In Jenny Goldie’s opinion, there’s a relatively easy way out of Australia’s environment health crisis: have a mature debate about pragmatic policies encouraging a smaller Australia, not a bigger one.
“It’s just basic maths,” says the president of Sustainable Population Australia, which has long campaigned to protect the environment by ending population growth.
“There’s no such thing as a human that doesn’t make demands on the environment around them.”
She points to the recent State of the Environment report that found Australia’s environment is in a poor way and deteriorating with at least 19 ecosystems showing signs of collapse.
The report is peppered with references to degradation caused by humans through climate change, urban expansion and land clearing, pollution and habitat modifications such as seawalls.
“Humans have got a lot to answer for,” Ms Goldie says.
“Basically if we could just stop growing, then we could stop increasing the pressure but people don’t necessarily add it up and say the number of humans is critical.”
In a little over a month, the United Nations estimates the global population will hit eight billion.
That’s 5.5 billion more than the planet supported 70 years ago. In 70 years from now, the UN estimates the number will be 10.5 billion.
The latest milestone is expected to be reached on November 15.
By accident or design, that’s when world leaders will meet in Egypt to discuss how to ward off the worst effects of human-induced climate change.
Australia is among the nations on a growth trajectory, amid a national housing crisis and labour shortage that has prompted the federal government to boost the skilled migration cap by 35,000 places this year.
The national population is approaching 25.9 million, a number forecast to hit between 37.4 million and 49.2 million by 2066 when babies being born today will be in their mid-40s.
In the 12 months to March, almost 240,000 people were added – 110,000 from overseas, the rest by natural increase.
Based on the average household of 2.52 persons per dwelling, Ms Goldie says that level of growth commits Australia to building at least 92,896 dwellings a year.
In Victoria, Sustainable Australia Party MP Clifford Hayes shudders at the thought of Melbourne becoming any more crowded and the inevitable loss of more landscape to housing.
He says it’s past time to talk about why so many politicians don’t want to discuss the population.
“It’s quite an unpopular topic,” he says dryly.
“Many have brought it up but quickly dropped it. Julia Gillard was one when Kevin Rudd was preaching big Australia and she said I’m not for a big Australia at all when she first deposed him but then rapidly backtracked.”
Mr Hayes says the political mantra of growth is so entrenched many Australians never stop to question it.
“A lot of people think population growth is inevitable. They don’t realise it’s a deliberate policy,” he says.
He says the pursuit of growth, the notion it’s a measure of good governance and claims of racism that frequently surface when migration is questioned have corrupted meaningful discussions about what a good number of humans is for Australia.
Former CSIRO research director Ian Cresswell, one of three chief authors of the latest State of the Environment report, agrees population should be part of the discussion about environmental health.
“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it, that we can’t keep putting more and more people on the planet without having an impact?” he says.
For him, the issue is far more nuanced, given the way Australians live.
“It’s not purely a matter of numbers. It’s actually about the model of economic growth you use and how you manage that in relation to your natural resources,” he says.
“We Australians are very high resource users. We need to extract a lot of value from our natural resources in order to maintain that ever-increasing lifestyle.”
Dr Cresswell says it is possible for Australia to be a good environmental custodian while maintaining or even growing its population but it will require a political and social appetite to reduce excess.
“If we move away from the idea of everybody having a quarter acre block and clearing the native vegetation and planting lawns and roses, and we have clever cities which are well constructed, reusing their water and recycling … we can have a much smaller footprint with a larger population,” he says.
“But it requires a very different social structure and mindset about the values we think are important.”
And that’s where political problems arise, says the University of Queensland’s Jane O’Sullivan, who researches the environmental, social and economic impacts of population growth.
She says change will depend on reassessing the “economic dogma” about population growth being good and properly assessing the other burdens that come with it, including environmental ones.
“The economic arguments are fallacious. They are full of myths and bad assumptions,” she says.
“The political community is so embedded in the economic paradigm and the economic paradigm is so divorced from our physical reality.
“It used to be about land, labour and capital. Then they managed to kind of eliminate land as a concept by thinking ‘oh land is a physical asset that you can put a dollar value on so it’s all capital’.
“As soon as they did that, there’s no evidence of limits.”
While still in opposition in 2019, Anthony Albanese said Australia needed to have a “mature debate” about population growth.
He made the comments after an Infrastructure Australia report found governments would have to find $40 billion a year to cope with population forecasts of more than 30 million people by 2034.
“It’s a matter of appropriate population growth,” he told Guardian Australia.
“I don’t have a target number. We need to have an assessment about an appropriate number as we develop.”
AAP has asked the prime minister if he still ascribes to that view but he is yet to respond.
Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe produced the 1996 edition of the State of the Environment report and is a patron of Sustainable Population Australia.
He believes a national conversation is crucial in the wake of the current report – the latest chapter in a very long story.
“It is the most recent of six such reports at five-year intervals, all saying the demands of the present population are degrading our natural systems irreversibly,” he says.