Pro-population increase advocates blind to sustainability crisis

Sep 28, 2022
Australian visa
Image: iStock

Any new inquiry into Australia’s migration program needs to assess the full costs and benefits of population growth, especially the costs to our environment and the risks of collapse.

I wish I had a dollar for every pro-population-increase article I have read that begins by telling the reader that Australia is a nation of immigrants, with some 25% born overseas and about 50% with at least one parent born overseas. Such familiar statistics are not in dispute and say nothing about whether Australia’s population should increase, decrease, or stay at the same level.

Author Arja Keski-Nummi takes this hackneyed approach in the article ‘Immigration Inquiry – A new beginning?’ (Pearls and Irritations, 15 September 2022). It is a good signal that the author has nothing particularly new or incisive to say, and will fall back on familiar arguments about “nation building”, vibrancy, cultural richness, economic growth and so on to further what amounts to a dangerous Ponzi scheme.

If Australia has benefitted in the past from high immigration – although the indigenous community may be lukewarm on the notion – then surely more immigration-fuelled population growth will also be a good thing, as if the population can grow forever and we are not experiencing limits to growth now?

I don’t doubt former Immigration public servant Keski-Nummi’s sincerity and knowledge of the minutiae of visa programs and our humanitarian intake, but the author (like former immigration official Abul Rizvi in these pages) exhibits a familiar blindness to anything associated with sustainability. Instead, what is offered is a pro-business and pro-growth agenda, unalloyed to any contemporary learning about errors in economic thinking in recent decades.

As scientists like David Shearman repeatedly point out on these pages, we cannot solve the problems caused by excessive growth with even more growth. To think so is to fail to understand Australia’s problems and their causes.

As things stand, Australia faces an energy crisis, a health crisis, a climate change crisis, a biodiversity crisis, a housing crisis, an aged-care crisis, an insecure-employment crisis, a private-sector debt crisis, a water crisis … in fact it is far easier to say what is not in crisis than what is. But for Keski-Nummi, we have successfully transitioned from a manufacturing economy to a “knowledge” economy. That we hardly make any solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, vaccines, Covid-19 drug treatments, electronics, computer chips, and clothing and footwear is apparently of little concern – surely China and other nations will continue to supply us with these essentials?

That the Covid-19 and similar pandemics are almost certainly caused by excessive growth (what ecological economists call ‘overshoot’) is also apparently swept under the carpet.

I can agree with at least one thing that this author advocates: that is, a robust inquiry (yet again) into migration and population growth – I count at least six official inquiries in the post-World War II era, as well as the Productivity Commission’s 2016 report ‘Migration Intake into Australia’. But rather than vested interests running the show, how about including independent experts from the Australian Academy of Science, including geographers, climate scientists, water experts, food-security experts and ecological economists?

The first principle of ecological economics, and therefore sustainability, is that the scale of an enterprise, including population and the economy as a whole, must not exceed the sustainable scale. This is determined with reference to a nation’s biocapacity and economic throughput (production-consumption). Throughput must not exceed the biocapacity.

How many times does the UN Secretary-General have to warn the world of an impending collapse due to business as usual? This was first outlined by the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth team from MIT university in their 1972 report. Its main conclusions have been repeatedly confirmed since then. But mainstream growth economics continues to ignore this empirical evidence, preferring their convenient abstract models with highly questionable assumptions.

As ecological economist Professor Philip Lawn and I argue in the book Sustainability and the New Economics (Springer, 2022), all population-growth nations should stabilise their populations as quickly as possible and pursue strong sustainability policies as advocated by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (soon ending in 2030) but without its universal growth bias – high-income nations need planned and equitable degrowth.

None of the above negates the unfairness of world trade, the importance of human rights, unconscionable debt burdens foisted on low-income nations, unfair climate impacts, and the understandable desire of people to emigrate into Australia. It should go without saying that all new arrivals into Australia should receive full human rights.

As detailed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics yesterday, Australia is close to 26 million inhabitants. For the 12 months to 31 March 2022, natural increase was about 130,000 people per year. Emigration was about 210,400 a year, while immigration was 320,000 (meaning net migration was about 110,00 in a Covid-transition phase). Net migration will now increase dramatically on a familiar pattern since the Howard years of turbo-charged migration for purely economic-growth reasons.

However, the full costs and benefits of population growth are rarely, if ever, calculated. This is what an independent inquiry should investigate. I would make it a standing (permanent) inquiry.

Stephen Williams is the co-editor of Sustainability and the New Economics (Springer, 2022) and is a former newspaper journalist and lawyer. He is currently writing a book on the population issue.

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