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Population and Environment

No matter where in the world we live, we all depend on the environment to provide us with clean air, fresh water, productive soil, food, shelter, and other raw materials to enhance our quality of life.

The environment's natural ecosystems and processes are our life support system, so it is in our own interests, as well as other species', that we take care of them.

But how do we do that? What are the problems we should be addressing?

Living Sustainably

Living sustainably means meeting our needs today in ways that do not reduce opportunities for future generations. This is called inter-generational equity.

To live sustainably we need to:
  1. use resources wisely so that the stock of natural capital, or resources, is available to future generations;
  2. ensure that air, soil and water are not degraded by our actions but are able to continue their ecological services into the future;
  3. conserve biological diversity so that all species and ecosystems continue their role in the earth's life support system;
  4. employ the precautionary principle ('when in doubt, don't') to ensure that ecosystems and processes are not damaged irreversibly.
To put these four principles into practice we need to consider human population numbers and distribution, our levels of consumption and pollution, the kinds of technology and environmental management that we employ, and the interaction of all of these factors. This will influence our environmental impact and the degree to which we achieve a sustainable lifestyle.

Environmental Impact

In Australia we have a population of 19 million, of whom 80% live in cities, towns and suburbs along the coast. While this is small by global standards, our per capita levels of consumption and pollution are among the highest in the world. The 'ecological footprints' of our cities extend far beyond their own boundaries to encompass rural areas and even other countries.

Though there is a move toward cleaner technology and improved management, there is also new technology which can exploit environments more thoroughly and access previously remote areas.

The collective impact of these factors on our natural environment tells its own story.

Land Clearing

Nearly 70% of all native vegetation has been removed since 1788, when Europeans arrived, with as much cleared in the 50 years after 1945 as in the 150 years before. Native vegetation is still being cleared, at a rate of over 600,000 hectares per year, most of this in Queensland and NSW.

Soil Erosion

About 14 billion tonnes of soil is eroded from Australia each year - this is 20% of global erosion, even though Australia is only 5% of the world's land area. On sloping land, erosion is happening at 100 times the rate of soil formation.

Soil Salinity

Salinity now affects 5 million hectares of NSW, about a third of the irrigated agricultural land in Victoria, and 9% of WA's cleared agricultural land. About 20% of the Western Australian wheatbelt, one of Australia's two main food-producing areas, will be lost to salinity in the next 15 or 20 years. The Murray-Darling Basin too is heavily affected.

Water Consumption

70% of all water consumed in Australia is for irrigation, mainly for cotton and rice. 21% is for urban use, of which domestic use is the largest component -30-55% of household water is used on domestic lawns.

Only 9% of water consumed is for domestic rural water supply, much of this from groundwater, but in a number of areas groundwater is being used faster than it is being replenished. Such over-extraction has led to major problems for rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin and along the eastern seaboard.

Water Pollution

Each year Australia's sewerage system discharges about 10,000 tonnes of phosphorus and 100,000 tonnes of nitrogen, mainly runoff from land clearing and agriculture. Pesticides and industrial chemicals have been found in marine life all around Australia, but mostly around urban and intensively farmed lands. There is litter even in waters remote from land-at any one time 500 seals in Tasmanian waters and 45 seals in Victorian waters have 'collars' of plastic litter.

Air Pollution

Australia produces 430 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year from burning fossil fuels for electricity and transport. Ours is the third highest per capita rate in the world. Cars are the single largest end-source of greenhouse gas production in the energy sector, and in urban areas exhaust fumes from cars are the main contributors to air pollution. Air pollution in Australia is low by world standards, but can be as high as that of New York or Tokyo on some days.

Biodiversity Loss

Australia's record of mammal species extinctions is the worst in the world-in the past 200 years ten species of marsupials have been lost. Of the more than one million Australian species, 5% of plants, 9% of birds, 23% of marsupials, 7% of reptiles, 16% of amphibians and 9% of fresh water fish are extinct, endangered or vulnerable. Land clearing and habitat destruction are the main causes.

Introduced species also cause biodiversity loss: non-native plants now account for about 15% of our total flora, and at least 18 non-native mammals have established feral populations which prey on native animals.

