Big Australia needs rethink on World Population Day 2023

Another UN World Population Day passed with the UN focussing on anything but population growth. Australia’s population is growing faster than most, with sustainability not on the government’s radar, as Stephen Williams laments.

By Stephen Williams

I don’t pay much attention to awareness days, but I make an exception for World Population Day, first observed on 11 July 1987 when the global population reached approximately 5 billion.

We are now at about 8 billion and still increasing by some 80 million every year – roughly the population of Germany. While the global rate of growth has decreased markedly in recent decades, the increase in absolute numbers has not reduced significantly due to the high total population. For instance, it took 12 years to add 1 billion people between 1999 and 2011 (giving us 7 billion), but still only 11-12 years to add the next billion (even while the rate of growth decreased).

Humans have never added 1 billion people more quickly.

World leaders have failed to address the problem of global carrying capacity due to various malign ideologies, ineptitudes, and laziness, despite the scientific evidence that population numbers are a key driver of climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental harms.

It will surprise many to learn that Martin Luther King Jr spoke out about the evils of world overpopulation as early as 1966.

The core problem is we have too many people consuming too much too quickly, and that story cannot end well on a finite planet. Potential ecological collapse is now reported as a staple of the news cycle, famously heralded in 1972’s Limits to Growth and confirmed here. Even the august British Medical Journal is willing to publish opinion that ecological and societal collapse is now a serious concern.

A long-term maximum sustainable human population may well only be between 1 and 4 billion – if people are to live in reasonable security and comfort in harmony with the natural world – but for all we know closer to the former than the latter, especially with global heating and other environmental disasters making Earth less habitable.

Humans are now constantly consuming natural capital faster than it can be replaced, meaning that fewer people can be supported as time goes on. The laws of nature are totally amoral and insensitive to human suffering.

It follows that all nations need to stabilise their populations as quickly and ethically as possible, and most will then need to reduce their populations, as some are already doing. That’s because every person has an ecological footprint that is considerably larger than their so-called ‘carbon’ footprint. Put another way, even if we could magically solve the climate crisis, we would still be facing existential threats due to other environmental ‘overshoot’ concerns (since there are at least eight planetary boundaries and we have transgressed most of them).

Australia is no exception to the cumulative effects of human numbers. A question that is rarely asked is this: what would be the symptoms of overpopulation in Australia given our current production-consumption patterns?

Answer: biodiversity loss; a failure to reduce greenhouse pollution; housing developments in areas prone to fire and flood; congestion in cities; a housing crisis; water scarcity and poor river health; high energy and food prices; and a general erosion of quality of life and wellbeing. These symptoms will sound familiar to many readers around the world.

Australia’s modern era of high population growth began with the Hawke administration in the 1980s when demographic ageing first became a concern  and a net benefit of high migration was perceived, if not proven. All governments since the Howard era (say from 2000) have adopted a ‘Big Australia’ program of high immigration, no doubt egged on by a Treasury and Productivity Commission that is not focused on sustainability because they don’t understand it.

The Albanese government is just the latest administration to say little about population policy prior to being elected, only to embrace population growth and the questionable economics underpinning it once secure in office. Yet surveys over the past decade, especially by The Australian Population Research Institute, have consistently shown the ambivalence, or even hostility, to further population growth by ordinary Australians, and that includes recent migrants.

We now have record permanent migration quotas and most temporary visa categories are uncapped. After the pandemic hiatus, unprecedented numbers of new migrants are competing for housing and jobs. The latest figures from the ABS show population growth was 1.9% in 2022 (496,800) giving a population doubling time of about 37 years if that was to continue.

Aerial photograph of suburban Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Tom Rumble

Absolute numbers are one thing, but the rate of increase is also cause for concern. Population-driven housing shortages have made Australian housing among the least affordable in the world, and the infrastructure needed is beyond any government’s resources. It may be time for an independent commission to look again at the cost-benefit analysis of this ideology-tethered growth.

