Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Sustainable population" as panacea

My least favourite shonky climate panacea is probably the populationist idea. Not because it's intrinsically more dangerous or less do-able than nuclear power or "clean coal" carbon sequestration. Simply because in my experience it appeals to so many people with a smug, dogmatic sense of superiority, and is more common among racists than genuine environmentalists (The group pictured, Sustainable Population Australia, do not promote racism as far as I can tell, but other "green" populationists are not so discerning).

This is not to deny there is a real debate on population growth to be had, with people who don't present population policy as a simplistic panacea. But for me, the population issue is about human rights - like access to contraception and family planning and aged care - not statistical artifices like "carrying capacity" and per-capita national averages of consumption.

And of course, we have precious little time to turn around dangerous climate change. If we wanted to do that using population control measures, the only means that might achieve it in the short time available would make the Third Reich look saintly. There is plenty written elsewhere to debunk populationist arguments, such as a good series at Climate and Capitalism. For further illustration I am providing these pictures of Sustainable Population Australia putting forward insultingly simplistic "solutions" with their hobby horse of curbing population growth.


  1. Ben Courtice do you see carrying capacity as an "artiface". As far as I know we all need to eat three meals a day, we need water for cooking and cleaning. We need a place, generally under a fixed roof to sleep in. Nature does not provide any of these in infinite quantities. These are not merely abstractions that human ingenuity can produce at will but products of the environment that is only available in fixed quantities. Obviously you have never been outside Brunswick and observed the real world. Have you seen farmers pile sheep into a paddock and see the result, beyond a certain point the pasture will become depleted and the dams empty. If a farmer understands the concept of carrying capacity so can you.
    Carrying capacity is not a human construct but an immutable law of nature, transgress it and nature will certainly tell you when you have crossed the line.
    Australia is the driest inhabited continent. It is not surprising that most of us live on or near the coast in South East Australia. That is where the rain falls and where there are areas with soils that are suitable for agriculture. Australia is a huge land mass, but have you ever questioned why Alice Springs is not a mega-city? Why with our technology and ingenuity we can't just build suburbia in the deserts of Western Australia?
    Your argument about racism, hidden or otherwise is simply a cheap ad hominem attack. Please cite any evidence you have about any green group in Australia that uses the environment as a cloak for racism. SPA has gone out of its way to show that it is clearly not racist, even advocating for increasing refugee intake and ensuring a non-discriminatory migration policy. Just because employer groups want ever increasing amounts of "skilled" migrants does not mean that they believe in multicultural utopias or diversity for its own sake, they need an ever increasing supply of compliant workers to keep wage costs down.
    SPA also advocates increasing foreign aid budgets specifically for issues such as family planning and contraceptives.
    We are facing a confluence of potential disasters with peak oil and climate change. Any tentative understanding of these issues indicate that the carrying capacity of Australia is heading down. Importing skilled migrants, especially denying areas of the Third world of people who were locally trained, e.g. doctors and engineers, is not a solution to peak oil or climate change. We need to consolidate what we have and plan for a future that doesn't include doubling our population EVERY 33 years (at current growth rates of 2.1%)
    I find it ironic that your aims are aligned with the likes of the Scanlon Foundation. Scalon is a very rich man that has had close calls with the law and is using his wealth to promote further population growth. He knows that his wealth can only increase with more people. But the rest of us have to pay for it.
    Can you tell me which of the following problems have as their solution increased population growth:
    Reducing water consumption so we don't need a new CO2 belching desalination plant in Australia every 5 years.
    Reducing congestions on the roads.
    Getting a seat on public transport during peak our
    Reducing hospital waiting lists
    Avoiding spending billions on new infrastructure in outer suburban areas
    Avoiding massive infrastructure spending in existing suburbs to cope with much greater loads on water, sewerage, electricity, natural gas, phones, roads and bridges.
    The further incursion of suburbia over productive farmland and forests
    Admittedly, reducing population growth is a simplistic solution, but that does not make it wrong. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to leave them something that is livable. I doubt that Sydney and Melbourne at 6 million people each would be a place they want to live in.

  2. Hello Ben
    I am a committee member of the the Victorian Branch of Sustainable Population Australia and we also advocate human rights issues like access to contraception and family planning, aged care and increasing refugee intakes whilst also larger concepts like carrying capacity and in terms of Australia rethink the quota for the skilled migrant scheme which is at historically high levels. The skilled migration scheme is a product heavily promoted by the Business Council of Australia and the Minerals Council of Australia to push for more economic growth. This program adds 250,000+ people per year while refugees who are in real need only account for around 13,000 [+ a family intake] and are made political scape goats

    What we advocate is very do-able. In global terms education to women and family planning services represent the most cost effective way to offset CO emissions - even cheaper then planting trees.
    Heres a link to a scheme Also look to United Nations Population Fund to find out about the things we advocate.

