First published in 2018 with The Ethics Centre
There are few topics that both sides of politics can agree upon these days, but one issue that does bridge this ever-widening divide is the question of population growth. Whether the cause of concern is immigration or environmental sustainability, fiscal responsibility or social justice, the fact that the global population breached 7.5 billion in 2017, is cause for concern for everyone. We live in a world of limited resources, and while population growth has been seminal in the development of human civilisation thus far, we are quickly approaching the point where the sheer volume of people will start to put every system we rely on under very serious stress.
This belief has coalesced in Australia in recent years in the form of the Sustainable Australia political party; a centrist party lead by William Burke and joined by Dick Smith, which largely revolves around one key idea – “Better, not bigger”. The party advocates for a non-discriminatory annual immigration cap at 70,000 persons, down from the current figure of ~200,000. While the party has been accused of xenophobic bigotry for this stance, their policy makes it quite clear that they are not concerned about the religion, culture, nor race of those immigrating – their concern is exclusively over the volume of people arriving, and the stress this will place on Australia’s infrastructure and environment.
It is a compelling argument; after all, what is the point of the state if not to protect the interests of its citizens? Certainly, we should be concerned with the needs and interests of our international neighbours, but such concerns must surely be strictly secondary to our own – and when our nearest neighbour has approximately 10 times our population, squeezed into a landmass 25% Australia’s size, and ranked 113 places behind us in the Human Development Index, one can be forgiven for believing that limited immigration is critical for ongoing Australian quality of life.
This stance is further bolstered by the highly isolated, and therefore vulnerable nature of Australia’s ecosystem. Australia has the fourth-highest level of animal species extinction in the world, with 106 species listed as Critically Endangered and significantly more simply Endangered or Under Threat. Much of this is due to habitat loss, caused in large part by human encroachment as suburbs and agricultural land expands for our ever-increasing needs. The introduction of foreign flora and fauna can be absolutely devastating to these species, and is greatly facilitated by increased movement between neighbour nations – hence the virtually unparalleled ferocity of out quarantine standards. And while the nation may be a considerable exporter of foodstuffs, many argue that Australia is already well over its carrying capacity, with all additional production effectively degrading the land and our ability to continue growing food into the future.
With the combination of these ecological threats and the far more obvious socio-economic pressure that a growing population will place on our quality of life, the argument for limiting immigration to sustainable numbers is a powerful one – though slightly hamstrung by the fact that it is absolutely doomed to failure.
If the objective of limiting immigration to Australia is both to protect our environment and maintain high quality of life, then Fortress Australia will fail on both fronts. Why? For the simple reason that it does nothing to address the fundamental problem at hand: unsustainable population growth in a world of limited resources.
Immigration controls may indeed protect both Australian quality of life and environment for a time, but without effective strategic intervention, the population burden in neighbouring countries will only continue to grow. As conditions worsen and resources dwindle, exacerbated massively by the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, citizens of those over-populated nations will seek an alternative – and what could be more appealing than the enormous, low-density nation with incredibly high quality of life, right next door to them?
If a mere 10% of Indonesians (the vast majority of which live on the coast and are exceptionally vulnerable to climate change impacts) decided to attempt the crossing to Australia, we would be confronted by a flotilla equivalent to our entire national population. At this point we have one of two choices – suffer through the impact of over a decade’s worth of immigration in one go, or commit military action against 25 million human beings, seeking refuge from a problem we decided to ignore. Such a choice is a Utilitarian nightmare; an impossible choice between terrible options, with the best possible result still involving massive and sustained suffering for all involved. And while ethics can provide us with the tools to make such apocalyptic decisions, by far the best response is prevent such choices from emerging at all.
Population growth is a real and tangible threat to the quality of life for all human beings on the planet, and like all great strategic threats, it can only be solved by proactively engaging it in its entirety. Where concepts such as immigration limitations seek to protect our nation by addressing the symptoms, we are better served by asking how the problem can be solved from its root. Significant progress has been made thus far through programs that promote contraception and female reproductive rights. There is a strong correlation between nations with lower income inequality and population growth, indicating that economic equity can also contribute towards the stabilisation of population growth, as illustrated by the decreasing fertility rates in most developed nations like Australia, the UK and particularly Japan.
The addressing of aggravating factors such as climate change – a problem overwhelmingly caused by developed nations such as Australia, both historically and currently through our export of brown coal – and continued good-faith collaboration with these developing nations to establish renewable energy production, will greatly assist to prevent a crisis occurring. Regardless of the specific solutions employed to solve the question of unchecked population growth, one thing should be clear; population growth is not a problem we can ignore into submission.