Population, growth and the environment: a response to Michael Keating

Feb 8, 2023
Large group of people making a rising arrow shape.

Michael Keating’s response to the P&I article series on growth – GDP and population – is very welcome as it provides a condensed summary of what has befuddled Australian political economy in recent decades.

Problem one is his seeming complete unfamiliarity with post-growth scholarship: the problems it identifies, the causes of the problems, and the likely policy solutions. The best work on sustainability is being done by ecological economists, and the late US economist Herman Daly has probably been its lead theorist. Daly has argued (with explicit policies) for steady-state economies, especially in high-income nations, where the physical throughput of real resources is stabilised relative to biocapacity, but where qualitative improvements in people’s lives can be ongoing. Stabilising a population is necessary, if not sufficient, to stabilise economic throughput and avoid collapse.


Keating says growth critics offer no realistic alternative set of policies that could limit population growth (and/or economic growth). This article deals with population growth in Australia.

Australia’s population could have stabilised by now if previous governments (such as the high-immigration Hawke government) had understood the relationship between population and sustainability, and prioritised sustainability. That relationship is summarised in the identity I=PAT (where I is environmental Impact; P is Population; A is Affluence; and T is Technology).

As Keating would know, high-income nations tend to have a total fertility rate (TFR) below the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman, meaning that once demographic momentum is finished, there will be more deaths than births and the so-called natural increase turns into a decrease, as in Japan and South Korea today, but perhaps up to 20 countries. Australia’s TFR began to dip below 2.1 in about 1976, has been about 1.6 recently, yet we still have more births than deaths due to momentum partly caused by our history of high immigration: see the latest ABS figures here. The momentum is caused by the temporary situation of more women of childbearing age relative to all women.

As things stand, about half of all pregnancies in Australia are unplanned, although some of these pregnancies are still welcomed by the parents. The goal should be to have fewer unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. Even so, Australia’s fertility rate is not a major problem and governments should abandon pronatalist policies, such as baby bonuses, that attempt to artificially increase the desire for children, especially in an existential crisis where uncontrolled climate change is but one critical problem.

The ABS figures also show the difference between Australia’s emigration and immigration, producing a net migration figure. Zero net migration could be achieved by matching emigration to immigration – say, 200,000 out and 200,000 in every year. One can see there would be ample room for a sizeable humanitarian intake and family reunion in an immigration quota of 200,000.

With zero net migration, that would leave Australia with a natural increase of about 125,000 each year, slowly decreasing to zero over coming decades. Left unchecked, Australia’s population would then slowly decrease. This decrease may be necessary to reach a rate of sustainable production-consumption, especially as environmental problems, including climate change, reduce the nation’s carrying capacity.

Policymakers could bring forward Australia’s population stabilisation by having negative net migration (more emigration than immigration) as briefly occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is likely to be welcomed by many as surveys show that Australian citizens are deeply ambivalent to government-orchestrated high population increases, as The Australian Population Research Institute has repeatedly found.

In passing, Keating is wrong to say that because immigration to Australia may not increase the global population, there can be no net harm. That might be true if global consumption did not increase as a result; we weren’t poaching skills from needy nations; and global population did not, in fact, increase as a result. But the more obvious flaw in his reasoning is that Australia must match its population to our available resources, not just the state of the global commons.

It is worth noting that the Australian Democrats (in their heyday), the Australian Conservation Foundation (with Ian Lowe as president), the Australian Greens (before 1998), Doctors for the Environment Australia, and the NSW Conservation Council have all had (or have) policies aimed at stabilising Australia’s population as a matter of some urgency. Ian Lowe’s book Bigger or Better? (2012) outlines the main issues, while O’Connor and Lines dealt with cultural and media obstacles in Overloading Australia (2008; 2010). Government-commissioned research reports, such as Sobels et al. (2010) outline the harmful environmental implications of population growth.

The above summary shows that stabilising Australia’s population would not be difficult if policymakers desired it and adjusted net migration accordingly. Former prime minister John Howard provides a good example of why they don’t. Howard was spooked by the first Intergenerational Report (2002) that warned of future macroeconomic strife and he increased immigration considerably to counter the trends. The assumed problems included an ageing society, a shrinking proportional workforce, reduced tax receipts per capita, larger budget deficits, more government debt, and so on. All of these problems are debateable, at least in their severity, particularly with an understanding of modern monetary theory.

The ‘costs’ of demographic trends (fertility rate less than 2.1) may be non-trivial, but are almost certainly less than the benefits of population stabilisation and even population reduction in an existential crisis. The key is to begin with a desire for a sustainable society and the avoidance of collapse. The focus should be on advancing general wellbeing in the context of our biophysical reality – a non-expanding continent with increasingly limited resources – rather than being confused by an assumed desire for more personal consumption forever.

In the final analysis, more people means there will be fewer renewable and non-renewable resources, sustainably managed, available per capita – precisely what a rational population would never want.

Stephen Williams is an independent researcher and co-editor of the book Sustainability and the New Economics (Springer, 2022).

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