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    The overpopulation of Australia: We're running out of time

    Michael Baylis

    Our nation is in danger of becoming overpopulated in the not-too-distant future, but the solution should be resolved at a community level rather than solely by policy makers.

    All of a sudden it seems that Australia’s population has become something of a hot topic in the media.

    On Monday, 12 March, both ABC’s Four Corners and the episode of Q&A that followed it focused exclusively on population. This followed on from recent comments by a range of people from conservative politicians such as Tony Abbott through to progressive environmentalists such as Paul Hawken.

    It is becoming evident that there are many different views on this topic from a diversity of interests, so does this mean that we can finally start to have a mature and rational conversation on the population issue?

    In an article that I co-wrote a year ago for New Matilda on why the left should be more open to discussing population, it was pointed out that since Australia’s population is growing by the size of Canberra every year the issue is not going to disappear, especially since it is mostly growing in a relatively small part of the Australian continent.

    In a more recent article on town planning for Independent Australia, I argued why it is difficult to plan for sustainable communities with lower rates of per capita consumption when we are endlessly trying to play catch-up in order to accommodate a rapidly increasing population.

    This is one reason why Paul Hawken of Project Drawdown informed a packed audience at this year’s Sustainable Living Festival that the empowerment and education of women and girls, combined with access to affordable family planning worldwide, are together the most significant contribution to addressing global climate change.  

    However, Australia’s foreign aid budget has been steadily going down over the past couple of decades and this needs to be reversed if Australia is to have any serious impact in assisting population sustainability worldwide, which is currently 7.6 billion and is expected to reach 11.2 billion by 2100.

    It is just as important that our aid money is directed towards the grass roots proactive projects that are needed to help countries create resilient, environmentally regenerative communities with the access to healthcare and education that enables women and men to make informed family planning choices.

    Given that the global population is currently increasing by 83 million per year, there is no domestic population policy in Australia that could address the magnitude of this global phenomenon without generous financial support to address the underlying causes.

    Instead of investing in proactive foreign aid, Australia is fighting a losing a battle, siphoning much of our GDP to build the "roads of the future".

    These and other infrastructure projects are trying in vain to accommodate a domestic population growth rate that is amongst the highest in the OECD.  

    Australia grows by 370,000 people per year and the vast majority of this growth occurs in or around our capital cities in the form of suburban sprawl or apartment developments. This puts us on a trajectory to almost double our current population of just over 25 million to at least 40 million people by 2050 — just over 30 years away. Melbourne and Sydney will also double in size to mega cities of around eight million each.

    The infrastructure costs alone are staggering.  We will need to spend as much money on infrastructure over the next 40 years as we have since Australia was first colonised — a figure that is estimated by some sources to be around $1.5 trillion.

    It is already estimated that Australia is already at least five years behind in the infrastructure that it needs and, as successive governments fail to keep up with the trains, roads, schools and housing, it is likely that these costs will only intensify.

    Why Is Australia growing so fast and what is the cause of this growth? It is not due to our birth rate and it is not due to our refugee intake, as our humanitarian program is less than 10 percent of our annual migration intake.

    Australia is in a unique position where we would not need to reduce our birth rate or our humanitarian program in order to achieve a long term stable population.

    Organisations such as Sustainable Population Australia have never been about turning back the boats or forcing people to have fewer children and never will. Rather, it is the deliberate population policies designed to boost short term GDP growth that such groups question.

    Sometimes a quote says it all. In an article in the Australian Financial Review, "Australia’s most prolific apartment developer", Harry Triguboff was asked about the potential oversupply of apartments in Sydney and Brisbane leading to falling rents, to which he responded"I will simply bring in more migrants."

    Such a quote is telling, as it implies that population policy is influenced strongly by business interests, primarily for economic gains by those in positions of influence and power. This lobbying power has resulted in a skewed migration program, in which economic migration is the largest contributor to growth at more than 60 percent per annum.

    However, political debate tends to focus exclusively on refugee migration, creating an ideological wedge in society while we collectively overlook the largest contributor to population growth and there are strong reasons why this blind spot exists.

    Big business remains hostile to the humanitarian program, due to the perception that refugees require funding for social support and that they do not have the economic advantages that skilled migrants provide.

    Therefore, refugees and asylum seekers are disenfranchised from migration policy as it currently stands. Non-refugee migrants often find themselves short changed as well, as there is less social security available for overseas workers, particularly for temporary workers. Recent media exposure of abuse to 457 workers from franchise organisations such as 7-Eleven is just scratching the surface.

    There is also the Australian Indigenous perspective to consider, as population growth policies continue without Indigenous consultation. I recently had the opportunity to interview Richie Allan, Indigenous advocate of the Ngunnawal community in the ACT.

    He was openly critical of the suburban sprawl around Canberra, particularity where it encroaches the Ginninderra Falls and other places of cultural significance for his community.

    From his perspective: "Rapid population growth is killing indigenous culture and heritage in the A.C.T."

    Lowitja Lois O'Donoghue, as then-chair of ATSIC, in a submission to the Jones Report, in 1994, wrote:

    '...population almost doubled in size, taking over more and more of the best land for housing, suffering greater pollution and congestion and natural resources under increased threat of depletion and degradation. Such a prospect must be alarming to all Australians. For Indigenous Australians it is doubly so, because the damage that will inevitably be caused to the land threatens the heart of our culture and our very being.'

    So what are some alternatives to our current model? Here are a few of my suggestions:

    • A migration policy that is decoupled from economic policy, so that focus can be shifted toward assisting people in need and proactive foreign aid to address root causes of global population growth rather than growth being dictated for us by narrow economic interests.
    • Increased opportunities for open discussion on family planning and the pros and cons of having children. Often people are unaware of the high expense of raising children in Australia  and that having one less child is the highest personal contributor in reducing carbon emissions by 58.6 tonnes per year. This also eliminates the challenges in raising children in today’s isolated suburbs.
    • More authentic and genuine Indigenous consultation in regards to town planning and migration policies.

    Ultimately, population policy will need to be discussed at some point, as it impossible to grow indefinitely on a finite planet, particularly now that we are facing a climate emergency.

    Population growth has a multiplier effect on the impact of total human activity on the environment, whether we’re talking about water shortages, loss of eco-systems, displaced persons, infrastructure shortfalls and so on, and on.

    If Australia’s population is to double by 2050, our per capita impact on the environment will need to drop by 50 percent within 35 years just to break even.

    The problem is that rapid growth is making it harder for us to do just that as the urban sprawl and poor standard densification – whereby many blocks of units are built to last less than half a century – that occurs when population growth outpaces infrastructure development and urban regeneration is not only entrenching car dependency, it is also increasing our food miles through loss of the food bowls.

    Crucially, it is decimating local wildlife and stripping biomass in some of our most biodiverse areas.

    The sooner the community gets together to decide on fair and just population policy, rather than outsourcing the decision process to rich political lobbyists, the closer we can get to a change for the better.

    Michael Bayliss is communications manager for Sustainable Population Australia and Co-founder of Population, Permaculture and Planning. You can follow him on Twitter @Miketbay83 and Sustainable Population Australia HERE.

    This article was reprinted from Independent Australia and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivs 3.0 Australia License

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