Population And Consumption: Two Sides Of One Coin

By Jane Addison

‘Population versus consumption in Australia’ summaries the debate about the relative importance of the growth in population verses the growth in consumption. It argues that the two are artificial divisions, and that mechanisms of both, the problems they cause as well as the solutions for them both are not mutually exclusive. The Left needs to come together in addressing the two, as one. The following article was published in Australia’s Green Left Weekly magazine (Issue 805, August 2 2009) and is reproduced with updates here.

When it comes to something as important as the survival of our species, you would think that humans could have an open, honest discussion. When it comes to the suggestion of population or consumption policies, however, people often grow strangely silent. Why is it that this issue causes people so much concern?

Most people acknowledge that Earth has finite resources. The logical conclusion is that we can’t keep consuming these resources indefinitely, either through increasing per capita consumption or the number of us consuming. And yet, how we balance two options remains a subject of contention. And nowhere is this disagreement more obvious than, strangely enough, within the left community.

On one end of the spectrum lies consumption reductionists (labelled and divided for argument’s sake). This group believe that we should focus on reducing our personal rates of consumption. On the other lies population reductionists, who believe we should focus on reducing the total number of people on Earth.

What Consumption Reductionists Say

Consumption reductionists believe that it is the individuals most responsible for environmental degradation, the big consumers, who should be the ones to change their lifestyle to address the problem. It is the ultimate arrogance of wealthy countries to preach population control to countries with high birth rates, namely the ‘developing’ countries, given that wealthy countries have consumed, and continue to consume, much more than their fair share of the Earth’s resources. Past and current imperialist exploitation of the majority world’s resources by rich countries with simultaneous dictation about fertility choices is considered to be hypocritical and therefore ethically indefensible, they say.

Consumption reductionists also sometimes feel deeply suspicious of the motives behind population reductionists, and these concerns have historical legitimacy. Discrimination based on class, ethnicity or mental illness has often in the past come in the guise of population control. During World War 2, over 400,000 sterilisations of mentally ill, blind, epileptic or physically deformed people took place in Germany (Proctor, 1988). And in India, forced sterilisations occurred between 1975 and 1977, with the powerless being targeted. 65,000 forced, government sanctioned sterilisations occurred in the United States from the 19th century, with mentally ill, blind and deaf people, as well as Native and Black Americans all being targeted. The last of these sterilisations occurred as recently as 1981 (Sullivan 2002). With China’s one child policy, a sex imbalance has been created through the selective abortions of female foetuses, and it has been poorer families that cannot afford fines or bribes that have suffered most. As well as concerns about reinstalling such practises, consumption reductionists also often believe that any attempt to control women’s fertility, particularly when it comes from a top-down political process primarily dominated by older men, is considered an affront to feminist gains.

What Population Reductionists Say

Population reductionists argue that their emphasis on population solutions to the unbalanced equation is equally as humanitarian as the emphasis on consumption reduction. They argue that they would prefer to have a smaller number of people on this planet with a reasonable standard of living than a infinite number living increasingly impoverished lives.

Whilst calculating ecological footprints can be tricky, it is a useful concept. The Global Footprint Network (2009) estimates that with our current population we can sustainably use 2.1 ecological footprint hectares per person and be ‘sustainable’. This is equal to what the average South African, Syrian or Chinese currently uses. If our population was to increase to 9 billion by 2050 as predicted (United Nations, 2009), we would only be able to use about 1.4 global hectares each. This is about what the average Vietnamese or Guatemalan currently uses, fives time less than what the average Australian currently uses. For the average Australian, adapting to a lifestyle with this footprint would mean a little bit more than being stricter with sorting the household plastics from the cardboards, buying organic soy milk or changing the brand of toilet paper — it would mean giving up your car, your pet, overseas flights, meat, backyard, flushing toilet, private bedroom and moving back in with your parents (and probably their parents as well). Population reductionists believe that this is unrealistic.

Wealthy countries are in the population minority, population reductionists argue. This means that even a significant reduction in their personal consumption rates will be more than cancelled out once the faster-growing areas start demanding a standard of living equal to that of wealthy countries. Population reductionists argue that it is morally wrong to deny the majority world/’developing’ countries a standard of living equal to that of richer countries, and therefore the best way to balance the sustainability equation is to minimise and eventually stop further population growth.