Some feel that a large immigration program is an important contribution to helping the world’s disadvantaged people. If the Australian government wanted to help overseas nations, it would increase our woeful foreign aid budget and help end the exploitation of poorer nations that are suffering under unconscionable debt burdens, ‘structural adjustment’ programs, and other neoliberal straitjackets.

The world knows how to reduce unwanted fertility in an ethical way – we need to wisely choose the UN and other analysts’ low fertility projection rather than its medium or high one.


Stephen Williams is a journalist and author. He is a co-editor of the book Sustainability and the New Economics (Springer, 2022). He has produced a regular newsletter on population issues for the past 10 years.

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9 thoughts on “Big Australia needs rethink on World Population Day 2023

  1. Thank you Mr Williams
    You are one of the few people who talks about the number of people as opposed to rates of birth
    The numbers are going up even though the rate of growth is decreasing
    I would like to share an essay I have written on Overpopulation and its impact
    Aroop Mangalik

    1. Yes! THANK YOU! And there are two reasons why numbers keep going up. Though birthrates might drop, due to “momentum,” it can take decades for that to stop growth. For example: My parents had 6 children, in turn, we produced a total of 15 offspring, our children, in turn, (though smaller family sizes) have produced 17 offspring!

      Also, a point deftly ignored by media, what’s really exploding population in Australia, the U.S., Great Britain and parts of Europe is immigration. (In the U.S. over 90 percent of our growth as our corrupt news media DEFTLY ignore immigration for what it is: something EXPLODING OUR POPULATION by tens of millions a decade, and I’ll hasten to add, that into the HIGHEST PER-CAPITA CARBON NATION (nearly 3 times that of China) in the world!

  2. Kudos to Stephen Williams for saying that which we fundamentally–unless we like being called racists and xenophobes by a media-indoctrinated and gullible American people–don’t dare say in the U.S.: We are running immigration as a social program to benefit the world and what it does to the U.S and RESIDENT POOR, well tough! That’s why DEMOCRATIC black, liberal Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s Jordan Commission tried very hard to reason with her own party in the 1990s, warning that “over-immigration” happens disproportionately on the back of the poor!

    That’s, part of why CORETTA SCOTT KING more or less singlehandedly turned back a LA RAZA effort in the 1990s (though our corrupt media pretend it never happened) to end employer sanctions for hiring illegals, that’s because SHE, LIKE JORDAN, KNEW IT HURTS RESIDENT POOR, PARTICULARLY BLACKS! And yet, our oh-so-P.C., open-border types won’t even consider that!

    Let me add, that while I don’t have the numbers before me, Australia’s carbon footprint, per-capita, is only slightly less than the U.S. per-capita carbon footprint. But because they are a few tens of millions of Australians, rather than the U.S. staggering 340 million (up from 300 million as recently as late 2006), they lose in the competition to be major carbon contributors in the leagues with China, India and the U.S.

