Too Many People, Not Enough Resources

Too many people, not enough resources

September 16, 2009

Flannery: immigration is too high

Environmentalist Tim Flannery tells an IQ2 debate audience that the current rate of immigration is too high for the Australian environment.

This debate is a recurring one in our history, and various interest groups in our society have widely varying views and interests on the immigration rate.

Take business for example. Almost invariably, business is interested in population growth. That means bigger markets, and more profits for businessmen. Government is also likely to be pro-population growth because it gives them a bigger tax base and more international prestige.

The bureaucracy, of course, would be for population growth as well because the purpose of their existence is to serve their particular interests into the future.

But that doesn't mean that it's in the interest of every individual in the world, or even Australia, to pursue a high population growth policy, nor does it mean that it's in the interest of humanity as a whole to pursue such a policy.

The central point is that as we pursue high rates of population growth, the issue always left out is our common environment, our common heritage required for our continued existence. Until that is factored in on an equal footing with economic arguments and social arguments than we will continue to have a very facile and useless debate on immigration.

What do we know about individuals and their sense of population growth? Women in the developed world at least have control over their bodies to the point where now the average number of children per woman is only 1.6.

United Nations figures released in March for the total population rates for the planet reveal that our population will peak at around 2050 at just over 9.1 billion human beings. That's a very serious issue for us people who live on this small planet of ours. The 6.8 billion of us who are on the planet at the moment are using far more of the Earth's resources than our planet can possibly sustain into the future.

As we seek to limit our growth in population, the focus is on the poorest countries in the world. Women there have an average of about five children each. If we're to reach that level of just over 9 billion people in the world 40 years from now, that rate will need to drop to 2.5 children each.

But if we are requiring so much of the poorest countries in the world, what right do we have to grow our population at one of the fastest rates of any of the developed countries on the planet?

Australia's population has a much greater environmental impact than the growing population of a poor country. We are the heaviest carbon users in the world, about 23 tonnes per capita, so people who come to this country from anywhere on the planet will almost certainly result in an increase in carbon emissions. Someone coming from India, for example, would have been on average emitting one tonne of carbon a year.

We engage in this high-immigration program without a single consideration for these enviromental attitudes.

One of the reasons we've had such great difficulty in reaching our Kyoto goals is simply because of our population growth rate. It makes it much more difficult to fulfil our international obligations.

The situation reaches its extreme in a place like Adelaide, where I lived for seven years. The state government was very keen to increase its population at a time when it was facing an unprecendented water crisis. My one three-word question to the premier where's the water? was never answered. In fact, there was never an attempt made to answer it, which I think reveals just how deeply entrenched these special interests of government and business are.

Unless we can more forward as a group, as a species, I don't think there's much hope for us. Eventually, the world's population does have to stop growing. We are a unique species on this planet and we have removed all constraint on our population growth. Every other species has natural factors which constrain its growth. We have removed them all, except for our own pollution.

We have to get away from self-serving arguments and deal with the real issue: the impact of people as a whole on this planet and Australia's proportional contribution to the environmental crisis in which we are now so deeply in.

This is an edited transcript of Professor Tim Flannery's address to the last night's iQ2 debate in Sydney, supporting the proposition that our immigration rate is too high.