And The Population Versus Consumption Debate in Australia?

Debate? What debate? Whilst the left occasionally argues the details amongst itself, mainstream dialogue on either issue is effectively non-existent — unless you include the occasional pro-growth rants of economists from The Australian. And in the mean-time both our long-term population and consumption rates have continued to increase.

The Australian government already tinkers with population and rates of personal consumption, with the general aim being to increase both. Cash handouts like the recent “stimulus package” are clearly designed to achieve an increase in personal consumption. Population growth is sanctioned using similar incentives (e.g. the “baby bonus”) and by manipulating immigration intake. These planned increases in consumption and/or population are designed to meet capitalist and political aims, not environmental or social ones.

For example, when John Howard took office in 1996, he initially reduced immigration, probably to demonstrate a response to, and perhaps to inflate, community perceptions of weak border control. After a few years, the Howard government changed course and increased the skilled immigration intake again whilst dropping humanitarian programme grants between 2003 and 2008 (Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2009). Howard increased immigration during the ‘boom times’ of his Government to address shortages in the domestic skilled workforce — in other words immigration is far more an economic tool (seeking skilled migrants) than a humanitarian one (granting refugees asylum).

Whilst Howard is an easy target for the left, the planning levels of the current Rudd government have also been manipulated for economic gains, with planned numbers for skilled sponsored and skilled independent immigrants being dropped back down again to protect local jobs during the global downturn (Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2009). The continuation of cash handouts like the baby bonus have encouraged increases in domestic birth rates, and increased Australia’s fertility rate in 2006/07 for the first time in over 40 years (Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2009). Australia’s combination of high fertility and immigration gives this country one of the highest rates of population growth (1.8% p.a., or a doubling time of about 40 years) of any wealthy country. Today, Australia’s population is estimated to be 40 times that of the (presumably sustainable) indigenous population in 1788, and rising.

There has recently been a slight change in the mainstream air on mentalities of growth in Australia. In March 2010, The Australian Conservation Society made a submission to the Federal Government under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) that sought to have population growth listed as a key environmental threat. Although this was rejected, the Rudd government appointed Australian Minister for Population, Tony Burke in April. When Julia Gillard came to power, she acknowledged that population growth in Australia has social, environmental and economic implications by changing Burke’s title to Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. In August, Australian of the Year Dick Smith established the Wilberforce Award of $1 million to go to a young person under 30 who becomes famous through his or her ability to show leadership in communicating an alternative to our population and consumption growth-obsessed economy. Whilst these changes are promising, there is still much to be done.

Working Towards a Common Goal

Our current population increases and economic growth mentality bear all the hallmarks of a country still locked into colonial thinking, seeking to exploit the ‘untapped’ resources of the vast interior and rapidly populate the new territory, ‘displacing the natives’ as we go. This is despite having some of the most impoverished soils on the planet, and the world’s highest rate of mammal extinction (World Wildlife Fund Nature, 2009). It is time that there was more constructive, less alarmist dialogue on both consumption rates and population in Australia, and that the population and consumption reductionists came together against Australia’s growth-centred political and social system.

The two camps have many overlapping beliefs. Both sides are very concerned about our ability as a species to feed ourselves into the future, and the impact we are having on the utilitarian, aesthetic and intrinsic value of all species on Earth. Neither side accepts an unequal distribution of resources in the world. Extreme State-sponsored restrictions on individual choices are generally held to be unacceptable.

General aims and tools of the left also flow between the two camps. For example, it seems that given a certain social context, women choose to have fewer children voluntarily. This context generally includes educational, economic and social power, options and equality, and access to information and the tools of reproductive control, all of which all the left already regularly campaigns for on humanitarian grounds.

Paid maternity leave, soon to be introduced into Australia after years of campaigning, is a social acknowledgement that both children, and parental work, are socially and economically valuable. A graduated system that provides less of an incentive for a second or third child would not significantly disadvantage or discriminate against women or the stay-at-home parent. But it would acknowledge that unlimited baby bonuses and maternity leave in a country that consumes so much per capita is otherwise a state subsidy for environmental degradation.

