Saturday 28 August 2010

Saturday SoapBlog: Peter Curson - Dick Smith's intolerable Australia

Peter Curson
reflects on Dick Smith's
population puzzle that screened on ABC recently.

is Professor of Population and Security in the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.

I watched only half of Dick Smith's population puzzle on ABC, because I became so irritated with the broad generalisations coloured by images of when he was a "free-range kid" in a suburban backyard: the recitation of fears of increasing urban congestion, crowding, booming city-scapes and general predictions of doom that will occur if we don't do something about current population growth.

We seem to have been transported back a couple of decades when a certain demographic demonology ruled the developed world.

Back then it was predictions of billions of fast breeding developing
worlders, living in depressed conditions threatening our living conditions and spelling gloom for the planet. Now we seem consumed by fears of population growth fuelled by high immigration, producing our own form of demographic Armageddon. Much was made by Dick Smith of the fact that currently net migration was of the order of 300,000, and if allowed to continue at this level it would severely undermine our living conditions, produce intolerable crowding and congestion, threaten sustainability, and see our cities swell to unmanageable and intolerable levels.

But let us look a little closer at immigration for a moment.

Certainly net migration over the last two years has been of the order of 277,000 to 300,000. But when you
disaggregate the numbers you find that only about 86,000 were in fact permanent migrants. Most of the rest (roughly 186,000) came on temporary visas, including 108,700 overseas students. In other words 67% of our net immigration came from people on temporary short term visas. Interestingly, if you add these immigrants to our New Zealand friends, who rightly enjoy a special visa arrangement, then 80% of all our net immigration came from these two sources. So the real question that should have been posed is - is an 86,000 net migration gain too many or too few to meet our national goals (do we have any?), and perhaps we should also re-examine our educational priorities so that the nation's goals come before the budgets of a handful of tertiary institutions.

It is also true that Australia's current population growth of 2% is higher than most other developed countries. But remember that we have just emerged from two decades where growth levels were of the order of 1.3% per
annum. Also remember that the current fertility rate of 2.0 is still below replacement level, and let us not forget that population predictions are at best a most imprecise science and very much depend upon certain fertility, mortality and migration levels continuing into the future. For example, we really do not know what might happen to fertility levels over the next few decades. For most of the last few decades most of the developed world has been fretting about very low fertility and the prospect of declining populations. In parts of Europe high levels of labour migration have seen birth rates increase. Much the same has happened in Australia. In Europe a debate has raged about increasing immigration levels, not only to provide a ready labour force but also to help maintain higher fertility levels.

In the current debate about Australia's population much is made of the fact that within 40 or so years we could be looking at a population of the order of 34 to 36 million people and that this will see cities like Sydney and Melbourne have populations of between 6 and 7 million. According to Dick Smith this will place an intolerable burden on our water, food, housing and transport systems and lead to extraordinary urban congestion. His answer: cut immigration levels, and presto, all will be solved!

But does rapid population growth automatically lead to environmental degradation? Is there a causal relationship between population growth and declining living standards and environmental conditions? The answer is not simple but would seem to depend on the social and economic resources and adaptive strategies of the society involved.

But should we be concerned about population growth? Of course we should, and we should be prepared to acknowledge population as one of the critical issues of our time. But some of the predictions that are being served up to us are so bleak and emotional and reminiscent of the Ehrlich debates of the 1970s, that they can be rejected out of hand. Much of the debate also rests on the presumption that our social and economic conditions in 2050 will be similar to those of today. But this is most certainly not the case as Australian society will be quite different in 40 or so years time with presumably different goals, priorities and adaptive strategies.

To my mind we should also be concerned about the ageing of the population and the fact that within 30 years perhaps one in four Australians will be aged over 65. Equally significant is the rapid growth of our 'old old' population, those over 80. This is the fastest growing sector of the Australian population. If fertility remains much as it is we could have between 5 and 7% of our population aged over 80 by 2050.