  3. I made the first Comment to this New York Times article today:
    “Official Data Hinted at China’s Hidden Covid Toll. Then It Vanished.”
    By Muyi Xiao, Mara Hvistendahl and James Glanz, July 19, 2023
    David Polewka, Chapel Hill, NC, 5 hours ago
    Half of our problems are due to overpopulation; the other
    half are due to “Power corrupts”. We should stop making
    some vaccines, to shorten the average life span by a
    few years; and we should require all politicians to attend
    regular meetings of “Politicians Anonymous” to learn
    a new way of life.
    [9 REPLIES]
    SanddancerUSA commented 4 hours ago
    @David Polewka: The US is already participating very effectively in
    reducing the average life span of men and women. The favoured tools
    are the fire arm and drug overdose.
    Rachel, Albany NY, 3 hours ago
    @David Polewka: Another very effective way to reduce overpopulation is…
    to start and wage perpetual WARS.
    US has been doing just that since WW2. Bravo!
    David Polewka, Chapel Hill, NC, 3 hours ago
    @SanddancerUSA: There are 8 billion on the planet. The biologists
    called for Zero Population Growth 50 years ago, when the total was
    4 billion. They were looking at our ecological footprint and
    projecting into the future, and nobody else was! It’s called
    “Overshoot”. And you didn’t say anything about “Power corrupts”.
    diana, Bellevue, WA, 3 hours ago
    @David Polewka: all i can say to this is yikes!
    M. McGuire, San Leandro, CA. 2 hours ago
    @David Polewka: Mass murder by omission is OK?
    Nadine Cunnane, Boston, 2 hours ago
    @SanddancerUSA: I imagine the number one cause of death in
    the USA is obesity
    David Polewka, Chapel Hill, NC, 1 hour ago
    @diana: Here’s your homework assignment: Make a list of all problems
    caused by overpopulation, then read it every day when you wake up
    and think about it. Also, make a list of all problems caused by
    “Power corrupts”, then read it every day when you wake up and
    think about it.
    David Polewka, Chapel Hill, NC, 1 hour ago
    @M. McGuire: Was it “mass murder” before there were any vaccines?
    David Polewka, Chapel Hill, NC, 6 minutes ago
    @Rachel: Everyone I’ve talked to, in private conversations, has said
    that “War is inevitable, and there’s nothing you can do about it;
    it’s Human Nature!” But there IS something we can do: make them
    regularly attend the spiritual recovery meetings, to become more
    honest and less selfish!

  4. Most of the rich nations run on low (even negative) rates of population growth. And then you get the stupid anglo nations – UK, CA, AU and NZ.

    It doesn’t matter what happens in Australia. GFC, COVID, fire, flood, drought, temperature extremes, cyclones. The answer is always: Increase Population Right Now. I like to think of this as the precautionary principle in reverse. The political donors and “stakeholders” are happy.

    1. It’s got nothing to do with being anglo or not. Germany is doing the same. The Netherlands, Belgium… even Italy. They are all taking lots of people in.

  5. But it does seem to have something to do with being Western. Countries in the East such as Russia, China, Japan and South Korea are not interested in large-scale immigration despite the failure of their pro-natalist policies to achieve the desired outcomes.

    1. With such large countries, mass migration can be internal. Russia has lots of Caucasians, and Central Asians as well, doing low-paying jobs (apparently they’re now trying to send them to war, too). China has internal migration (and exploitation). Japan and South Korea are exceptions but, besides the fact it’d be hard to fit any more people into either country, they could also be coming around to accepting more immigrants. Economic growth trumps all else!

  6. Mr. Williams’ excellent article mentions that a sustainable population may be between one and four billion. Under the current ethic level of the world, a goal of one billion seems nearly impossible to achieve, other than with an Armageddon-type scenario, which of course, must be avoided. Four billion is also very difficult to achieve, but not entirely out of the question with responsible global leadership.

    Most reasonable people who give the subject some attention and who do not rely on blind hope will agree that eight-plus billion is unsustainable, leading to extreme problems and suffering for existing and future generations.

    Understanding the anxiety and suffering widely experienced in a significantly overpopulated world is not difficult. The next step, however, is probably to create a vision, through articles and animations, of what a world of an optimal, sustainable population looks and feels like. It must be an honest picture, giving the good, the downsides, and how the challenges can be effectively managed.

    Adversity in people’s lives can make them more aware of what they value and have gratitude for it. Excruciating hardship is not necessary though. Tribulation can be avoided with a deep understanding of virtues, which begins at the earliest years of individuals’ lives.

    The goal of a sustainable planet is difficult to sell to the general public when ruthless hyper-capitalism is in control, facilitated mainly by big money in politics and irresponsible big media arising from greed. Yes, listen closely to big-money interests, but don’t let them use bribery as a key tool for maintaining their short-term profits at the expense of the quadrillions who can inhabit this planet over its lifespan.

    The bottom-line question seems to be: Can the world evolve to a higher virtue level in time to avoid or lessen the effects of possible tribulation events? I believe it is possible.

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