A vision for Australia? Sustainable Australia

| May 22, 2015

What is a ‘sustainable Australia’? William Bourke says we need a holistic policy framework that redefines growth in our finite world.

In 2010, in her first policy promise following the disposal of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the nation should not ”hurtle down the track towards a big population”. Ms Gillard declared she does not believe in a ”big Australia”, signalling a major shift in policy away from our nation’s rapid population growth.

More specifically, Ms Gillard said ”I don’t support the idea of a big Australia with arbitrary targets of, say, a 40 million-strong Australia or a 36 million-strong Australia. We need to stop, take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia. I support a population that our environment, our water, our soil, our roads and freeways, our busses, our trains and our services can sustain.”

History tells us that Ms Gillard quietly abandoned her very first promise as Prime Minister, and actually further ramped up population growth during her term. I say quietly because the major media companies in Australia failed to highlight this broken promise, unlike the carbon tax.

To be fair, Ms Gillard is not alone in her cavalier approach to the important sustainability issue of population.

The Greens party that partnered Ms Gillard’s government avoids the issue, and the Liberal/National coalition set the course for ‘big Australia’. Back in 2002, then immigration minister Philip Ruddock claimed on the 7:30 report that “The demographic material indicates that Australia will have a stable population of 25 million or thereabouts in about 30 to 40 years.” He added that “I don’t think there is a consensus for a larger [immigration] program” than the then current 80,000 net overseas migration.

The Howard Government subsequently offered profligate baby bonuses and more than doubled net overseas migration (NOM) to over 200,000 per annum. NOM remains well above this figure today and most recently at around 250,000. For these reasons, in 2015 we are almost at the 25 million Mr Ruddock projected for mid century, and on target for over 40 million by 2050.

It’s clearly hard to trust our politicians to keep their word on critical sustainability issues. You only need to look at the latest damaging renewable energy target backpedalling to see that they still don’t get the link between environmental health and sustainable economic prosperity.

So what is a ‘sustainable Australia’? As Julia Gillard rightly alluded to, it’s much more than population size. But population is a critical factor.

Put simply, sustainability is ‘the everything issue’.

According to the United Nations, true sustainability is ‘development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. In other words, an ecologically sustainable population can endure indefinitely.

For a population to endure indefinitely, it needs to behave sustainably in terms of its impact on the environment. Importantly, the economy – so often prioritised in public policy – is fully dependent on the environment. It is the environment that provides the resources and underpinnings of our economy, and hence quality of life.

Human impact (I) on the environment equals the product of population (P), affluence (A) and technology (T). I = PAT is the lettering of a formula put forward to describe the impact of human activity on the environment, and describes how our growing population, affluence (or consumption behaviours), and technology contribute toward our environmental impact.

Holistic sustainability must therefore involve all three key elements. Holistic sustainability ensures that improvements in important technology and consumption behaviours are not undermined by population growth, or vice-versa. For example, just one extra person can produce enough waste to undermine the lifetime recycling efforts of 20 citizens. This is especially important here in Australia, where our per capita environmental impact is higher than many other countries.

What are the independent experts saying about population and sustainability?

In 1994 the Australian Academy of Science published its findings on population. In considering the resource needs of our cities, and Australia’s supply of water, minerals and arable land it concluded: “In our view, the quality of all aspects of our children’s lives will be maximised if the population of Australia by the mid-21st Century is kept to the low, stable end of the achievable range, i.e. to approximately 23 million.”

That was before we properly considered the impacts of climate change.

Further, according to successive national State of the Environment reports [1] chaired by Professor Ian Lowe (formerly President) of the Australian Conservation Foundation, most of the important environmental indicators in Australia are getting worse, all of which are being further worsened by population growth. Ian Lowe’s recommendation, like the Sustainable Population Party’s, is to act now to stabilise Australia’s population.

Sustainability should be a central consideration in all government policy decisions, including but not limited to: Animals and biodiversity; Climate and energy; Finite and non-renewable resource use; Town and urban planning; Trade; Transport; and Waste. Our independent, grassroots community movement advocates for a sustainable Australia – and addresses all of these economic, environmental and social issues.

Sustainability is a choice, and as a sovereign nation, our primary moral responsibility is to pass on a sustainable Australia to future generations. Like climate change, it is also our responsibility to demonstrate global leadership and vigorously encourage all countries to do the same. We need to ‘think global, act local’.

To secure a sustainable Australia with a prosperous economy, healthy environment and better quality of life, we need a holistic policy framework that redefines growth in our finite world. Given our sustainability challenges, redefining growth in Australia means thinking better, not bigger.

[1] Successive federal governments have received independent, five-yearly State of the Environment reports from 1996, with the latest being 2011.




