Can we trust the Greens on Population?

Authored by Michael Lardelli , 18 August 2010

The Australian Green Party presents itself as the leading advocate of environmental issues, so you would expect it to have a strong policy on stopping population growth. When even the Liberals say net migration should be reduced to about half what the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded last year, one would expect the Greens to demand at least as big a cut, as well as the abolition of Costello’s baby bonus.

That they do not is odd. After all, population growth undermines environmental sustainability. Growing populations ultimately overwhelm any efforts to reduce our use of resources. More people need more food, housing, water and energy. As David Attenborough put it, “I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more. … I wish the environmental NGOs would … spell out this central problem loud and clear.”

Some years ago when I was a member of the Greens I raised the issue of population on an online forum and was strongly condemned. Years later, the “terms of dismissal” that were hurled at me (“eco-fascist” was an interesting one) still resound in my memory. But the spirit of the times is changing and the societal taboo against discussing population issues has broken down. Nowadays (and very belatedly) even the Greens seem to be talking about population. So I was curious to see what their policy on population has become.

The Greens’ policy on population can be found online. But it is disappointing and reads more like an apology for daring to have a policy at all. Below, I have copied their population policy (in bold italics) and inserted my critique. Their policy statement is divided into “Principles”, “Goals” and “Measures”:

The Australian Greens believe that:

1. Australia must contribute to achieving a globally sustainable population.

This is obvious, but focusing immediately on the global problem is puzzling in a national population policy. National parliaments are responsible primarily for the quality of life of their own people. They have no authority and little influence over what other nations do. It should also be obvious that achieving a world where every nation agrees to end population growth is a remote goal (albeit a worthy one). What willing countries can do now is to bring their own populations under control, and set a potent example by demonstrating the social and environmental advantages that result. This is the free enterprise model, which surely offers more hope -- not only for ourselves but for our ability to influence other nations -- than the "socialist" assumption that no one has the right to escape overpopulation until everyone does.

2. our environmental impact is not determined by population numbers alone, but by the way that people live.

True, but the neutral (unapologetic) way of stating this would simply be,
“our environmental impact is determined by population numbers and the way people live”.
Both factors matter, and neither is easy to control, so both must be addressed.

3. consumption patterns and levels, distribution of resources, agricultural practices for domestic consumption and export, levels and types of industrial activity, urban design and transport options determine the ecological footprint of a group of people.

FALSE. The ecological footprint/impact of a group of people is determined by all of the above AND population size! The relationship between population size, per capita consumption levels and the influence of technology was originally simplistically portrayed by Erlich and Holdren using the expression I = P x A x T where I is impact, P is population size, A is affluence (per capita consumption) and T is technology (e.g. resource intensity of the activities supporting affluence). The fact that population size was left out of the Greens’ statement indicates just how reluctant they are to consider this issue.

4. there are complex issues involved in population policy, including:

  • women’s rights;
  • unsustainable resource use; and
  • inequitable distribution of wealth and power.

This is definitely true but it is odd that a statement of principles should repeatedly point out how difficult the Greens find it to have a position on the population issue.

5. Australia’s population policy should be determined by its commitment to:
  • ecological sustainability;
  • both global and domestic social justice and equity;
  • intergenerational equity;
  • multiculturalism;
  • international human rights obligations; and
  • decent wages and conditions for all workers.

Here the Greens show how their focus on social issues has eclipsed their environmental concerns. Indeed, the best way to describe them now is as the new home of Labor’s disenfranchised left. But Nature has no left or right wing – it cares only about survival…

6. population policy should not be driven by economic goals or to counter the effects of an ageing population.

There is nothing to disagree with there! (See my recent article on the issue of coping with our ageing demographic profile.)

7. an Australian population policy must consider the geographical distribution of human settlements rather than just concentrate upon population size at the national level.

Yet more excuses for why the Greens do not wish to address the issue of population size. You have to wonder who actually wrote this policy!

8. Australia has an obligation to accept humanitarian migration including that resulting from climate change.

“Obligation” is a strong word. We have signed up to international obligations regarding refugees from political persecution and these should be stated explicitly. But what is “humanitarian migration”? Does this mean we must accept those who have become impoverished through uncontrolled population growth in other nations? Maybe so since, by that reasoning, there is no point in us trying to limit our own population numbers and that is, apparently, what the Greens are repeated implying.

The Australian Greens want:

9. reduction of Australia’s use of natural resources to a level that is sustainable and socially just.

But it is ultimately impossible to reduce our use of natural resources if we continue to allow the population to grow. There are limits to the efficiency with which resources can be used! There is also no social justice when resources have been depleted.

