Overloading Australia: How governments and media dither and deny on population

March 7, 2009 • Daily Email Recap

This past week in Australia, I have distributed several articles by Mark O’Connor, whom I met in Canberra. His book, Overloading Australia : How governments and media dither and deny on population, is of interest to population-interested readers anywhere. There are also some short extracts from his book below.

Here is how you can obtain the book.

Overloading Australia – How governments and media dither and deny on population
by Mark O’Connor and William Lines

Ordering From Outside Australia
Copies are available by airmail from the publisher Envirobook. (Visa/Mastercard required.)
Cost (including postage) is A$32 (= about US$ 21.00, 14 pounds, or 17 euro).
(For current exchange rates, see http://www.xe.com/ucc/ )
To purchase, email the publisher:
“Patrick Thompson” pat@envirobook.com.au to request a copy.
Or fax Envirobook +61 2 9787‐1944.
For further information about Mark O’Connor and Overloading Australia see:

Colin Clark and the myths of growth economics

Denialist claims have changed remarkably little in 35 years. Almost all the arguments and tactics were already on show in 1973 when the internationally famous Australian economist Colin Clark published a pamphlet with the British Catholic Truth Society, Putting the ‘Population Explosion’ in Perspective. He followed this a few months later with a small book, The Myth of Over-Population. Conservative think-tanks and rightwing church groups remain fond of recycling its pungent assertions.
Clark had the ability, rare among economists, of writing simply and clearly. Unfortunately, this great virtue exposed his errors and muddled predictions.

Let’s take the scientific howlers first. Clark assures his readers that carbon dioxide is harmless so long as it can be ‘discharged into the atmosphere.’ As for greenhouse effects, it is clear that recent fluctuations in the Earth’s climate ‘are not due to the burning of fuel.’

Despite being supposedly a chemist and an agricultural economist, Clark displays near total ignorance of agriculture. For instance, he assures us that the then heavy use of fertilizers would soon fade away: ‘Farmers now apply fertilizers heavily, to make their soils more fertile. Once these have reached a satisfactory level, fertilizers can be applied more lightly.’

Perhaps for this reason, Clark was sure that world food production ‘could easily be increased to 50 times its present level’. This would be easy if all suitable land ‘was properly farmed or grazed’. Clark persistently confuses the maximum yields of experimental plots, under ideal conditions, with what can be expected in the field. For instance he notes that meat production of 1000 pounds per acre a year from grazing lands has been recorded in temperate regions. From this he deduces that since grass grows faster in the tropics, five times the yield should be possible there! In practice tropical yields are often lower.

Like latter-day deniers, Clark is contemptuous of the very notion that resources are limited. He argues that most of the things we call resources, like wood pulp or fish are really products of human labor. This is a classic case of an economist treating the natural world as a ‘free good’. Clark could not grasp that fish-catches and lumber-extraction depend not just on investment and labour but also on nature’s fecundity. Instead, he assures us that fish supplies are increasing much faster than population.

He defends DDT as a blessing to mankind, claiming that scientists ‘cannot find that its levels have done any harm to human health’. He assures us that climate change is natural. Alarmists like Paul Ehrlich, he claims, ‘want to have it both ways, and prove that we are in danger of making the world hotter and colder simultaneously’. This perverse misunderstanding of warnings about climate instability is still a standard tactic for Clark’s successors. One can make allowances for Clark who was meeting a new idea, but not for those who perpetuate his muddle.

Despite his scientific ignorance, Clark had no hesitation in predicting the future — wrongly. He ridiculed the idea that our use of fossil fuels might change the climate but did concede that ‘Some centuries hence, our descendants may decide that it is unwise to add further carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.’ In fact just two decades later governments began negotiating the Kyoto agreement on greenhouses gases.

Clark also assured his readers that serious energy problems will come only when world population is ‘over a million times what it is now’. He mocked Ehrlich for suggesting that the US (whose oil production, unmentioned by Clark, had peaked in 1970) was already having some trouble in buying in enough foreign oil. Clark claimed the only problem the US had was ‘restricting the quantities of oil which other countries wish to supply’. (Today the quest for overseas oil dominates US foreign policy.) In any case, said Clark, cheap abundant energy from nuclear fusion was coming soon, and ‘will be vastly more efficient’ than the nuclear fission of current reactors. Thirty-five years later nuclear fusion remains a distant hope.

