Issues Magazine

Why We Need to Stabilise Our Population

By Ian Lowe

Population growth is stressing our environment and causing social strains, while its claimed economic benefits are questionable. A rational assessment leads inevitably to the conclusion that we should aim to stabilise our population.

Population growth is bad for the environment. Every serious environmental problem is made worse by increasing human numbers.

Rapid population growth has been justified for its alleged economic benefits. It is now clear that we are paying a serious environmental price as well as suffering significant social costs as a result of this policy. Furthermore, it is not even clear there are even economic benefits on the other side of the ledger. A rational assessment leads to the conclusion that we should aim to stabilise our population.

The first national report on the state of the environment, produced in 1996 by an advisory council I chaired, identified several major issues: loss of unique biological diversity, pressures on the coastal zone, the state of inland rivers and some rural land, and rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. The report said that the problems were the consequence of increasing numbers of people and lifestyle choices that were compounding the population growth by increasing per capita consumption.

Two later reports, in 2001 and 2006, found that all these problems were getting worse. Every year there are more of us needing more houses and food, using more energy and water, requiring extra services. So every year more bush is cleared for housing, roads and other services. More land is needed to supply more food. And we have to export more to pay for our growing imports.

Specific studies in most states have all concluded that the coastal zone is suffering from the direct impacts of population growth. If we want to live sustainably so that our descendants may have the same quality of life that we have enjoyed, we must get back into balance with our natural systems.

We can significantly reduce our demands without hurting our lifestyle by improving the efficiency of using water and energy. But the task is made harder by our increasing population. We should aim to stabilise our population and overall consumption at levels that can be supported for the foreseeable future. That is the only responsible goal.

The discussion is muddied by the repetition of common myths in what Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations’ Population Division, calls “an unrelenting public relations campaign”. It is claimed that our birth rate has slumped so we aren’t replacing ourselves; that we need population growth for the sake of the economy; that national security is threatened by our limited numbers; that our ageing population can’t be supported by the shrinking numbers in the workforce; and so on.

There is no hard evidence for any of these claims. In most cases they are demonstrably false, but they keep being repeated by people who seem to hope that constant repetition will lead to widespread acceptance. So what is the current situation?

Since 1950, the annual excess of births over deaths has never been less than 100,000. That is over 2000 extra Australians per week – 300 per day, or one every five minutes – without any immigration at all.

The rate of “natural increase” for our population, births minus deaths, is about 0.8%. By comparison, the average for Europe is about 0.3%, while the overall figure for the industrialised world is about 0.6%. Our rate of “natural increase” is high by the standard of other developed nations.

What has fallen in recent years is the average number of children per woman of child-bearing age. That figure is now about 1.8, below the rate at which our adult population just replaces itself. The number of births each year still outweighs deaths because the number of adult women is still increasing in Australia, a legacy of the “baby boom” after World War II and the consequent age profile of our community.

The declining birth rate means that if we had no net migration, the excess of births over deaths would gradually decline and the population would stabilise in the future. At low levels of migration, up to about 60,000 per year or so, the population will still stabilise, only it will take longer to do so and the eventual stable population will be greater. But with net migration levels above about 70,000 per year, the population will keep increasing for the foreseeable future because those migrants will have children of their own, who will in turn have children…

There are some European countries in which deaths now outnumber births, so the population there is declining. These countries have an ageing population, so there are fewer women of child-bearing age.

Our rate of natural increase will slow as the age profile of the population changes. For the moment, our relatively young community leads to rapid growth in population.

The same effect has enormous impact on the global population. Even if it were possible to stabilise the birth rate for the whole world now at two children per woman, there would still be an increase from the present 6.7 billion people to over eight billion. This increase, assuming we are able to provide food and other needs, will be due to the maturing and consequent child-bearing of the world’s young people.

Let me return to migration. In recent decades, the increase due to immigration had been similar to the natural increase. Then the Howard government increased migrant numbers, claiming there was a skills shortage in Australia. It also allowed a back-door migration scam which let private training colleges promise overseas students that they would be allowed to stay in Australia on the basis of their qualifications in such fields as cooking or hairdressing.

The Rudd government increased migration levels still further. So last year the population increased by a startling 400,000, prompting an outcry from people alarmed by the rate of change. The political response was to crack down on the training scam and to take a tough line with the relatively small number of asylum-seekers. The consistent line from the business community and the conservative commentators remains the claim that we need rapid growth for security or economic reasons.

There are many reasons for being grateful to those who have migrated to Australia in the past 60 years. The stolid Anglo-Celtic culture of 1950 has been leavened by a rich diversity of cultural influences. Our diet, our clothing and our domestic life have all been changed by the influx of people and ideas from Europe and the Asia–Pacific region. This diversity brings economic benefits as well as cultural ones. As a country in which more than 140 languages are spoken, we should have insights into any foreign market on the face of the Earth, so exporting could always be facilitated by an understanding of the local culture into which we are selling – at least in principle.

On the other hand, population growth – whether caused by migration or the birth rate – causes increased impacts on natural systems. The problem of Sydney’s sewage, for example, is simply due to the number of human contributors to the system.

Most discussion of population growth has concentrated on whether the economic benefits outweigh the economic costs. We need to consider other issues: the effect on urban infrastructure, resource demands, the wider impacts on natural systems and the social costs of large cities.

We have seen the social and environmental costs of pursuing economic growth as our top priority. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has produced three reports in its series on measures of Australia’s progress. In economic terms, the headline indicators since 1990 are all positive. But there is mixed progress on the social front. About half the indicators are positive, and half negative.

