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Bigger or Better? Australia’s population debate

Population growth is one of Australia's political hot potatoes. In his new book, Bigger or Better? Australia’s population debate, Professor Ian Lowe — author, pre-eminent scientist and president of the Australian Conservation Foundation — answers the questions at the root of the debate, and provides a comprehensive analysis of the issue.

Bigger or Better? sets the record straight. In a clear manner, Lowe lays out the facts about recent population increase in Australia and considers the impacts of that growth and the implications of different future patterns on that growth. 
  • What is the link between population and economic growth?
  • What are the environmental impacts of population growth?
  • Are we an ageing society and if so, is that a matter for concern?
  • Are ‘boat people’ and refugees a significant component of our migrant intake? 
  • What capacity do we have to influence Australia’s future population?

Recognised for his commonsense, Lowe unravels the misconceptions and urban myths about the controversial debate and the choices we are making about Australia’s future population

When Kevin Rudd responded to a government forecast that the Australian population could reach 36 million by 2040 by saying he believed in ‘a big Australia’, there was a strong public reaction. One insider said ‘the focus groups went ballistic’. Julia Gillard renamed the relevant minister’s portfolio ‘sustainable population’, implicitly criticising pro-growth policies of previous governments. 

Tony Abbott vowed to ‘stop the boats’ if elected (thus limiting immigration), despite generally supporting a population growth agenda and clearly having no way of stopping the boats.

Much of the press attacked both major parties, accusing them of pandering to base prejudice by discussing the social impacts of immigration or suggesting that population growth had negative environmental impacts and urged politicians to champion what it claimed were the self-evident economic benefits of rapid population growth.

In this timely book, Lowe calls for all Australians to realise the future is not somewhere we are going but rather a place we create by our own actions — or inactions — now

In Bigger or Better? Lowe categorises the various contributors to the debate, those voices urging further growth and those wishing to see growth slowed or the population stabilised.

As he states, ‘there are humanitarians on both sides of the debate, there are racists on both sides of the debate, there are totally misinformed people on both sides of the debate and there are well-informed professionals on both sides of the debate.’

He looks at how population growth is affecting the environment of our major cities, the Murray-Darling Basin and South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula, and raises the prospect of ‘Noosangatta’ in south-east Queensland — one continuous urban sprawl from Noosa, through Brisbane to Coolangatta and the NSW border.

Lowe makes the complex and controversial issues around population accessible to general readers who he hopes will contribute to an informed discussion about the issue and the sort of future we want for our country

* Bigger or Better? Australia’s population debate is published in Australia by UQP.

We want to know what you think about this important issue. Share your thoughts and ideas with us in the dicussion below.

Comments (52)

Stephanie Somerfield
5 March 2012 - 1:09pm

It's always a bit daunting being the first to comment! I'm glad this issue is gaining momentum. It speaks to everything we need to think about, and seriously reassess, within our society, especially how we use our resources – land, water, air, food production. We have to start distinguishing between growth and progress, we can progress without growth, can't we?

Tony Farrell
5 March 2012 - 2:35pm

This is a vital topic, and I haven't read the book, but I am always drawn to the last question posed in the bulleted list, in the article - "What capacity do we have to influence Australia’s future population?"
In the past, with minimal net birth rates, the debate centred on immigration. We now have positive growth from net birth rates and I wonder if we are ready for policy settings that address that question. Things like the baby bonus and paid parental leave are probably contributing to growing birth rates, but they are seen largely as questions of equality. Winding them back or zero natural growth tools have limited likely success of community support.

Harley Lacy
5 March 2012 - 2:55pm

Thank you ACF and particularly Ian - for working on this matter - its always my contention that this is the biggest challenge facing the Earth, and untited all Env organisations across the earth have to work on this one.

Its the Human condition that drives this matter, with our species generally unable to resolve the matter. If we head to 9 billion - and burn all our fossil fuels in the process - we are heading for the predictions of James Lovelocks last treties on GIA _ the collapse to 2 billion (and a massive extinction event - across the earth). ACF must keep this matter front and center and work activly with the highly aware intelligent Sustainable Population Australia. Thank you. H

Karen Joynes
5 March 2012 - 3:09pm

A big thank you from me as well for bringing this issue into focus. Population growth is the biggest factor affecting survival of all species on Earth. In my lifetime (58 years), the increase in human numbers has already had a devastating impact on habitats and others species, on water and air quality - the list goes on. Newer generations do not know what has already been destroyed and accept the level of forest cover, tree size or wetland as being "normal" when it is actually severely depleted. Our national current growth rate of about a million new people every three years is not sustainable, not only for our environment but also our social and economic well being. It is rare in some places to be able to walk a beach alone, yet it was common 50 years ago. We definitely need to drastically reduce our population growth rate, and the more groups that make this point clear to the Federal Government, the greater the chance of them taking notice.

