Population debate, difficult but necessary

Bring on a “civilised discussion about population” but Elizabeth Farrelly’s contribution to it underwhelms (“Eight billion humans can’t all be wrong, but we do need a civilised discussion about population”, October 31-November 1). Farrelly recognises the inevitably awful outcomes of overpopulation – “famine, disease, war” – but sets up a straw man when she insists that action to avert it, or even discussing averting it, is dangerous moral territory. She seems to suggest that there is no middle ground between forced sterilisations, on one hand, and “the old wealth-and-education argument” on the other. The evidence is clear that education alone does not drive rapid change in family size, and poverty reduction is near impossible in rapidly growing populations. Yet voluntary family planning programs, that openly advocate small families to slow population growth, have worked even in poor and poorly educated communities. Farrelly says anyone who wants to limit Australia’s population growth can be seen as xenophobic. But we are doing high-fertility countries a huge disservice by falsely claiming economic benefits from population growth, particularly by insisting (as Farrelly rightly dismisses) that an “ageing population spells economic disaster”. The report cited by Farrelly thoroughly debunks the latter myth. Yet countries like Tanzania and Iran are withdrawing women’s access to contraception precisely because they believe what developed countries (more precisely, the vested interests within developed countries) are saying about a “birth dearth”. The moral hazard sits squarely on the other foot.

Jane O'Sullivan Sydney Morning Herald 2 November 2020

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