    We had a great festival and clearly more people understand the concepts and pressures behind population. What could be concluded is that there is a growing understanding and awakening to this topic by a broad range of people - including different demographics and nationalities and that the taboo aspect seems to be lifting.

    Pity you only judged the book by the cover and not read the detail.

  3. Hi Ben,

    I note that you didn't really slam SPA. I too would like to know about the other green organisations which are really racist. As a journalist you know that you shouldn't try to get away with a voodoo statement about how they exist without naming them and citing the documents.

    I must admit that I find it odd that a socialist isn't prosecuting the Growth Lobby, rather than quasi-defending it, for it is the hugest capitalist venture in Australia - crushing democracy and the environment, using up water and farting out carbon gases as it tears up the soil like a war machine.

    Have you never heard of Labor Resources and Labor Holdings? I guess not. Have a look here: "Australian Labor Governments or Commercial Corporations" for the link between population boosting and corporate profit.

    The propaganda machine has done a good job on a lot of us. Yes, racists do exist and some people do look down on third worlders as big breeders, not realising that the same thing as was done to places like Ireland, Haiti, Africa, Pacific Islands etc is happening to Australia - vis: dispossession then encouragement of unreasonable population growth and disorganisation. They cannot see themselves in the mirror. It was done here by British slaves and settlers in 1788 and it is being done all over again. The real propaganda is that we must sacrifice democracy for population growth for economic growth to maintain the rich in the style they are accustomed to.

    Have a look here to see what the dependency ratio really is: "Cost of Housing and Cost of Dependency in Australia".

    We are being conned and I don't understand why socialists and unions aren't screaming this out on every street corner. The revolution is so late for its destiny that someone else is going to have to start it.

    Get with it please - we need a real green left.

  4. Those posters look fantastic!
    Thanks for the info about SPA, mate.

  5. Ben's been drinking at the dogma trough of Ian Angus too much. Maybe he will grow up and think for himself someday.

  6. Could someone please tell me what the exact "carrying capacity" of Australia is?

    Please include the following details:

    • How exactly was the figure arrived at?
    • Is a population level that is below the "carrying capacity" by definition a sustainable population level?
    • What proportion of the carrying capacity of Australia consists of rich people who consume 100 times as much wealth and burn up 100 times as much carbon per capita as poor people? How was that allowable proportion determined?
    • Does the carrying capacity change if there is a change in the way Australia produces electricity, or disposes of waste, or manages its forests, or grows its food, or deploys its armed forces, or builds houses, or regulates carbon emissions, or manages its water supply? If so, what assumptions about all these factors underlie the asserted "carrying capacity"?
    • If the "carrying capacity" fluctuates over time, what use is it?

  7. "carrying capacity" is a relative construct depending on how many resources we consume. Given the wasteful and excessive lifestyle of most Australians, I'm sure we could fit another 50 million people here if only we'd live more sustainably. The malthusian and neo-malthusian arguments are often self serving, advanced by people who are not prepared to give up their air conditioned, meat eating 240 volt lifestyle. The focus needs to be on increasing sustainability, not reducing population - I think with our current lifestyle we have already exceeded the sustainable carrying capacity of this country by many times.

  8. 1. I dont believe there has ever been a figure that has been agreed on by a majority of people that consider the concept maturely. However, the vast majority of the considerate believe it is below our current population considering our current rate of damage to the environment.
    2. Probably. Does a farmer consider his paddocks to continue to support a number of head of cattle indefinitely if he believes that the number is below the carrying capacity of the paddock?
    3. The proportion has always been determined by the governing elite in any society. There will always be inequality in any society, if you believe it should be 1:100 then thats your value system. Does every cow/bull/calf have the same impact on a farmer's paddock?
    4. Yes. Look up I=PAT.
    5. To give the government an environmental understanding and to provide justification as to population control policies like baby bonuses, permanent residency for students from overseas, the immigration level etc. Ask your nearest farmer if he still uses carrying capacity as he considers the type of livestock for his paddocks.

  9. Some short responses from the blog owner:

    When I was newer to politics, SPA's forerunner Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population had dubious connections or sympathies with the anti-immigration right. See (especially the second half of the article). Admittedly this is old news and I'm very happy that SPA make a genuine effort to not give succour to racist views. However, "populationist" attitudes are fairly common on the street and many people who hold them tend to be closet racists. That's anecdotal evidence but as someone who does a lot of political campaigning I accumulate a fair body of anecdotal evidence.

    See also and for the 1990s debate with AESP

    As to "carrying capacity", Jeff White has kindly provided the questions i would have asked. Thankyou.

    Regarding the government's current immigration policy: my problem is not with the numbers moving here but that permanent immigration is being replaced with temporary "guest workers" who are super-exploited and used to undermine the local wages and conditions. Problems of increasing traffic, skyrocketing house prices etc in cities are urban planning problems and the government's irresponsible attitude to planning is to blame not immigrants.

