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What is Australia's population "carrying capacity"?

The population of Australia is now over 22.5 million and increasing rapidly, currently at a rate of 1.7% increase per year. Despite the deceptively small number, it still means a doubling of population every 41 years, and the subsequent increases of food, water, infrastructure, environmental degradation and housing. Opinions differ, but economic and politics demand ongoing and maximum population growth for their own agendas.

What the experts say – Tim Flannery

Professor Tim Flannery, Australian of the Year 2007, calculated a long-term carrying capacity of between 8 million and 12 million. We had that population in 1950 and 1968 respectively, not so long ago. The population is now over 22.5 million and increasing rapidly, currently at a rate of 1.7% increase per year.

Despite the deceptively small number, it still means a doubling of population every 41 years, and the subsequent increases of food, water, infrastructure, environmental degradation and housing.

Human, social and economic systems must remain within the carrying capacity of Planet Earth. Carrying capacity is defined here as the maximum number of human population that can be supported by a particular ecosystem or eco-region or physical landscape on a continued basis without irreversibly degrading the health and ecological processes.

His report, Tim Flannery - Biological considerations in determining an optimum human population for Australia
Our diversity of species in Australia is extremely high, with slow growing and reproducing plants and a very small number of warm-blooded carnivores, with a correspondingly minutely adjusted ecosystem incorporating highly specialised characteristics and co-operative behaviours. We do not have the mountainous and fertile soils with predictable seasonal patterns of Europe.

On the contrary, Southeast Asia has very productive soils, plentiful rainfall and plenty of sunshine, with a large ability to provide food for cheap. Australia has the oldest soils on the planet - very depleted, dependent on fertilisers, plentiful sun shine, but rainfall is the limiting factor.

The world ability to supply food for a growing population depends on the population carrying capacity. The population carrying capacity depends on the soil quality and the level of technology applied.

Australia's unique landscape and environment
With Australia's population projected (boosted) to reach 35 million by 2049, critics continue to express concern about the pressure this growth will place on resources.

Humans are large warm-blooded omnivores. They have high energy demands. This makes them potentially vulnerable in Australian environments. Human populations in Australia have always been small and dispersed, being an order of magnitude or more smaller than the average density found on other continents (Birdsell 1953).

Virtually all hunter-gatherer societies seem to possess a 'golden rule' of population. This is, that in "normal" times, the human population of a given area rarely exceeds 20-30% of the carrying capacity of the land. (Sahlins 1968).

Surely, Flannery states, It would appear to make good sense to observe the 'golden rule' of population in determining Australia's 'carrying capacity'.

1994 Australian Parliament House of Representatives Standing Committee

In late 1994 The Australian Parliament House of Representatives Standing Committee on Long Term Strategies delivered a report entitled Australia's Population 'Carrying Capacity'. One Nation—Two Ecologies. This report argued that Australia should adopt a population policy.

Obviously, it's worrying that the population trajectory has most likely already exceed the long-term carrying capacity.

Australian Academy of Sciences Symposium:

In 1994, Australian Academy of Sciences held the Symposium, "Population 2040: Australia's choice". The joint statement said:
the quality of all aspects of our children's lives will be maximised if the population of Australia by the mid-21st Century is kept to the low, stable end of the achievable range, i.e. to approximately 23 million.

Australia's land mass, though large, is less rich than other continents in many biologically important elements. As a consequence, its ecosystems are relatively fragile, and human impact on the environment is particularly severe. This impact has been documented even for the relatively sparse, low-consumption Aboriginal societies. The impact of modern Australian society is much more severe.

Stable Population Party of Australia

The Stable Population Party of Australia is advocating a stable population at 23 million in line with the Australian Academy of Science findings. To obtain this option we would need to have zero net migration and phase out the baby bonus.

MP Kelvin Thomson

Kelvin Thomson's 14 Point Plan for Population Reform aims to set out the reasons why I believe the world’s projected population levels are too high and unsustainable – global warming, food crisis, water shortages, housing affordability, overcrowded cities, transport congestion, fisheries collapse, species extinctions, increasing prices, waste, war and terrorism.