Almost all environmental indicators are getting worse. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) recently drew together evidence from south-east Queensland and from coastal zones in Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula. In every case, population growth is causing environmental degradation on such a scale that the ACF has nominated it as a threatening process under the Environmental Conservation and Biodiversity Protection Act. While the government is still considering that proposal, the evidence is strong: endangered ecosystems and threatened species in the coastal zone are at risk from the direct pressures of population growth.

Most of our cities are experiencing serious social consequences of growth. We have not been able to expand infrastructure as the populations have grown. Transport systems are groaning at the seams despite an orgy of road building. Recreational space has remained more or less constant, so it is under increasing pressure. The racially motivated Cronulla riots in Sydney in 2005 were at least partly the result of a growing and diverse population struggling for limited beaches and space on our transport systems.

The increasing community concern is clear in the opinion polls. The overwhelming majority now think that our quality of life is being reduced by growth. They reject talk of expanding to 35, 50 or 60 million.

Timid politicians are starting to sniff the wind. Some are making more qualified statements; a few brave ones actively oppose these ridiculous targets.

The usual arguments in favour of growth are based on claimed economic benefits. But there is no hard evidence that population growth is good for the economy. Nearly ten years ago, medical researcher and former politician Dr John Coulter did a comparative analysis and found it is actually bad!

Most economists use gross domestic product (GDP) per person as a measure of economic welfare, but this measure is a bit misleading as it includes some of the obvious negative effects of growth: more crime, more violence and more road accidents all increase the GDP. So GDP per head overstates the benefits of growth by including some of its real costs.

But even by this flawed measure, which overstates the benefits, the relationship between rates of population growth and GDP per capita appears negative. In Dr Coulter’s study, the countries that were doing best at improving wealth per person were those with a stable or slowly declining population. Those with rapid population growth had declining wealth per head.

Dr Coulter argued that rapid growth requires expenditure on assets that are not economically productive, like housing, whereas nations with stable populations are better able to invest in modernising their economies. When he presented the facts at a national symposium in Canberra, conservative observers just ignored the evidence and continued to promote the superstition that population growth is good for the economy.

I recently saw OECD data for the decade 1997–2007. Thirteen countries increased their GDP per head more than us; 11 of those 13 had lower rates of population growth than ours. So whatever else might be said, it is clear that rapid population growth is not essential for economic progress.

Recently, local economist Dr Jane O’Sullivan (see p.4) provided a quantitative study based on the earlier work of US economist Dr Lester Thurow. Let me give you the most obvious example from her study. If you take the average life of our urban infrastructure as about 50 years, you would expect to replace about 2% of it each year. With a stable population, your infrastructure bill would be 2% of the total asset value. But if the population grows by 2%, you have to add a further 2% to provide for the extra people, so your annual bill for asset replacement is not 2% of the total value but 4%.

What seems a modest rate of population increase, well below what has been recently experienced in south-east Queensland, actually doubles the cost to the community of providing infrastructure. The population increase only adds 2% to the local council’s rate income and the state government’s tax receipts, so it is obvious why we are fighting a losing battle to keep pace with the needs of the growing population. Thurow concluded that any nation whose population increases at a rate of more than 2% will probably go backwards economically.

As Dr O’Sullivan has pointed out, we already have many of the economic and social symptoms of unsustainable growth: “widening inequality between rich and poor, declining national savings and expanding current account deficit, the selling of public assets to balance budgets, welfare systems falling behind the cost of living, intractable queues for medical services, increasing youth unemployment, fracturing social tensions erupting in ethnic violence”.

I add obvious environmental costs: destroyed or degraded bushland, polluted rivers and estuaries, declining fish stocks, tragic loss rates of endangered species and spiralling greenhouse gas emissions. If you had some bizarre reason for wanting all these problems to get worse, you would be in favour of further population increase.

It is sometimes claimed that we need a greater population to defend our country. This is a refinement of the old 1960s claim that we needed to populate our empty north or it would be overrun by the Asian hordes. Human numbers were a vital part of capacity to defend one’s territory up until about 100 years ago, when new military technology like aircraft changed the dynamic of warfare. Today, the capacity of any country to defend its borders is much more dependent on military technology than on human numbers. We have about 50,000 people in our armed services today, compared with more than ten times that number in 1945. It is just nonsense to claim that we won’t be able to defend our territory if our population stabilises at 25 million instead of ballooning to 35 million or more.

Another furphy is that we need migrants to cope with our ageing population. In fact, migrants age like everyone else. Unless the average age of migrants is dramatically less than the population as a whole, it will make no difference.

Much of the concern about ageing assumes that 70-year-olds in 2030 will have similar illness patterns to people of the same age in the 1950s; since more of us are living to a ripe old age, we will place an intolerable burden on our hospitals. This overlooks an obvious fact: people are now living longer precisely because they are healthier than previous generations. So it makes no sense to extrapolate illness costs from past experience.

The main impetus for continued growth stems from what Joseph Chamie has called “Ponzi demography” – essentially a pyramid scheme in which more people are brought in to provide for the needs of the current population, leading to a future demand to bring in still more people to pay for the larger population. Chamie says that “the standard slogan is ‘the country urgently needs increased immigration’, even when immigration may already be at record levels and unemployment rates are high”.

Although he was not writing specifically about Australia, his words ring true here. If we bring in migrants now to pay for the pensions of older Australians, we incur a future need to bring in more to pay pensions to those migrants – an endless cycle.

Jared Diamond’s book Collapse shows that human societies tend to expand until they reach limits. They then either decline and collapse by continuing as before, or survive by changing their approach.

We need a policy of stabilising the population. In specific terms, we should discontinue current financial incentives for having more children and reduce our net migration to below 70,000 per year.

We can, and should, have a humane approach to genuine refugees, but our first duty is to plan for a sustainable future.