Do population numbers matter?

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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?

  1. Incumbent population as a whole? Some say that a larger population makes the cities more "vibrant".
  2. The environment? There is no evidence of this.
  3. Refugees? Yes a few refugees who are included in an annual quota will benefit but in comparison with the number of people brought in and the number of refugees in the world waiting for asylum they are very few.
  4. Australian workers? Some workers e.g in the building areas and associated fields will benefit from continued work. However, most of our skilled builders are imported, so local people face intense competition and little support for training.
  5. Business? Property development and the industries upstream and downstream, such as building materials (mining, forestry), banks and finance. Global real-estate marketing via the internet has vastly increased Australia's market for natural resources which can be commodified, such as land, housing, coal, petroleum, gas, sand, wood.
    Anyone who owns land, or has money invested in the other commodities, stands to gain. The vast majority, however, own little or no interest in land or other things, and must pay a price that is increased by the internationalisation of demand.

Who pays for population growth?

  1. Incumbent population as a whole? the costs are qualitative as well as quantitative.
    We pay for this. More and more people are finding themselves fighting dense and insensitive developments in their cities which impinge on their amenity. Higher density living means less light and less open space whether it be in private gardens or public open spaces. Roads are becoming increasingly crowded ( about 90,000 more cars and trucks every year in Victoria alone) This means more exhaust fumes, more traffic congestion . More and more roads are proposed which often involve the sacrifice of natural places and reserves that people hold dear. We pay for the construction of these roads through taxation and motor registration fees. Due to the competition for land, housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable. This is a real problem for young people wanting to buy their first home.
    Water, a scarce resource is becoming increasingly rationed and expensive. We will have to pay for solutions such as desalination which we may not be able to maintain into the future.
  2. The environment
    People put pressure on the environment. More food is needed therefore more land must be used for agriculture. A complex society requires employment over and above the production of food of course. This means that we must encourage new activities, just to support the need for jobs. Houses cover land previously inhabited by other creatures many of which are under great pressure to survive as species. More greenhouse gases are produced with a greater population. Scarce water resources are put under greater pressure for increasing needs and water is taken form rivers for irrigation.
  3. Australian workers Many skilled workers will not benefit from rapidly increasing population as replacements are brought in from other countries and training needs for Australians neglected.
  4. Business? They don't pay many of the costs, particularly those associated with property development - the development of mines for materials, building of roads and bridges and schools and hospitals etc to cater to new suburbs They may pay some of the costs but the net effect on large companies is to benefit from the increased value of their assets, plus volume of transactions.

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 coal’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 it does now.



As I was driving to work yesterday, I was intrigued to hear a listener who had phoned the station (ABC Regional) extolling the virtues of having had five children. She was very proud and rightly so, that she's had a hand in populating our vast Australian continent. This struck me as rather odd when you consider how devoid of arable land Australia actually has. I believe it's in the vicinity of just 6% and mostly situated along coastal areas. Australia has a tipping point, where the amount of arable land required to provided a sustainable population through frequent drought events and water availability, over-balances to the point where average Australians will either be forced to buy expensive overseas food supplies, provided those overseas countries have ample to export, or attempt to live a life of ever extending periods of making do with less and less food. The eventual result will be famine, not unlike what we see beamed to us daily from drought ravaged areas of Africa. In fact, Africa is a typical example of what happens when the population is allowed to explode in an out of control manner. It's very likely that with the event of climate change coupled to the "populate or perish" mentality of not only our major Governments and business leaders, but also the people like our ABC phone-in listener, Australia may well have already reached that tipping point. If this is the case, I can see no way of returning to a point of sustainability before much of Australia experiences great suffering as water supplies literally dries up and takes with it the ability to produce basic food staples such as grains and vegetables. It seems, at least from our ABC phone-in woman, that the "populate or perish" mentality is alive and well. It may well be that mentality that sees this once great country become an unlivable dust bowl within our lifetimes.

There are regular TV shows that glorify large families, often created by a botched fertility procedure. No one seems to think about the impact of a large family. If we all had five kids, do the math! This seems to go along with a great lie that is embedded in our minds -- that growth is good. This is a big total lie, but I hear our politicians raving about growth all the time. I just read today where a local politician said many cities must envy Atlanta's vibrant growth (Georgia, USA). Well, I'll tell you, what is so wonderful about fouled air, constant traffic jams, water shortages, totally raped and paved over land, crowds of people everywhere, and a loss in quality of life. Who would envy that? Until our leaders get over their love affair with eternal growth, then we will continue on our current, suicidal path. We are in a drought here in north Georgia (USA), which has just been raised to Level IV. That means we have to take shorter showers while the developers continue to rape and plunder the countryside with no accountability. THE WORLD IS INSANE!

THE world is becoming so overpopulated that nature will one day wreak its revenge, actor Jeremy Irons says. He is seeking funding for a film on sustainability, which he hopes will be in the manner of An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning Al Gore documentary on climate change. "We'll be pulling in a lot of expert opinion, and we are in talks for funding," Irons says. "We hope it will be a movie." The elephant in the room is not always invisible, but why do non-science based celebrities have to say the obvious? Perhaps they are naive enough to announce that the Emperor has no clothes on!

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