Green Anti-Immigration Arguments Are A Cover For Right Wing Populism

With the backdrop of dramatic decrease in migration to Australia in 2018 to a 10 year low, the population debate has reared its ugly head. In recent months Dick Smith has run an advertising blitz with the title ‘overpopulation will destroy Australia’ that compares population growth to cancer and recently took stage at Dark + Dangerous Thoughts at Mona arguing “no” for the proposition “Do We Let Them In?”. Dick Smith’s intervention comes as members of the far right continue to focus on immigration as a major issue. For example, the newly minted Katter’s Australian Party senator, Fraser Anning, praised the White Australia Policy in his inaugural speech and echoed Nazi rhetoric saying “the final solution to the immigration problem of course is a popular vote”. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also recently spoken about reducing Australia’s immigration intake. 

The two views, although, coming from different perspectives, one nominally in the name of “sustainability” and the other a throwback to colonialism steeped in racism and xenophobia, arrive at the same destination, a hermetical view of the world projecting fear onto an outsider. In Dick Smith’s view the outsider is coming to destroy the environment and it Anning’s version they threaten the “European-Christian” ethno-white state. 

The environmental rhetoric of the population debate might be alluring to progressives. Who would argue against clean air and clean water? Who wouldn’t agree that the current paradigm of growth is unsustainable? The problem is that an analysis based solely in population is superficial, creating solutions that end up marrying with the worst parts of Australian politics – far-right populism. If unchecked environmentalists focused solely on population threaten to be co-opted and driving a wedge in the environmental movement – because on the surface the arguments sound appealing.

Debate about population within the environment movement has played out many times, with many of the arguments not being new. Dick Smith’s manifesto proclaims “The prime reason for the decline in living standards for many Australian workers is our population growth.” 

However, whose environment is he trying to protect?


Background to the environmental population debate

In the late 1960’s and onward a debate raged in environmental groups that threatened to tear them apart. The hotly debated issue was about population, spurned on by the publication of the neo-Malthusian The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich. 

The Population Bomb is an easy-to-read polemic written for a popular audience and a guide for organising. In Ehrlich’s view over-population is leading to societal and environmental collapse and the issue needs immediate policy action. It thus begun with the famous lines, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” and the pace continues:

“Overpopulation is now the dominant problem.

Overpopulation occurs when numbers threaten values.

…regardless of changes in technology or resource consumption and distribution, current rates of population growth guarantee an environmental crisis which will persist until the final collapse.

There are some professional optimists around who like to greet every sign of dropping birth rates with wild pronouncements about the end of the population explosion.

Many of these countries, some of which are the poorest, most undernourished, and most overpopulated in the world, are prime candidates for a death-rate solution to the Population explosion

Our position requires that we take immediate action at home and promote effective action worldwide. We must have population control at home, hopefully through changes in our value system, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.”

He argues that population is a geometrical ratio:

“If growth continued at that rate for about 900 years, there would be some 60,000,000,000,000,000 people on the face of the earth…Unfortunately, even 900 years is much too far in the future for those of us concerned with the population explosion. As you will· see, the next nine years will probably tell the story.”

He graphically compares population growth to cancer, just like Dick Smith: 

“We can no longer afford merely to treat the symptoms of the cancer of population growth; the cancer itself must be cut out.”

In “Chapter 1 The Problem” Ehrlich writes that “I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a few years ago.”

It would be hard not to be terror-stricken after reading The Population Bomb and it inspired many to action – perhaps prematurely. One argument, coming from a milieu of a white middle-class that some scholars have called an “apartheid ecology”, could be characterised as the “Green anti-immigrant” position. This position argued that there needed to be a national population policy in the United States that centred on radically reducing immigration.

This debate had echoes of the 18th century where many often turned to population control to solve social ills. This movement was famously satirised by Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ or its longer title ‘A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick’. It also had echoes of Thomas Malthus who posited in An Essay on the Principle of Population that population would exceed food supply:

“The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race

Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance, the human species would increase in the ratio of — 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. and subsistence as — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. In two centuries and a quarter, the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10: in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be almost incalculable, though the produce in that time would have increased to an immense extent.” 

