RSS Feed
No RSS feeds have been linked to this section.

Radio Shows Broadcast on FM99.3 Sydney

Radio Show Title                                          Date                             Interviewee(s) on show

Small Australia                                           July 12, 2011                  Ben O’Connor

Big Australia                                               July 19, 2011                 Brian Heratsis

Big Australia Show rt clik dwnld


A Little Australia is OK - Mark O'Connor

Human Population Size and how it affects ecological carrying capacity.

There are a number of myths about this. Several have been promoted in the ACT, usually though not always by vested interests, and often without effective analysis.

Below I list some of these and suggest why and how the Enquiry should avoid falling into them.

Myth 1:

There is “No necessary connection” between an increase in human numbers and an increase in environmental damage.


There is also no necessary connection between speeding or drink-driving and an increase in road accidents —at least not for the individual driver. But there is on the whole an entirely predictable and statistical connection. It is obvious that every extra human being —in the world or in a region — adds in manifold ways to the pressures on the environment and on other species.

This is so even if that person or that society is clever at reducing or strongly motivated to reduce some of these pressures. Some people go to great lengths to reduce some of their impacts (e.g. by recycling garbage) while continuing to travel by plane or car. Those who reduce all impacts are too few as yet to be statistically significant.  In the words of the UK’s Chief Scientist Sir David King, it is self-evident that the massive growth in the human population is the chief cause of the decline of biodiversity. [See Overloading Australia  p. 5]

Myth 2:

“It’s not the number of people, it’s the way they behave.”


No, it’s both; and in most cases it is the one multiplied by the other.

Those who talk hopefully about compensating for the effects of an increase in residents by a corresponding reduction in all forms of per capita consumption (and of per capita demands on the environment) forget that the society which those extra persons are joining is not at present a conserver society; nor are they (at least most of them) moving to the ACT in order to reduce their consumption but rather to improve their “lifestyle”.

The proposed method of getting everyone to consume less often amounts to “jawboning” — i.e. preaching. It is true that preaching to people about the common good has a certain effect, since we are a social species and desire to do the right thing —at least to the extent that we agree with the preachers and to the extent that we see most of our fellow citizens doing so also.

However there is a kind of powerful counter-preaching, designed to ensure that everyone consumes at least as much as they can afford. This is called advertising. Billions of dollars are spent on it — perhaps a thousand times more than are spent on encouraging folk to consume less — and they are spent because advertising works.  Most folk consume as much as their incomes permit. As well, government repeatedly backs calls to increase consumption, and regards downturns in consumer sentiment as alarming.

Canadian environmentalist Tim Murray has put the issue in a nutshell: What the world needs is fewer Canadian consumers, not more green Canadians.  For Canadians read Australians, and Canberrans.

Myth 3:

If we pack people into Canberra more densely they will use public transport more, so emissions will be lower and other species will benefit.


Not so. More people will always consume more, even if they consume less per capita. “The planet does not do per capita calculations” — it’s total emissions and total consumption that count.

And emphatically the larger/denser population  will do more driving. I know several cases where large blocks of flats have been forced into “underused” streets in RZ2 zones, and justified on grounds that this will encourage public transport. Yet to reduce parking problems ACTPLA requires developers to provide about as many carparks as there are bedrooms (e.g. 19 carparks for a 12 unit development). To circumvent the 2-storey limit, developers then excavate basement carparks that are often dangerous, cramped, and within a few years ill-lit and ill-drained. Their excavation probably uses far more fossil fuels than the increased bus-use could ever save. And of course there is soon a massive increase in the number of cars using that street.

Myth 4:

If we pack people into Canberra more densely they will have to consume less space, live in a more constrained and less expansive manner,  emissions will be lower, and other species will benefit. Nature will applaud our efforts and appreciate our sacrifices in lifestyle.


Apartment living, though denser, is often more energy expensive —even per capita. Tony Recsei of Save Our Suburbs in Sydney has published extensively on this.

