World population Day was established by the UN in 1989 to highlight concerns as the planet’s population went past 5 billion. It is now at 7.4 billion and rising by about 80 million every year, so the problems are even more intractable (despite the rate of growth declining). Medium scenarios produced by the UN estimate the world population could be between 9 and 10 billion by 2050.
It may surprise some that Australia has one of the highest population growth rates in the developed world. We are adding about 325,000 people a year, with about 55 per cent from net overseas migration and 45 per cent from natural increase at the present time, although it has stood at a 60/40 ratio for a number of years.
Population is a notoriously difficult subject to discuss in public forums, partly due to the complexity of the subject and partly due to the political and emotional nature of the issues. These issues can go to the core of people’s philosophies and values and include notions of freedom and human rights, compassion, religion, progress, ecology, and economic imperatives.
In Australia, people often get confused between sometimes competing issues like refugees and asylum seekers, racism, border protection, defence, economic migration, colonial guilt, and sustainability. These tensions are not unique to Australia, as we can see from debates in Europe and the US in recent times.
What the European, American and indeed Australian problems show is that sovereign states should not consider themselves immune from population pressures in other parts of the world as desperate people will have little regard for borders or dangerous sea crossings.
To that extent, not-for-profits like are continually lobbying governments to increase foreign aid to the developing world to help it gain control over unwanted and harmful population increase. Unwanted population growth can largely be curtailed through a mixture of education, the provision of modern contraception, safe emergency abortion, and the alleviation of poverty – although some people like to argue about which is more important.
Regardless, the empowerment of women is vital.
So purely from a selfish point of view it is in Australia’s interests to maintain a reasonable level of foreign aid, in concert with the rest of the developed world, and targeted to voluntary family planning programs that we know can be successful. Unfortunately Australia’s foreign-aid budget has been shrinking lately in a retrograde and myopic fashion.
But leaving the more obvious global problem to one side, Australia is long overdue for an open debate on the benefits and burdens of domestic population growth and where these benefits and burdens fall.
A recent survey commissioned by SPA found that most Australians did not think we needed more people; and a survey by SBS in May found that 59% of people thought that the level of immigration over the last 10 years had been too high*.
Proponents of a ‘big Australia’ are mostly business barons and their hirelings: the wealthy gain the most from population growth and can largely insulate themselves from its negative effects like sky-rocketing real-estate prices, long commutes to work and infrastructure shortfalls.
Meanwhile, the average person, but especially the young and the poor, suffers the most – from unaffordable housing, general congestion, and competition for access to education and health services.
More unseen problems tend to harm everybody: these include biodiversity loss, increased greenhouse gases and climate change, the reduction in fresh-water availability, and the steady increase in all kinds of pollution.
While unpopular among elites, especially economists, there needs to be a conversation about the direction our society is going. The privileging and mindless pursuit of GDP growth might not be the best option on a finite planet where limits to growth seem obvious to all those not blinded by dogma. Rather, the pursuit and monitoring of such things as general wellbeing and happiness might be a more rational strategy, especially if that means a more equal sharing of what wealth can be generated in an ecologically sustainable fashion.
If we adopt the latter planned approach, we might well find that a stable rather than an ever-growing population is more sensible. The alternative may well be an unplanned population correction that no one would find enjoyable.