Submission Regarding The Population of Australia

Brian Sanderson, formerly of Lisarow, NSW. Presently residing in Wolfville Canada.

I commend my fellow Australian citizens and the Australian Government for bringing this matter into the public light.

In a Nutshell

The last 100 years, or so, have seen the tremendous developments in science, technology, and governance. It is a certainty that the cooperation of large numbers of people is required for such advancement. It is a certainty that advancement of science, technology and governance are the primary drivers that have made us better able to utilize resources, which is to say these drivers have greatly expanded national and international economies. Yet, for me, the achievement is hollow because the world has far more people living in poverty today than there were people alive 100 years ago.

Clearly, global population has now expanded to subsume and surpass the advantage won by scientific and technological innovation. Australians have appropriately reduced their birth rate but this has not been the case worldwide. Short of conquest, no sovereign nation can impose its will upon another. Neither can we look to the United Nations to achieve any practical outcome, as becomes obvious from the record of recent efforts see: section 3, page 45 of May (2010). The best any nation can do is to set a responsible example by stabilizing, even reducing, its own population.

The question should not be "How large can we grow the human population?". The question should be "What number of people is optimal for our well-being?". (Here I assume that we can agree that well-being of the environment is not separable from human well-being.)

My Life-History Perspective

Many of us, perhaps too many, may fondly recall the great growth spurt of the 1950's and 60's. This was a time when anything seemed possible. Populations grew harmoniously with expanded life-style thanks to technolgies that effectively exploited fossil fuels, particularly petroleum. In 1961 President Kennedy made a decision to go to the Moon and 8 years and 2 months later Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module's ladder and onto the Moon's surface, truly real estate with a view! Technological innovation created a green revolution that vastly increased food for humanity. Some dreamed of obtaining a magnificient harvest by exploiting the huge volume of the oceans. Others dreamed of colonizing space; perhaps remembering how the expanding European population had colonized all the best places on earth during the previous century. (Colonizing space avoids the troublesome indignities of "displacing" indigenous populations, right?) Limitations of petroleum reserves would surely be made irrelevant by nuclear fusion reactors...

Unfortunately, technologies saturate. The green revolution is now superseded by declining per capita food production and has been since the 1980's. Seemingly good ideas did not always bear fruit. People still try and fail to make an effective fusion reactor. The more that is learned, the further space colonization fades to fantasy. (Although recently developed electronic and information technologies have made fatastic voyages into space at least a virtual reality. Movies depict galaxies of warring civilizations, including the genocidal destruction of entire planets!) When measurements were finally made, we found that most of the oceans have the productivity of a desert --- albeit a most beautiful desert which we are now racing to digitally document before it is consumed by the weight of humanity.

During the mid-twentieth century there was a clear correlation between growing wealth and growing population, at least for most "developed" nations. Many people still have that relationship fixed in their heads. It is a correct relationship in the context for which it was observed, a time during which technological growth massively increased the availability of resources for human exploitation. Unfortunately, the old correlation, which people grew up with, no longer applies because circumstances have changed. Key technologies have saturated and the most important raw resources are in short supply relative to the reasonable requirements of 7 billion deserving individuals.

Of Individuals and Government

I am a citizen of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. What I say here applies equally to any of these countries, they are not so different. All three went through a post-war population growth spurt. In all three nations, the private citizens, collectively voted, in the most personal of ways, to stabilize population --- by appropriately reducing birth rate. This happened when workable birth control became available and when women achieved (not without strenuous effort) the dignity of being free to follow their own aspirations.

A couple of years ago I took a brief holiday in the Dominican Republic. Perchance, I found myself engaged in a riotous conversation with one of the local young men.
He asked, "How many children do you have?"
"One." say's I.
With a concerned and sympathetic look, he replied, "Oh, too much television! Me, no television, seven children!"
Responsible parenting has always been much more the perogative of women than men. It is not surprising, therefore, when male-dominated governments offer inducements to young women to produce more babies. This has been the recent history in Australia.