There is probably a case for building newer suburbs in a more cramped way — even though this means that sunlight, pet space and garden area are more limited — simply because fuel for transport may soon become drastically scarce. The heavily shaded hutch-like “gardens” of Crace (“fuck hutches”, one architect rudely calls them) where the rules about set-backs have been greatly reduced, are the result. Similarly, densifying older suburbs until it gets difficult and unpleasant and time-consuming to find a park at the shops may help persuade people to drive less. However there is little energy saving, and much pain and destruction in the densifying of older suburbs, which I would argue should no longer be pursued. Reducing the rate of increase of Canberra’s population is a far more promising strategy. (Some of its issues are discussed below.)

Similarly, planners need to recognise that Canberra is not yet “post car” —though either Peak Oil or emission limits may yet make it become so. For the present, the deliberate creation of inconvenience to motorists (who often then spend much more time driving round in search of a park) is hard to justify. The sell off of convenient public carparks on the flat, requiring motorists to use multi-storey carparks, can increase emissions and seems often against the (present) public interest.

Human inconvenience, though often necessary if space is to be left for other species, is not a good in itself. Indeed it is, in itself, an undesirable.

Nature is not a piqued goddess, does not award credit points or places in heaven for our personal ‘sacrifices”, and cannot be placated by lower per capita footprints when in fact the total human footprint of the city is moving relentlessly upward. Similarly the bitumen in your street is not “underused” if you can back out of your drive without having to wait while a couple of cars go by.  Peace and spaciousness do matter.

Myth 5:

(Opposite of myths 3 and 4). We need lots more people to make a booming economy. The richer we are, the better we will look after the environment.


I’m not aware of any environmental authorities who accept the second sentence. This line is mainly used by economists with no interest in environment and by persons who want a way to deflect responsibility for the environmental damage they know or suspect their advice will produce.

Incidentally the opposite claim, that it’s the rich that do all the environmental damage, is at least exaggerated.  In fact it is the world’s most affluent and also the world’s least affluent who do the worst damage, as demonstrated in Chapter 2 of Overloading Australia. (pp. 16-23).

However it is possible to argue that an Australian urban population or a regional government like the ACT’s will make worse environmental (and civic) decisions when it is cash-strapped. Therefore a given size of population will have worse environmental effects if it is in economic trouble — and paradoxically it might be in worse economic trouble because it is not increasing. So might an increasing population paradoxically cause less environmental damage because it is richer?

This somewhat perverse argument can, fortunately, be dismissed; and not just because it would be in effect a Ponzi strategy.

Current economic date shows that those Australian states with rapid population growth have in general been disadvantaged by it, in terms of wealth as measured by per capita GDP (or rather GSP — Gross State Product).

It seems the Chief Minister, to judge by his form letter mentioned below, has been receiving dodgy economic advice.  Former Democrat leader John Coulter, who compiled the above graph, comments that ABS data released 29 September 2010 reveal:

“Those states with the highest rates of population growth suffered the largest reduction in standard of living. Queensland and West Australia economies went backwards by 1.9 and 2 percent respectively in terms of per capita Gross State Product (GSP). On the other hand the Northern Territory, Tasmania and South Australia showed growth of per capita GSP of 0.7, 0.5 and 0.1 percent respectively. Australia, as a whole suffered a decline in per capita GDP of 0.7 percent.