A Sustainable Australia

Taking the four principles of sustainability, and assessing our environmental impact to date, we clearly have not yet achieved a sustainable lifestyle. The stock of natural capital is depleted; even renewable resources are consumed at a rate beyond their capacity to regenerate. The assimilative capacities of air, soil and water are overloaded; and our food-producing land is diminishing. Biodiversity is reduced-species and ecosystems have been lost because the precautionary principle has not been followed.

What can we do? If human impact is influenced by the interaction between population, consumption and technology, then the best opportun-ities to improve our situation lie within these areas.

Emphasis is most often placed on technology, probably because this threatens our lifestyle less than our family size or consumption choices. But on its own technological improvement cannot deliver a sustainable lifestyle.


People who live in small eco-settlements all over the world have achieved remarkably low consumption lifestyles. They build their own homes from local materials, grow their own food, dispose of their own waste and minimise transport by sourcing goods and services from local communities.

Human population and distribution is such that it would be impossible for everyone to live like this. But most people can reduce consumption by designing energy-efficient homes, growing some of their own food, composting and recycling their waste, using public transport, and choosing re-usable and recycled goods rather than new items.

All these actions help, but a truly sustainable lifestyle would require more than individual lifestyle changes.

Our consumption patterns are determined by our society's values, and the systems it provides for us to behave in a certain way. It has been made easy for us to take shopping home in plastic bags, for example, rather than boxes; it is easier to use the private car than public transport; we cannot avoid buying packaging with our goods; new materials are cheaper than recycled ones because the former are subsidised; and we have no choice but to be connected to centralised water, sewerage and energy systems.

To have a real impact we need to promote changes to the systems which are at the core of our consumption patterns. Some changes that would help are:
  • a greater emphasis on regional and local resource management and waste disposal;
  • reduction of subsidies for unsustainable practices;
  • design of transport systems away from private to public transport;
  • relocation of services and employment opportunites to the local community;
  • removal of obstacles to local and on-site methods of water collection, sewage treatment and waste disposal;
  • redesign of common items to allow re-use and recycling;
  • promotion of an ethic that links quality of life to resource value rather than consumption.
Changes of this nature require government action but political realities mean that governments are slow and unreliable change agents. Most of the push for change is coming from a local level, with motivated individuals influencing groups, and groups influencing governments.


The federal government estimates that Australia's population will stabilise at around 23 million by 20512. Other demographic researchers dispute this, citing figures of 25 -28 million by that time, with increasing, rather than stabilising, numbers3.

While there is uncertainty about numbers, there is little doubt about distribution. The largest populations will be concentrated along the east coast of Australia, particularly south-east Queensland, and in all capital cities. Sydney will remain the most populous city, with a projected population of 5.9 million.

Among environmentalists there is no consensus on what size an ecologically sustainable population might be, but there is agreement that numbers could be stabilised and eventually reduced.

To achieve this, some recommend free access to contraception, a zero net immigration rate-where the number of arrivals are fewer than or equal to the number of departures the previous year- and reduced tourism numbers.

Natural Increase

In reality, Australians are already having fewer children. The fertility rate is 1.7 children per woman, below long-term replacement levels. This is the natural result of higher education and living standards. Still, few developed countries have as high a fertility rate as Australia's, and our birthrate is almost double our deathrate; so reducing births is an option. Democratic governments, however, have limited ability to influence reproductive rates. And policy measures like financial disincentives for larger families are likely to have negative consequences for those who are already disadvantaged. The strategy most likely to succeed in reducing births is to increase career and educational choices for women. But the consequences of further aging of the population must also be considered.

Immigration and Tourism

Immigration is within direct government control. In the past it has been used to provide a labour force, create a larger domestic market, implement innovatory ideas and achieve economies of scale. The great majority of Australian immigrants still come through the Business and Skills Migration Program, a strategy to import skilled migrants to fill shortages within the Australian economy.