10. recognition that use of resources in production for export is as damaging to the environment as production for domestic consumption.

This is obvious. It should also be obvious that the smaller is Australia’s population, the smaller is our need for export income. A smaller Australia would not need to extract and sell its non-renewable and renewable resources so rapidly. This would reduce our impact on the environment. Also, since non-renewable resources are finite, the more slowly we exploit them the longer they will last and the more generations of Australians can benefit from their sale. Increased rates of resource extraction (supply) also tend to reduce commodity prices which means that, over the longer term, the more slowly we extract our resources, the more we can earn from them.

11. human settlements which are:

designed and built to minimise environmental harm and maximise social well-being; and

located in areas where their ecological impact is minimised.

But even if you stack humans exclusively in kilometer-high apartment buildings on rocky hilltops leaving agricultural land uncovered you still need more and more food for more and more mouths and that requires more and more land – somewhere. People anywhere have an impact when they need to be fed and per capita food consumption can only be reduced so far – or people starve!

The Australian Greens will:

12. support, through extensive community consultation, a population policy directed towards ecological sustainability in the context of global social justice.

This appears to be a re-statement that we will absorb the uncontrolled population growth of other nations. Let me put that another way – we would rather destroy our own children’s future if forced to choose between that and “humanitarian migration”.

13. work to achieve a sustainable relationship between humans and the environment by taking action:

in Australia, including planning, consultation and a whole of government approach, to improve equity in consumption levels and resource and technology use; and

The relationship between humans and the environment is our “impact”. In point 3 above the Greens incorrectly excluded population size from their definition of our “environmental impact” and here they are doing it again.

globally, to improve social and economic equity and promote programs that empower women.

This is based on the idea that “affluent”, educated women do not have many children. But this notion may not be founded entirely in fact. (See another of my essays.)

14. implement the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action as endorsed by the Australian Government, by:

increasing our contribution to programs that empower women and increase their access to a wide range of safe family planning options; and

See my previous comment

increasing our overseas aid budget to 0.7% of GNP by 2010 as recommended by the United Nations, directed to the poorest, which often include women, with a focus on clean water and sanitation, education and high quality accessible health services, including sexual and reproductive health services.

This measure is much more constructive than the idea, previously implied in several clauses, that Australia can take in the surplus of other nations. In fact China and India together grow each year by far more than the total population of Australia.

15. ensure that Australian family planning programs, both domestically and overseas, are adequately funded to deliver services in the context of reproductive health programs which increase the power of girls and women to determine their own reproductive lives, and increase the understanding of men of their reproductive responsibilities.

But what level of funding is “adequate”? Is Australia going to solve the rest of the world’s problems or will we contribute according to our relative economic size? Such vague motherhood statements are of little value. This text also implies that men as a group are reproductively irresponsible – the same assumption as made by Wahabi Muslims who insist women must cover their faces (and everything else) in public.

16. prepare contingency plans for possible large scale humanitarian migration as a result of climate change.

So, the Greens are not just expecting “humanitarian migration” they are expecting it on a massive scale! It seems that population growth for Australia is inevitable. The (eco)logical extension of the Greens’ expectation of massive humanitarian immigration is that we should stabilise or reduce our own population numbers now to cope with it. We should also drastically reduce our levels of consumption (some would call this “lifestyle”) to free-up resources for them. Taken to its logical Green extreme (and there are extremely many poor people outside of Australia to take) this humanitarian migration will only end when we have become as crowded, poor and hungry as the rest of the world.

As I described previously, the Greens almost abandoned having any policy on population in 2006 on the grounds that it would be electorally unpopular. The rapid success of Sustainable Population Australia (SPA, aided by Dick Smith) in opening up this issue for debate has demonstrated how misguided this attitude has been. In 2010 it is as though the dam holding back the population debate has burst and a flood of concern has swept out over the nation leaving the Greens standing stranded on a shrinking island of denial. Their failure of advocacy on this core environmental issue has led to the formation of alternative political parties such as the Stable Population Party of Australia and Stop Population Growth Now (SPGN).

Little wonder then that I am now a former member of the Greens, as are many other environmentally concerned individuals who saw from the inside how electoral populism has come to replace environmental activism. Australia now needs an Environment Party - one that sees humans and their economy as completely dependent upon the finite natural world that supports it and that is willing to propose whatever actions are necessary to ensure our future survival. Selling Australians the greenwash of “business-as-usual only driving an electric car” and pretending that population numbers do not matter is simply electorally populist Greens spin.

(Disclosure: Michael is now a member of SPGN).