“These figures clearly indicate that far from improving the lot of ordinary citizens, population growth by exceeding economic growth was, on average, making each citizen worse off.
“Importantly also, these raw figures do not reveal the full extent of the damaging impact of population growth on the welfare of ordinary citizens. Much of the ‘cost’ of the additional infrastructure required for population growth is added to and inflates GDP and GSP. Thus, in terms of the existing population, the growth of total GDP/GSP, does not represent a real benefit.
Moreover, the costs borne by ordinary citizens in terms of traffic congestion, longer travel times, ameliorating environmental damage are also added to GDP/GSP. These are real costs masquerading as benefits through the misleading way in which GDP and GSP measures are constructed.
“These data expose, yet again, the deceit behind the self-interested claims of property developers and some other business interests that population growth is good for Australians and similar claims made by the major parties that receive large donations from these interests”

The reasons that increasing population impoverishes a region are well set out by University of Queensland’s Dr Jane O’Sullivan here

As she points out, when population growth approaches 2% p.a. it becomes quite impossible for government to extract enough tax money for infrastructure to catch up. This gives the lie not only to loose talk about government “doing better” or “making more provision for infrastructure”, but also to the self-interested arguments of some educational institutions. These argue disguised immigration via their courses is a major profitable industry for Australia and the ACT.  Rather it is a net cost to the public, though much appreciated by property speculators.  (On the harm done by high house and land prices see Overloading Australia  Chapter 14 pp. 120 ff.)

Dr O’Sullivan also points out that the infrastructure costs of population growth exceed the savings in old age pensions (via a “younging” of the population)  by a factor of thirty! and asks: “Can we really be so stupid?”

Another example of this issue would be the scathing comments recently passed by the former head of the UN’s Population Division, Dr Joseph Chamie, upon what he terms the “Ponzi demography” of an ANU consultant’s advice.

Myth 6:

Australia and the  ACT suffer (or are threatened by)  a terrible labor shortage a.k.a. an excessive dependency ratio due to an ageing population.


Rubbish! This claim has been repeatedly rejected by competent enquiries and by a study from the Australia Institute; yet it continues to be made by vested interests and is often repeated by politicians. However like all spin it has a kernel of truth to give it plausibility. Yes, Australian couples, or Australian women, are averaging just under 2 children each; and this allows us to expect in time an age-balanced population, i.e. one with approximately equal numbers of people in each ten-year age bracket (up to those ages at which people start to die off).

This “normal” population will be quite unfamiliar to us, since it will contain  more older people and fewer children than we are used to. However the dependency ratio (the percentage of people who are either too young or too old to work — say under 20 and over 70) will not change much.  Remember three things:

Myth 7:

The ACT’s unusually low age structure ensures considerable natural increase (surplus of births over deaths). Together with Australia’s migration rate (the highest per capita rate in the world) this ensures high population growth in the ACT. The ACT government is just trying to manage it by building ever more (and ever denser) housing; and any environmental damage can’t be helped.


Note that the first claim  (found in another of the Chief Minister’s form letters) is incompatible with the previous myth: that we suffer a terribly aged population.

In fact with Sydney only 3 hours away it is far from inevitable that the ACT must swell. A reduction in net migration would reduce the population pressure on both cities. NSW has already seen a Premier  stand up strongly to the federal government and criticise Australia’ bizarre levels of net migration; yet the ACT Chief Minister actually attacked the PM for saying she was not a “big Australia” person. Clearly the current ACT government is complicit in the big Australia movement and cannot shirk responsibility for the social, economic and environmental consequences.

Myth 8:

People have to live somewhere, and their environmental footprint would be much the same anywhere.  Canberra’s expansion helps more populous countries bring their population under control. So let’s be unselfish and think globally.


It is easier to have patience with this argument when it is made by genuine idealists than when it is used as a fall-back by vested interests who have tried, and failed, to prove that population growth improves conditions for all Australians.  But even when  offered with genuine idealism it is unsatisfactory. As Overloading Australia  shows at more length than is possible here, Australia cannot and does not take off any significant percentage of the annual increase of more populous countries. But the belief that there is still an “empty country” that “needs” more people does enormous harm elsewhere. Only a tiny percentage of our immigrants are refuges. Most are “skilled immigrants” lured from countries where their skills are more needed than here.

