Overpopulation drives boats

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The debate around asylum seeker policy has become increasingly divisive this election year. William Bourke and Dr Jane O’Sullivan from the Stable Population Party say there are larger issues at play.

The Stable Population Party thinks it's time we addressed global overpopulation. (Image courtesy massethics.org)

“Rather than aiming to resettle ever-increasing numbers of people, our policy aim should be to relieve the pressures that force migration in the first place, and help people live in peace and harmony in their homeland.”

LABOR, the Coalition and the Greens have all missed the mark on asylum seeker policy. Why?

Their failure to acknowledge the underlying issue of overpopulation.

In simple terms, human overpopulation occurs if the number of people exceeds a region’s environmental carrying capacity. We must therefore be mindful of the population size that a region’s environmental resources – like arable land and water – it can sustain indefinitely.

Kevin Rudd recently observed that the world has changed since the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention was created.

Then, potential refugee flows numbered only tens of thousands; now they are tens of millions.

While the global population has ballooned from 2.5 billion to over 7 billion people since World War II, political tussles have given way to protracted ecological resource show-downs. Overpopulation is now the leading cause of conflict.

Human nature is the same the world over. People are compassionate and tolerant while their own lives and livelihoods are secure. But any scarcity of resources soon leads to intensified competition, either contained by rigid and intolerant hierarchies or devolving into conflict between groups. It doesn’t matter whether it is religion, ethnicity or political affiliation that identifies “us” and “them” in these conflicts. They are essentially misdirected anger, and their political or military resolution does not solve the underlying resource scarcity.

Egypt is a case in point. It allowed population to reach twice the size it could feed domestically, while using oil revenue to buy food. As soon as Egypt became a net importer of oil, tensions erupted.

Syria’s conflict was triggered by a lack of water, as ever-intensifying agriculture sucked the wells dry.

Naturally, the poor farmers suffered first, and blamed government cronies with large commercial farms and more pumping power. However, their absence would barely have delayed the shortage. Across the cereal belt of the Middle East, northern India and China, falling water tables threaten similar tensions.

Many of the nations of Asia and Latin America that were poorest 50 years ago are now peaceful and developing. They embraced voluntary family planning, stabilised population and stemmed the dilution of resources. Sri Lanka was one of the early adopters, in all regions except the Tamil north where high birth rates continued to deepen the scarcity of land and livelihood. This opened a conspicuous divide in wealth between north and south. A continuous outflow of job-seekers to other regions fueled resentment. Yet none of the interventions have addressed this crucial barrier to peace and prosperity.

Tensions in Egypt have their genesis in population issues. (Image courtesy bbc.co.uk)

By stabilising their populations through voluntary family planning and empowerment of women, nations protect their food, water and energy security, improve infant and maternal health, maximise resilience to climate change, avoid labour exploitation and free up investment to develop and build prosperity.

Effective action

Australia should certainly show compassion to those who come to us for help, but not to the extent that it causes greater harm. If our compassion provides an incentive for ever more people-smuggling or overpopulation it is counter-productive.

As a sovereign nation, Australia does have the right to be less populated than other nations. We have a duty of care to Australia’s endemic species and natural environments, as well as to future generations. Being an overflow area for overpopulated regions serves no-one; it only ensures that we all become degraded and conflict-ridden together.

Refugees are not a major source of Australia’s population growth, yet. You would never know it by listening to the major parties obsessing about asylum seekers, but they are still only around 10 per cent of our total permanent immigration program. The population growth agenda, which both the Coalition and Labor are keen to keep out of public discussion, is mainly about the big end of town’s insatiable appetite for ever more customers, and of course an abundance of cheaper and more compliant labour.

Having said that, the scale of our humanitarian program must be contained. Without doing so, according to Foreign Minister Bob Carr, we could end up facing over 200,000 unauthorised arrivals per year. This is equivalent to the total size of Australia’s enormous permanent ‘legal’ immigration program. In a climate where government austerity is hurting many of the most vulnerable Australians, they have a right to know that asylum seekers and refugees do not command an open cheque book.

What is also yet to enter the public discourse is our complicity in the circumstances that generate refugees. Most notably, we are complicit by our neglect of aid for family planning. While government commits more billions to re-hash a Pacific Solution, we could only find an extra $25 million for international family planning programs. It is pleasing to see the recent doubling of Australia’s overseas aid for family planning to $50 million a year. This is still a drop in the bucket ( just one per cent) of our total foreign aid program of over $5 billion.

The hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on resettling each refugee, including expanding Australia’s infrastructure to accommodate them, could stop hundreds or even thousands of people becoming refugees in the next generation by preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Bob Carr is concerned that unauthorised arrivals to Australia could reach 200,000 per year. (Image courtesy smh.com.au/Penny Bradfield)

Some 220 million married women who would like to avoid or delay pregnancy lack access to effective family planning, and around 40 per cent of all pregnancies are unintended. If women had the power to make these decisions, they could avoid many of the 80 million unwanted pregnancies each year. We could also greatly reduce abortions and maternal deaths. There is no easy solution and some complex cultural issues to navigate, but there are plenty of examples of successful programs that have changed local attitudes and outcomes. They just need scaling up — a lot.

