Are we hooked on population growth?

I was recently invited to attend the launch of a new documentary called “Growthbusters” in Brisbane on Friday night but was unable to attend due to work commitments. Thankfully, the sponsor, The Stable Population Party, gave me access to an online screening. Here is a preview of the 1hr 30min film:

This is a very personal tale, centred on the filmmaker Dave Gardner, who presents a global view of the impact of growth. From a somewhat “folky” start, Gardner expands his home town tale into the global issue of today – population growth – one that transcends the politically charged debate surrounding climate change.

The film highlights just how ideologically embedded the concept of growth is in our Western consumer-obsessed society. How we have confused the tremendous prosperity that has come with adopting capitalism over the last 200 years with a requirement for population growth, which is called “the solution to problems it has never solved”. The film travels through a series of soundbites and narratives, Gardner’s attempt to win a seat at his local council, and interviews with anti-growth proponents, including the late Professor Al Bartlett who is famous for his quote:

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

The very concept of exponential growth in Gross Domestic Product or GDP (actually supposed to be a temporary Depression/wartime measure, but now ideologically followed like a religion) is discussed, and the role of economists in perpetuating the notion that growth is good and “negative growth” is always bad. The film doesn’t quite make the connection with the role of credit and debt in this equation. Chris Martenson’s Crash Course and indeed, Australian economist Steve Keen have successfully made a well rounded picture of how the role of GDP is used by the orthodox economic, and hence, political establishment in requiring ever increasing population growth and the inevitable impact on finite resources.

One concept that could have been expanded upon was how globalism reduced the psychological impact of  how local communities impact on the environment. That is, if your community is isolated from how it’s energy, food and other inputs are acquired – its ecological footprint – the effort required to stabilise or offset this deficit is made harder from a political/educational viewpoint.

This was brought home in a review of a (admittedly fairly rich) community in the US, which has adopted a stable population target and calculated its ecological footprint. This has had the impact of informing the community of their input costs and emboldening them to reduce waste, conserve energy but more importantly, create the inputs themselves, using local products, and in the local area.

In fact a plus for me was how the documentary directly addresses the current paradox by the environmentalists agenda (and hence now the official government position) of focusing on reducing consumption without addressing the underlying problem – a smaller (and non-growing) population equals less consumption.

Australia makes an appearance with a short soundbite from Kevin Rudd (when Prime Minister) and a lengthly exposition from Dick Smith’s recent film on population growth, who goes on to blame his fellow capitalists, namely the politico-housing complex . From a local point of view, and to regular MacroBusiness readers, it is obvious that the nexus of easy credit – required by the devotion to ever increasing GDP – the pressure from population growth and the ability of growth proponents to restrict supply (or make it as inflexible as possible) has been the multi-faceted driver behind Australia’s housing bubble.

As I showed recently, and even using the very poor economic measure that is GDP, the economic benefit of expanding population seems to be absent from the political and economic (but I repeat myself) debate. One stimulus measure not covered much in post-GFC Australia is that 1.2 million new Australians were added to the economy since March 2009 .  Each of course, add to GDP, but possibly subtract from our overall welfare.

In fact, it seems this ability to pump the economic system with more people and more debt (an additional quarter of a trillion in private debt alone since 2009), may not be enough to have the previous incremental effect in raising prosperity :


Inexorable growth of GDP at 1.48% per annum over 10 years now half that growth rate, even with 6% more people and $250 billion more in private debt

The film touches on the “rational optimism” opposing side of the debate, that is, proponents of exponential growth who contend that human’s abilities to innovate and discover new sources of energy and new ideas will solve the growth “problem”. Again, I would like to have seen more data and explanation of why this thought process is dominant in our thinking, and why this “thoughtless” optimism travails over the relatively simple mathematics of exponential growth in a finite world.

Also, more examples of stable or sustainable zero-growth policies that have been successful (e.g Germany and Switzerland) and more in depth reviews of alternative economic systems could help in offsetting the descriptive side by adding a hopeful prescription. However, I may be too harsh as I think this film is pitched to either the “believers” or to the public that prefers a human tale, not one completely wound up in numbers and charts.

Overall, an empowering film about population growth that has a broad scope but with a personalised touch. The film is available for purchase with screenings here:

  • Melbourne: Nova Cinema, Carlton @ 6:30pm for 7 – Wednesday March 14
  • Brisbane: Tribal Cinema, City @ 6pm for 6:30 – Friday March 16
  • Canberra: Arc Cinema, NFSA @ 5:30pm for 6 – Tuesday March 20
  • Hobart: State Cinema, City @ 7:30pm for 8 – Wednesday March 21
  • Adelaide: Mercury Cinema, City @ 6:30pm for 7 – Thursday March 22
  • Sydney: Chauvel Cinema, Paddington @ 6:30pm for 7 – Tuesday March 27
  • Perth: WA Film Institute, Fremantle @ 6:30pm for 7 – Thursday March 29
  • Darwin: Birch Carroll & Coyle, City @7pm – Tuesday April 3
Latest posts by Chris Becker (see all)


    • Capping population? We should be having deportations not just a capping of population!

      Melbourne has gone from a city I loved to call home to a place that I am actually happy to get away from as often as I can.

      • Well for one thing, to question population growth, or growth itself, guarantees you will be labelled a nutcase forever by the media and mainstream economists — look at poor old Kelvin Thomson.

        For another, a simple google will show you that The Greens have had plenty to say on population growth, especially around the time Rudd made his “Big Australia” pronouncement.

    • So why aren’t the greens vocal on capping population growth?