An Essay on the Principle of Population expressed a view where empathy to certain groups, such as the poor, would spell disaster. His ideas led those in power to look at famine as good for society and that support for those not well off as creating “the poor which they maintain” . Marx famously argued against Malthus:

“The hatred of the English working class for Malthus—the ‘mountebank-parson,’ as Cobbett rudely called him…—was thus fully justified and the people’s instinct was correct here, in that they felt that he was no man of science, but a bought advocate of their opponents, a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes.”

This account was pretty accurate considering Malthus has been used to wage war on the poor. “Over the last 200 years” according to eco-socialist John Bellamy Foster “Malthusianism has thus always served the interests of those who represented the most barbaric tendencies within bourgeois society.”

Malthus’ view would end up marrying with Eugenics to form an ideological base for the Nazis. From early on Hitler fetishised the idea that population was the problem:

“The annual increase of population in Germany amounts to almost 900,000 souls. The difficulties of providing for this army of new citizens must grow from year to year and must finally lead to a catastrophe, unless ways and means are found which will forestall the danger of misery and hunger.”

Tragically his solution to his manufactured population problem was to violently enlarge the borders of the state, encourage higher fertility of anyone who was in Arthur de Gobineau’s ahistorical category of the true Germans or Aryan race while offsetting this by genocide of certain populations he deemed too foreign, not nationalistic enough or inferior.

Brief History of the rise of concern for population to be anti-immigration.

After The Population Bomb was released the new wave of the population debate played out in the one the largest and oldest conservation groups, the Sierra Club, leading to a decades old internecine struggle. The publication solidified for many that overpopulation was the most important issue for environmentalists. The polemic had a forward by David Brower, the executive director of the Sierra Club. He tied the Sierra Club’s mission to the call to action of the The Population Bomb, writing:

“The roots of the new brutality, it will become clear from The Population Bomb, are in the lack of population control. There is, we must hope and predict, a chance to exert control in time. We would like to predict that organizations which, like the Sierra Club, have been much too calm about the ultimate threat to mankind, will awaken themselves and others, and awaken them with an urgency that will be necessary to fulfillment of the prediction that mankind will survive. We must use our political power to push other countries into programs which combine agricultural development and population control.”

One scholar writes that the Ehrlich’s polemic “convinced many people that population expansion would eventually transcend the earth’s carrying capacity, leading to ecological disaster”. In doing so population became the pre-eminent concern for many environmentalists. It wasn’t long before environmental groups split on the issue. Population policy brought up many difficult questions that advocates could not address. On the question of scale, for example, should population be addressed globally or nationally? How do you address it nationally when the fertility rate is so low? Some proponents of addressing overpopulation decided the most politically acceptable way was to address it nationally, primarily through drastically reducing immigration. This focus on immigration somewhat overlook the arbitrary nature of both the new population goal and narrowly focusing on national population instead of consumption. There was no evidence that immigration size was related to ecological damage but the fear of population getting out of control was an overriding logic, and immigration provided a useful political tool. 

It was this approach that the Sierra Club ended up adopting. In 1978 the club passed a policy urging for population stabilisation in the United States through a “population policy for the United States” with a particular focus on immigration. Their policy stated there needed to be an investigation into immigration laws:

“Sierra Club urges Congress to conduct a thorough examination of U.S. immigration laws, May 6-7,1978 policies, and practices. This analysis should include discussion of: 

  • The impact of immigration of different levels on population trends in the United States,
  • The disproportionate burden on certain states, and
  • The effect of immigration to the U.S. on population growth and environmental quality in this country.

….All regions of the world must reach a balance between their populations and resources. Developing countries need to enlarge opportunities for their own residents, thus increasing well-being, eventually lessening population growth rates, and reducing the pressures to emigrate. Developed nations must work towards greater conservation of resources as well as population stabilization in order to reduce impact on depletion of non-renewable resources, creation of pollution, and damage to ecosystems. This combination would remove the root causes of international migration, by providing more equitable opportunities for people throughout the world.”

The Sierra Club “Green anti-immigrant” policy was reinforced in the 1980s with its strongest stance for immigration-restriction. In 1989 it released a statement that read “Immigration to the United States should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the United States.” This policy was reinforced by the Club’s president, who wrote in 1992 in a letter to the editor to the New York Times that “Our goal in the United States should be achieving domestic population stabilization.”

There was push back against the “Green anti-immigrant” sentiment in the Sierra Club with the growth of the environmental justice movement “informed by consideration of race and class”.

