Population alarmists are always wrong

In recent months, the issue of Australia’s population has become increasingly contentious. But those who advocate unpleasant measures to make our population more ‘sustainable’ are looking at the problem from entirely the wrong angle.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wholeheartedly supported the idea of a ‘big Australia’, with a projected population of 36 million by 2050. As a means of differentiating herself from her predecessor, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she wanted a “sustainable” population, although she has been unwilling to give a number.

In the current election campaign, the issue has devolved into a race to the bottom, with the Opposition claiming its population goals are even lower – thus more sustainable – than the Government’s.

At the same time, population-control viewpoints have been much more prominent in the media. Next week, the ABC will screen Dick Smith’s Population Puzzle, a documentary in which the entrepreneur will air his views on the potential dangers of Australian and global population growth.

Recently ABC News 24 interviewed Mark O’Connor, co-author of Overloading Australia, member of the Stable Population Party of Australia and a candidate for the Senate in the upcoming federal election. (Mark was also the celebrant at my wedding and I have a great deal of admiration for him.) Dick Smith bought a crateload of copies of Overloading Australia and posted them to all state and federal politicians and mayors around the country.

By limiting immigration, sustainable population activists aim to ensure Australia’s population will top out at around 26 million people. But even this may be too many; Professor Tim Flannery believes the long-term human carrying capacity of the Australian continent and Tasmania could be as low as 8 million people.

This notion of ‘carrying capacity’ – that we will simply run out of resources to sustain current levels of population growth – has been thoroughly discredited. Brendan O’Neill in Spiked provides an excellent summary.

Thomas Malthus was wrong in the early 19th century when he predicted “epidemics, pestilence and plagues” would “sweep off tens of thousands” if we didn’t get working-class birth rates under control.

Paul Ehrlich was wrong in the early 1970s when he predicted “hundreds of millions of people [would] starve to death” in India by 1980 or so.

Malthus and Ehrlich backed up their arguments with scientific-sounding factoids, but what actually drove their views was a deep hatred of other humans (those of lower class or darker skin, respectively) and a failure to grasp our species’ amazing ability to adapt and overcome problems.

This is why today’s green-tinged neo-Malthusians are wrong when they claim our current population growth is ecologically unsustainable, or can only occur at the expense of living standards. Despite the exponential growth of the world’s population, living standards are higher now than they have ever been in history.

They claim to eschew China-style coercive population control practices but fail to explain how education campaigns or handing out condoms could possibly achieve their goals, especially given the spread of anti-contraception religions across the developing world.

It is also a total failure of imagination to believe that even if we can’t solve all the potential problems of population growth with today’s technology, we will not find ways to do so in the future. History has shown, again and again, that we could and we did. There is no reason to believe we can not or will not in future.

As population grows, so do technology and society. We find ways to cope. We find alternatives to scarce resources. We come up with brilliant ways of feeding and housing ourselves and living with each other.

The fact is, we’re not doing those things well at the moment. We’re not developing renewable energy or building the infrastructure to cope with the pressures of population growth.

But to claim the answer to crowded trains or traffic jams or water shortages or even global warming is sealing off our borders or having fewer babies, rather than using all our intelligence and industriousness to fix the problems, smacks of a Luddite hatred of progress and a deep misanthropy.

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8 thoughts on “Population alarmists are always wrong

  1. The definition of a sustainable population depends upon our standards of living and the way in which we manage it. Australia is the 6th largest country in the world with a population density of about 3 persons per sq. km. Europe has about 200 persons/sq km. We must define the lowest average standard of living we are prepared to put up with and compute exactly how many people the land can support at that level. If we don’t, we could come under attack from overcrowded nations who are prepared to put up with less (James Lovelock: “The Revenge Of Gaia”). Already, analysts are starting to analyse what the world will be like if and when we can get the environment back into balance and it will not be anything like what we enjoy now. Forewarned is forearmed ! (Bill McKibben: “The End Of Nature”, “Eaarth” (sic)).

  2. We must define the lowest average standard of living we are prepared to put up with and compute exactly how many people the land can support at that level.

    Jim, that’s exactly what we should not do, because it’s an equation based on today’s assumptions about technology, agriculture, energy production, energy efficiency and society. All those things will change and the result will massively readjust the standard of living possible with our existing resources.
    Calling a halt to population growth – and economic growth – merely on the say-so of short-sighted pseudoscientific doomsayers is ludicrous. Instead we should focus our energies on developing renewable energy, more energy efficient everything, drought-resistant crops and so on. History shows we have every chance of succeeding.

  3. I take issue with your argument as summed up by this paragraph:

    “As population grows, so do technology and society. We find ways to cope. We find alternatives to scarce resources. We come up with brilliant ways of feeding and housing ourselves and living with each other.”

    Finding more efficient ways to get at Earth’s resources does not increase them. A clear example is the oceans; we’re catching more and more fish from the ocean that is providing food to more and more people, but the total number of fish in the oceans is going down, in most cases quite dramatically. It’s entirely possible we’ll keep increasing our catch year-on-year until one year there’s nothing left at all.

    The other furphy is the idea that technology has allowed us to increase both our standard of living and our population. It has had a contribution, to be sure, but the vast majority of the contribution comes by increasing the area that is being exploited — that is, getting wood, food, metals and goods from polluting industrusties from the developing world rather than our own countries.

    At the moment the world’s population is using far more resources than the Earth can replace. Australia, despite having a high per-capita usage, is positive in this regard precisely because we have a small population. In this case racing to the average is the opposite of progress.

    Australia is a net exporter of food, and could quite probably physically support a much higher population if we don’t care about things like protecting the environment. If we decided to turn places like Kakadu into food production areas and built hundreds more salt-water converters we could probably support a population into the hundreds of millions…at least for a while. However, most people don’t want that. Most people want natural areas of Australia to remain as they are, for a wide variety of reasons.

    Finally, you’re right that technological advances may improve our ability to support our population without environmental degradation…but isn’t it far wiser to get those technologies in place first rather than dramatically increase our population and just _hope_ we develop them in time?

  4. James, the answer is in the word ‘renewable’. That means maintaining or even expanding our standard of living without increasing our resource footprint.
    I think it is wiser to grow our population, thus increasing the pressure to develop the tools to cope with it. Plus my way doesn’t involve governments telling us how many babies we’re allowed to have, which yours inevitably does.

  5. My way obviously doesn’t involve the government telling people how many babies they’re allowed to have, Josh. Australia’s birthrate is less than the replacement rate – even the recent “spike” brought it to less than the replacement rate, and it’s falling again. If you want to talk about governments trying to influence the number of babies children have, shouldn’t we be talking about the baby bonus? Face it, it’s your way that gets the government involved: “One for each parent and one for the country!” and all that.

  6. For many years I have been sceptical of the notion that population density effects the economy and environment. The two Korea’s have similar land mass and natural resouces but very different economies. If population density is the critical factor certain campainers claim North Korea should be the one that is destitute because it has a larger population but even I know it’s the other way around.Many high population density countries do well while some sparcely populated countries such as Ethiopia are in strife.It seems that social, political and theological matters might be more important.

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