We are already in “ecological overshoot”. Land size does not equate to carrying capacity. Our lifestyles, for the most, are spiraling 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.

Treasury 2010 Intergenerational Report

According to the Treasury 2010 Intergenerational Report, the best way to respond to the economic and fiscal pressures of an ageing population is to support strong, sustainable economic growth. Economic growth will be supported by sound policies that support productivity, participation and population — the '3Ps'.

They assume that if Australia's productivity growth could be increased above the long-run average, the economy would be bigger, living standards would be higher and fiscal pressure from the ageing of the population would be reduced. If, for example, annual productivity growth was to average 2 per cent over the next 40 years, then:

  • annual real GDP growth would average over 3 per cent over the next 40 years and the economy would be $570 billion bigger in 2049?50; and
  • real GDP per capita in 2049?50 would be 15 per cent (or around $16,000) higher.

It assumes that the main purpose of the economy is to GROW, even to our own detriment. Costs of economic growth include increased pressure on social relationships and environmental degradation, whilst non-welfare issues include distribution, poverty and intergenerational equity. Also, GDP per capita is a better measure of the economic well-being of a country than total GDP, as it takes into account population size – very populous countries may have very large overall GDP, but when divided by population size the resultant GDP per capita figure will give a much clearer indication of the country’s comparable wealth.

The same baseless argument of "keep the economy growing" is being proved as a sham. As for a worry of populations going down, why is this a bad thing? While GDP overall may decrease, GDP per person (or GDP per capita) will certainly increase. Higher populations don't create wealth, it just redistributes. Production is the engine room of economic growth!

So as populations go down, the average citizen is better off. Only people reliant on growing markets ie, CEO's, politicians, producers of consumer goods etc would be worse off.

Japan is presented as a "loser" in the population stakes, where India is "the big winner". Makes you wonder about the value of winning that particular economic growth race!

Tony Burke Minister for Population

The nation's first Population Minister, Tony Burke, ruled out setting population targets in the strategy that he will draw up over the next 12 months. He ruled out a model that could take into account lour “chronic” labour shortages, with any precision. With a growing population happening "no matter what", the federal government would not focus on an arbitrary population target. His recent “report” is a sham. Our population growth is not arbitrary or inevitable, but manipulated by political decision. What about shortages in water, energy, food, land and funds for education and training?

Tony Burke needs to take a holistic viewpoint, and not just base his assumptions on limitless growth. 

Global threats
We are not the only country in the world that has raised the population question. Global population is an increasing threat, and once natural resources and amenities outstrip supply, we could be facing famine, lack of potable water, pollution of oceans and waterways, and environmental degradation - leading to further decline of species, and extinctions. Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are other Asian countries that are facing food security problem due to limited arable land to support the ever increasing population.

Evolutionary Trait to expand
An evolutionary trait of species is to consume and increase numbers and overtake the territories and resources of other species is very well developed in humans. Once populations tip over a level that supports an economy of scale, the downside could be disastrous.  As species capable of a moral and spiritual dimensions, can we justify the mass extinctions of other species on the planet, for our own expansion? Each species lost means a decline in the health and robustness of our ecologies.

As Dr. Paul Ehrlich said, All causes are lost causes without limiting human population.

Birdsell, J.B. (1953). Some environmental and cultural factors influencing the structure of Australian Aboriginal populations. American Naturalist 87:171-207.

Sahlins, M. (1968). Notes on the original affluent society. Pp 85-89 In Man the Hunter. R.B. Lee & I DeVore (eds). Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago.

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We can see from what's happening now in Australia - the flooding up north and the lingering drought that threatens and controls all of the nation - that such conditions may not be 'new'. The continent has always been a nation of both extremes, including bushfires.

This kind of weather and the the inherent risks that are a threat here means, of course, that added population in Australia shouldn't be a question! Most of the country is desert. You cannot live in desert. Forget it! So then we have the Govt clearing land, destroying native koala and wildlife habitat, because according to them, with added infrustructure, you can live in former-wildlife habitat. No problems.