    My other comments so far about populationist arguments in relation to climate change can be found on this site at but I am planning to write more on this issue soon... so now that I've got your attention, stay tuned ;)

  10. The comment comparing social inequality to the different sizes and appetites of a bull and calf just shows that the author's priority is to ignore social inequality and focus on a statistical average of the population.

  11. Who's ignoring social inequality just because a simple analogy has been used to allow you and your readers to understand the concept of "carrying capacity"? Social equity is a very significant issue and certainly needs to be addressed and rapid population growth makes it significantly harder to address. Can you name me one country that has high population growth and increasing social equity? Now think about the countries with low or no growth and what they are doing with social equity - Norway, France, Finland, Sweden, Greece, China.

    Lets consider social inequality in relation to the population growth policies of this country. How socially equitable is unaffordable housing caused by increased demand due to a 2.1% growth rate? How socially equitable is youth unemployment rising to 100,000, caused by the massive increase of 485 student visas that require the student to work, as well as learn, so they can be rewarded with permanent residency? How socially equitable is a significantly degraded natural environment, caused by a doubling of human population before 2050 (at current 2.1% growth rate), on future generations?

    If it simply comes down to providing social equity for the planet's 78 million extra humans per year, then Australia, being 1/20 the land area of the planet should take in 16 million per year? That's a total Australian population of 39 million at the end of this year, 55 in 2011, 71 in 2012, 87 in 2013, 103 by 2014. Has the concept of carrying capacity started to ring any bells yet?

  12. The blogger here, let me ask you, ceteris paribus... assuming we all could enjoy an eco-socialist planetary arrangement... would a 2 billion person socialist society expropriate more or less habitat necessary to preserve biodiversity than a 6 billion socialist society?

    Which one would use more natural resources, per se? Draw down water a greater absolute rate?

    Eco socialists obviously must want socialism, okay... assume you have it. Then please back to reality and admit numbers matter ecologically speaking, even in your imagined world.

    If you can watch this and still say with a straight face tthat this would have had no effect on natural systems in an ecosocialist world (or has not in a capitalist world), I want you on my poker team (skip to minute 1:30 if you wish and watch through 5:42):

    And sayign "people are not dots" isn't a good comeback.

  13. Fred Pearce (an excellent New Scientist and British Guardian journalist) has released his new book Peoplequake. The populationists commenting here won't like it much, but it appears to emphasise some pertinent facts.

    For example, those who draw an equals sign between population levels and environmental decay simply can't explain the predictions that the global economy will grow 400% in the next 40 years and world population by just 40%. So what's driving the destruction?

    The rate of population growth is slowing down worldwide and will peak by mid-century. There's no population "bomb" at all, yet the capitalist economy must grow or die. Population control avoids the real issue - we need to restructure the economy to make it sustainable. In a carbon-neutral economy, population levels will interact with the environment in completely different ways. Of course, that's a much bigger task than setting immigration laws. But part of allure of the population/immigration climate change panacea is that it allows westerners to judge it less important to change the west's economies than it is to prevent poor people in other countries from sharing them.

    Check out the site for Peace's book at

  14. Simon, I(impact)=P(population)*A(affluence)*T(technology).

    I have never heard of anyone simply saying I=P. Every single commentator, on the perils of population growth, has always said it is a combination of population and consumption/emissions that we need to address. And they have all said there is no point in simply looking at consumption alone as the exponential growth in population will nullify any savings in consumption.
    A simple example. Our population is growing at 2.1% annually. In the next 33 years it will double. This means individually, we need to halve our consumption in the same time frame (half travel, half food consumed, half electricity used etc) just to stay equal to our current consumption/emissions. And we will have achieved 0 for the planet. And in the next 33 years we will need to cut that consumption to a quarter, and so on. Do you really see this as likely?? Why is it that those who say that our impact has nothing to do with population, and say its all to do with consumption levels, always accuse population reductionists as being similarly single minded??

    The rate of population growth is slowing down world wide, a damn good thing. But I wouldnt get too excited about their (UN etc) predictions. They are based on each country's own predictions. Mr Rudd thinks we will only be 35 million by 2050. That requires a growth rate of only 1.16% over the next 40 years. Considering we are currently at 2.1% and increasing, this will require a massive turn around in the next decade to achieve an average of 1.16%. Do you really see this as likely?? So while the rate of growth is very slowly decreasing, there are many social and political forces that are trying to reverse this trend (Rudd, Obama, Brown, Berlusconi etc) and/or are throwing what ever obstacle they can find in its way (Pope etc).

    Its interesting that you start your debate saying that we must reduce our consumption, but you end it with an social equality claim that it is population reductionist that want to deny poor people from sharing the West's economy. How is this going to achieve the reductions the planet needs? Wont we need to bring our economies down to the level of the poor, rather than raising theirs to ours??

  15. I suppose contraception for bankers might be a more attractive approach but the population bombers avoid the key issue which is capitalism based on a growth or die model of accelerating work, consumption and waste.


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