16 September 2011

Damaged environment demands we cut our population

National Director of Sustainable Population Australia

17 January 2002 © The Sydney Morning Herald

Immigration must fall within the bounds of ecological sustainability if Australia is not to become a wasteland, writes Jenny Goldie.

As more and more asylum seekers press on our shores, we need to know how many people this country can sustain. Social and economic considerations have dominated the debate about population policy but ultimately it is an environmental matter. No nation should grow beyond its resource limits.

This week a former member of the Business Council of Australia, Tony Berg, focusing primarily on the economic, called for an increased population through much higher immigration.

It is a familiar cry from the business lobby and smacks of vested interest. More people means pressure to keep wages low. It also means spiralling real estate prices that benefit existing property owners but not the young or poor trying to break into the market.

A bigger population, however, whether derived from natural increase or from immigration, is not necessarily in the interests of the country as a whole. A greater gross domestic product does not always translate into more wealth per capita, and even when it does occur, this income may have to be directed into higher rentals or mortgage repayments. In addition, any income gain, particularly in our major cities, is offset by loss of quality of life in the form of increased noise, pollution and congestion.

More than 1 million Australians are either unemployed or underemployed. To put another 84,000 every year into this labour pool, as Berg suggests, is to increase competition for scarce jobs. Surely we must absorb our own into the workforce before bringing in more.

This is not to say that the humanitarian component of our immigration program should not be increased from its current 12,000. With so many millions in the world in need of refuge we must double or even triple that number, but only within a reduced immigration program overall.

By all means, bring in skilled workers while our educational institutions catch up, but give the skilled five-year working visas, not permanent residency. And let us refrain from poaching graduates from poor countries who have trained here. Surely their nations need them more.

How many people we bring in through immigration, whatever the category, must be set in the context of how many people this country can sustain. For that we must look at our resources. Those who watch the ABC weather report will see from the map that Australia is not a green continent; it is largely arid. Its soils are poor and the weather is erratic and becoming more so as climate change bites.

Dryland salinity is threatening to wipe out vast swathes of Australian farmland if nothing is done. Most rivers in the southern part of the continent are degraded and increasingly salinised. The Murray River will be undrinkable for Adelaide residents 40 per cent of the time within a mere 20 years.

Despite stating that he believes Australia does not need a population policy, the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, is letting immigration policy be a de facto population policy. If trends continue, we will have 27 million people and still be growing by mid-century. Last year, net migration was 107,500. With an annual natural increase of about 120,000, this means we are growing by a million every four to five years.

Australia’s population can only grow within its ecological limits. Unfortunately, with our population of 19.4 million and at our standard of living, we are not living sustainably. We know this because all the environmental indicators – soil, water, forests, biodiversity and atmosphere – are declining.

Thus, we must allow our population to stabilise as soon as practicable through lower immigration and being content with our current fertility of an average of 1.7 children a couple. Even the Australian National University demographer Professor Peter McDonald has said he is not worried by this figure. He believes it is only the European levels of 1.2 and 1.3 which lead to “hyper-aging” that are of concern.

Once we have achieved stabilisation, we should let our numbers slowly decrease until we come within the bounds of ecological sustainability; that is, when all environmental indicators have recovered. Indeed, it will not be unusual. Many developed countries in Europe are allowing their populations to contract to more comfortable levels.

Only a generation ago, in 1970, Australia’s population was 12.6 million. The standard of living was good; the quality of life was high. We need not be afraid of returning to such a time.

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