Across the board, the left accepts that Australia is morally obliged to accept people fleeing persecution in their own countries. There is no reason why Australia could not, for example, double its annual humanitarian intake (in 2007/08 there were only 13,014 humanitarian programme grants) whilst halving its skilled and ‘other’ immigration intake (158,630 in 2007/08) (Department of Immigration, 2009a). This would significantly reduce the total number of immigrants into a county that has some of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world, whilst acknowledging that Australia is a global citizen, has at times contributed to the reasons people leave their home country in the first place and is morally obliged to do more to assist such people. In addition, any subsequent slowing of economic activity due a lack of skilled workforce would in turn reduce our personal rates of consumption.

Australia could also do more to help improve the quality of life of people in countries in politically or economically unstable countries so they are not forced to flee. Whilst foreign aid in the form of handouts may not always be the most useful form of assistance, it is shameful that we as a country spend more on pet food each year than we do on foreign aid (The Australia Institute, 2004). Diverting more money from the high consumption pockets of wealthy countries to opportunities and education for women in poorer countries would have dual benefit: (a) reducing personal consumption rates per capita in wealthier countries, and (b) minimising population increases in poorer countries. Australian population reductionists could also do more in supporting social and political systems in their own country that are more conducive to reduced personal consumption and population growth rates.


The division between population and consumption reductionists made here is an artificial one. Population and personal consumption are two sides of the same coin. With the short-term political cycle unique to democracies, politicians are encouraged to think no further than their 3 or 4 year term. The current popular pressure that has encouraged them to think of greenhouse gas emission caused climate change is a rare exception. And unfortunately, they have missed the point that this particular environmental problem is just one symptom of a much deeper (but less politically palatable) problem. The root cause of greenhouse emissions is not that humans are using the wrong light bulbs or are not using technologies that make vehicles more efficient — it is that there are simply too many of us consuming too much stuff. Sections of the left have made a solid attempt at addressing the ‘consuming too much stuff’ part of this root cause. Ignoring the population half of the equation, however, means that we are simply tinkering around the edges of balancing the ‘sustainably equation’ and are therefore doomed to failure.

Rather than wasting effort in finger-pointing, both population and consumption reductionists could help begin constructive dialogue together by lobbying both the government and mainstream Australia to address shared issues. A call to draft up a resource use plan set 10, 50 and 100 years into the future that sets a lower quota for total immigration but one that is composed primarily of humanitarian rather than economic immigrants, and rigorous stabilisation targets for both domestic population and personal consumption would be a good start. Similar lobbying against cash handouts and other domestic policies that promote population or consumption increases would also help. Only in doing so can we address the currently unbalanced sustainability equation in a way that truly considers environmental, economic and social requirements.

Image Credit: John Ditchburn

More information available online

The Australia Institute. 2004. Media release: More spent on pets than on foreign aid. July 17, 2004. Available https://www.tai.org.au

Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2009. Factsheet 15 — Population Projections. Revised October 7, 2008. Available www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/15populations.

Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2009a. Media Program Statistics. Revised October 7, 2008. Available http://www.immi.gov.au/media/statistics/statistical-info/visa-grants/migrant.htm

Global Footprint Network, 2009. Last updated 18/05/2009. Available http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/ecological_footprint_atlas_2008/

Nationmaster, 2009. Environmental statistics — ecological footprint (most recent) by country. Available www.nationmaster.com/graph/env_eco_foo-environment-ecological-footprint

Proctor, R. 1988. Racial hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Harvard University Press.

Sullivan, J. State will admit sterilisation past. Postland Oregonian. November 15, 2002. Available www.open.org/`people/eugenics/eugenics_article-6

United Nations, 2009. World Population to exceed 9 billion by 2050. Press release. March 11, 2009. Available www.un.org/esa/population/pulications

World Wide Fund for Nature. 2008. Living Planet analysis shows looming ecological credit crunch. Posted 29 October 2008. Available www.panda.org/wwf_news

World Wildlife Fund, 2009. Australia’s threatened species face extinction due to climate change. March 25, 2008. Available www.wwf.org.au/news/species-face-extinctoin-due-to-climate-change.

Originally published in February 2011. Find out more about the Post Growth Institute on our website.





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