      Google “Bob Brown population”

      • We were discussing the Brown stance yesterday. Population is the elephant in the room. How long before we consume all the resources? The Greens in all their forms world wide are silent. If you go down this path you will be labelled.

        Non sustainable…

        • The Greens in all their forms world wide are silent.

          Ok, I’ll quote the whole damn thing then:

          THE Greens have weighed into the population debate, saying global growth is threatening Australia’s status as the lucky country.

          Party leader Bob Brown will tomorrow move a motion in the Senate calling on the Rudd government to establish an independent inquiry in Australia’s population.

          He says Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s vision of a “big Australia” with a population of 35 million by 2050 isn’t sustainable.

          “We live in a fantastic continent, privileged above all on the face of this planet,” Senator Brown told reporters in Canberra on Sunday.

          “It’s going to take some very wise decision-making to keep it that way.

          “I’m saying definitively we do not have the infrastructure or plans for the infrastructure to carry 35 million people by 2050.”

          The Greens want an inquiry to investigate Australia’s “carrying capacity” in terms of population impacts on infrastructure, the environment, health and education. It would report back by mid-2011.

          Senator Brown said the world was buckling under a “vast and threatening population weight”.

          He said Australia’s skilled migration program should be cut while the much-smaller humanitarian intake was increased.

          Overseas aid should be boosted to help other countries reduce poverty and fertility rates.

          Senator Brown denied his tough stance would see the Greens lumped in with the right-wing anti-immigration crowd.

          “We are a humanitarian party and an environmental party,” he said.

          “But there is a lot of ignorance which drives fear of discussing population because you’ll be labelled ‘racist’.”

          The Tasmanian senator did acknowledge, however, that calling for slower population growth would be popular.

          “I’ve seen the polls, they don’t want it (35 million by 2050),” he said.

          “People are concerned about it.

          “It’s a debate I get all across the country.”


          • Well, I can see Bob Brown has done his bit for limiting population growth – natural progression of this thought is to remain childless….or is that something generally only expected of the heaving masses in Africa and Asia?

            If you have kids of your own, just who do you expect not to?

          • ps An amusing aside: a snippet in The Weekend Oz – researchers have found a strong correlation: mental disorders and those that fear climate change etc (usually OCD – compulsively obsessing about the enrivonment being common reported).

            If afflicted, seek help!

          • Well, I can see Bob Brown has done his bit for limiting population growth

            That’s a borderline comment MineBot.

            If you have kids of your own, just who do you expect not to?

            Two. No-one.

            As has been shown countless times, the most effective means to slow population growth is education, especially of women.

          • a snippet in The Weekend Oz

            Thankfully I never read the Oz so I never had the displeasure of reading this.

            Given the Australia has been waging a decade long War on Science I’d be interested to know which organisation these “researcher” work for. Was the study published in a reputable scientific journal. I’m guessing not.

          • Amusing snippet in The Oz:

            Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2012;doi:10.1177/0004869 411433951 (Jones K et al)

          • Guess what Bob Brown had to say about climate change deniers:

            “I think the denigration of science is a real threat. If scientists are mocked and derided, then soon we will have the total triumph of ‘know nothing’.”

            Oh wait… That was Malcolm Turnbull 🙂 .. Read & weep, 3dk1, and stop posting Bob Katter like hate comments.

          • Mav, I’m not a denier, I’m an agnostic. Bob Katter-like hate comments? Climate gloomers need to get a sense of humour and more importantly, perspective.

            Recently read this, you should give it a go:

            “…an argument that McEwan has also made, is that we have no choice but to hope that technological ingenuity, enlightened self-interest and the market’s allocation of resources can get us off the hook; personal virtue counts for little.”


          • drsmithyMEMBER

            Well, I can see Bob Brown has done his bit for limiting population growth – natural progression of this thought is to remain childless….
            No, it’s not. This is a non-sequitur.

            If you have kids of your own, just who do you expect not to?
            If every couple in the world has only two children, population growth will not only have stopped, it will start to go backwards.

          • DrSmithy, lighten up – my Bob Brown comment was off the cuff!

            Every couple two kids – good. We only need tackle the issue in developing nations. Italy should get bonus points.

        • How long before we consume all the resources?

          Same old anti-population growth furphy as always, following in the proud Malthusian tradition. Erlich predicting ‘end is nigh’ in the late sixties – guess what, 45 years later the human species is doing what it does so well – surviving. Adapting and surviving.

          As a species we are addicted to a couple of driving primeval instincts – the one which leads to population growth in the first place; and survival.

          I am in the ‘cautious optimist’ camp on this one, a believer in human ingenuity, ability for technical innovation and imaginative adaptation.

          Generally, as populations gain education and a degree of economic wellbeing, a natural population inhibiting effect tends to occur – perhaps this is a more important goal – lift developing nations from the trap of poverty and population growth will self-moderate.

          • Erlich wasn’t wrong, he was early. He’d have won his bet if his timing was different (e.g. 2000-2010 instead of 1980-1990).

            The last paragraph is one of your better efforts.

          • That’s utter rubbish, the issue is not about the human capacity to survive it’s about the quality and amenity of life for all humans.

            Those that best benefit from surging growth (including population growth), aren’t the ones living in cramped, environmental deserts

          • AJ, if you have ever visited any of the mega-slums on this planet you will understand that the will to live, to survive, is insurmountable. Joy (and misery) can be found everywhere, from the poorest slum to the wealthiest gated community).