Clark’s current disciples overlook these embarrassing errors while citing his authority and persisting with the same assumptions that produced the errors. But Clark’s ignorance of history and science was not quite what it seems. He was perversely erudite in ferreting out scraps of fact that might suit his theories, yet studiously ignored well-known facts that didn’t. In short, Clark, like most later deniers, is betrayed less by ignorance than by powerful prejudices that distort his vision.

The Monbiot Fallacy [See, for instance, “Cutting consumption is more important than limiting population” in the Guardian at http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/feb/25/population-emissions-monbiot]

Some environmentalists invent ingenious arguments for not thinking about population. In early 2008 the British environmentalist George Monbiot invented the Monbiot Fallacy. As a man who prides himself on recognising that economic growth is incompatible with preserving environments, Monbiot has long argued that total economic growth is a good surrogate for total environmental destruction. Granted that economists demand a minimum of 3% growth per year, he predicts massive destruction of the natural world by the year 2100. This seems right, since at that 3% rate we will see the world’s economy double four times — grow 16-fold. Yet current projections are that in that time the world’s population will only increase by half. Therefore, Monbiot suggests, ‘economic growth this century could be 32 times as big an environmental issue as population growth.’ He thus feels justified in not being too bothered about Britain’s rapid population growth — and in hinting at unpleasant views of those environmentalists who are.

Yet as we saw at the end of Chapter 5, even if the planet could provide such a quantity of services and products, there is no precedent for assuming that economic growth can owe so little to population growth. Existing statistics show population growth and growth in per capita consumption as almost equally important.

In Australia for instance ― as John Coulter pointed out to Monbiot ― over the past 25 years the economy has been growing at 3.2% while the growth of per capita GDP has averaged 1.9%. This indicates that, in terms of growth in environmental impact, 60% of the growth is due to rising per capita demand and 40% to increase in population. Monbiot has also scrambled the maths. Even on his figures, 16-fold economic growth divided by 1.5-fold population growth, means about 11-fold per capita growth: a ratio of about 1 to 7 between the two factors, not 1 to 32!

A better way out of the Monbiot Fallacy is to argue thus. If the nature of our economy ensures a doubling of total consumption every 20 years or so forever, then most hopes of saving the environment and warding off climate change are lost. The present population of the Earth, plus the increases in per capita consumption that economists will demand of them, is enough to doom the Earth.

However if we are serious about fighting such runaway growth, then both the factors that drive it (population and per capita consumption) must be kept as low as possible. Granted that per capita consumption, even of necessities like energy and food, may need to be voluntarily pinched in, the larger the number of individuals to be supplied and fed, the less chance there will be of them agreeing to do so

Monbiot should also have considered the scenario where nature or lack of resources does the job for us — relieving the pressure on the environment but giving us the problem of human misery to alleviate. Imagine that peak oil bites sooner than expected, the economy goes into recession, there is so little fuel oil that private cars can run only by permit and homes can be heated only a few hours a day. Will not these privations be crueller for an expanded population than for a smaller one?
Numbers matter.

On the Replacement Rate Fallacy

The late pro-natalist B.A. Santamaria once informed his readers in The Australian that for Australia’s population not to fall rapidly the average woman must have 2 surviving children. Such views are quite common, and often lead to a false belief that population is either falling or about to fall. Thus in July 2008, when the Pope visited Sydney for World youth Day (just after World Population Day), Australia’s Cardinal Pell told the media that Western nations faced a population crisis fuelled by ‘ruthless’ commercial forces, and that ‘No country in the Western world is producing enough children to keep the population stable.’

If Pell was thinking about his native Australia he was right―but not in the way he imagined. Australian women are having far too many babies to keep the population stable. In fact almost twice as many as necessary. Births in Australia (about half a million a year) are twice deaths (about a quarter of a million) and have been so for the past twenty years―even though Australian women have been averaging significantly less than two children each for at least that long.