And immigrants do increase their emissions and environmental demands.  The average Australian puts out about 26 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (and new arrivals soon move towards Australian norms), the average European about 10, Chinese 4, Indian 2.  For immigrants, increased affluence (and emissions) compensate for loss of language and cultural background —an understandable bargain but not one an environmentalist can greatly admire.

Myth 9:

There is no necessary connection between regional resources and the human population that might be sustained in a given region.  Hence growth (of population, of housing developments, and of the state or regional economy) can and should go on forever.


This seemed plausible during the Age of Oil (c. 1920-2008) when energy from oil and natural gas was abundant and absurdly cheap (relative to the limited supplies and to the billions of humans that want it both now and for the foreseeable future).

The Economist’s claim in 1999,  quoted in Overloading Australia p. 127,  that oil (which had recently risen to $10 a barrel) must  soon drop back permanently to $5, was typical of the naivety of growth economists.  The ACT government is still relying on their advice, as is clear from a form letter the Chief Minister’s office sends out to those raising the population issue. This falsely claims that economic opinion is increasingly that population growth is beneficial and is essential to economic stability. In fact the present very sharp rise in the price of energy has the opposite implication. This leads to the issue of Peak Oil.

    —Peak Oil —

The US Joints Chiefs of Staff, its German equivalent, and Lloyd’s of London have all recently endorsed predictions that Peak Oil is imminent, that oil may rise as high as $200 a barrel (invalidating many if not most current business plans, and likely creating economic chaos), and that no satisfactory alternative sources of bulk energy will be generally available  for 20 years.  The world depends on oil and gas to feed itself, via high-energy nitrate fertilisers made from oil and gas. This is why food riots broke out when oil reached $100 a barrel, and only ceased when the GFC reduced oil and hence fertiliser prices.

Our civilisation’s chief essentials are oil/energy and food. Till recently both have been absurdly cheap.  Hence cities and new suburbs have been recklessly multiplied, on the assumption that oil and food could easily be brought to them. Indeed cities like Melbourne and Canberra that produce little for export have followed the Las Vegas syndrome, and believed that they could support their populations through endless economic growth, —much of it based on the building of housing for an ever growing population.

Such thinking is now irresponsible and must be abandoned. Peak Oil makes it crucial to ask of each new proposed suburb or housing project  “What commodity will the inhabitants of this proposed suburb be so exceptionally well-placed to produce for export that the rest of the world (or even the rest of Australia) will be disposed to send them treasures like oil and food in exchange?”

To assume that a city can survive through the “productive” industry of building more houses and suburbs to settle in ever more people — “a housing-led recovery” etc.—  will soon be a folly comparable to the economics of that famous country (imagined by Adam Smith) whose inhabitants were going to live by taking in each other’s washing!

The above analysis further leads to the question of -:

Canberra’s sustainable population limit, in purely human terms (neglecting environmental issues).

Canberra is unlikely ever to be a major regional agricultural centre, mainly because it is surrounded by regions with very poor soils (with the tiny exception of Pialligo). Also it has Goulburn for a competitor. Its hope of sustaining itself rests primarily on a single export: governmental services. (Some businesses may also be advantageously positioned, by being in the capital, to provide various kinds of centralised information services. However in an internet age they face competition from literally every other part of the country, and from many places where premises are cheaper.)

In a future world where each city’s population may need to correspond roughly to the value of what it can reliably export, we need to ask what population is required to supply Canberra’s governmental and related services (including the cultural services of the War Memorial and National Library and National Museum) to the rest of Australia? (The figure should include those persons required to supply all desired or affordable services to those actually doing the bureaucratic and policy work. Such services include everything  from policing and nursing to the provision of café lattes.)

ACT government, may yet prove to be a folly.

As well, there is always Dick Smith’s question: “And then what?” i.e. if we let population grow towards 500,000, giving in to the lobbies that see short-term economic benefits in this, what happens when we reach 500,000 and the Property Council, for instance, suddenly ups its goal from 500,000 to 750,000 or 1 million?