            A very middle-class and cocooned idea to think that ‘quality and amenity of life’ is the only worthwhile parameter for existence. A very subjective one too. Typical of those that can envisage no world other than that of their own: comfortable housing, plentiful food, cradle to grave welfare, iPhones assorted technologica and obligatory holidays to ‘adventure’ locations.

            [I exclude those populations victims of war, torture and/or famine, which are separate issues.]

          • 3d1k – if you ever took the time to talk to those living on the rubbish tips of western growth, you may find they would rather not be there.

          • That is not the point. You questioned the capacity to survive – I believe it exists in almost every circumstance. Of course, people want a better life and ideally one day economic development may deliver it to them. Regardless, life is valued and life is lived.

          • Actually I said the human capacity to survive is no answer to the point that unfettered growth is making human lives a misery.

            Something you seem pretty comfortable with it seems.

          • You assume that this is the case. My experience of time spent in poorer nations (South America and Africa) is that whilst a better life may be desired, misery is not the norm. Actually, something far from that. I see more misery of spirit here and in wealthy developed nations than I ever saw in my years in the so-called ‘disadvantaged’ ones.

            I kinda always thought of it as “If you haven’t got it, you might give skant thought to getting it but you ain’t giving no thought to losing it”. Almost a freedom.

          • Fair point – although lets not confuse living on rubbish tips with poor villages.

            And in many cases freedom from stuff = freedom from education, medical support, clean water, clean safe arable land etc.

          • Our own CSIRO has published “A Comparison of The Limits To Growth with 30 Years of Reality, Graham Turner, June 2008


            At page 40 of the pdf the conclusion is that we are following the “standard run” scenario from LtG quite closely. that scenario results in global collapse before the middle of this century.

            The author also notes that a lot of the criticisms made of LtG are wrongly based (ie LtG never made the supposed claim) or otherwise inaccurate.

    • Population is only have the equation with consumption being the other part hence the famous equation Impact = Population x affluence x technology.

      And so it is impossible to actually say what is a sustainable population unless we address what is sustainable consumption. i.f. a sustainable population if we all want to live wasteful profligate lives might be a billion people, where as if we can deal with a simpler existence it maybe 8 or 9.

      Generally population is brought up by rich people who consume as much as whole villages in the developing world but then claim their breeding is unsustainable. Unless the consumption side is addressed it is a bogus and self-interested argument.

  1. Are we hooked on population growth? I’d say the Commonwealth Government is hooked on Taxation Growth, but by stealth. Two big new taxes – mining and carbon tax – why doesn’t the Government just man up like it’s European counterparts and raise the GST from 10% to 15% and stop pretending that the CT will save the planet and the mining tax will share the wealth and benefit all Aussies?

      • Why not remove the GST and replace it with a proper carbon tax? Lets tax consumption that damages the planet, instead of whacking 10% on everything.

        • I think your being tongue in cheeky Lorax? As all ‘consumption’ – stuff we make and trade and even services are an imposition on Gaia – that is if you believe the Greens – for even we emit the ‘noxious’ carbon dioxide from our mouths? My point is, this Government, like all Western Governments does not know how to say NO – they just spend themselves into trouble and it could end in catastrophe. The Australian Government is no different – except it tries to raise Taxes in a way that is not offensive to the Australian public – so a CT and mining tax make the medicine go down better, rather than just being open & honest and saying we have HUGE unfunded liabilities (pensions/healthcare/welfare), so we have to raise taxes! Lastly population will peak mid century around 9 to 10 billion and the UN even estimates that it could be, what it is now (7 billion) by 2100…….so hardly anything to worry about with planet earth and it’s survival!

          • for even we emit the ‘noxious’ carbon dioxide from our mouths

            I stopped reading after this.

          • Keep it civil? I only asked that the Lorax keep an open mind about truth? How can this be uncivil?

          • ” I only asked that the Lorax keep an open mind about truth?”

            Civil. But impossible. 🙂

          • Around 2006 I spent 12 months reading every skeptic blog I could find to see if there was any validity to their arguments.

            I kept an open mind for a very long time, but after a while you realise its all vested interests defending the status quo. I’m sorry, but it is, and I can’t listen any more.

  2. It’s funny that we look down on people who can’t understand the exponential function, yet nod our head sagely at those who don’t understand the other side of that exponential equation: population growth is a given.
    Luckily we have boundless human creativity to help us and the planet cope with the side effects.

    • Disagree that population growth is a given. It hasn’t been for the Japanese and the 20 or so European countries with zero population growth, and I would say the continuing secularisation of societies, empowerment of women, and cheap access to birth control is going to continue to threaten that particular assumption.

      • Agree +1 – check the UN figures on population growth, the most likely scenario is a decline in world population by 2100!

        • Oh come on, we can’t forecast the weather successfully for tomorrow, do you really think the UN can a complex system like population accurately for 2013, nevermind 2100??
          The best thing you can do is look at history, and have a think about human nature. Population growth has been a constant, and human nature suggests that will continue to be the case.

          • Diogenes the CynicMEMBER

            Actually population growth goes hand in hand with energy growth driven in the main by fossil fuel use consumption. If you believe that cheap oil is running out we actually have a big problem coming up soon.

          • The rate of population growth has been declining for 50 years, I would posit for exactly those reason I have alluded to. If population growth is a given, then why do many advanced economies experience negative population growth ?

    • Looks less like an assumption and more like an observation to me. World population growth, that is.
      Whether or not Australia would or should strangle itself with zero population growth, that’s a different debate, and I don’t pretend to know the answers. That debate should take place against a back-drop of global population groth being a given, I think.