Clearly there is something cock-eyed about this “replacement rate” argument. It involves a common, but elementary, error in demography. Can you spot it?

In fact to keep stable and just replace itself, a relatively young population like Australia’s would currently need something even lower than Western Europe’s rate of around 1.3 children per completed family. More like 0.93. And that’s without immigration!

Misunderstandings like Pell’s often come from those who a decade earlier might have tried to argue that we need more people for defence, or for “respect” in the world. As those older props are discredited, more weight has fallen on the Replacement Rate Fallacy. Underlying all this is a natural bias of human beings towards pro-natalism

The replacement rate was a useful, if theoretical, concept back when couples everywhere were having 4 and 5 children as a matter of course. Since couples often justified this by saying that the world must be populated, demographers would point out that all a couple need do to replace itself, was to have 2 children. More exactly, about 2.05 children, to allow for the odd child that dies before reaching reproductive age, and for the slight excess of male births. But basically, if women in their reproductive years average two surviving children, or one surviving daughter, a generation will simply replace itself, won’t it?

Well, no! Humans are not fruitflies, where the generation of parents dies as their offspring are born. Children don’t replace parents, or even grandparents these days, but more often they replace great-grandparents. Hence if a generation of parents were to produce an equal-sized generation of children this would not mean the population had stabilized. In fact the population would not stabilize, at that rate, until the last generation to have more than 2.05 children had departed the scene. For instance, if India achieved so-called “replacement fertility” now, with all its couples in future averaging just 2.05 children, its population would still double, adding an extra 1 billion people!

Demographers need to clearly explain to journalists the difference between the Theoretical Long-Term Replacement Rate (TLTRR) and the Current Replacement Birth Rate (CRBR). The latter is the birth-rate that would currently (though not indefinitely) produce as many births as deaths. The only replacement rate that Australia could claim to be safely below is the Theoretical Long-Term Replacement Rate (TLTRR) of just over two children per completed family. But that is the replacement rate of an imaginary Australia, an already stabilized Australia, a society in which there would now be equal numbers in each generation.

By rights we should distinguish birthrate from fertility rate. The birthrate is the number of babies born per thousand people per year (and hence the replacement birthrate is that at which births per year would equal deaths); whereas ‘the fertility rate’ is the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime ― which is the demographers’ justification for speaking of 2.05 children per woman as ‘replacement fertility’. If only non-demographers could be got to observe this distinction, Santamaria’s error could be succinctly described as confusing the birthrate with the fertility rate. Since fertility rates are always below 10, and birthrates may be nearer to 100, the two terms ought not to be confused! However one must despair of getting the media to distinguish between birthrate and fertility rate.

The ANU demographer Dr Christabel Young has pointed out another hole in the replacement rate argument. When you take Australia’s current fertility rate of around 1.8 children per couple and factor in even a low net migration gain of just 80 000 per year, she calculated, it is still the equivalent of having a total fertility of around 2.4 children per woman. That of course is well above any estimate of the long-term replacement rate. And in reality our current net migration gain is now some 178,000 per year.

Some demographers are simply careless in talking about “the” replacement rate to journalists who almost invariably misunderstand “below TLTRR” as meaning “below the CRBR”; but there may also be pro-natalist demographers, and politicians, who do so deliberately to create concern about “our falling population”. For instance the pro-natalist Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) recently put out a media release that suckered ABC TV News (26 February 2008) into reporting that Australia’s low birthrate was a disaster because there were, “not enough babies being born to replace people dying.” In fact AIFS had merely said that fertility in Australia was “below the level required for population replacement” –which left them free to blame the ABC (and several other news media) for the error. Similarly, some of the business-lobby groups who try to create concern about “falling population” may be well aware from their own research that population is in fact rising rapidly. (Australia’s is rising at 1.6% a year, faster than Indonesia next door, and one of the fastest rates in Asia.)

Reporters who are tempted by such nonsense should apply a common-sense reality-check. Anyone who drives around Australian cities ought to be aware that population growth is extremely high!

NOTE: The above extracts are not exact quotations from the book but combine passages from several chapters.

Current World Population


Net Growth During Your Visit