  1. Peter Strachan

    May 23, 2015 at 4:45 am

    Technology and Population

    A very succinct summary of the issue of overpopulation as it impacts true sustainability. As Issac Asimov observed "Democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies. The more people there are, the less one individual matters."

    We are heading down that path. So far, what we observe is that each new technology we apply in the aid of reducing consumption, only allows more humans to consume ever more at a lower financial cost, but a greater cost to the environment. The only technology that will improve our position is birth control technology. Dr Martin Luther King knew this in the 1960's when he said "We must alert and organise the world's people to pressure world leaders to take specific steps to solve the two root causes of our environmental crises – exploding population growth and wasteful consumption of irreplaceable resources. Over-consumption and overpopulation underlie every environmental problem we face today."

    Mathematician Bertrand Russell, writing about overpopulation at a time when the world’s population was half of what it is now, said, “Mankind would rather commit suicide than learn arithmetic." Humans have evolved to pay attention to local disasters, like tornadoes or earthquakes, but a slow-moving, global disaster like overpopulation gets overlooked. We're beginning to talk about the consequences of overpopulation — global warming, pollution, depletion of resources, wars and immigration — but we need to address the root cause. Only the Sustainable Population Party has policies to address this issue.

  2. Tabitha

    May 23, 2015 at 9:57 am

    A vision for Australia? Sustainable Australia

    Labor’s history on population is summed up brilliantly by William. Research confirms that over 70 percent of Australians reject the Liberal/Labor/Greens ‘big Australia’ policy outcome of around 40 million (and rapidly rising) by 2050. The scientists are clearly telling us that our current population growth is already unsustainable. We need to look at the science first and foremost, and allow Australians to make a rational and democratic choice on sustainability. The Sustainable Population Party’s vision is based on sustainability and intergenerational quality of life. They are the only party proposing concrete policies to tackle 'the everything issue'.

  3. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    May 24, 2015 at 4:22 am

    Sustainable Australia

    Nomadic peoples have known for millennia that the quality of life declines and the supporting environment is degraded unless demand is matched to the available resources. But as Mr Bourke says, the behaviour of a few can severely impact upon the lives of many others. Any discussion of 'sustainability' is more productive when the power of an underlying force known as "The Tragedy of the Commons" is appreciated. Crudely put, this is the dilemma faced by anyone who places the greater good ahead of their own interests; that person will be disadvantaged by comparison with those who act on self-interest alone.

    I have suggested elsewhere in "Open Forum" that the correlation between population and environmental decline is not fixed. This is not an argument for unlimited population growth based, as it too often seems to be, on redundant economic modelling that narrowly focuses on growth in terms of money. However, profound changes in the Australian environment were made by a relatively small population in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Examples being land clearing and resulting soil loss, salinity and sodicity; introduced plants and animals; degradation of land, waterways and water quality due to gold mining and mineral extraction.

    If Australia's current population is close to the 'ideal' according to State of the Environment reports, then inter-generational poverty and environmental problems that exist in Australia today have to be explained in terms of forces other than population alone. Simplistic and ideological explanations cannot be expected to yield durable solutions any more than incorrect diagnoses will cure disease. Is Mr Bourke inferring that because "we [have] properly considered the impacts of climate change" that the population carrying capacity of Australia is less than 23 million? My understanding is that demographic analysis renders impossible, even if it is desirable, a population of 23 million by mid-century. I question the suggestion that the impacts of climate change have been determined to the degree of confidence needed to formulate inflexible public policy. For instance, we cannot be sure about the effects of changes in the seasonal and geographic distribution of rainfall. The population of Australia could well be much less sustainable, by any definition, due to its concentration than if the same population were distributed rationally in accordance with the available resources.

    It is worrying that excessive pre-occupation with population may lead to serious misallocation of scarce resources or worse, on a global scale, genocide by neglect. The rise of misanthropy among some environmentalists is also a very troubling development in this context. The Sustainable Population Party says: sustainability is "the everything issue". "We need a holistic policy framework that redefines growth in our finite world. Given our sustainability challenges, redefining growth in Australia means thinking better, not bigger." That is indeed a visionary objective but incredibly vexed questions must be addressed if the vision is to be realised. The concept of a General Progress Indicator (GPI) to replace GDP has been discussed for a long time but has received little support from those who can influence economic direction. The captains of industry and the 'casino capitalists' are players in this 'tragedy' along with the rest of us; whether they know it or care is a moot point. But convincing them to act for the common good will require the equivalent of the physicists' holy grail, the theory of everything. Why not just speak its name: "The Magic Pudding".

  4. Kerry

    May 31, 2015 at 12:58 am

    A vision for Australia

    It is great to see someone, and indeed a political party, take off the blinkers and be prepared to promote a better not bigger Australia!