      • AC – do you believe in AGW? Those figures that our Governments are basing the CT come from the IPCC of the United Nations. You cannot have it both ways, say one lot of science & figures is correct and base climate science, taxation and wholesale changes to the economy is correct and then say that the same organisations figures on population growth are wrong? It does not make sense. FACT is, the more developed and wealthier nations get, population declines!

      • Historically, and I think this applies to animals as well as humans, it is seen that population growth is exponential until it hits some constraint, say lack of resources, and then it pauses. In the case of animals, that is about it, maybe a volcano erupts and makes more land, then there can be more animals, so it grows a bit more. In the human case we can get around constraints, for example agriculture, tools, modern (and ancient) medicine, and indeed fossil fuels, all allow us to grow the population further.

        Whether this use of resources etc leads to degredation of that resource source is a secondary question. Rabbits will eat all the grass until there is none left, and then will all die back. We are smart enough to harvest most of the seeds, then replant some of them, rather than eating the entire crop. Fossil fuels are a great example of a degrading source. If used the source is destroyed. Unless we can come up with replacements, the limitation on population due to energy needs (ie for food production, not computers AirCon etc) would cause the population to decline. The use of energy per person is increasing, as is the number of people, so the production of energy has to increase as a faster exponential than the population does.

        My position in this is as a realist, exponential growth will require exponential increases in all the resources we need. To achieve this will require an exponential increase in our knowledge and understanding, and in R&D of new technologies. As far as I can see this isn’t really happening, so at some point the growth will slow, or maybe even stop. This could be due to food running out, causing an increase in the death rate. Or due to increased war over decreasing energy sources etc. But nature always wins in the end.

    • drsmithyMEMBER

      It’s funny that we look down on people who can’t understand the exponential function, yet nod our head sagely at those who don’t understand the other side of that exponential equation: population growth is a given.
      Your premise is broken. Growth *isn’t* a given, as most of the western world has been demonstrating for decades.

      Wherever and whenever women have viable options other than being brood mares, and absent artificial incentives, birth rates consistently drop to below-replacement-rate.

      • Social trends come and go. I’d bet on human nature winning the battle with this one. We are just animals, part of nature. Get over it and get on with it.

        • drsmithyMEMBER

          Ugh, stupid WordPress.

          What “human nature” are you referring to ? Because the “human nature” I see is when people aren’t forced into a lifetime of child rearing, they don’t engage in one. Why would you consider that a passing “trend” when it’s pretty much a universal truth ?

          While it’s true the currently resurgent Right might eventually succeed in its goal of winding back women’s rights sufficiently far to reverse the “trend”, I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

        • The secularisation of socities, empowerment of women, and widespread adoption of contraception all ephemeral ‘social trends’ ? I know that is the attitude among authoritarian religious regimes, but it doesn’t sound quite so funny out of that context.

          You can easily test your theory on just how much we are not animals by attempting to defecate on public transport and flinging it at your fellow travellers.

          As has been noted elsewhere, other species of animal generally stop populating when their resources run out and they realise a lack of opposable thumbs is the least of their impediments to developing crop harvesting techniques.

    • dumb_non_economistMEMBER

      Surely your not serious with that last sentence? In addition our time on this planet isn’t all that long and imo it’s unbelievable that the planet can sustain continued growth; you can only shit in your own nest for so long!

    • well…with the Kennedy’s speech about compressing human progress into 50 years playing in the background…

      we notice that for every spurt in human population growth there accompanied fundamental breakthroughs in art, science, poetry, statecraft, music, philosophy, technology.

      If we naively accepts that with an order of magnitude increase in power source, our population can increase by the same order. So with nuclear fusion we would be able to sustain approximately 100 billions, until we exhaust that capacity, then we’ll move onto the edge of the knowable (with respect to 2012) Universe with matter/antimatter reaction, our population would be 1 trillion, and our activities not necessarily confined to Earth or even low Earth orbit.

      Population potential growth is then a measure of our survival ability to make breakthroughs in fundamentals to spread life where ever the condition is riped according to our tech. We need ever increasing humans to man, operate and maintain our ever increasing space dwellings including Earth, our womb.

  3. I always think the zero-growth people have highly questionable politics – I don’t see how Australia can be the gated community of the world. The other thing that irks me is the concept of ‘sustainability’ – so far as I know, nothing in this world has ever been sustainable so it’s weird to think that it can suddenly become so.

    • nothing in this world has ever been sustainable

      No, but we can certainly become more sustainable. IIRC the oil we burn in one year takes 3 million years to create, so we’re clearly behaving in an extremely unsustainable way at present.

      Now we might be able to continue like this for another 50 years, or another hundred, but certainly not for a thousand years … and a thousand years is a blink of the eye on geological timescales.

      • Yes, we are both going to die, and our species too. I’d put my money on bird ‘flu, or a range of other diseases, before environmental catastrophe.

        • I think a WW3 may get most of us first – nuclear and biological – the middle east is just too unstable – I really do hope not though.

    • General Disarray

      1. I don’t see how exponential growth is sustainable.

      2. Plenty of things in the world are sustainable – if they were not, we would never have evolved.

        • General Disarray

          Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear – for humans to have evolved to the level we are at now, there has been a requirement for sustainable resources; water, food, and environmental conditions.

          If the planets environment changes radically species die and don’t get the chance to evolve to their full potential. A relatively stable and sustainable environment is needed for the type of development humans have been through.

          I guess if we take a long enough timeline then the sun will engulf the Earth, so in that case I guess nothing is sustainable.