The people decided a long time ago to stabilize the population of Australia. Governments and special interest groups decided otherwise!

Ecology of Australia

Australia is a dry continent. Drier than any European, North American, or New Zealander could ever imagine without first hand experience. Yet, when it's not dry, it floods, terribly. And, the long-term hydrographs of Australian rivers confirm that a lifetime of climatically dry conditions might be followed by a lifetime of climatically wet conditions.

Australian soils are mostly infertile and much land has been degraded by farming. The coastal ocean is as infertile as the land. The animals, plants and ecology of Australia have evolved to be well-adapted to nutrient limitation. A large pseudo-European civilization is a direct contradiction to the ecology of Australia. This is why the Australian population has been so concentrated within a small number of cities, since European settlement. It is why Australia's few cities have become crowded, to the point on unlivability, while the great expanse remains all but deserted.

Ecology of Human Populations

There is now an overwhelming body of evidence that human primates are an evolved species. Thus people are a part of ecology, not apart from ecology. Any understanding of the number of humanity might be expected to benefit, therefore, from an understanding of the evolution of our species and how we function within an ecological framework. Paul Colinvaux (1978), "Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare", provides a very readable introduction to the principles of ecology and includes a pioneering analysis of the ecology of people which is fleshed out in a subsequent book "The Fates of Nations: a biological theory for history". Colinvaux makes two key findings:
  1. "All poverty is caused by the continued growth of population"
  2. "Agressive war is caused by the continual rise of population in rich countries"
The ecological model fits very well to the rise and fall of civilizations that had previously been documented by historian Arnold Toynbee.

Economics of a Diminished Lifestyle

The most iconic measure of an economy is GDP (gross domestic product). The two things most strongly correlated with GDP growth are population growth and inflation. The most surefire way to grow GDP is to grow population. Some types of business profit almost in direct proportion ot GDP and the power of nations is often assessed in terms of GDP. (Remember the old catch cry, "Populate or perish.") It is little wonder that governments are strongly incentivized to grow population. But there are some serious downside issues: As Colinvaux so clearly showed: "All poverty is caused by the continued growth of population". But not everyone becomes equally poverty-stricken. A powerful and wealthy elite exists even in the pathological poverty of Haiti. Continued population growth inevitably leads to inequity.

I recall a time when the egalitarian ideal had some meaning. I cherish it still.

Unemployment and The Great Demographic Fallacy

The tired old line is that "we need to import lots more people to support our aging population". Yet, the empirical fact is that young Australians are grossly underemployed. And, older employees are routinely induced to retire early. Frankly, I think that the premise of that tired old line is insulting. Older people are not all helpless and needy.

If Australia has a shortage of doctors then Australia should train more young doctors. It is an outrage to steal doctors from poorer nations, who have a far greater need themselves. Exchange programs and training medical providers for poorer nations is the responsible alternative.

Train young Australians.

Population and the Global Economy

Given available technology, the world is resource limited. We know this is true because of the number of desperately poor people on this planet. Globalization is a good thing because it brings resources and technologies to receptive nations, enabling the people the advantages of increase production. This can mean an opportunity for a poor nation to rise out of the poverty cycle caused by excessive population. On the other hand, it exposes less advantaged people in richer nations to chronic unemployment and despair, eroding the fabric of society.

This problem requires care and understanding and, above all, patience. It will never be totally resolved until global population is brought within the limits that can be sustained by available technology and resources.

Political Asylum

I have already argued that Australia cannot force policy upon other sovereign nations. Neither can Australia be held responsible for the policies of other sovereign nations, nor the outcomes caused by those policies. In particular, Australia should never let itself become the dumping ground for excessive population growth in other nations.

Australia does, however, have an absolute obligation to grant asylum to individuals who suffer political persecution. It should be possible to grant asylum within the constraint of having a responsible population strategy.