Amber Humphries
5 March 2012 - 3:15pm

It'll never happen, but I've spoken to a few mothers and after discussing teen mothers, we agree people should need to attain a license to have a child. I know quite a few young mothers who decided to have their baby because of the baby bonus, even though they aren't socially and financially ready to raise a child. The way I see it, we already are heavily overpopulated. People are getting pregnant willy nilly and I only know one couple (retired) who are foster parents. We need more families like this. Young couples need to stop and look ahead into the future. Do they really have to have the big family they've always wanted? Or can they have one child of their own and adopt? Are these people selfish?

Chris Winslow
5 March 2012 - 3:17pm

In answer to your question: yes, a sustainable population matters a great deal to me. And if we thought convincing our politicians about the pressing need to address climate change was difficult, this will be even m ore so. Whilst the science is unambiguous on the need to reduce emissions and to preserve the ecosphere, the case for restraining population growth was a bit less clear. In other words, we have to argue that Malthus was 'right all along', albeit for the wrong reasons. Here in Australia, there are powerful industries that have a vested interest in population growth. Residential property developers are a good example. I think in the coming years there will be a lot of focus on Japan, as its population ages and actually declines quite significantly. If they show how to adjust to negative population growth, without a decline in living standards, then we have a way forward for the whole planet.

Thank you ACF for having the courage to raise this very important issue.

Chris Hughes
5 March 2012 - 3:19pm

Something to ponder:

Unfortunately, "Does sustainable population growth matter to you?" is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as sustainable growth of any kind when talking about a finite world. Growth is aways growth and it will always continue to get bigger and bigger because as soon as it stops getting bigger it's no longer growth!

As long as we have population growth and continue to use resources, at some point in the future we will hit a brick wall. In about 2,000 years at 1.1% population growth the weight of humanity will equal the weight of the world and I suspect that that may not be sustainable. We need to get used to a World and an economy without growth while it's a choice before physics and nature do it for us.

Up to now we haven't noticed because it's taken thousands of years to get to the step bit on the exponential curve.

Look at this if you're interested:

Haydn Washington
5 March 2012 - 3:31pm

Bravo Ian! Great to see another book that takes a rational and environmentally informed look at an environmental problem long-denied. It is time to talk about one of the great issues of our time and to solve it. Unlike the headline of the Sydney Morning Herald '7 billion reasons for joy' more people is not better, not sustainable and is the root cause (along with massive consumption) of the environmental crisis. Haydn

Katharine Betts
5 March 2012 - 3:49pm

Chris Hughes is right; quantitative growth is by definition unsustainable. But qualitative improvements in the way we do things are possible.
I have ordered Ian Lowe's book and look forward to reading it, and hope that its publication means that the ACF is now going to move population growth right up its hierarchy of priorities.
As Paul Ehrlich said: "Whatever your cause, it's a lost cause without population control". This is true for conservation, truer than for any other cause..

Mark O'Connor
5 March 2012 - 3:49pm

If we don't win the population battle in Australia, we are likely in the long term to lose all conservation battles. See

Well done Ian for raising the issue. I'd like to see the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) speak up about it more often, and also move across from merely pointing out that population growth underlies most attacks on the environment to also actively contradict the myths that are being put out about Australia suffering a lack of labour, or needing to boost population to stop its population aging.

Mark O'Connor

Jenny Goldie
5 March 2012 - 3:59pm

I agree with Chris Hughes. "Does sustainable population growth matter to you?" is a nonsensical question and one, I'm sure, Ian Lowe would not have asked. But yes, the issue of population does very much matter to me as it does to anyone who understands we live on a finite planet. But as Richard Heinberg wrote in "The End of Growth" and Paul Gilding noted in "The Great Disruption", we've basically reaching the limits to growth and have to pull back. Graham Turner from CSIRO, in looking at how we're tracking 40 years after "The Limits to Growth" was published, says we're basically heading for that scenario in LtG whereby we'll see a collapse of our food production - tied to the decline of oil - in which billions of people die. All this in 2030 or so. So most of the arguments about population growth in Australia, such as housing unaffordability, congestion, lack of infrastructure etc, are valid but pale into insignificance alongside the bigger picture of resource decline and possible collapse of industrial civilisation as we know it. Good on you Ian for writing the book - I look forward to reading it.

Cheryl Fitzpatrick
5 March 2012 - 4:15pm

Great to see this topic on the ACF agenda at last. The expansion of the human population is at the expense of the other inhabitants of this small, blue planet. I agree with the comments about sustainable population growth - if it's growing it's not sustainable. I looking forward to reading Ian Lowe's book and welcome his attention to this important topic.