  4. Diogenes the CynicMEMBER

    I always laugh when I read that China is going to grow at 8+% for the next 20+ years. If you look at how much that one country is consuming in terms of resources we would need more resources than 1 earth (perhaps 3 earths) to satisfy China after 2020.

    The issue with exponential growth is the petrie dish does not seem crowded at 3-4 minutes from midnight but then is ‘suddenly’ full. Overshoot and collapse is on the menu unless we are saved by a Kurzweilian technological advancement like cheap fusion energy.

  5. something very schizoid about
    this blog site

    exponential growth on a finite
    planet – an adult conversation
    we need to have

    • Do we ever consider the 1B existing in poverty in this adult conversation?
      It is a portion of population that is not getting any smaller any time soon.

      The answers to this are?

      Why haven’t the answers been implemented?

    • exponential growth on a finite planet is not impossible, since most of what is “consumed” actually never leaves the planet. Clearly there are some things – fossil fuels in particular – that are finite and are no longer here once they have been used. The atoms are here, but no longer in the useful form they once had. But a lot of other things about which the Malthusians get excited – minerals in particular – can be recycled again and again. Food can be regrown. Rain falls to replenish water supplies. Trees grow to replace those that have been harvested. In the US, the amount of arable land used for farming decreased significantly last century, yet the population grew tenfold.

      Yes, there are limits to growth. But I don’t think we should be accepting that we are anywhere near those limits at present. We owe it to the world’s poor to at least bring them to a point where they have clean fresh water, sanitation, and no more subsistence farming. Beyond that, who knows?

      • PS, my view is that just because we can grow doesn’t mean we should. However, I don’t think Australian society is at the point yet where we can say that we could be satisfied with our current standard of living. Yes, those with well paid and secure jobs probably can be. But that leaves a significant proportion of the population on the margin without that satisfactory standard of living.

        Personally, I’m not convinced that a high taxing, high spending interventionist state is necessarily the right answer to this situation, although I’m aware that a lot of people look to Scandinavia for inspiration and suggest that it is. I don’t think Australia is anywhere near as cohesive a society as they are, so I don’t think their model is appropriate for us now.

        And of course, even if we fix things for us, that still leaves the two-thirds world yet to catch up.

      • PPS, very interesting point made on the language program on ABC1 last night, being presented by Stephen Fry. Apparently language is one of the main reasons English speakers are more individualistic.

      • We’ve owed it to the world’s poor for centuries and still not delivered. There are already ample financial resources and existing technologies to achieve clean water, sanitation, education and better farming techniques for those who don’t have them. Why is more growth the answer to that particular problem ? The answer has always been delivering more equitable growth and distribution of resources. But the impediments to such goals are always the same.

        • I don’t know what you see as the impediments to such goals, mb, but I would have the following on my list:

          corrupt leaders;
          no secure property rights;
          corrupt public servants;
          giving people stuff they can’t use;
          people who are just given stuff can’t survive without the gifts continuing – they haven’t learned the skills necessary to be economically self sufficient;
          no incentives to invest in low productivity endeavours.

          “More equitable growth and distribution of resources” is just code for stealing from the successful and giving it to the unsuccessful.

          • An example of how complex the corruption issue is, from experience in Nairobi. Traffic cops at major intersections are able to earn a hefty living from small scale corruption, the usual traffic infringement payoffs. To get that job, however, you need to pay up the line as well, usually repayments on a loan to get the job in the first place. It is absolutely ingrained.

          • Alex, you’re on the right track I reckon – the recent Why Nations Fail also emphasises the importance of stable institutional frameworks across disciplines and the crucial role these frameworks play in aiding/ensuring long term success as a nation.

          • Jackson, petty corruption is endemic throughout much of the developing world – we just disguise ours better!

          • Not quite sure I share your characterisation of equitable growth and distribution of resources as it relates to providing clean water, sanitation and farming methods – not sure the Gates Foundation sees it that way either. By your answer, I am a little confused now as to what you meant in saying we owe the world’s poor these basic improvements. Property rights do exist in the world’s poorest countries (more so for corporations than the general populace), which historically has explained a bit of that corruption you refer to.

          • mb, the reason I say that “more equitable growth and distribution of resources” is code for stealing from the successful is that it is the sort of slogan that is used to put guilt trips on Western nations to give more “aid” to corrupt African dictatorships. The problem is that there is no evidence, after billions of dollars in aid, that any of these nations have benefited in any significant way. Usually the aid is stolen and salted away in Swiss bank accounts by the dictator and his cronies. There is usually little incentive for the dictator to do anything else, such are the perverse conditions in these nations. Read “The Undercover Economist” for a good explanation.

            However, this does not mean that voluntary aid organisations such as World Vision are not achieving anything. Usually they are much more involved with working at the local level with local communities to meet real needs. I have three sponsor children myself, so I know what is being done in various parts of the world.

            The bottom line is that local action seems to be good and effective, any attempts at top down betterment or reform are probably doomed.

          • Alex, I two have three sponsor children via WV!

            Years ago on a bus journey in Peru, the bus I missed crashed over a ravine. I was in the next bus. Mostly Quechua speaking indiginous on my bus. The other, in a river, lives lost and two young Norwegian girls injured – one with apparent severe spinal – on my bus, amidst the bags of corn, coca leaf and chicken or two, an Equadorian doctor. She was on her way to a remote World Vision posting in the post-high Andes. She administered essential first aid (had a morphine kit or similar), organised clearance of many of the passengers and diversion to nearest medical facility (which after 2 1/2 hrs bone jarring travel (rains) was found to be closed six months prior – Norwegian consulate organised medivac). Long way of saying – it’s real and it works.

