Australia’s population – what is sustainable?

Too many people? It’s hard to say without looking at our lifestyle. Tony.../Flickr

Population policy discussions in Australia fall well short of confronting the core questions. We cannot even ask “what is a sustainable population?” until we look at our unsustainable lifestyles and the part we play in contributing to the problem of humanity’s unsustainable way of life.

A simple way to think about this bigger picture sustainability issue is in terms of our ecological footprint. This is the amount of land and water space we use to produce the renewable natural resources (crops, timber, plant fibre, livestock, fish and so on) we consume.

Currently, based on about 7 billion people on the planet, we need about 2.7 hectares of land and water space each to produce what we consume. But after allowing for the needs of other species and to maintain the resilience of ecosystems, there is only about 1.0 hectare per person available.

We need nearly three planets to sustain the current population. This is even with so many people living in poverty in the broader global space.

So to meet the needs of the current 7 billion population, we fund our lifestyles by consuming the natural capital base rather than living off its regenerative capacity. This is like depleting capital in the bank rather than living off interest.

Those who pay the price for this behaviour are the politically and economically weak, other species (which we are killing off at an alarming rate) and future generations.

By 2050, the human population will probably be about 9 to 9.5 billion. More people erodes the per-person amount of land and ocean space available to produce the resources we need to live.

So by 2050, if there isn’t a massive reduction in resource use, we will need at least four planets.

Here in Australia, we are natural resource gluttons. On average, we use nearly 7 hectares of land and water space to maintain our consumptive behaviours.

If everyone lived like we do, humanity would need about seven planets to sustain its way of life without impoverishing future generations and causing massive species extinctions.

It is difficult to see how, by any stretch of the imagination, this resource use can be justified in terms of fairness within the current generation and to future generations.

So before we even start asking, “what is a sustainable population for Australia?”, we need to ask “what is a sustainable lifestyle?”. The current one is clearly not.

For Australians to be using natural resources in a sustainable way we need to reduce our “footprint” to less than 1 hectare per person.

To give an idea of how big a task this is, in the latest set of ecological footprint data produced by the Footprint Network, only 23 nations of 153 listed have a footprint of 1 hectare or less per-person. These countries all fall into the “least developed” basket – those we would see as poverty stricken.

Drilling down further, in South Australia the government has a plan to grow the SA population from 1.6m to 2.0m by 2050. This target will probably be met much sooner and is expected to grow beyond this level.

Simultaneously, it has a target to reduce the aggregate SA Ecological Footprint by 30% by 2050. This translates to a per-person footprint of about 3.7 hectares each at that time.

The inconsistencies here are obvious – adding more people while trying to bring the overall ecological impact down makes a hard job that much harder.

But worse, a plan for South Australians to have a per-person ecological footprint of 3.7 hectares when the globally available space is less than 1 hectare is not a “live sustainably” recipe. It is one that perpetuates injustice by maintaining a privileged use of the Earth’s resources beyond fair-Earth-share levels. South Australia would remain a net contributor to the degradation of the Earth’s renewable natural resource base.

None of this answers the question of what population is ecologically sustainable in Australia. That is because the question is meaningless without answers to two other questions. What is needed for humanity to live sustainably? And how do we need to live in Australia to meet this global sustainability goal?

Adding more people to a resource hungry society such as ours makes no sense in this light regardless of whether those extra people come from births or immigration. The resource use numbers simply do not add up.