Economics Opinion

How to discuss population growth without the racism

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The concept of population growth has fueled the agenda of right-wing extremists (Screenshot via YouTube)

With Australia now returning to its pre-COVID rate of population growth, more people than ever before are asking about how much Australia’s population should grow.

This can be a difficult conversation to have because the far Right has a history of using the population issue as an excuse to pursue its own xenophobic agenda.

However, it is counterproductive to use this as a reason to not discuss the issue at all. Otherwise, we will miss out on communicating vital information that can lead to more progressive immigration/population policy.

Under the current Australian model, immigration policy is about propping up the housing/development/real estate sector, cutting foreign aid, using refugees as scapegoats and forcing the family members of existing migrants who are currently living overseas, to wait decades until their visa applications can be processed.

So how do we have conversations about population that do not lead to racism and instead lead to better outcomes for all of the world’s people and the world’s ecology? After a few years of discussing sustainable planning and its relationship with population policy, I have come up with a few approaches.

Show upfront that you take a nuanced approach to the issue

I find it best to emphasise that population is only one issue and that it should not be a distraction from the fact that per capita consumption in the global North is considerably higher than in the global South. To paraphrase George Monbiot, any discussion around population should be part of acknowledging ‘structural poverty’‘third world debt’‘tax avoidance’ and ‘extractive industries that drain wealth from poor countries’.

This will help to ensure that the conversation does not descend into a population versus consumption debate by reassuring the listener that you are taking a nuanced approach.

High fertility rates are the symptom of deeper issues that most people agree on

I find it useful to emphasise that high fertility rates are a symptom of deeper societal issues that lie in social inequity. If we tackle those underlying issues, fertility rates start to reduce anyway. For that reason, there does not necessarily have to be agreement on whether population is an issue or not in order to collaborate with people who do. 

For communities to become strong and sustainable, we need empowered women who have the means of choosing the number of children that they wish to have. For example, women farmers are expected to play a critical role in ending world hunger.

Universal access to education and family planning is not population control

Instead, denying access to those services is population control.

Some people say that environmentalists who call for universal access to healthcare and family planning are demanding population control. However, the opposite is true.

Fertility rates have declined in every country where close to universal access to those services has been provided. This is because it is something that people all over the world are wanting and demanding.

Therefore, it is in fact standing in the way of access to those services that is population control, which is why the pro-natal right often cut funding to family planning services when they enter office.

Embracing the desire for people to choose a number of kids for a steady state system

The same growthist ideology that champions ever increasing consumption does everything it can to deter populations from potentially stabilising/declining because there is a limit to how much per capita consumption can grow, especially as debts increase and wages stagnate. 

For this reason, many myths are perpetrated by neoliberal interests and this is in part why the mainstream media often frames declining birth rates as a bad thing.

It is often said, for example, that we need to keep growing in order to cater for an ageing population. However, for any population to stabilise, it will need to have a substantial older cohort for a while. Otherwise, we end up with an even larger ageing population crisis down the line.

Societies can easily adapt to an ageing population as many older people make positive contributions to society well into their senior years. Also, a lot of existing jobs in areas such as construction, real estate and childcare can be channelled into the care sector.

By resisting political pressures to reverse stabilising or declining populations, we can starve the current unsustainable growth machine of much of its oxygen and better move towards a steady state system of living.

Impact is consumption multiplied by population?

Some people say that impact is population multiplied by consumption, so from that perspective it is good to tackle both. This means that in some parts of the world, reducing fertility rates is going to be more of a priority than reducing consumption.

Again, it is important to emphasise that this should not be a distraction from the massive amount of work that the global North must do in order to reduce its emissions. It simply means that on a continent such as Africa, which is currently on course to double its population over the next 40 or so years, the need for increased access to family planning may be more of an issue than reducing per capita consumption.

If we want to see an equitable redistribution of the world’s resources, it is likely that per capita consumption will actually increase in Africa as the global North’s decreases. At the same time, the world will collectively need to decrease its exploitation of those resources.

The unsustainable nature of immigration under our current growth-based system

By understanding how immigration is currently used to grow GDP we can develop an approach that is less racist and more inclusive under a steady state system. That way we can better develop approaches to population, immigration and housing that are not driven by growthist/development interests.

Instead, we can focus on retrofitting our existing built stock while regenerating brownfield sites for more homes and more nature. At the same time, we can work collaboratively with our overseas partners to ensure that communities across the world are doing the same. This, combined with universal access to health services, will lead to a broad stabilising of populations across the board.

Population should be one integrated component of a bigger movement of movements

Whatever cause that we are championing, whether it be population, clean energy, reducing meat consumption or regenerative grazing, we can approach it as part of a much more complex integrated collaboration that has systemic change at its core.

That way we can develop an integrated web of movements and ideas, that all work towards the much needed systemic and behavioural change that is required to adapt to a low carbon world.

As long as that behavioural change includes the desire to have compassion, embrace nuance and think critically, population can be part of the conversation.

Mark Allen is an environmental activist based in Melbourne who focuses on holistic activism, sustainable town planning and food ethics.

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