            Forget that daily coffee and think World Vision.

  6. This is THE debate. Ecological destruction from surging ‘growth’ is the elephant in the room at the fancy-schmancy greenhouse gas conventions.

    Economics has to start building this issue into the discussion. We shouldn’t be turning this into a binary discussion, but growth has big big problems for amenity of life and we need to start fixing them.

    (The beautiful Port Phillip bay in Melbourne has been toxic to swim in for most of this summer)

    • Economics has to start building this issue into the discussion.

      Difficult when pretty much all economic theory begins with the premise that growth is good.

      • Correct. Just looking at the comments in this post – economic policy for Australia is driven by wealthy economists with nice houses in leafy suburbs with holiday houses/country estates and who find it easy to get out of the city.

        Perhaps if we put them in a two bedroom unit in the ugly side of town where they had to cue for every amenity and service they would understand what growth means to many Australians.

        I am unashamedly anti the type of rubbish corporate growth we have seen over the last 30yrs in Australia. It eats away like a termite at our environmental amenity, it gnaws at the quality of life of most and enriches so few lives.

        Get the bad parts of growth into the economic discussion and we’ll start to have an adult conversation.

        • Agree AJ…the sort of population growth we have indulged in is non-productive. It has been used to boost RE, Retail sales, and their associated structures. We import people and basically park them in Sydney and melbourne.

          HOWEVER….You said
          “Correct. Just looking at the comments in this post – economic policy for Australia is driven by wealthy economists with nice houses in leafy suburbs with holiday houses/country estates and who find it easy to get out of the city.”

          The problem is they can but they don’t. Their country estates are very adjacent population centres with good amenities and they don’t need to graft a living from them.
          They are all appallingly ignorant of how the rest of Australia works and lives! And it ain’t just economists!

    • Diogenes the CynicMEMBER

      Difficult when mainstream economics assumes limitless resource inputs and costless waste outputs.

      I kid you not!

  7. In 1968 the population of australia was 12 million. The population of Switzerland was 6 million.

    Currently the population of australia is estimated at approx 23+ million. The population of the Swiss is 7.5 million.

    Which economy is stronger and is more sustainable and doesn’t rely on importing people to boost GDP.

    • I was in Zurich recently and the ‘economic growth’ through development had started to take hold and many of the locals were very very far from impressed.

      And I was overwhelmingly in agreement with the ones I talked to. Unfettered development was taking away the beauty and amenity of the city.

    • As a further point to this. It’s interesting to ask people what they see Australia being like in the future.

      Very few mention Brazil but that’s probably where we are headed on the current trajectory.

      • Brazil is a fine country. Great spirit and joie de vivre exist, in spite of economic inequality. I would happily live in Brazil.

        • Fantastic – find a poor kid growing up in the drug slums and swap lives with him. Hypocrisy writ large!

          • The favelas of Rio and SP are something to be experienced. It may surprise you but many Brazilians of modest means lead satisfying lives, even some of those in the favelas – and this is despite the escalation of drug and crime problems.

            I would happily live in Brasil. Your extreme suggestion of changing live is misguided. It is impossible to know!

          • I appreciate the point you are trying to make.

            But i think the simple time honoured test of ‘is this a life i would wish on myself or my family’ breaks down the ability of those with a fortunate life to trumpet the virtues of human economic diversity.

  8. Bigger is not better when it comes to population. The roads get more congested by the day, adding to rage and frustration. The cities are growing further and further up and out. The reason we have massive population growth here is to prop up high housing prices. It’s not the only factor, but look what happened during the GFC – the government started bringing in enormous numbers of immigrants because house prices were falling. But there is no rational discussion about curbing immigration levels for fear of being branded a racist.

  9. The biggest issue with using population increase to grow your economy , is that it is a bit like heroin, its addictive and you need a bigger hit each time to make a difference as your population grows

  10. Diogenes the CynicMEMBER

    I had this same conversation with an 84 year old (solid liberal voter) who said to me that he doesn’t ‘get’ why we always have to have mantra of growth. When he was born Australia’s population was just over 6m it is now 23m and rising. Yet as he said it seems despite technological advancement that people are less happy, have less time etc than when he was growing up. Just look at traffic, hospital waiting lists, the lack of suitable infrastructure in fringe city suburbs. “Has growth really delivered?” was his parting comment on the subject.

    It is not just younger people who might be dissatisfied with our current model.

    • Totally agree. That is exactly the point. At a practical level has the growth delivered? Are we living richer more meaningful more enjoyable lives.

      As i’ve mentioned before, anyone who grew up in Qld before the great coastal booms of the 80s and onwards must surely be deeply saddened by the carnage wrought on the environment and the amenity of the region by the unfettered development.

    • Sorry, but the capital is dead without growth. Either you want capitalism or you have to think about something else, which is better. Capitalism needs growth and the most of all it needs growing population. That was the idea behind the globalization too – for the capital to get access to the global population and now when we have it all – global capitalism with a global free market, with global number of consumers (billions and growing) and the whole global economy as a source for easy instant exponential profits, now everyone in the West is concerned. Strange world populated with sleeping and dreaming people.

  11. this is a no brainer

    – the more people we have,
    the more we have to share
    the resources, the more
    we grow the little poorer
    we become – in terms of the
    available resources in the
    primary economy

    – the commons is increasingly
    becoming diminished
    through water quality, biodiversity
    and soil loss etc

    primary economy = the forests
    secondary economy = the timber
    tertiary economy = the fiat

    all the fiat in the world
    wont undo a broken ecosystem

    we focus on the teriary economy
    at our peril

  12. Population ponzi does unite a rainbow alliance of rent seekers, China boosters, Climate change deniers and pollies of Australia – across the entire spectrum of the economy from property, retail to mining.