Jamie Anderson
5 March 2012 - 4:38pm

Australia's maximum sustainable population was determined in a rather comprehensive study over 2 years commissioned by the newly elected Prime Minister, John Howard - way back when.

The conclusion : between 6 and 13 million with the lower limit favoured.( For example Adelaide can only sustain about 600,00 people). The plan was to achieve this reduction from then current levels over the coming 250 to 300 years.

The result, largely stony silence.

I haven't read of any other studies as thorough as the Howard one so I want to see the 6 million figure achieved over the next 250 to 300 years.

Stephanie Somerfield
5 March 2012 - 4:43pm

The population is going to grow, that is inevitable, how to sustain it is actually a very valid question. In this context it means limitation and management surely.

John Burke
5 March 2012 - 5:02pm

It is wonderful to see the ACF at last facing up to the greatest environmental threat. All the gains that are being won in other campaigns will count for little if exponential population growth continues. At our present rate of growth we shall double every 50 years or so and have over 90 million people in 100 years, 180 million in 150 years and so on. With a small fraction of those numbers we have wrought terrible environmental destruction over the past 200 years - imagine how much we can stuff-up as the numbers grow exponentially.

There cannot be infinite growth in a finite world.

Perry Cornish
5 March 2012 - 5:21pm

Thank you Ian for once again raising the issue of population. Lets hope this time that the ACF take it on board comprehensively and ensure that this important factor is considered (publicly) with every environment issue they campaign on.

Australia must stabilise then reduce its population as soon as possible.

Wayne Hooper
5 March 2012 - 5:22pm

The concept of unlimited growth particularly economic growth is flawed. We live on a space ship earth and there are only limited resources.

Ian McCallan
5 March 2012 - 6:26pm

One thing is certain, All the environmental groups especially the so called Greens, not only avoid the most important issue facing all Austrlains, they actively promote population growth asking for virtually free immigration. K Rudd, first thing he did in the middle of the GFC was to dramaticly inrease immigration to 340,000. Gillard has continued with over 200,000 Meaning in the first 4 years of Labour nearly one million immigrants have been brought into Australia!!!
This is not a political hot potato. Simple remedy is to have a referendum on the subject.
Australia had a great advantage over the rest of the world, a relativley low population. This has been given away over the past twenty or so years by politicly correct fools and a Labiur party whose research clearly shows that poorer immigrants invariably vote labour!

Anne Matheson
5 March 2012 - 6:57pm

Population is the elephant in the room – most politicians and environmentalists don’t wish to discuss it because it’s highly emotive (and gets confused with xenophobia). It’s closely related to Climate Change and requires us to change our behaviour and way of living – which will meet resistance.
The link between the explosive growth of humans and the increasing rate of animal and plant extinctions is direct. Unless plants/animals are useful to us (i.e. we can farm them), many won’t survive this century. Humans use a disproportionate amount of resources, especially the West, and developing nations aspire to this. Politicians are frightened to do what needs to be done because it will be unpopular (especially with business) and will affect the economy. Politicians are measured on economic growth, not preserving forests, clean air, water etc. This needs to change.
Congratulations Prof. Ian Lowe! We need more people with the guts to speak up. And we need more people to take an informed look at the current trajectory, for their children’s sake, then take action.
Do your bit and write to a politician today!!!

Venise Alstergren
5 March 2012 - 7:08pm

This is not only an Australian problem, it is a world problem. It seems to be a popular misconception that very soon seven billion people will have become educated and with education will wish to breed less. What people fail to deal with is the problem of the progeny of seven billion people who are just going to school. As yet they aren't educated to a responsible future. By the time they get to understand the misery of multiple births they will have had several children themselves.

Religion is one of the greatest enemies of mankind's progress. Can anyone imagine the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, Islam, and Orthodox Jewry agreeing to restrict child numbers? They won't. And short of a plague a hundred thousand times greater than the black plague of the Middle Ages, it will be up to our scientists, architects, town planners-all the people governments despise- to construct buildings in the sky out of bio-degradable steel to accommodate our exploding population. I'm not joking at all.

Many people in the most poverty-ridden places on the planet have little or no control over their reproductive processes. Their local Imams and Priests fill them up with the glories of multiple births, and they reproduce.

It's too late for any more theorising about the subject. We have to invest in massive infrastructure to re-jigg our cities. And our governments, repenting of their bloody-minded blindness on the subject, will be activated to perform miracles: won't they? Ha!

Kevin Squire
5 March 2012 - 8:11pm

The decline in the Planets Life support systems due to massive population growth is obvious. Comments above are correct that sustainable growth is impossible.