This grouping pushed for a neutral stance on population, arguing that it is best addressed through supporting the rights of woman through international efforts under the UN. Catherine Tactaquin was on the Sierra Club’s population,. She told the magazine ColorLines that: 

“…all of the women were pro-immigration and championed reproductive rights, while the men were steadfastly anti-immigration.”

In 1996 the organisation tried to take heat out of the debate by voting to change to a neutral stance on immigration, saying they will “take no position on immigration levels or on policies governing immigration into the United States”:

“The Sierra Club can more effectively address the root causes of global population problems through its existing comprehensive approach: 

  • The Sierra Club will build upon its effective efforts to champion the right of all families to maternal and reproductive health care, and the empowerment and equity of women.
  • The Sierra Club will continue to address the root causes of migration by encouraging sustainability, economic security, health and nutrition, human rights and environmentally responsible consumption.”

This led to many smaller green immigration-restriction groups becoming activated and vocal. Alliances formed between openly bigoted and racist groups and hard line environmental organisations. For example, the Carrying Capacity Network worked with a “hard-line anti-immigration group” called the Americans for Immigration Control to organise conferences bringing the two groups together. Some of the arguments used at the time were particularly odious. Arguments included the idea that migrants do not value wilderness areas and are therefore are a threat to the environment and that children born from undocumented migrants are not covered by the 14th Amendment which guarantees citizenship. 

The bitter reaction to the policy change led the Sierra Club Board to take the issue to a vote to members. Two positions were taken: one to reduce immigration and the other to maintain the neutral stance on immigration. Alongside the ballot paper were extensive arguments for each proposition in the publication of Sierra. Arguments both for and against were presented with the vote, they are outline below as they appeared:

In Support of a neutral stance

  • Taking on immigration policy will divide the club, tarnish its credibility, and undermine its efforts to deal with the roots of environmental destruction and overpopulation. 
  • New restrictions on immigration won’t stop the logging, mining, and oil companies from destroying the environment. 
  • Promoting new immigration restrictions creates the perception that immigrants are the cause of environmental problems. To many, “Alternative A” is discriminatory, and Latinos and African-Americans are key allies in our battle to protect the environment. 
  • New immigration restrictions won’t stop global overpopulation; restrictions only shift the symptoms from place to place. 
  • Club leaders have spent years debating immigration. Migration is part of an extremely complex global equation that includes consumption, population growth, and technology, in 1996, the board realized that club population experts could not agree on any immigration policy as being environmentally preferable. 
  • The Sierra Club is unlikely to effect actual immigration into the United States. The immigration policy is a highly polarized controversy about economics, ethnicity, and race. It is not a debate about the environment. The club has relatively little expertise on immigration, and a divided club cannot effectively influence policy

In Support of reducing immigration 

  • The current population of the United States is 270 million. This is a near-doubling from 1950, when the population was 150 million. 
  • The Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population will be 394 million by the year 2050 if birth and immigration rates are not changed. Growth will continue indefinitely thereafter.
  • Immigration will account for 2/3 of future U.S. population growth according to the National Academy of Sciences. 
  • Current immigration rates are triple the levels of the last 50 years, because of repeated relaxations of U.S. laws. 

The “Green anti-immigrant” proposition was defeated. This helped change the direction of the Sierra club in the 1990s up to the present where it has argued strongly against Trump’s proposed border wall and support for undocumented migrants – joining other groups like Greenpeace and The Sierra Club celebrates its new position and advocates against corporate exploitation that can lead to forced migration. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club said that the old policy of supporting a reduction of immigration limiting annual immigration from 900,000 to 200,000 “was immoral, ineffective and intolerable…It was a big problem, it was an embarrassment frankly for the organization.”

San Francisco Bay Chapter director Minda Berbeco with sign “Sierra Club Stands with Immigrants” Source: Sierra Club

This however has not stopped others from pushing the Sierra Club to return to their previous positions on immigration. An early ally of Ehrlich and chief proponent of population control and anti-immigration, John Tanton, ended up leaving the Sierra club to set up a nativist hate group, as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Centre. Tanton would have periodic efforts, up to the present, to take control of the Board through his allies within the club. 

