‘Sustainable population’ – a topic too hot to touch?

Time for some myth-busting! It is possible to tackle environmental concerns, including facing up to the issue of population, in a way that still champions human rights, write Elisa Resce and Sandra Kanck.


Ahead of the rest, for more than 30 years the Australian Democrats have had enshrined in our constitution that “we accept the challenges of the predicament of humanity on the planet with its exponentially increasing population, disappearing finite resources and accelerating deterioration of the environment”.

Unfortunately, while most seem to have no problem with the disappearing finite resources and accelerating deterioration of the environment parts, the part that seeks to address the exponentially increasing population causes a bit of a stir.

That’s putting it mildly, in fact. In our experience, any recognition of the need to reduce population in order to address this planet’s predicament unleashes such a range of extremist knee-jerk reactions and accusations that many environmental groups and advocates are too afraid to touch it.

The term ‘sustainable population’ has been grossly misrepresented as a slippery-slope policy that may lead to things such as:

  • Controlling which class/race of people get to breed
  • Forced one-child policy
  • Closing of Australian borders
  • Eugenics to breed a stronger, whiter race

These accusations are alarming. More alarming for us, however, is when people who do hold these racist ideas think we are on their side!

To confuse matters, the development lobby have misappropriated the term ‘sustainable population’ in their policies on ‘sustainable population growth’, which is a misnomer because ever-growing population can never be sustainable. The development lobby presents endless population growth as a great positive with no negative consequences such as the aforementioned disappearance of resources and damage to the environment, not to mention the psychological impact of unimpeded consumer culture. Yet, thanks to the alarming racist/classist beliefs often confused with population issues, those who want to hit the breaks on growth and challenge the development lobby are easily dismissed as extremists and are given very little oxygen. The consequence is that the development lobby is able to continue with short-sighted policies that are setting us up for devastating failure in the long run.

The fact is that many environmental issues are uncomfortable. Why do you think climate change denial is still a phenomenon, despite the evidence? And despite the fact that our Western consumer culture has been proven to be unsustainable, many prefer to turn a blind eye, and carry on as usual.

For many, apathy or denial is not motivated by an evil agenda to destroy the world; it is just much easier to believe that we can carry on the way we are and pretend that there is never going to be any threat, of if we become aware of one, we cling to a hope that science will find a solution. But the fact is, our natural resources are finite, and we need to live in a way that honours this fact.

Let’s look at the situation locally:

  • Since the arrival of Europeans, hundreds of species have become extinct in Australia, including at least 50 bird and mammal, 4 frog and more than 60 plant species. It is likely that other species have disappeared but without our knowledge. Many other species are considered to be threatened and are listed under Australian Government legislation as endangered or vulnerable. More than 310 species of native animals and over 1180 species of native plants are at risk of disappearing forever.
  • In a continent where only 6% of our land is arable and drought is the norm, Australia has neither the soil fertility nor water resources to produce the food requirements for an increasing number of people. We face impending problems of peak oil, decreased rainfall and increased evaporation within the Murray-Darling Basin which in turn will have major consequences for our primary production. Unbridled population growth will turn us into net importers of food.
  • The reputable studies are there: as long ago as 1994 the Australian Academy of Sciences advocated a maximum population for Australia of 24 million, a figure we have now exceeded. In 2010 the National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University looked at different levels of net overseas migration – from zero up to 260,000 p.a. – and found that all levels lead to worryingly unsustainable positions, which worsen the higher the levels become.
  • Increasing numbers of Australians are recognising the importance of reining in population growth. The Public Health Association of Australia has adopted a population policy based on health, nutrition and environmental constraints, encouraging Federal and State governments to adopt policies that will lead to population numbers being held at sustainable levels.

Of course, adding the very personal issue of having children into the conversation is uncomfortable. But we have to do it: as uncomfortable as the conversation is, population is an environmental issue

So, despite the fear-mongering, the accusations and alarming racist distractors, we must accept the challenge of facing up to some hard facts, and come up with creative solutions that keep human rights at the centre – and not only because environment is innately a human rights issue.

When the Australian Democrats talk about Sustainable Population, here is our three-pronged approach:

  1. Double our humanitarian intake
  2. Increase reproductive rights for women
  3. Challenge unbridled consumer culture.



  1. Double our humanitarian intake

This probably seems counter-intuitive given this topic. But consider that we start from a low base with humanitarian intake numbers. We have an international, and moral, obligation to support refugees and asylum seekers, which the Australian Democrats strongly uphold and on which we have campaigned extensively over many years.

Our party’s Immigration Policy argues for “a non-discriminatory immigration program, which gives priority to refugees and family reunion, the total number of which when included with overall population trends will not impede sustainability of the nation’s natural resources”.

An increased humanitarian intake could be offset by substantially reducing the numbers entering Australia through our business migration scheme. Instead of importing skilled labour, why not train the almost 2m Australians who are unemployed or underemployed to gain the necessary skills?


  1. Increase our foreign aid budget and ensure more money and effort is directed towards women in developing countries for sexual and reproductive health, including contraception

Family planning is a key factor in alleviating poverty, and ensuring parents have the ability to provide their children with food, clothes and education. Supporting sexual and reproductive health, contraception and education not only moves towards sustainable population but supports communities to move out of poverty.

Partner to this is the importance of championing gender equality, which gives women more say over their sexual relationships, bodies and families. We support increased Australian aid funding to developing nations to make this happen as part of our belief in a more equitable world.

But this isn’t just a developing world issue: we must continue to promote Relationships and Sexual Health education in Australia, and affordable access to contraception. Once again, this doesn’t only have positive impact on population and poverty, but addresses issues such as family violence and abuse.


  1. Challenge unbridled consumer culture

This is another uncomfortable topic. But the fact is, Westerners consume at a hugely unsustainable rate. The Australian Democrats will support and advocate for policies that:

  • Regulate businesses, monitoring their environmental impact and enforcing laws to reduce that impact
  • Provide incentives for innovative changes in business practices, to be more ethical
  • Make it possible for ethical companies that produce quality items and are not driven by ‘planned obsolescence’ (the practice of making a product flimsy so it will break, forcing you to buy a new one) to compete in the marketplace
  • Move us towards an economy that is sustainable in the true sense of the word.

This is a key factor in environmental sustainability. Addressing population numbers is extremely important, but equally important is ensuring the population lives in a way that is not going to lead to disaster in the long term by using up our finite resources.




Australians have been subjected to an environmental roller-coaster ride on population. Most Australian politicians fail to understand the impact of population on the environment; the Labor and Liberal Parties bow to the dictates of the development lobby and continue to support increases in population; while other smaller parties range in views from fear-mongering about refugees and people with different religious views to an “open-all comers” approach.

But the Democrats advocate a fact-based but humane position, one that not only faces up to the challenges on this planet but does so in a creative way, that will actually increase human rights – rights for communities, rights for refugees, rights for women, and rights for the environment which sustains us all.

We hope you will join us in cutting through the knee-jerk reactions and distractions, and re-framing the discussion so that ‘Sustainable Population’ is no longer a topic that is too hot to touch.



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