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Opinion Piece

New approach needed to tackle population problem

First published in ABC The Drum on 24 November 2011

As the world’s population hit 7 billion people, global attention has turned to the ‘population problem’.

While this discussion has taken a largely international focus, many have used the milestone as an opportunity to push for a stricter population policy for Australia.

With Australia’s limited resources controlling our population, it is argued, would significantly reduce environmental, societal, economic and infrastructure pressures. The key point of this is that any increase in Australia’s population would see us move beyond the nation’s carrying capacity and we therefore cannot solve any of our nation’s problems until we tackle population.

On the face of it, it seems like a logical idea. Unfortunately however, population policies are being used as a way to avoid the real issue our country needs to grapple with, our consumption and production problems. Population discussions tend to fall into two categories; (1) migration and (2) lower fertility rates. Let’s have a look at each of these issues by themselves.

Migration

Population-focused organisations often target lowered migration intake as it provides an easy target that is measurable and somewhat politically favourable. Many, such as Sustainable Population Australia argue for an immigration program where immigration should be no larger than emigration.

There are the obvious social issues that come with such a policy. Categorically reducing immigration is like saying: ‘Because I was born here and was lucky enough to gain citizenship from this nation, I deserve the extra resources we have and you don’t’. Given the unfair spread of the world’s resources and how Australians have benefited from that unfair distribution, this is an extraordinarily difficult position to justify.

Linked to this, and interestingly for the environment movement, is that the reduction of immigration doesn’t necessarily achieve anything except this social harm. No matter where we live, we are all people who use resources. Whether I live in Africa, Asia, Australia or anywhere else, I live in an economic system that is, or strives to be, based on a resource intensive model of production. Moving to a different place will not change this. Of course, the per capita resource use in these places is vastly different and the resource availability in each country is different as well. However, we cannot accept living in a world where we are comfortable with that situation. Instead of stopping people from using the same amount of resource we do through immigration controls therefore, we should be significantly reducing our resource use so we have the ability to share more of it around.

Fertility control

Fertility control policies are often focused around eliminating incentives for people to have children, things such as the baby bonus and paid parental leave. Alternative measures also include creating financial disincentives for those who have children – one may say an anti-baby bonus.

These policies face significant barriers. Australia’s fertility rate is currently at 1.89 babies per woman, meaning we are below replacement fertility rates. Our population increase mostly occurs through immigration. Our fertility is at the point where there are very few non-coercive measures that would significantly reduce it. This is where birth control policies often take on a more coercive edge. For example, in 2009, president of Sustainable Population Australia, Sandra Kanck called for a one child policy for Australia. Such a policy, which would require banning people from having children and forcing women to have abortions, has significant serious social implications.

On top of this, whether we want to believe it or not, breeding and creating a future generation is somewhat important for continuation of human kind. Given the extremely low birth rates in Australia it seems somewhat ridiculous to claim that we need to drop births rates even lower. The simple fact is that if we do, we won’t be producing enough children to support the current population when we grow old. This is particularly concerning when we discuss fertility control in combination with immigration control.

There are reasons to have concerns about the world’s growing population. We are now living in a world that holds 7 billion people and it is estimated by the UN that this population will continue to grow to 9 billion before there is even a chance of it dropping. We must look at how we can help manage this growing population, but coercive policies such as targeting migration and forcing people to stop having children is not the answer.

Reports show that one of the most effective ways to help manage world-wide population growth is proper family planning facilities, increased education and the proper provision of methods for safer sex. This is not about punishing people who decide they want to have children, nor about stopping those who ask for help from entering our country. Rather, it is about ensuring that all people are able to make educated choices about the direction of their lives. If we wish to have an impact on populations we would be much wiser to target these issues in our social policies and aid provision, not only helping population issues but also providing great social benefits for those who need them most.

Yet, none of this is as important as tackling the real issue of the amount of resources our society uses. The per capita use of resources by Australians are constantly at number one or two in the world. If we really want to lead by example and show the world what sustainability looks like therefore, we must tackle our production and consumption problem. Having a reduced population that still vastly overuses our resources will be of no use to anyone.

If we want to become a sustainable society we cannot put all our focus on to our population – we need to have smart policies that tackle the real root causes of our problems; the way we use resources, not the number of people who use them.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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