    On one hand, we have all kinds of spruikers talk about ‘skill shortage’ and ‘wage pressure’ from time to time. Forget about environmental sustainability, nobody talks about infrastructure shortage in the cities or who/how we are going to pay for any of that. Well, spruikers say that’s gubmint’s job, ain’t it? (And no, gubmint can’t raise additional taxes to pay for it.)

    Our government has been lobbied so hard by the mining lobbies to push more people into cities like Perth, that they have exploited loopholes in their OWN immigration policy! I think property spruikers in Melb and Syd will take a leaf out of mining lobby book and get a declaration that Melbourne and Sydney are ‘Regional Cities’ for the purpose of immigration..

  13. drsmithyMEMBER

    What “human nature” are you referring to ? Because the “human nature” I see is when people aren’t forced to tie themselves to child rearing, they don’t. Why would you consider that a passing “trend” when it’s pretty much a universal truth ?

    While it’s true the currently resurgent Right might eventually succeed in its goal of winding back women’s rights sufficiently far to reverse this “trend”, I wouldn’t want to bet on it.

  14. Great discussion, and a complex topic.

    I think there is little doubt from anyone that large cities have significant drawbacks. As for living in Sao Paulo or Rio – no thanks. Having to drive around with windows up, doors locked, constantly, is not fun. Working in an office with opaque windows so people can’t see what kind of equipment you’ve got, even though you are behind massive security (including fingerprints) to get in – no thanks. Medellin was about 10 times safer.

    Regarding slums, the most expensive water you can buy – in the world – is in the slums of Nairobi. The life there is hard, people use plastic bags for toilets in their shacks. Water provision is a racket run by the slumlords, it is an atrocious way to live.

    Has anything been sustainable for ever? Of course not, we live on a dynamic planet, but things have been stable for long periods of time.

    The separation of our daily lives from our energy/food/water provision is a massive problem. This is starting to rear it’s head via the cost of electricity, mothballed desal, food inflation. You’d have to be blind not to see it.

    We can get our heads around spending on defence to protect us from “threats”, but the threats in our midst are just too much for people to deal with. A very wise geologist friend of mine once said “Jackson, I’m of the view that large brained mammals are just a short-term geological experiment”.

    Confronting? Absolutely. I don’t doubt that the human race will adapt, but our ability to ignore issues in all areas of life really astounds me. Time for a cigarette.

      • Who was it who said “the thing about double entendres is that they only ever mean one thing”?

        • “Jackson, I’m of the view that large brained mammals are just a short-term geological experiment”

          Ha ha. Classic.

          Humans are simply not equipped to deal with problems that play out on geological time scales. We either ignore the problem or deny the problem. Both are far easier than dealing with the problem.

    • drsmithyMEMBER

      We can get our heads around spending on defence to protect us from “threats”, but the threats in our midst are just too much for people to deal with.

      I disagree. I think people are more than capable of dealing with these threats.

      The problem is the well-funded, concerted, intense campaign to convince us the threats are monsters in the closet when they’re actually barbarians at the gates.

    • To true – Unfortunately the simplest way to look at the human impact is in geological timeframes – another major extinction event and then life moves on.

      The tragedy of being human is we understand our own place and problems but the forces that forged the genetic traits that once helped us survive never needed to build in an off switch.

  15. While we can have this discussion within Australia, population controls are a no go area in the developing world generally, where this subject is considered to be racist and imperialist. The thrid world rebukes the rich west, including Australia with the comment we should reduce our wasteful consumption before we talk about the developing countries reducing their rates of population growth.
    This is one reason you do not see a western government raising this subject in discussions around the world.
    If the developing world won’t cut back on population growth, we must adjust for a more crowded world in the next century, even if we in Australia might object to it or not like the thought of this happening.

    • The elephant in the room for me is that there is no real intellectual or moral justifications for countries. Throw open the borders, and let the imbalances equilibrise (could I get voted in on that platform?).

  16. This discussion has got a bit blurred between population growth in Australia, population growth in the world and economic growth.

    Regarding the original question, “are we hooked on population growth?”, I assumed it was directed to Australia only. As a starting point for arguing the pros and cons of immigration to Australia, we could do worse than this quote from a Department of Immigration fact sheet:

    “Immigration affects the demand side of Australia’s economy through:

    migrants’ own spending (food, housing and leisure activities)
    business expansion (investment to produce extra goods and services)
    expansion of government services (health, education and welfare).
    It also affects the supply side of the economy through:

    labour, skills and capital introduced into Australia
    new businesses developed by migrants
    migrant contributions to technology
    adding productive diversity through knowledge of international business markets.
    Like all Australians, migrants pay taxes to, and receive benefits and goods and services from the government. Research shows that overall, migrants contribute more in taxes than they consume in benefits and government goods and services. As a result migrants generate surpluses for government.

    Australia’s economic growth is significantly enhanced as migrants directly affect the economy through their contribution to supply and demand and their indirect contribution to government surpluses.”

    I don’t think all of this is uncontestable, but it is a reasonable starting point for discussion.

      • You got any links from the IPA or REIA to back that up?

        I can post a few Kelvin Thomson or Dick Smith links if you like?

      • After the cluster-f$&# that was the GFC, it seems the ‘Greed is good’ slogan is slowly being replaced with ‘Growth is good’ slogan at all right-wing think tanks.

