bush land and farm land. This is happening at a very fast rate.
Who benefits from population growth?
Who pays for population growth?
What is the point of growth and can it continue?
We are used to growth and we thus imagine that an economy that is not growing is stagnating is in fact moribund.
The fact is that growth cannot continue forever. It is a logical and mathematical impossibility.
Economic figures of Australia's growth do not take into account the environmental costs which are born by the people who live here. It is probable that we will not able to repair the damage.
Species that are extinct cannot be brought back.
Topsoil that is lost through land clearing cannot be restored. Tree planting can be done by enthusiastic volunteers but forest ecosystems cannot be replaced.
Can growth continue long into the future even if it must end one day?
Apart from the environmental constraints which we could push to the limit and let future generations deal with, there are, very importantly, energy constraints.
At present Australia is supporting more people than it ever has before in the 60,000 years of its human habitation. This is because mechanised and artificially fertilised agriculture is serviced by motorised transport and machines. The fertiliser, the machines and the transport, all rely on coal and petroleum.
Prior to European settlement, the inhabitants of this continent lived by hunting and gathering. They lived like this because that is what the geography and endowments of the continent (plants and animals) allowed them to do. It was the most fruitful way of existing here. Europeans brought with them domesticated animals and cereals that allowed a much larger population to exist here by providing more energy.
In the last 60 years fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas have become a very important ingredient for agriculture by the derived fertilisers and by enabling the use of motorised metal machinery to cultivate large tracts of land. Oil will not last forever. Coal will become more expensive and scarcer as it is called upon to replace the petroleum based gas and oil. These demands will compete with coalâ€™s main use, which is supplying the vast electrical web that industrial civilisation depends on. No-one really knows how long these fossil fuels will last, but informed theories indicate that oil and gas are on the verge of beginning their depletion curve. One fact which seems overwhelmingly important is that no giant oil deposits have been found anywhere in the world for about 40 years
Many people are highly attuned to the strong likelihood that cheap and abundant food will not be available in the future and that when this happens, Australia will only be able to support a small population, possibly as few as were here when Europeans arrived - maybe as low as 1 million.
This article is to put the population and growth question into the context of an arid infertile continent which for most of its human history supported only 1/20th the population it does now.