I was born in 1947 in Brisbane. (Global population 2.4 billion). My parents moved to the Gold Coast in 1961. South east Qld was paradise to grow up in in those days of low population. It has now turned into a congested crime scene. I loved the term above of "Noosagatta" So true. I no longer live there.

Government of all levels has totally mismanaged Australias' population growth over the past 50 years. Just look at the mess Sydney is in. Any further growth will also be mismanaged. No genuine truly sustainability studies have been undertaken. All we are told is that growth is good. Wrong!

Population growth is killing the planet & destroying Australias' eastern coastal fringe. Some books to read include "The Limits to Growth" series, "The End of Growth" by Richard Heinberg & "Overshoot" by William Catton.

And read as much as you can about Peak Oil (coming to the country you live in real soon). Some great blog sites for Peak Oil include The Oil Drum & Our Finite World & Crude Oil Peak.

The effect on decreasing or more expensive available net energy to all economies will continue to be devastating. The premier website on the ongoing & future economic collapse is "The Automatic Earth"

And can anyone tell me how Australia's population growth will help control Australias' already abysmal carbon pollution. It can;t. It can only get worse. Therefore any comments on a future green responsible Australia tackling climate change are nothing but propaganda. And no, (ACF editors take note) solar panels & fluorescent light bulbs are not a solution in the face of massive coal mining & further population growth.

I actually withdrew my subscription to the ACF because it does not address these massive issues of Growth Limits, sustainable (or unsustainable) population levels, controlling climate change, economic decline due to resource limits & Peak Oil (available net energy).

The health of the Murray Darling, our coral reefs & prime growth forests are important. But if the ACF continues to ignore the massive problems now evident due to 7 billion humans hitting all kinds of environmental, resource & economic limits, then the ACF will remain an insubstantial voice in the coming huge problems the world & Australia face.

As a start the ACF should urge an immediate stop to population growth in Australia. Until it does I will not rejoin as all other efforts on environmental protection are an absolute pointless waste of time & energy.

Matt Moran
5 March 2012 - 9:12pm

Excellent that this issue is getting a voice from the ACF. It is very encouraging that population and carrying capacity are getting the voice that has been needed for decades. Increasingly, Australians are concerned with ecological destruction, failing infrastructure, rising costs of living - all of which are in no small part contributed by our rapid population growth.

We have viable strategies as outlined by The Stable Population Party and the Democrats and notable speakers such as Mark O'Connor, Dick Smith, Kelvin Thomson and Bob Carr who have been voicing this issue for considerable time and now the ACF.

A stable population will allow us to stabilise consumption as well as start making headway on all manner of increasingly urgent issues. With education and understanding, moving the baby bonus to paid paternity leave and ultimately phasing it out, balancing immigration with emigration, we have a window of opportunity now. But we really cannot leave this for 10 years. Overpopulation gets out of control very quickly.

Julie Macklin
5 March 2012 - 11:47pm

Population is the greatest problem we have. If this is not addressed it doesn’t matter what measures are taken to address environment problems, those measures will eventually come to nought. Environment groups should have been bringing up the population issue many years ago. SHAME on these groups for ignoring it. Every time I have filled out a survey mentioning environment issues and there was a place to comment I have added population. It is a disgrace that I had to add it and wasn’t part of these surveys, but environmental groups have kept their heads in the sand for too long. Thank you ACF for bringing the subject up, but why did you take so long?
We need to address population. The baby bonus needs to be scrapped, or at the very least limited to the first two children (replacement) in a family. Immigration needs to be slashed. Female education in poor countries needs to be funded, and assess to family planning in these countries financed.

Venise Alstergren
6 March 2012 - 10:15am

I don't wish to depress you Julie, but there is a large group of dedicated Catholics in Federal and State parliament who have always made sure that birth control and even the use of condoms are proscribed from being included as aid relief in as many Catholic countries as possible. Millions of people have died of AIDS in these same countries, but the one thing which does work, the condom, is not permitted because it can act as a birth control device, as well as being an AIDS preventative.

In case anyone thinks I'm dreaming, I refer you to the last days of John Howard's reign. Tony Abbott worked hard, in his position as Minister for Health, to prevent Australian women-remember- we are a secular nation; not a theocracy-from having access to the latest birth-control method, RU486.

The Americans, of course, with all their extraordinary ultra conservative, far right-wing fundamentalist Christianity, a thousand times worse. During the George W Bush administration. All aid to "Christian" countries was forbidden.

In Latin America Catholic Cardinals, priests and bishops mounted campaigns of total and complete lies to make the populace believe that condoms were constructed of a form of latex which permitted the spermatozoon to slip through the weave. Therefore why bother using the same material to prevent AIDS seemed, and seems, to be the philosophy.

