Malthusian Delusions Grip Australia


Entrepreneur Dick Smith wants Australian families to be subject to China-like population doctrine. Families should be limited to just two children, the father of two and grandfather of six says, because our population growth is something like ‘a plague of locusts.’

Yet in reality, as in many other advanced countries, our population crisis may have more to do with having too few --- specifically younger --- people than too many.

The anti-population jihad is nothing new. Thomas Malthus was an 18th century economist and Anglican clergyman, whose ‘Essay on the Principles of Population’ (published 1798) popularised the notion that vice, plague and famine were natural forms of population control. In short, overpopulation would be subject to control by food scarcity.   

Maulthusians almost 200 years later, in 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote the blockbuster ‘The Population Bomb’ which warned of imminent mass starvations and famine due to overpopulation.  

Now joining the fray is our very own Dick Smith, former super-nerd and founder of Dick Smith Electronics stores, aviator, publisher (of Australian Geographic), entrepreneur and 1986 ‘Australian of the Year.’  

Dick’s a popular figure in Australia, and when he speaks people (and the media) listen. But Dick’s suggestion that Australia is overpopulated, and thus requires we need to limit our growth through a two child policy borders on the hysterical.

First, let’s start with some global perspective. Overall, world population growth rates are slowing according to the United Nations and the US Census Bureau. Further, based on United Nations forecasts, populations by 2050 will be smaller than they are today in 50 countries – leading economies included. Here’s a useful article from The Economist which explains. And in this article from Bloomberg’s Businessweek, titled ‘Shrinking Societies: the other Population Crisis’, the massive economic and social problems of countries with falling populations are highlighted.

Australia’s ageing population is not as severe as that looming in Europe and much of east Asia, but this country also faces a demographic implosion that, in the absence of more young people, will place unprecedented demands on a welfare system largely unfunded by the present tax system and those who fund it (namely, workers in the private sector).

But strangely, discussions about our ageing population and how to fund it and concerns about the overpopulation of Australia take place largely without a logical connection drawn between the two. If we are to avoid a horrendous tax burden on the future generation of workers, in order to maintain our standard of living and support the needs of the boomers, we will need more workers. It’s either that or higher taxes. And the problem with higher taxes, as other countries with similar problems have found, is that they can lead to an exodus of the workforce seeking better opportunities elsewhere. This in turn reduces the tax base. No ‘win-win’ there.

Doug Saunders is the author of ‘Arrival City,’ a book about the conflicts and change brought on by massive urban migrations. And in this article he explains, “by 2050, most Western countries will have to devote between 27 and 30 per cent of their GDP to spending on retirees and their needs”. This he adds, will produce fiscal deficits in most advanced countries of almost 25 per cent of GDP, making the current crisis seem minuscule by comparison.

This is not a remote or abstract crisis. Countries like Canada will soon be fighting to attract anyone we can get to work – and squeezing as much as we can from the remaining few.

Australia has been fond of comparing itself to Canada. We are both western democracies, operating under similar governance systems. We both have relatively small populations given our geographic size (Canada has 34 million people, we have 23 million) and abundant natural resources. The resource we both lack is people. If Saunders is right about Canada fearing the same demographic problems as Japan (population 127 million), Australia might want to take note.

Dick Smith’s concerns for Australia rely on a second, also false, argument:

"We are putting our kids into high-rise because we are running out of land, because people want and need to live close to the city. We pay $50 million a year for free range eggs for our bloody chooks to be free range - what about our kids? I was a free range kid. I had a backyard. We are starting to lose that now, and it's only driven by the huge population increases." (full article here)

But Dick, we aren’t running out of land. This argument is preposterous, on any valid domestic or global comparison. The reason we are denying future generations a backyard in preference over high density dwelling is not a land shortage brought on by population growth, but a planning philosophy which insists on growth boundaries and high density. This policy is embraced by most planners. Developers and land economists could explain this to Dick, if he were prepared to listen. Plenty of people, given the choice, would happily occupy suburban blocks far from CBDs because their work (which for 9 out of 10 Australians is not in the CBDs) and their lifestyle preferences (typically raising a family) are that way inclined. Those people though are not planners, and neither are they part of the current oligarchy which delivers decisions allegedly in their interests via the confines of inner city coffee shops.

Even in the United Kingdom (population 62 million, in an area slightly larger than Victoria) there are those proposing the establishment of new urban centres to provide housing choice and to accommodate growth. Ian Abley’s has proposed a ‘250 New Towns’ movement, which seeks to do precisely that.

If there are those prepared to venture such audacious ideas in a small place like the UK, one wonders why Australia has allowed itself to become preoccupied with the notion that we are somehow running out of land.

Australia’s growth rate is currently a dizzying 1.6% per annum. It’s fallen from a high of 2%, as international migration was reduced. Neither rates of growth, on a global scale, are remarkable. By 2050, when global population growth is predicted to stop, our total population will reach an estimated 35 million people, of whom 23% - or nearly one in four - will be aged over 65.

It reads not like a recipe for over population, but one of under population.  Perhaps it’s time the tiny thought bubbles of Dick Smith and his cohorts in this discussion were well and truly pricked by the sharp end of reality?

Ross Elliott has more than 20 years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog The Pulse.

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