Growth Versus Sustainabilty Doesn't Add Up

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Conventional wisdom on population growth in Australia says that you can have it one of two ways: you can increase the population to stimulate the economy and create jobs for skilled workers, or you can decrease the number of people in order to alleviate environmental pressures such as climate change. One comes under the banner of Big Australia, the other Sustainable Australia.

But could there be a Big Sustainable Australia?

Back in early 2010, the federal government’s intergenerational report observed that, if we continue with current growth levels through immigration and natural increase, Australia’s population will hit 35 million by 2050. At the time, Kevin Rudd welcomed a Big Australia of somewhere between 35 and 40 million.

Soon after ousting Rudd, Julia Gillard positioned herself in opposition to her predecessor and said that her plan was for a sustainable Australia, not a big Australia. Dick Smith welcomed the move: "The world has too many people", he said. The Urban Taskforce objected: "It would mean the economy would be 15 per cent smaller that it otherwise would have been [in 2050]."

Trade Minister Craig Emerson recently made the headlines for trying to resume the Big Australia debate. He argued that Australia would need higher levels of temporary and permanent immigration over the next century if we were to tackle shortages in skills and general labour. To make the most of the so-called Asian century, said Emerson, we need to increase our nation’s capacity to expand exports and to stimulate the domestic economy.

Emerson claimed his recent call for a population debate did not contradict the Prime Minister’s view on growth. In the most recent budget, the Gillard Government raised the 2011-2012 migrant intakes by a modest 16,000 and directed the new arrivals to regional areas. But all the talk and tweaking has had little effect, because the Australian Bureau of Statistics has recently reported that Australia’s population growth has slowed to 1.4 per cent annually, which is the same as the average rate of the last 30 years down from a three-decade peak growth rate of 2.2 per cent in early 2009. Net overseas migration is down 24 per cent this year on what is was in March 2010. Gillard is getting fairly sustainable population growth whether she wants it or not.

In any case, it appears that people are stuck in a rut on population. You can have an Australia that is big, or you can have one that is sustainable. These are the two sides of the debate, and they seem diametrically opposed.

The growth camp is arguing what economists have argued for decades: a larger population drives demand, creates jobs, increases tax revenue, and just "makes good economic sense". Immigration is integral here, because it currently accounts for just over half (54 per cent) of Australia’s annual population growth. Taking a global view, if we were to remove existing barriers to immigration the world’s GDP would raise by $US60 trillion. Indeed, in a globalised world, the greatest barrier to upward social mobility is not your family or class, but which country you were born in.

The other side is epitomised by the views of Dick Smith. He writes in his book on the topic: "Surely it is obvious that just about every problem we have is made worse by more people." The argument is simple, especially if we take the global view. There are seven billion people on this planet, and after allowing for the needs of other species and ecosystems, we need about one hectare of land and water each to produce what we consume. At the moment, we need three planets to sustain the current global population. By 2050, we’ll need about four planets. Currently, the 23 nations out of 153 that have a one hectare footprint per person are all severely under-developed and poverty-stricken.

Both sides have problems when it comes to delivering the message. The pro-growth team is often represented most vocally by neoliberals and big business, who too frequently antagonise the environmental movement and all those who see sustainability as a serious issue.

Pro-sustainability leaders like Dick Smith don’t help the cause when they blame everything on too many people. Whether we increase our population in Australia or not, we’re still consuming far too much without thought of replacing it.

So it’s clear cut then? Either it’s the economy, or it’s the environment — and, by extension, the human race.

Here in Australia, the sustainability camp has another thing going for them. We are a resource hungry people, and we each need about seven hectares of land and water to produce what we consume. If everybody else lived the way we do, humans would need to colonise about seven whole planets before our population was sustainable. The recent slow in population growth is good news on this front, but it must be worrying for those like Emerson who want our relatively small population to reap the economic benefits of our geographic proximity to growing Asian economies.

What if there was another way?

Recent research from Curtin University’s Professor Peter Newman and PhD candidate Vanessa Rauland suggests that population growth and sustainability might be complementary. They propose that population growth, and the consequent economic growth, might facilitate the creation of low-carbon technologies and more efficient infrastructure that leaves a much smaller environmental footprint. This is a benefit of the economic argument: more money can lead to more investment in green technology and infrastructure.

Newman and Rauland say that moving away from resource-hungry centralised infrastructure such as power stations and dams, and toward decentralised and far more sustainable systems, requires a larger population — albeit in a smaller space. Simply limiting urban populations will do little to change consumptive habits and our environmental footprint; but reforming the way our cities are built and how they operate will. Kickstarting the economy with a few more babies and immigrants might just be the best way to pay for it.

This is the question the sustainable camp has not been asking. It is always assumed that the important point is, "how many people are sustainable?". Really, the question should be, "how can any number of people live more sustainably?" The economists aren’t off the hook: it is uncontroversial to suggest that those promoting Big Australia have not said enough about sustainability.

So, when we finally come to having a rational debate on Australia’s population, let us not fall into the trap of taking up sides along what is potentially a false dichotomy. Is it really beyond the realm of possibility that we can enjoy a big, robust economy and be a sustainable, environmentally responsible nation?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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