        Frank Luntz must have been working on this for some time, because most lay people swallow this idea hook, line and sinker.

      • I’ve got a bit of time for Dr Hartwich, and while this report does make some valid points, its analysis is a bit soft overall and its tone tends towards old black & white boosterism.

    • I think the dept makes about $1 billion in visa fees, most of it from student visas. So, Of course they will justify the bloated existence of their own department.

      The biggest elephant in the room is the education industry. We have to ask ourselves if this industry can survive if the linkage between uni education here and the pathway to residency/citizenship is removed.

      • Mav, although I agree that the department have a strong vested interest in boosting their case, it doesn’t mean that all the points they put are wrong. I was hoping for a more considered point by point analysis, not an ad hom response.

        • I guess we traded places – a lefty ( and an immigrant) ad homs a government bureaucracy, while a libertarian/conservative defends it!!

          I don’t have too much time to go over their assertions, but last time I looked, their research/surveys were not peer reviewed/audited. Can some one tell me whatever happened to the sustainable pop report they were supposed to produce?

    • Alex it’s about setting the point for the growth. The growth through urban development myth is the triumph of the corporate lobby who have manage to brainwash the punters and buy out the lazy political parties that Australians won’t have success or meaningfull lives without this crazed destructive growth.

      Migration to help others from despair and intractable circumstances is one thing – migration to feed coffers of the corporates and the egos of the political classes is another.

      Incidently we do tend to suck out those in the best place to help their own communities weather the crises – doctors, engineers, scientists.

      The developers and the oligopolies own our polical parties, they are their playthings, and they will and are turning our country into yet another ecological wasteland.

  17. Brissy for now

    I read Clive Hamilton’s ” Growth Fetish” and ” Affluenza” some years ago which cover a lot of the ground being mentioned here. Personally my belief is that a widely adopted stasis economy option won’t come into play until after bad things have happened.Until then,irrationality rules.

  18. I think some comments here confuse survival of a species with sustainability of a population. Sustainability of an entire population (e.g 7 billion humans) ≠ perpetuation of a species via the survival of some individuals (who go on to reproduce and evolve after decline/s in population). One of the things that drives evolution is pressure on populations; individuals unsuited to changes in environment die out and others breed up.

    Those of us who cherish a bit of personal space, and peace and quiet, might be unsuited to the new crowded environment. My ancestors left Britain (1800’s) because they thought it was getting too crowded there. Now I think Australia’s become too crowded.
    Perhaps those who love tightly packed hustle and bustle will be the survivors of our time. Within last couple of years a Dr from India came to Wudinna (on Eyre Peninsula SA – a relatively isolated and small community). The Wudinna community put a lot of work into getting him here (all the red tape, hoops etc.). He lasted about one week. Couldn’t stand the isolation and quietness. Went back to India.

    I think it was in one of Jared Diamond’s books that I read of the idea that Mexico City has such a huge population because it sits in a location that has consistently been favourable for human habitation. Even though populations in Sth America have waxed and waned the area around Mexico City has been a cradle for human occupation, so individuals have survived there when populations in other areas have died out.
    Mexico, India, China, Brazil etc were all once sparsely populated. So they provide evidence that humans keep on breeding when conditions are right if no societal controls are imposed.

    I guess it comes down to society and environment.

    Perhaps some societies are predisposed to dislike overcrowding so they find ways to control their procreation (e.g. many of the nomadic peoples). While people In other societies (e.g. India) evolve to prefer crowding (one man’s crowd is another’s overcrowding).

    I’d say Australia has become such a diverse population that, unless there is some sort of catastrophic event (lemmings looking over the edge of the cliff), the discussion about how much population Australia can sustain will continue to bubble along like the dialogue between believers and non-believers (both sides utterly convinced of their argument but unable to alter the other’s opinion).

    Maybe the Internet will intervene. It has changed the world momentously. There are entrepreneurs now who make a living out of online gaming.
    Some people spend most of their life at places like Second Life. Perhaps they’ll prefer to do their breeding there.

    As for weaning a consumption-based society off their addiction, I don’t think pronouncements, about cutting back on consumption, from people who live privileged lives helps. Natasha Mitchell (Life Matters) interviewed David Owen about his book ‘The Conundrum’ last week. He thinks all the schemes to reduce the impact of consumption (plant trees to offset C, drive electric cars, buy green energy etc.) achieve very little. What is actually needed is good ol’ fashioned F R U G A L I T Y. Travelling by plane is particularly offensive (in terms of C produced), but (to make example of a person in the film) Dick Smith still flies (he phoned Macca from Trans-Siberian Railway last weekend). So, as nice a fellow as Dick is, his message comes across as, do as I say not as I do. I’m sure Dick is doing lots of admirable conservation things (and is certainly admirable in his philanthropy), but what the public sees is Dick on vacation.
    Likewise movie stars who buy Prius cars, trees to offset the C from their flights etc. They do exactly what Owen says in the book – think that the purchase of the offset enables them to drive and fly about as much as they like.
    When we see more public figures walking the walk (bus/train/bike/walk to work, shop locally, vacation = kayak down the Murray – yes kayak, not tinny with outboard or jetski – using a broom to sweep the path … ), perhaps then the public will change, because humans are hardwired to imitate those they admire (or envy).

    • The paradox is of course that those disinclined to exist in urban ecological deserts must act with the same aggression and determination to protect their world as those happy to exist in hyper-competitive consumption land. I’m not sure they are well placed to win a fight with the vampire squid! 😉