Australian Expert Speaks on Immigration, Population Growth, Carrying Capacity,Etc.

The author of this bulletin is Mark O’Connor, co-author of “Overloading Australia”.  His comments in this bulletin are part of another book , “Environmental Policy Failure: The Australian Story” just published by Tilde University Press in Melbourne.


Australian Expert Speaks on Immigration, Population Growth, Etc.

Though the semi-desert nature of most of Australia has long been known, the Nineteenth century saw the emergence of influential groups of growth advocates ­ then known as boomers or boosters ­ who argued that Australia’s large area meant it must soon reach the population of another Europe, or a new USA. They distributed maps of Australia with outlines of European countries superimposed, showing for instance that most of Western Europe could fit into Western Australia. In the 1920s, the geographer Griffith Taylor countered by producing maps with Australia turned upside down and superimposed on Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa ­ a better fit in area, and in rainfall and soil fertility.

Australia’s agricultural frontier closed in the 1890s. Yet a popular myth that Australia is still in its pioneering adolescence leads many Australians to accept constant growth of population as normal.

Even Australia’s agricultural areas are not so large, or fertile, as proponents of ‘Big Australia’ claim. Australia suffers a capricious climate with fierce alternations of drought and flood. It is the world’s flattest, driest, least fertile and most ruthlessly cleared habitable continent. Only 10% is arable. In a good year it grows less wheat than France, in a bad year less wheat than Britain.

Australia at present produces nearly 3 times as much food as it consumes, and most Australians assume they will remain rich in food. Yet a mere doubling of population, which at 1.8% annual growth would occur in some 39 years, would halve Australia’s per capita resources of land, fresh water, and sea-foods and thus cut its food exports drastically. At the same time, production is likely to decrease as Australia’s farmland becomes eroded, salinized and acidified, and as Peak Oil drives up the cost of imported fertilizers. Australia’s oil will be gone by around 2020.  Phosphate fertilizers are equally critical, and increasingly scarce. The processing and transport of crops also depend on fossil fuels.

Tim Flannery has offered a rough calculation of Australia’s long-term carrying capacity. He suggested that, with currently foreseeable technology and with our present habits of consumption, we might in the long run safely support between 8 and 12 million people.  If so, this will be bad news not just for Australia, but for some 80 countries that cannot feed themselves and are dependent on the few countries that have a surplus. (Flannery did not factor in the rate at which some other countries are now buying up farmland in Australia to solve their own food problems.) His estimate should be compared with an actual Australian population of 22.5 million in early 2011, and a projected 35.9 million as early as 2050, even if net annual migration can be kept to 180,000

The ‘empty country’ myth is often mixed with a moral argument that Australia would be ‘selfish’ to seek to be less over-populated than other countries. This has no basis in international law, which assumes nation-states own their own countries. Indeed most of the countries at the top of the world’s per capita wealth table have populations under 10 or 20 million, like Norway and Sweden, and are admired rather than blamed for not letting their populations outrun their resources.

By contrast, Hitler’s claim in the 1930s that the expanding German population should claim living space or lebensraum from less dynamic countries was widely condemned, as was Japan’s expansionism at that time. A vaguer version of this argument, still human-centered, holds that since ‘population is a global problem’, it is contrary to ‘global equity’ for any country to solve it on its own. Yet there is no competent global authority, and the ecosystems threatened are mostly not global but local. In fact, the world’s nations are more like a free enterprise system, where those who act prudently can benefit from their choices while helping and setting an example to encourage others  By contrast ‘population socialism’, if widely accepted, might require all nations to ‘sign on for the population explosion’, and cause disaster not just for other species but for humans.

After Australia separated from Britain in 1901, many Australians still felt an obligation to take in UK migrants, granted that UK families had contributed men, money, and lives to the fleets and armies that had long protected Australia. Later, after WWII, there was a strong sense of obligation to take in people from a shattered Europe, and also a military argument that Australia must ‘populate or perish’. Of course, such arguments are human-centered and ignore other species.

A newer version of the moral argument claims that Australia must take in millions of people of non-European races to make up for those it did not accept during the years of the White Australia policy (1901-1973). While the White Australia policy was certainly reprehensible, non-refugee immigration to any country is a privilege and not a right. In any case, Australia has long ceased to discriminate by race in its selection of immigrants, and has taken in generous numbers from surrounding countries.

An odder moral argument, sometimes heard from the Green Left, is that Australia, having displaced the Aborigines through immigration from Europe, and reduced them to a minority in their own country, must now make amends for such racism by taking in comparable numbers from the other continents. Aborigines often resent this argument, and complain their protests against immigration are ignored.

Idealists sometimes portray Australia as a large rich country that should share some of its wealth with ‘poor’ countries such as India, China, or Indonesia. In reality, these countries are not at all poor in natural resources, but much richer than Australia. That is why they can hold such great populations. Virtually none of Australia’s farmland compares with Java’s lush double-monsoon regions with metres of rich volcanic soil. Even in economic terms, Australia’s richness is something of a myth.

The overpopulation of Asia is also quite recent. Thus Java, which held 124 million humans in 2005, held less than 5 million in 1800. This growth was produced, in two centuries, by an average annual increase less than Australia’s recent rates. The human history of even the most crowded countries starts with a small population and usually with an intact environment and abundant natural resources. Yet once countries pass 20 million, as Australia did in 2003, they are out of the tiddlers’ pool and only two or three doublings away from becoming another obese behemoth of around 100 million.

Australia’s boosters remain active. Today most pay only lip-service to the myth of an empty continent awaiting farmers. The big money is to be made in housing and in land speculation, as well as from retail sales and construction. Newspapers are fed repeated stories about how we are desperately short of skilled and willing workers ­ alternating with pieces on how we are desperately short of major projects to provide employment. The proposed solution is a spiral of increasing population and increasing construction that the UN’s former chief demographer Joseph Chamie has described as ‘Ponzi demography’.  (Rupert) Murdoch’s Australian newspaper aggressively demands high immigration and rapid population growth. Yet as several enquiries have found, ‘the economic case for rapid population growth through immigration is surprisingly weak’  Related claims that we must have high migration to provide labour, or skilled labour, or to stop the population ageing are also dubious.