Perish as We Populate

Now it’s perish as we populate

By Ian Lowe

25 September 2009 Canberra Times

The latest population figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics are
alarming. New demographic figures show Australia’s population grew by
439,000 in the year to March 2009, including net overseas migration of
239,000. The growth rate of 2.1 per cent was the highest since the 1950s.

The growth rate threatens our living standards as well as worsening our
environmental problems. A responsible government would be acting now to curb
the unsustainable growth, rather than celebrating the disastrous trend.

Australia’s rate of population growth is now among the highest in the
industrialised world. Among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development countries, only Turkey and Mexico had higher annual growth rates
in recent years. Irresponsible increases in migration have added to the
recent surge in the population.

If 2008 fertility and migration levels were to continue, Australia’s
population would triple by the end of this century and remain on a growth
trajectory. With more sensible policies, we could stabilise our population
around mid- century. That should be our goal.

Three national reports on the state of the environment have concluded that
the important trends are going in the wrong direction. Our inland rivers,
the coastal zone, rural land and our unique biodiversity are all threatened.
Australia’s greenhouse pollution is spiralling out of control, the product
of a rapidly growing population and increasing energy use per person. We
must stabilise our population and consumption at levels that can be
sustainably supported. There is a clear link between population growth and
environmental damage. Growing populations require additional energy, water
and other resources.

All our major cities are under strain from their increasing numbers. We
see pressure on water resources, loss of natural habitat on the urban
fringe, increasing greenhouse pollution from transport and other energy use,
air quality impacts and loss of the built heritage. The problems are
particularly evident in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, where there is
increasing community concern at the erosion of the quality of life. Even in
Adelaide, where the state government seems disappointed that the population
isn’t growing as rapidly as other cities, the semi-rural fringe is being
concreted over at an alarming rate. The pressure on our cities is being
compounded by smaller households. There were 3.5 people per dwelling in
1960; the figure now is 2.5 and falling. At the same time, the average house
has got larger.

Outside our major cities, there is pressure to develop resources,
intensify agricultural production, and over-extract water from natural
systems as a function of increasing urban consumption. The intense
development of many coastal areas, for holiday homes and ”sea change”
migrants from urban centres, is eroding the quality and resilience of
natural coastal systems.

The arguments for continued growth are not consistent or honest. We are
being told we need to bring in more migrants to fill alleged job shortages.
At the same time, it is claimed we can’t provide work for young Australians
and that government needs to work on ”jobs, jobs, jobs”. Those two claims
cannot both be true. We are also told we need to fear an ageing population,
but migrants grow old just like the rest of us.

Peter McDonald, director of the Australian Demographic and Social Research
Institute, has said the argument that migration can keep our population
young is ”demographic nonsense”. What is the alternative? Our aim should
be to stabilise our population. This means we must have a look at migration
levels.

Immigration has enriched Australia’s cultural and social life. We have
important international humanitarian responsibilities, including the need to
accept refugees. But more than 50 per cent of recent migrants arrived as
”skilled” people, with only 7 per cent coming on humanitarian grounds.
Overwhelmingly, migration has been serving the business community’s wish for
a pool of labour, rather than meeting our responsibility to accept refugees.
Australia can meet and increase its humanitarian obligations and continue to
accommodate family reunions, while reducing overall migration to more
sustainable levels.

Demographic studies show that if the net inward migration is about 70,000
a year or less, the population will stabilise in about the 2050s. If the net
migration figure is above 70,000 a year (it was 253,400 in 2008) the
population keeps increasing far into the future. That is a grim prospect of
continuing decline in our quality of life and the state of our environment.

There is no realistic prospect of meeting responsible targets for reduced
greenhouse pollution if we keep increasing population numbers. For the sake
of future generations, we need a serious community debate about population.

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