Mentioning these three scenarios is not to bag the Catholic Church per se. But rather to give a thumb-nail sketch of the sheer impossibility of bringing the bulk of third world countries-Muslims and Christians-into the realisation that the less children produced on the planet, the greater the chance of man's survival.

Forgive me for going on to state another truth. Any conservation group which aims to protect the planet finds itself in an invidious position. It needs money. And where can they get the most money? From the old and the rich. What are the problems associated with the old and the rich? The conservative habits of a lifetime quadrupled every two years, or so it seems. Sure, many of them will give money, but not if the organisation sounds remotely radical, they won't. This explains a couple of the constraints preventing the ACF from doing the job it would like to do. Whereas the young have finding a mate, house-building, and raising a family at the forefront of their minds, as it should be.

If anyone on this planet can seriously believe a sustainable future for the human race is possible they are deluded. Even the few scenarios I've mentioned are enough to blow the most credulous theory out of the sky.

Does anyone need further proof of the impossibility of a sustainable future? What about abortion? On sheer humanitarian grounds there are some women who need abortions. To detoxify a simple point. Abortions are not something any woman desires, but it can happen. The result should be a painless, quick and appropriate action to terminate the foetus, allowing her to have her next child when she wants it.

After years and years of arguing, the right to have an abortion was finally past the post in Victoria alone. By one to two votes on a vote on conscience vote only. What was that about reducing the country's exploding population growth?

Margit Alm
6 March 2012 - 10:24am

Like the commentators above, I applaud Ian Lowe and the ACF for bringing overpopulation into the open.
Even though there is now a consensus, at least among those on this forum, that we have to address overpopulation, no one is taking the next step and puts forward practical suggestions on how this is going to work.
As the latest TIME issue (12 March 2012) says, we live in an Anthropocene world and can manage nature; or as Jared Diamond says in 'Collapse' - how societies choose to fail or survive.
Humans are honed in on growth. What if it stops. What happens should Australia implement zero net migration over night as well as zero net natural growth. What happens to all those industries now relying on growth. What happens to (the unfunded) social services relying on taxation from an ever growing workforce. And so forth.
This needs to be thought through and methods put in place that minimize the pain (there will be some pain, after all no gain without pain). It is a huge task turning around a big ship.

Venise Alstergren
6 March 2012 - 10:38am

PS: The baby bonus-certainly after the first two children is an anachronism, a mindless tax on the rest of us, and placed there by a government wishing to keep on side the needy and the greedy. Mostly the latter.

Paul Harris
6 March 2012 - 3:33pm

There is ssllooww progress on a few fronts! Some time ago Dr. Albert Bartlett produced "Arithmetic, Population and Energy" to point out that continuous growth is impossible (see and a number of economists are looking at Zero Growth - there was recently an event in Adelaide on this topic.

Keelah Lam
6 March 2012 - 3:50pm

The New Internationalist magazine recently had an issue on population worth reading. My view is similar to Friends of the Earth.
Education, especially for women, is the key to limiting childbirth. When people know all the facts they are more likely to make wise decisions.
OVER-Consumption is the biggest problem for this

Keelah Lam
6 March 2012 - 4:09pm

The New Internationalist magazine recently had an issue on population worth reading. Population growth is actually slowing.
Education, especially for women, is the key to limiting childbirth. When people know all the facts they are more likely to make wise decisions, as has been witnessed in 'citizens juries' on subjects such as Genetic Engineering and Container Deposits here in Australia.
My view is similar to Friends of the Earth.
OVER-Consumption [by the increasing number of wealthier people ] is the biggest problem for this planet. We need ZERO WASTE legislation. Extended Producer Responsibility via a tracked system of deposits /refunds and industry paying for its waste at the end of the line would lead to a saner triple-bottom- line system of products designed for long life, repair, re-use, refilling, closed- loop recycling etc, and the growth of sustainable green jobs, and saving the need for rapacious mining, transport and disposal [thus preventing carbon emissions] and saving money.
Why do we blame world population when it is world over-consumption which leads to environmental degradation and wasteful use of agricultural land?
Permaculture in all its aspects is a valuable solution.

Jane Leitinger
6 March 2012 - 4:25pm

Every community around the globe needs to live within their means. As populations increase and severe climatic events devastate harvests, we soon won't be able to rely on others to feed us. I shudder every time I see "Seven billion stories and counting....". It's time for everyone to get serious about limiting the birth rate world-wide. The alternative? Competition for life-sustaining resources. Thanks to those brave and intelligent people who are addressing this issue.