Reducing immigration is an option available to government, but one which is likely to need additional skill development for the existing population, invest-ment in management methods that boost labour prod-uctivity, and more interventionist industry policies. Some would argue that these actions should be taken regardless of population size. Technology is already replacing large work forces in many industries, but government, business and industry would still need to analyse and anticipate employment and training needs.

The government can also regulate the number of temporary residents and tourists, who swell population numbers seasonally. The per capita impact of tourists can be higher than that of permanent residents because of the activities engaged in and the environments affected.

What is an Ecological Footprint?

An ecological footprint is an estimate of the total area of productive land and water required to produce all the resources consumed, and to assimilate all the waste produced, by a population.

Each person in Australia has an annual ecological footprint of 5-7 hectares (based on 1991-92 consumption levels). Sydney's footprint is estimated at 26 million hectares, 37 times its actual size, an area that would stretch from Coffs Harbour in the north, to Eden in the south.

And this doesn't include the land and water of other countries that produce goods that we import, or that dispose of waste that we export. As part of the rich world, Australia consumes a disproportionate share of world resources, not only its own. Rich world countries are home to only 20% of the world's population, yet they consume 80% of the world's resources.


Business, however, is unlikely to support reduced immigration or tourism. It advocates increased numbers to create consumer demand, employment and economic growth at home, and to compete with large global economies on the world market. Even though progressive economists have moved on to count the 'triple bottom line' of economy, society and environment, economic rationalism remains the prevailing view and economic growth the priority to which all other concerns are subordinate.

Critics of this view point out that economic growth is a limited yardstick by which to measure the performance of a national economy. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) includes all expenditure, even on things it would be best to avoid, like car accidents and chemical spills. GDP increases as population increases because more consumers equals more expenditure, but per capita GDP, quality of life and social equity do not necessarily follow the same trend.

Even with a substantial population increase it is difficult to see how Australia could compete with large global economies like China, with its huge labour force and low wage costs. Or with the US, where one supermarket chain has a turn-over equivalent to Australia's entire economy. Arguments along these lines are unrealistic in their expectations.

Ethics and Equity

There is also an ethical argument to be considered. Living sustainably means a commitment to equity, where those who share the benefits bear the costs. This applies to current and future generations; should it also apply within the current world population?

We share the same atmosphere and oceans- local greenhouse emissions increase global warming. We participate in world trade, using the resources of other countries to produce goods for import. Like all global corporations, Australian companies overseas pollute environments, and some have even destroyed whole ecosystems.

If we do not live in isolation from the rest of the world, can we frame our policies without regard for global concerns? Is a small humanitarian refugee program and increased foreign aid sufficient compensation for Australia's contribution to environmental, economic and social inequities across the world? How much responsibility should Australia take in shouldering the global population burden, and should concern for future generations prevail over concern for current inequities?

A Final Word

Population can be a controversial subject. Feelings about family size, lifestyle and immigration run deep, coming from individual and collective histories, religious beliefs and cultural attitudes.

Environmentalists, for example, are not concerned with the ethnic origin of our population, but about population numbers and levels of consumption. For them, contraception is merely a method of preventing population increase; religious or philosoph-ical implications do not enter the equation. For others, though, these issues have different levels of meaning. Whatever actions we choose to take are a means to the end of living sustainably, they are not an end in themselves.

What do you think?

So what should Australia do-what actions are within our control or most likely to succeed? How deep should change go-can we challenge the prevailing economic system? How does our commitment to sustainability affect our own lifestyles-do we have the right to deny others a place in our country while we continue to consume resources at an unsustainable rate?

Humans congregate in groups. When our numbers were small and our groups migratory our environmental impact was small, and ecosystems had time to recover as populations moved around.

When we settled in villages surrounded by farms, our impact increased. Although populations grew, farming and industry was local, using human and animal labour, and much land remained in a natural condition. Now that we live in cities, with machine-driven agriculture and industry, and fossil fuels to supply our consumables and remove our waste, our impact is enormous.

How many people could Australia support if we adopted a different lifestyle? And what should that lifestyle be like? We're interested in your viewpoint. Please write to:

Sutherland Shire Environment Centre
PO Box 589
Sutherland NSW 1499
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