These sorts of pushes should present a warning for environmentalists in the current day. The Rev. David Ostendorf highlights the problem with the far-right co-opting the environmental movement as illustrated by the Sierra Club case:

“The nativist movement is clearly attempting to split the environmental movement in order to advance its own white nationalist agenda…The greening of hate is not about the environment, conservation or population. It is about preserving the dominance of European Americans.”

Ostendorf highlights how the political economy of white nationalism has operated over time and how its logic can hijack causes to maintain dominance. 

In 2018, Ehrlich himself acknowledged the shortcoming of the Population Bomb echoing many of the critics and activists against of the Sierra Club’s Green anti-immigrant policy. He said in an interview with the Guardian:

“Its weaknesses were not enough on overconsumption and equity issues. It needed more on women’s rights, and explicit countering of racism – which I’ve spent much of my career and activism trying to counter.

Too many rich people in the world is a major threat to the human future, and cultural and genetic diversity are great human resources.”

Ehrlich is articulating an argument that is now more in line with the idea not only that population is a false argument, but is convenient way of shifting the blame. As the UK writer and environmentalist George Monbiot argues, “People who claim that population growth is the big environmental issue are shifting the blame from the rich to the poor.” 

Internationally and Australia 

Source: Oxfam

The case of the Sierra club is discussed here because it mirrors trends in other locales and clearly shows the polarity of the debate. Internationally, the debate around population was won early by the proponents of international human rights based action, development, empowerment of marginalised communities and an approach based on family planning. This was reinforced with the first world conference in 1974 at Bucharest and the most recently in 1994 at Cairo centring the role of empowering woman. The 1974 World Population Plan of Action zeroes in on racism, amongst other issues, as one the greatest obstacles to developing countries progressing:

“…racial discrimination, apartheid and neo-colonialism in all its forms continue to be among the greatest obstacles to the full emancipation and progress of the developing countries and all the people involved… Development also requires recognition of the dignity of the individual, appreciation for the human person and his self-determination, as well as the elimination of discrimination in all its forms.”

While there was interest in population at the international level there were also groups forming in Australia that were dedicated to the issue. Ehrlich helped inspire a wave of interest in Australia relating to population. In the 1970s for example, a group called Zero Population Growth established following a visit to Australia from Ehrlich. The group morphed into Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population then Sustainable Population Australia Inc. (SPA). The SPA has some notable patrons including Bob Carr, Ian Lowe, Tim Flannery and Dr Katharine Betts amongst others.

Ehrlich’s ideas in the Population Bomb carried through into groups like the Sustainable Population Australia. The group advocates for a drastic reduction in immigration to ‘zero net migration’ (in line with One Nation’s policy) which means allowing in as many people that leave Australia, immigrants equal emigrants. The Australian Population Research Institute (not to be confused with the Australian Population Association) is one group that is seemingly built on Ehrlich’s proposition that overpopulation is the dominant problem. They conduct social research and advertise how population can be an issue to mobilise politically. They argue:

“Within the Australian left, it is only among sections of the trade union movement that there is any push back against the globalist migration agenda… The TAPRI survey shows that the share of voters in Australia potentially open to persuasion on this issue.”

This approach has leaked into academia as well. Recently a group of prominent scholars advocated for a population target of 15 million in Australia. They argue, seemingly due to an a priori assumption, that national population stabilisation (or reduction) is the raison d’être of sustainability. A conclusion they reach is that because people were most happy (according to a measurement called the genuine progress indicator) in the mid-1970’s then this is the size population ought to be. Their a priori assumption leads them to shoehorning GPI into an argument that commits the fallacy of correlation not causation.

Despite this continued enthusiasm for Ehrlich’s work however, we must look at it critically. A lot has changed since the 60’s when Ehrlich penned his bombshell. Population growth did look to be exponential engendering a sort of panic at the time, perfectly instilled in the Population Bomb like a time capsule, which had an effect that still resonates. What advocates overlook however is that the global nature of population is nothing like the dire warning in the Population Bomb. They underplay consumption and fail to adjust to a post Ehrlich era where the world is accelerating toward an American lifestyle – something that Ehrlich didn’t properly critique at the time of writing his polemic. 

Advocates also fail to engage with demographic shifts in the Western World. Australia has an aging population and immigration complements a low fertility rate to avoid a quick structural change in demography that would be destabilising. Australian demographers Peter McDonald and Rebecca Kippen addressed the structural shift in Population Futures for Australia: the Policy Alternatives and the mirage of focusing on population as a panacea:

“A declining population inevitably develops a coffin-shaped age structure and, hence, a substantial momentum for population decline. A declining population would mean a reduction in the size of the labour force as well as an increase in the numbers at older ages.