Peter Wilkinson
6 March 2012 - 5:41pm

Peter Wilkinson
I haven't read the book, but will. I support a minimal net immigration (we have a substantial emigration, so refugees can be accommodated). There is no credible scenario which meets the 5% reduction in greenhouse gases from 2000 levels by 2020 if we continue immigration at the current rate. The ACF has always had policies in favour of low immigration, but has been loath to publicise them. Now is the time.
I understand that Australia's birthrate is still below replacement.
I agree that the Catholic and Muslim faiths are partly to blame for the high birthrates in lesser developed countries. In the developed countries the Catholics simply ignore teaching against contraception. Education for women is the acknowledged answer for reducing high birthrates.

Steven Gannon
7 March 2012 - 3:43am

I've not yet read the book, only the email segments, but I feel that population growth will increase for sure in the short/medium term because of populist politics and our image as a stable and wealthy country. Given that, we need to remember that we are the hottest, driest(not this year!) and most importantly, the least fertile. The fertile strip on the coast is where we build our houses and the the dry inland areas are where we grow our food. This is why land management should be looked at as closely as possible. I personally feel we could go to maybe 30 million if we have wise governance, a big if! Those who advocate less are being nostalgic, I'd like a beach to myself too, but that is selfish. Also, many people who live overseas see us as an empty continent. This is a problem, just as the ignorance of our pioneer farmers was many years ago. Bigger cities will be the by-product of more growth. Imagine Sydney or Brisbane double the size. Education and awareness are the keys, most of us here know that. I am not a fan of the levels or methods of immigration we have but you have to be realistic and have some compassion.

Jenny Warfe
7 March 2012 - 6:56pm

At last ACF is back on message - good on you. Population growth is the root cause of the environmental degradation that your campaigns are aimed at. Unless we address population growth and its impacts on our environment, concerned citizens will just keep having the same arguments over and over again with local, state and federal governments and developers. Time to address the root cause and target your campaign funds to refuting the growthists' fallacies. And time to dust off Paul Erlich's ZPG.

Kate Walsh
8 March 2012 - 10:16am

Yes. The population issue relies on us clearly defining our our goals and measures of human progress. Great to see ACF working on the Australian National Development Index (ANDI) and The Global Project "Measuring the Progress of Societies." Concepts that evaded Andrew Charlton in his "Man-Made World" Quarterly Essay

Robert Braby
8 March 2012 - 1:31pm


Reverse economics is fashionable in public debate, so you are not on your own. Excess consumption is caused by the two components of economic growth: growth in productivity (and per capita incomes), and population growth. But whereas the former makes us better off, the latter makes us worse off. So the problem is the reverse of what you claim!

To stabilise consumption we would have to aim for zero economic growth, and that requires negative population growth to offset positive productivity growth - which is an inevitable feature of advanced and developing economies (at least until resources run out).

Of course you are correct in saying there is considerable waste in the system, but that is one of the unfortunate features of prosperous economies, and more could be done to reduce it. But that won't solve our environmental problems; insteading of wasting our money we will spend it on something else.

It is encouraging to see ACF at last facing up to the reality of the link between conservation and population growth. One might hope that the other (clayton) environmental organisations, including Friends of the Earth, will also acknowledge this obvious link.

Venise Alstergren
8 March 2012 - 8:39pm

The most important issue of our time, yet there are only thirty-five comments. This doesn't offer much hope for the future.

Colin Samundsett
9 March 2012 - 2:46pm

Bigger or better? State of the Environment reports, from the first Australian report headed-up by Ian Lowe and subsequently, have shown that we are on a downward spiral with our environmental wellbeing - at our present size. Until we can stop that spiral we are negligent (a euphemism under the circumstances) in allowing our numbers to increase.
Australian conservation of the continent’s environmental foundations, and that of our society’s, depends upon lessening its people pressure. Very obviously the fairy-tale, promoted by the affluent few who promote it - that of increasing numbers to fix problems created by present numbers - has not been working in either urban or rural societies and natural environments.

Karen Joynes
9 March 2012 - 7:30pm

It is a worry that so few people have commented. It seems to me to reflect an apathy in the general community towards actually doing something for the future of the Earth, and a blind spot when it comes to human reproduction. While people may know action is needed to protect the natural environment, they are not willing if it impacts on them - or what they perceive is their "right" to reproduce. It is a case of people putting their wants ahead of nature yet again. A strong government will be needed to overcome the growth promoters and to make the masses realise the impact humans are having, to make them think of the future before they reproduce, to remove incentives for large families and to reduce immigration (separate to refugee) numbers.

Lyn Sutton
10 March 2012 - 9:45am

I agree with you Anne Matheson. People in Australia don't want to change their behaviour or way of living, even for important reasons such as the environment, extinction of species etc. So many of us only think of "the now"with no care for future generations. We can't sustain the popularion we have now so who in their right mind would advocate growth! Oh thats right Politicians and big buisness who don't live in reality, they only care about economics.

valerie yule
10 March 2012 - 6:49pm

If we all had no more than two children per couple we would solve the problem. But we must ensure that the reasons why poor people need more children are solved.

