© Australian Geographic Oct – Dec 2003
This old, dry continent simply can’t cope with any more people.
AUSTRALIA’S POPULATION grows by a quarter of a million annually and is about 20 million. By mid-century we’ll hit 25 million. I believe our current population is unsustainable, putting unacceptable strains on our fragile resources. We desperately need to slow, or preferably stop, our population growth.
European explorers, such as Dirk Hartog who visited Australia’s inhospitable west coast in the 17th century, took one look and went away. Without plentiful water, there was little hope of European-style settlement.
Some 150 years later, Captain James Cook found parts of the east coast wetter and more fertile. But it was no new Europe. The soil was generally thin and infertile and the rainfall variable.
In the past, many believed this continent had almost unlimited opportunity for population growth. Early in the 20th century, Prime Minister Billy Hughes estimated Australia’s optimal population at 100 million. However, the geographer Thomas Griffith Taylor disagreed. Recognising Australia was largely arid, he suggested 20 million was the optimal size. In the 1920s he rightly predicted we’d reach this figure around the year 2000.
After two centuries of farming, the country is in far worse shape than it was prior to European settlement. Early farmers were not to know that land-clearing and replacing native vegetation with short-rooted crops and pasture grasses would bring salts to the surface. Now dryland salinity (Poor fellow my country, page 36) has rendered 20,000 square kilometres of farmland unfit for farming and threatens another 150,000 sq. km.
An increased population will put more strain on our fragile natural resources. More than 1500 Australian species are threatened with extinction. Many rivers are in trouble from over extraction for irrigation, with insufficient water left for seasonal flows that flush away salts and excess nutrients.
Where would we put more people? Our inland water resources can’t sustain a big increase in population and coastal cities such as Sydney have reached their geographical limits. The only option would be to stuff most people into high-rise apartments or to invade more native bushland. As NSW Premier Bob Carr wrote in his book “What Australia Means to Me.” “Those who advocate an Australian population of 50 million…. Are talking about urbanization of the eastern coast from north Queensland to Melbourne ever more housing estates, more shopping malls and multiplexes, more freeways and petrol stations where now we have rivers and forests, unpolluted beaches and open country.”
Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne are constrained by lack of water supply. Some suggest we can shift the population centre of Australia to the north without repeating the mistakes we have made in the south. But I doubt we can build any large, new dams that won’t seriously damage the environment.
As our population grows, the cost of living will increase. Resources such as real estate and food supplies – including our wild-fish stocks – will become scarcer and increasingly valuable.
Executive director of The Australia Institute, Clive Hamilton, suggests that like many European countries, Australia should adopt a post-growth economy. “It’s time to get over our growth fetish,” he says. “Why do we equate national progress with economic growth when we know that continued expansion of our levels of consumption is putting ever greater pressures on the natural environment?” Let’s allow growth to phase out in the next couple of decades rather than let it go on until our natural resources are degraded, and our cities unaffordable and uninhabitable.
At some point, population growth has to stop. Births currently outnumber deaths by more than 100,000 a year, even though Australia’s reproduction levels have fallen to an average of 1.73 children per couple. Last year’s official immigration intake was 134,000. I’ve always loved children and once wanted six. After the birth of my first child, however, I read “The Population Bomb”, by Paul Ehrlich, and abandoned any ideas of adding to the load on the planet by producing more of my own. I adopted or fostered the other four. I have no regrets.
I and others at Sustainable Population Australia seek an ecologically sustainable population. We believe that immigration and birth rates need to be seriously assessed by all Australians interested in a sustainable future. To secure that future, all Australians can install solar power, use public transport, recycle and re-use, but above all else, resist having that third child.
Jenny Goldie is the national director of Sustainable Population Australia. Its website is population.org.au