The Pacific Solution is at best only a band-aid on proximal symptoms of the problem. As global citizens we need a global solution targeting the root cause — unsustainable population growth in our finite world. This should be the primary focus of Australia’s foreign aid, supported by vigorous diplomatic endeavours to focus the UN on the global population issue.

Through partnership, example and assistance, Australia should help other nations to live well and plan their own future within their sustainable resource base. Rather than aiming to resettle ever increasing numbers of people, our policy aim should be to relieve the pressures that force migration in the first place, and help people live in peace and harmony in their homeland. This is, after all, the first preference of genuine refugees and a basic human right.

Where does it end?

With over 45 million refugees and internally displaced persons world-wide – and growing – Australia and the handful of similar nations can never hope to make a material impact by resettling more people. This has no positive impact on global overpopulation.  A new United Nations report says the number displaced people grew by 2.7 million in 2012 alone, while total global population grew by around 80 million. India for example, grows annually by the total population of Australia.

Generally only the most privileged of asylum seekers make it to our shores. Do we owe them a greater moral responsibility than all those who wait in camps? If the cost of resettling a few greatly diminishes our capacity to help many more people in their own region, how is this for the greater good?

According to the UN the number of displaced people globally grew by 2.7 million in 2012. (Image courtesy doctorswithoutborders.org)

The whole refugee debate is awash with moral confusion and moral manipulation. Australia has developed a vocal moralising class, and whilst generally well-meaning, most have seemingly no concern for the most critical issue of all – sustainability. Sustainaphobia extends to our major media organisations and means there is virtually no public discussion of Australia’s true long term carrying capacity. For example, how does Australia support ever-increasing numbers and maintain prosperity if a growing population becomes increasingly dependent on imported resources in a world increasingly constrained by resource shortages?  How does a larger population secure the foreign exchange to pay for imports like cars, clothes and computers as our capacity to export mineral resources and food diminishes over coming decades?

Anyone questioning rapid population growth, or increases to our already generous refugee or migration programs, is branded selfish, or worse. We should not cower. We should clearly distinguish between the moral high horse and the moral high ground. We must not run away from the intellectual debate on population and ecological sustainability, by abandoning a stable population objective as the Greens did in the face of Pauline Hanson’s 1990s race-related rhetoric.

The Stable Population Party does not support knee-jerk increases in the refugee resettlement program. The quota has only recently been increased from 13,750 to 20,000 per annum. Already some are advocating doubling it to 40,000. In recent days, we’ve seen glib claims in the Twitterverse about Australia having “boundless plains”, including from the leader of the Greens, Christine Milne. This is alarming language from the environment party, and perhaps demonstrates why it is critical for ecological sustainability and the environment to not have all its political eggs in one basket.

Australia already has the highest per capita permanent resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers in the world. We have a proud and generous record of refugee resettlement, with over 700,000 refugees taken in since World War II. Nobody can objectively argue that our sovereign nation is not already doing its bit.

As outlined above, money could be better spent helping many more people. Neither human dignity nor a healthy environment survives overpopulation. Australia has increasing concerns over food, energy and water security. Our biodiversity is falling, while we need to lower greenhouse gas emissions to limit climate change. With our own significant growing pains, and growing refugee numbers, steeply increasing Australia’s refugee resettlements is not a “sustainable” solution, as Sarah Hanson-Young asserts.

Where does it end? There is never a clear response to this fundamental question. There seems to be a belief that wealth is an inherent property of this continent, infinitely expandable to all comers, not a fragile balance between our resource base and our needs.

Learn history’s lessons

Australia must become part of the global population solution, not part of the problem. We should lead by example and upgrade from being an immigration nation to a mature, stable and sustainable nation.

stable population party
Australia needs a different approach when it comes to population.

We live on the driest inhabited continent on Earth. Our overwhelming and primary moral responsibility is to pass on a sustainable Australia to our children and grandchildren. There is also no way that Australia, with its high per capita consumption, can look other nations in the eye and call for population stability, ecological sustainability or even reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, if we are expanding our own population in defiance of all evidence of its costs to us and to the planet.

The Stable Population Party would work with government of any colour to ensure orderly refugee arrivals. Refugee policy should be part of a consistent population policy, not a scapegoat to distract the public from mass immigration. The immigration and baby bonus-fueled population growth initiated under Howard and escalated by both Rudd and Gillard is crippling the nation with congested infrastructure, unaffordable housing and intractable state and local government debt. They have failed to deliver its promised economic benefits, all the while jeopardising our long-term sustainability.

In our view, the total permanent immigration program should be brought down to the level of emigration – around 80,000. New Zealanders should be included in this quota – their entry is currently unrestricted and swells our population by up to 50,000 per year. Within a balanced migration program, clearly there is little scope to expand the refugee quota without creating hardship for people seeking family reunion and limiting the global recruitment of high-level skills.

Population pressure has always been the main driver of migration flows. It has been said of Australia that we are all immigrants, if not today then yesterday or the day before. We might better say we are all victims of overpopulation. But tomorrow, we can choose not to be. We can think better, not bigger.


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