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.