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It’s Population, Stupid

May 15, 2011

Just got home (Sunday night) after a good day. Good, more like ideal. Started by devouring more of a novel I will shortly review for you, a real treasure, totally out of print, about the Jews of Lodz, which ends up with one capitalist stranded in the Petrograd of 1917. Anyway, more later on The Brothers Ashkenazi by J J Singer (brother to Issac Bashevis Singer) translated from the Yiddish and published by Knopf in 1937. I then ran on the soft sand of Bondi, we had lunch at a little Malaysian cafe and I hit the gym for four sets of six leg exercises, 20 reps each. Then to launch a book rebutting climate change deniers at Glebebooks. As I said, a fine day. More on that book later.

But I said to the big, committed audience that population is at the root of environmental degradation whatever way you look at it. We just made seven billion (got that extra billion in seven years, I’m told) and will reach 10 billion by 2050, despite placatory assurances 10 years back we would plateau out at eight. High hopes, partners.

Human pressure means more power stations and more cars, more agricultural expansion and more chemicals flushed into oceans, and bigger and more lethal dead spots in them.

Population growth means more land clearing and loss of animal habitats. Get rid of those irritating other species, like the great apes of Africa and the orangutans of Sumatra. They can go the way of the fresh water dolphins of China and the white rhinos can follow because more humans means more encroachment, clearing and poaching.

And Australia is bidden to join the happy movement – oh joy, oh wonder – by the business lobby that insists there is only one route to prosperity: pump them in until we hit more than 36 million by 2050. No, make it 50 million, they call, the more the merrier. Until all the East coast is packed tight, wall to wall apartments except for those irksome national parks that Carr declared over headlands and pristine beaches and coastal lakes and, where he could, the coastal ranges. Gee, what a waste. Could squeeze in another half million if we could roll that back – town houses for the lucky, home units with desk-draw balconies for the rest and THE MALLS!

And as The 7.30 Report showed last week, looking at Werribee in Melbourne, high population growth simply means add-on suburbs, with more shopping malls, one after the other, with people complaining that a 20 minute journey to work 10 years ago is now over an hour – and, yes, even with the best planning and with new regional freeways and rail you still get congestion, folks, because with rip-roaring immigration that’s what happens.

Increase population and cities go out and up. And your infrastructure struggles to catch up with the growth no matter how much of the state budget it absorbs. You bring in a tradesman to help with labor shortages and, with his dependents, there is another family seeking housing, and space on transport at peak hour, and new hospital and school resources in the suburbs that are sprawling over what were once market gardens.

The merry-go-round economy. Better than generating wealth in smart ways through research and science, this resort to growing the pie in the most obvious of ways. Easier than being smart and actually increasing GDP per head. Oh, none of that.

The policy released by the Federal government does not endorse Big Australia so beloved of business economists and loathed by Australians. But we had all better watch that annual intake and raise merry hell if Canberra veers again to the sneaky, under-the-table Howard practice of over 400,000 a year.

10 Comments
  1. Mr Squiggle permalink
    May 15, 2011 7:22 pm

    More nonsense from Peter van Onselen in today’s Australian, as follows:

    ‘In the context of threats to national prosperity such as ageing … reasons to oppose large-scale immigration diminish.’

    He is wrong.

    Net Migrants to Australia are, on average, already 30 years of age when they are added to our population.

    By comparison, net births have an average of zero.

    Large scale migration programs accelerate the aging of the population and are placing a huge future tax burden on children born in the last decade.

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 15, 2011 8:12 pm

      Yes, age profile of migrants is same as that of existing population. You have to run immigration at preposterous levels – unacceptable levels – to begin to make any difference to population ageing.

      • Mr Squiggle permalink
        May 16, 2011 12:05 am

        Perhaps you would like to see a source document?

        The following is from the ABS on

        http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Products/3FA175EA6651F2CACA25776E00178CAA?opendocument

        “Median age of persons born overseas

        The median age of all Australian residents born overseas at 30 June 2009 was 44.8 years, compared to 33.3 years for those born in Australia as shown in Table 5.6.”

        It is often remarked that 1 in 4 Australians were born overseas. Is that preposterous enough?

        The migrant demographic is more than a decade older than the rest of Australia.

        What if that 1 in 4 demographic was the same age as domestically born Australians?