More people occupying Australia means more stress on food supplies, like now, with wheat being threatened because of floods in Qld. Duh. Not only that - but the risk of their own lives and assets, if they are congregating in these Qld towns. Black Saturday's bushfires ate away at locals in the growth town/suburbs of Kinglake and parts of Whittlesea, the latter of which used to be a close community, that now are also dealing with the transfer to the town of no-hopers from neighbouring City of Whittlesea suburbs of Lalor and Mill Park, because the council wants (are they housing commission residents, or something?) certain troublesome people, in the fire-risk town.

According to a report by Essential Economic for Regional Cities Victoria, the cost of providing critical ‘hard’ infrastructure in Regional Cities to support higher population outcomes compares favourably with congestion inefficiencies associated with a similar level of population growth in metropolitan Melbourne. For example, by 2036:

"The additional cumulative cost of providing critical infrastructure to support a redistribution of 50,000 persons (25% Scenario) from metropolitan Melbourne to the Regional Cities is estimated to be $1.0 billion; this compares with inefficiency costs of $3.1 billion associated with the same number of persons being accommodated in metropolitan Melbourne".

So redistributing people in regional centres is cheaper than in urban areas. These requirements include additional infrastructure and resources for: water, gas, electricity, public transport, residential and industrial land development, communications (inc NBN), health, education (schools, TAFE, university), kindergarten, childcare, aged care, community needs such as libraries, arts, recreation and waste services.

The amounts are astronomical!

If we stop the manic increase in population most of the woes that all of the politicians are carrying on about can be mostly or at least partially solved:

housing scarcity and cost; infrastructure wearing out, environmental degradation, loss of agricultural land to urbanization, crowded public transport, expensive water provision (desal plant), long hospital waiting lists, congested roads, etc.

The one-way course of economics - towards constant and limitless growth - is misanthropic and is heading us towards our own decline in living standards and even our ultimate survival on our small planet.

We need some political ideals that relate to holistic planning and for the benefit of people now and in the future, not for the CEOs, the banks, elite businesses, global competition and property developers
The costs of growth ultimately are paid for by tax-payers, and we are the ones who benefit the least!

Michael Murphy was one of the few warning us of the 2008 meltdown well in advance. Also, he’s totally committed to “finding biotechs that will be able to treat the superbug plagues and to technology that can keep people in their ancestral place, growing their own food". He really is a farmer and lives off the land. He even has a Permaculture Design Certificate.

Unlike other environmental writers, Murphy keeps fighting to change the course of history, in his work as a biotech expert and as a high-tech farmer. He still believes there is a chance for humanity to survive.

Murphy's Twelve tips for profiting on commodity demand:

1. Population Growoth - Murphy warns that “the carrying capacity of the earth is much lower than the current population,” which is predicted to increase 50% by 2050. Big families are a cultural and economic preference that takes a long time to change, probably too long” to be effective in slowing population growth.

2. Small houses/small cars and more reliance on electronic entertainment and communications.

3. "Peak" food is a big problem. The collapse of wild foods is inevitable, including the oceans.

4. We may be at "peak water". Processing water may help for a short time, but it takes too much energy. It will happen in many places over the world.

5. Soils are pretty much destroyed by farming, and we only have thin topsoils left. It can be recovered, but methods are largely ignored by agri-businesses today.

6. Forests are "goners" - due to acid rain, destruction and the pine beetle.

7. A dangerous trend is toxic chemicals, increasing every year as agri-businesses push it.

8. There are opportunities for renewable energy sources, but it means that oil will be at a sustained $200 to get it happening. Myopic self-interested politicians and special-interest lobbyists. Politicians don't act until it's too late.

9. Solar - the coming explosion in coal prices will nearly bankrupt the big coal-based power companies, so maybe electricity rates will be forced high enough to encourage solar.

10. Ozone layer can't be fixed.

11. Diversity is another thing that "can't be fixed". There are not enough people raising pure bred animals to make a real difference, and then there’s all the wild species die-offs to further limiting global species diversity.