As I have said before, we desperately need a population policy, one that is all inclusive, one that considers fertility, mortality and migration and all the compositional aspects of our population, such as family composition, health status, ethnic and racial composition etc in the context of national and regional aspirations and goals. We still seem a long way from achieving this and currently seem preoccupied with visions of environmental doom and despair.
  • Re-published from the ABC, with permission of the author.


Ed in Edge Hill said...

Curson's made a terrific case for sending all the Kiwi's back where they came from. The "open slather" of Kiwi migration to our Australia has been detrimental for the islands as well as our homeland.

Mr. Smiley said...

I must disagree with many of the good professor’s comments on population growth in Australia. The Carrying Capacity of this continent is about 12-16 million. This figure would be confirmed by most biologists but would be challenged by many demographers and “population specialists” saying science and innovation can solve most problems. But I would suggest that these folk go and live in Los Angeles or Shanghai for a while. These places are the ultimate results of their ideas on population.

Most of our agricultural land is being taken over by housing (in the metropolitan areas) or mining in the outlying regions. With increasing aridity being predicted, the lack of water will become a great problem in this country. We are now “depending” on overseas sources for fuel and some (or most!) food. Just have a look at where your frozen vegetables are coming from these days. It’s good to have these international contacts but should a country be beholden to others for the essentials of life? Probably not.

This reminds me of the argument for all those bridges and tunnels in and around Brisbane. We were told it will decrease traffic congestion. Just have a look at the “traffic watch” on the news each night and see what has happened. More roads give rise to more cars. It relieves congestion for just a short time. Just try and deal with the traffic on the LA freeway at quitting time! You can use this argument with the population problem. We don’t need more people. But I hope the professor is correct with his revised figures of annual population growth! This is less than we have been led to believe.

By the way, Paul Ehrlich may have been off–the-mark in some of his predictions, but in general he is correct. He also stimulates people to think about things and this is his great value as an alarmist. H(only 2 children per couple, please, despite what the World Greatest Treasurer advised! Have you noticed what your Telstra stocks are worth these days! That shows you the value of his advice)

Dr Dave

Leuco Gaster said...

Prof Curson's critique of Dick Smith's population alarmism is warranted, but Australia's "crowding" problem pales into insignificance alongside the global population problem. Continuing carbon pollution, degraded natural ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, farming communities struggling to feed burgeoning cities, & the effects of global warming, are all the consequences of massive human overpopulation, worldwide. We in comfortable, spacious, wealthy Australia will face increasing pressure from the desperate evacuees from drought, famine, floods & fighting to our north-west, and the current argument about a few hundred boat-people will seem ridiculous by mid-century.

Humans are a plague upon the Earth,
Our cities, teeming sores.

The question our children and grandchildren will have to face is, can we steadily reduce global population to a sustainable level, gradually, peacefully & rationally? Or are they doomed to see population growing rapidly & out of control, until it crashes disastrously under the impact of our ruination of our own habitat?

I find it hard to be optimistic.

lainey danson said...

Why wreck the country and lifestyle we have now because other countries are rife with corruption, lack of planning and centuries old conflicts. I keep hearing the advocates of refugees and population growth speaking of our 'ideal' and prosperous living conditons and how we can certainly support a higher population and how the people in other countries are only seeking a better life for themselves and how dare we deny them asylum...But I say, we really do need to be selfish and discerning with those we allow into our country because we would not want our children or children's children to be denied the lifestyle Ausralian taxpayer work hard to maintain. Why turn our country into a crowded, conflicted, dirty, resource poor nation with the same problems as the countries the refugees flee from. Here in Cairns I believe we have already too many people living here in ugly housing developments . Once the damage is done we cannot turn back the clock..proceed with caution I say

Not Jim Turnour said...

Of the 108,000 overseas students, how many of the Chinese women are instead working as prostitutes? One look at the Cairns post can see in our little town alone there are 40 or 50. And those of us that travel around Oz for business know these advertisements are right around the country. Police routinely report that the majority are here on student visas.