  2. Craig permalink
    May 15, 2011 8:13 pm

    Bob, I’d be more convinced by the science and innovation argument if it was expanded on. How much money goes into ideas that never get off the ground? How much IP goes off shore because there is not enough capital to turn ideas into exports?

  3. Steven Heath permalink
    May 15, 2011 9:31 pm

    We were at the launch, excellent speech Bob.

  4. christine swan permalink
    May 15, 2011 9:44 pm

    So you’re 100% sure that high population growth is bad for Australia

  5. Matt permalink
    May 15, 2011 10:10 pm

    Bob- if Melbourne and Sydney grow to 5 or 6 or even 7 million people over the next few decades, they are still only medium sized cities by world standards. Dozens of cities like Tokyo and New York etc manage to function with far larger populations than Melbourne or Sydney will see in the next century. I think that with “the best planning” we would be perfectly able to deal with this growth.
    But population growth is only fine if the infrastructure is planned/or in place to deal with it. In Sydney it certainly isn’t. Bob, under your Premiership a lot of progress was made, ie Airport Rail Link, Chatswood to Epping Rail, Eastern Distributor, M7 Orbital, M5 East (although whoever decided to make that tunnel 2 lanes each way needs to be publicly flogged). Our forefathers built a Harbour Bridge that dealt with a growing city’s traffic for over 50 years before needing the additional capacity of a Harbour Tunnel. But the last few years have seen very little done to deal with Sydney’s transport problems. I don’t think there is a single major road project currently underway or even in advanced planning stages. Even Barry O’Farrell’s promises of a North-West rail link and an M4 East are fairly modest aims, assuming he actually gets them done.
    Is one of the problems a massive inflation of the cost of major projects in this state? Case in point- compare the West Australian Mandurah Rail Line (80km and 11 new stations) costing $1.5 Billion versus the Sydney South West Rail Link (11km and 3 new stations) costing around the same amount. Both are mainly above-ground over fairly unchallenging terrain. Why would WA be able to get so much more “bang for their buck”?
    Also compare the cost of the original M5 East Tunnels in 2001 (something around $700-$800 million I think) with the figures in the billions being thrown around today for the duplication of the tunnels. Inflation from 2001-2011 doesn’t seem to explain the massive cost difference. What has changed in the last 10 or 20 years to make the cost of major infrastructure projects escalate so wildly? The M7 orbital looks like an absolute bargain compared to the cost estimates we hear today for any projects of a similar scale.
    With the high population growth that Federal policies are leading to, we will also at some stage need another large dam, and a second airport.
    The states (regardless of the party in office) need to be screaming at Canberra on a daily basis, that if the federal Government (regardless of the party in office) wants high immigration, they will have to do much more to fund the infrastructure to deal with it. And someone needs to figure out why large projects cost so much more than they should.

    • Craig permalink
      May 15, 2011 10:34 pm

      Answer-because WA can afford it, NSW can’t

    • Geoff permalink
      May 24, 2011 7:59 pm

      So assuming that Australia enjoyed benchmark infrastructure planning, could we continue to grow infinitum?. Which means an infinite number of dams, desalination plants, buses, trains ferries, malls etc etc. To what end? How will you benefit from all this growth?. The government cannot create more beaches. It is unlikely to declare more national parks or open up vast new waterways to accommodate the masses. No we will all be more congested in every aspect of our lives……all except the beneficiaries of growth who simply buy some solitude.

  6. Watson permalink
    May 16, 2011 9:04 am

    From Matt
    “Dozens of cities like Tokyo and New York etc manage to function with far larger populations than Melbourne or Sydney will see in the next century. I think that with “the best planning” we would be perfectly able to deal with this growth.”

    Yes, they function, but the idea that they are functioning ‘perfectly’ is your own fantasy. Every day New York generates hundreds of thousands of tonnes of solid, liquid and gaseous waste. Every great city ‘functions’ by dumping that waste into the land, sea, and air that surround it. It is unsustainable whether the population is one thousand, one million, or ten billion! The only difference is that 10 billion wasteful humans might just be enough to choke all of the natural waste disposal capacity of the world.
    Instead of bludging on nature, its time we recycled all of our own waste – as a matter of course, not ‘when convenient or economic’.
    All this blather about this and that road or transport system assumes that we can afford to continue to consume millions of tonnes of ever more expensive oil and coal and continue to ignore the environmental consequences of this monumental folly.

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