12. Alien species: Same here: “Can’t be fixed". Getting worse.

The future looks pessimistic and dim, but it also means that there are a lot of opportunities here for a savvy investor with a long-term perspective, especially anyone retiring between 2020 and 2050.


I agree. Murphy's done a pretty good summary, Enne K.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
home page

This landmark documentary series explores Australia's century long struggle to overcome the White Australia Policy. Australia used to be the Lucky Country, with plenty of natural resources and lots of land and opportunities for everyone. Australia was founded on the working class dream.

The concept of terra nullius was well and truly entrenched in the thinking of the people of the day, and continues now.

The outcome of the First World War in 1919, saw the British Empire at its height. The British Empire only finally started dissolving after the First World War, with the process being speeded up dramatically in the aftermath of the Second World War. The primary reason for the dissolution of the empire was economic and political rather than racial. Australia had signed the Versaille Treaty in 1919. PM Hughes rejection of Japan in the League of Nations would not have stopped their invasion of China, SE Asia and attack on Australia. This was about Imperial expansion.

Even in the second world war we cooperated closely with Britain and sent troops in both world wars. England was still the "mother country".

It surely was not too surprising that Australia would encourage British migration? If Australia had been settled, by a quirk of history, by the China, Indonesia or Japan, would the rest of the world have labeled them as "racist" or bigoted if they almost exclusively encouraged their own ethnic/national to immigrate?

Granted, it was wrong for the government of the day to exclude families of the Chinese and those of other non-British to bring their families here, or to deport Islander workers, but history has shown that a policy of open immigration and limitless population growth are not beneficial or conducive to cohesive societies.

Australia experienced stability, freedom, economic growth, prosperity, and gave Utopian childhoods to many children during the baby boom era, and before. Few nations are expected to have the obligation of an open door policy to immigration. We were not a totally "white" country but our traditional owners were outcast and were "protected" to the extent of (almost) forced extinction.

Australia was founded on the basis that we were fundamentally racist. However, people are naturally - due to geography, adaption and cultural differences - divided into races, nations and ethnic groups, and as such, there will always be some division due to race.

There isn't so much of a fear of asylum seekers and boat people, but a natural suspicion of outsiders and being part of a human herd. It's about human nature, and patriotism, and protecting our borders and properties.

Your Say: Immigration Nation on SBS

I submitted the following to the SBS discussion page:

A true humanitarian refugees program would not discriminate against the very poorest refugees in the refugee camps and in favour of those with enough leverage and money to be able to pay People Smugglers as Australia's policy effectively does now.

If we are prepared to allow those brought here by People Smugglers to settle then morally we should grant residence to all refugees who request it.

The numbers of refugees that we then would have to give residence to would vastly exceed Australia's capacity.

That is the unworkable alternative to having a refugee policy that is properly understood and enforced.

This is perhaps one of only very few things I will ever say in favour of the otherwise unbelievably dreadful former Prime Minister John Howard, but his 'Pacific Solution' was just such a policy. Of course, the refugees should have been handled far more humanely, but unless rules are applied that favour a substantial number of the poorest of refugee applicants in refugee camps over those able to pay people smugglers, then those rules can't be said to be fair.

No asylum seekers should be allowed to arrive by boat to our shores. Any arriving illegally should be sent back to their port of exit. The risk of leaking boats, overcrowded conditions, pirates and shipwrecks should not be allowed to happen. Our humanitarian intake should be naturally increased, and more asylum seekers should be processed, but is needs to happen off shore. They should not be lured into taking such terrible risks with children on board. We need to reduce our massive economic immigration intake, and students, and concentrate on a greater humanitarian intake of refugees. Australia only wants the well-heeled or well educated to invest in our property market, or provide competition for labour, and thus cheaper wages.

Your comment (originally published here on 2011-01-11 at 08:11AM +1000) has been published, congratulations, but Geoffrey Taylor's still has not been as far as I can see. - Editor