1.The government could promote a United Nations convention on the right of each person to have a child = two per couple - and reduce the pressures that encourage large families such as high child mortality, no old age insurance and outbreeding competition of ethnic and religious groups.

2. Australian government policy should not encourage large families with baby bonuses, which should be limited to the first two children of mothers over 20 when they are born. The large families that present pro-natalists encourage include a high proportion of social-welfare dependants. It is also selfish to multiply copies of oneself while 36,000 children in Australia lack care.

3. Immigrants who come in must keep to Australian two-children per couple, once they are here. At present many bring in families of eight or so, which they cannot support. (We know many of these.)These of course must stay, but additions are to be discouraged as against the Australian norm.

4, Taxpayer support for teenage parents should be less than for parents over twenty, for many reasons. The reduction would have to be made for babies not yet conceived, since many may now be born in hopes of the child bonuses.
Teenage boys and girls need teaching that parenthood under the age of twenty is socially disadvantaging unless they can care for the children themselves. Girls are held back from further education and good jobs, and mothers and grandmothers have burdens they did not expect. Babies born to teenage mothers are likely to be more disadvantaged than babies born to older, more mature mothers - more are premature, low birthweight, with poorer parenting. Socially, babies born to older mothers increases the distance between generations, and hence reduces population growth humanely.

Teenagers must learn that they will be financially better off if they do not have babies until they are older.

5. Myths about the need for greater populations must be openly challenged, since they will cost Australia dear. Apart from Bulgaria, no country now has less population than in 1950 – decline to that figure in some countries is more than made up by billions of economic refugees. Australia has problems of water and resources. Care of children takes more of our GDP than care of the elderly.

valerie yule
10 March 2012 - 6:52pm

World Population growth over one hundred years
A reference to keep handy, to help understand most other world events today

World population 1959 3 billion, in 2008 6 billion, to estimates 2050 9 billion
1950 2000 2050
USA 152 million 282 million 420 million
Russia 101 million 146 million 110 million
Germany 68 million 82 million 73 million
UK 50 m 59 m 63 m
France 41m 59 m 61m
Turkey 21m 65m 86m
Netherlands 10 m 15 m 17 m
Australia 8 m 19 m 24 m
AFRICA – despite AIDS and wars
Nigeria 31 m 114 m 356 m
Egypt 21 m 70 m 126 m
Ethiopia 20 m 64 m 144 m
South Africa 13 m 44 m 33 m
Congo Kinshasa 13 m 52 m 183 m
Sudan 8 m 35 m 84 m
Kenya 6 m 29 m 64 m
Uganda 5 m 23 m 128 m
Zimbabwe 2 m 11 m 12m
Rwanda 2 m 7 m 19 m
Somalia 2 m 7 m 25 m

Iran 16 m 65 m 89 m
Afghanistan 8 m 23 m 81 m
Iraq 5 m 22 m 56 m
Saudi Arabia 3 m 23 m 49 m
Israel 1 m 5 m 8 m
West Bank 771,000 2 m 5 m
Jordan 561,000 5 m 11 m
Gaza Strip 245,000 1 m 4 m

China 562 m 1,268, m 1,424 m
India 369 m 1,002 m 1,601 m
Japan 83 m 126 m 99 m
Indonesia 82 m 224 m 336 m
Bangladesh 45 m 130 m 279 m
Pakistan 39 m 146 m 294 m
Philippines 21 m 79 m 157 m
Thailand 20 m 61 m 69 m
Nepal 8 m 24 m 53 m
Sri Lanka 7 m 19 m 23 m
Cambodia 4 m 12 m 25 m
East Timor 436,000 847,000 1.9m

Brazil 53 m 175 m 228 m
Mexico 28 m 99 m 147 m
Argentina 17 m 37 m 48 m
Columbia 11 m 39 m 64 m
Cuba 5 m 11 m 10 m
Venezuela 5 m 23 m 37 m
Haiti 3 m 7 m 18 m
El Salvador 1.9 m 6 m 12 m

Population 1950 2000 Expected for 2050
Nauru 3,431 11,845 22,696
Tonga 45,700 102,321 188,340
Solomon Islands 106,647 466,194 1 m
East Timor 436,000 847,000 1.9m
Papua Niugini 1 m 4.9 m 10 m
New Zealand 1.9 m 3.8 m 4.8 m
Australia 8 m 19 m 24 m
Indonesia 82 m 224 m 336 m
Tables compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base. 4-26-2005 V Yule Creative Commons copyright ©
Free to copy

Geoff Buckmaster
11 March 2012 - 6:28pm

Thankyou Dr Lowe for helping to reignite this discussion.

Would like to firstly suggest some caution in conjoining the issue of population growth with humanitarian refugee intake ("Tony Abbott vowed to ‘stop the boats’ if elected (thus limiting immigration"). I understand this is not your intention however detractors on this issue will readily use reference to "boat people" as affirmation of a ulterior intent. Those that I know in the movement are generally in favour of an increased humanitarian intake in the context of a balanced migration program. The issue of population growth is an issue strictly about numbers not who arrives or how they got here.

Concerning the comments of Keelah Lam, the problem is most certainly overconsumption however the world is faced with a significant dilemma. Various estimates have 200 - 300 million people p.a. rising up into middle class standards of living across the BRIC nations as well as sub-saharan Africa.......and who would deny them? While organisations like FOE argue for reduced consumption, the reality is that consumption (and the requisite resource demands) will go through the roof as developing nations improve their living standards. We can expect that as they attain higher living standards, their fertility rates will eventually decline however not before producing a demographic "bulge". So how do we reconcile the rights of hundreds of millions to a better standard of living and safeguard the environment at the same time.

You can't reduce worldwide average consumption and there is a limit on the extent to which Western nations will accept a decline in living standards (deprivations take the subtle forms of carbon tax, MRET charges, levies to fund desal. plants etc etc). Quaint initiatives like "triple-bottom- line system of products designed for long life, repair, re-use, refilling, closed- loop recycling etc, and the growth of sustainable green jobs" make us feel good but are largely useless in face of increasing consumption. In Australia today, a $250 - $300m, 140MW windfarm will abate about the same level of emissions p.a. as the increase from just 3 - 4 weeks of population growth.....and we are all paying a premium to encourage these developments. Desalination plants in most captial cities in order to underwrite water security.....these weren't needed 20 years ago.

A slowing population is not sufficient, restitution requires at least stabilisation or better, a decline through reduced birthrates worldwide. Smaller is the only long term way for all to live better.

Sally wylie
13 March 2012 - 5:40pm

I fully support research into the population that Australia will be able to support into the future. It's high time we had this debate.

William Bourke
14 March 2012 - 9:39am

Population really is the everything issue. The GrowthBusters documentary is showing across Australia from tonight in Melbourne (one night only):
GrowthBusters asks: How do we become a sustainable civilization?
Water shortages, hunger, peak oil, species extinction, and even increasing depression are all symptoms of a deeper problem – addiction to unending growth in a world that has limits. GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth goes way beyond prescribing Band-Aids to slow the bleeding. This film examines the cultural barriers that prevent us from reacting rationally to the evidence current levels of population and consumption are unsustainable. It asks why the population conversations are so difficult to have.
Love to see people there...

Venise Alstergren
14 March 2012 - 5:36pm

LUKE BUCKMASTER: Is absolutely correct. People who deliberately bring up the subject of refugees during a discussion on population control are mendaciously utilising a very serious topic to make cheap political potshots. Moreover, the people who do drag in refugees into a argument like this usually do so to disguise the fact that they're against the proposition of population control but don't wish to appear to be so.

Tabatha Fulker
16 March 2012 - 11:01am

Ian Lowe will appear on ABC TV’s One Plus One program to discuss his new book 'Bigger or better: Australia’s population debate'.
You can watch it:
March 16 at 11:30am and 2:30pm on ABC1, 8:30pm on ABC News 24.
March 17 at 5:30pm on ABC News 24.
March 18 at 7:30pm on ABC News 24.

Steven Gannon
17 March 2012 - 12:07am

Thanks Tabatha,would have missed it. I have just begun the book. Yes, this discusssion is not about refugees. Am I correct in saying it is about 'carrying capacity', a pastoral term? I mentioned in my earlier post that we could maybe go to 30 million but please don't think I am an advocate of growth, more one who feels resigned to the fact that this will probably happen and that we could still feed ourselves.
Presently, I am concerned about the remarks this week by Craig Emerson who has revived the issue of us becoming the 'food bowl of Asia'. Is it ludicrous to allow overpopulated countries with a rising middle class to use us as a new farm? And are these countries addressing their population issues and moreover are some of them advocates of exponential growth?

Venise Alstergren
18 March 2012 - 12:22am

Oops. I meant Geoff Buckmaster

R Carrington
23 March 2012 - 10:14am

Population growth is driven politically by big business and an active,well meaning but naive left. Environmental groups are frightened to vigorously pursue growth and immigration limitations for fear of its consequences. Time to face this issue for all the reasons expressed on this website.

R Carrington
23 March 2012 - 10:20am

add...political incorrectness and its consequences.