…From an environmental perspective, a smaller population is not a substitute for an ecologically sustainable future. False hopes that population decline is a realistic option for Australia detract from the need for environmental reform.”

When the Population Bomb was written the world population growth and the fertility rate was at its highest. The global fertility rate was at 5, today it is 2.4 and falling and global population is projected to stabilise by the end of the century. The core issue that Ehrlic was warning people about was a projected population on growth rates, incorrectly assuming it would continue at the same rate causing global collapse as the population increased exponentially toward 60,000,000,000,000,000 people. This reality however is clearly no longer the case.

What happens if we have population stabilization in the name of ecological sustainability but we consume more, we accelerate ecological destruction, continue emissions and have fewer people living in bigger houses? Even with a small population this is not ecological sustainability.  

Population as a cover for social and cultural conservatism

It’s not just however that reducing population cannot solve environmental issues in and of itself. The issue with a population approach is that it is also a cover for social and cultural conservatism. We can see this through Australia’s leading advocate for population policies, the Sustainable Australia Party. 

The interest in population spawned a political Party ‘The Sustainable Population Party’. The party later changing its name to the more palatable Sustainable Australia Party and broadened its policies beyond population. Dick Smith joined the Sustainable Australia Party in 2017. The Party has not had much electoral success since its creation but it is active. While initially focused on environmental issues, the party has recently made the jump to talk about social cohesion. In 2016 on the official Facebook page the admin wrote that:

“Our approach of non-discriminatory but (much) lower immigration to help with social cohesion and migrant integration support and inclusiveness (that rejects divisive ethnicity and religious distractions) is the sensible middle ground, and we’re sticking with it!”

This statement shows how the arguments relating to the Green anti-immigrant position can morph into social and cultural arguments regarding the need for lower immigration. Tim Flannery did this in his quarterly essay  as well: 

“In poll after poll an overwhelming majority of Australians – about 70 per cent at times – said the level of immigration was too high. Many otherwise reasonable Australians believed that their way of life was under threat by large numbers of people whom they thought of as different from themselves. Not a beautiful lie, perhaps, but in an insular, relatively homogeneous society, an understandable one.”

These types of arguments are dangerous because it invites those wishing to use environmental concerns cynically and gives moral cover to polices that impact migrant and other marginalized communities the most. 

This approach occurs at a time when we are seeing worrying shifts in relation to people’s reaction to migrants. The Scanlon Foundation has tracked people’s attitudes to immigrants and there has been a steady increase in hostility. 30% of people surveyed in 2017 either disagree or strongly disagree to the statement “accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger.” There has been a corresponding rise in the experience of discrimination reported in the survey. The numbers show that there needs to be a better counter argument deployed to stop people blaming migrants and population size for a host of social, environmental and economic problems. Environmentalists should not be buying in to policies that result in further marginalizing minority communities. 

Even worse than this, Green anti-immigration advocates are increasingly turning toward the far-right to form alliances. The population debate has resurfaced in part to the efforts of Dick Smith. In 2017 Smith had a million-dollar ad campaign – “Overpopulation will destroy Australia,” comparing population to a cancer, echoing language in the Population Bomb, in TV spots, plus a $2 million ransom to the Party that had a population policy that aligns with Dick Smith’s vision. Smith also went on a Trump like media blitz calling the ABC “completely biased” for not recycling his views. In 2016, he backed One Nation’s policy and said Australia will be destroyed if it did not adopt the party’s policies. He supported One Nation because of its population policy, on environmental grounds, while overlooking One Nation’s rejection of science and diplomacy relating to the environment. One Nation for example rejects climate change science, attacks international cooperation through the UN, believes Agenda 21 warning to “be wary when you hear the words sustainable development”, supports the Adani coal mine and coal and fossil fuels in general to name a few. Hanson said she has “three major concerns – climate change hoaxes, immigration and Muslims”. Smith went further than offering support. He also offered to advise Pauline Hanson and defended her views saying that she was not racist because he asked her and she said “no”. 

Smith’s defence of Hanson has come at a worrying time. This all occurred while the far-right (including Hanson) in Australia were applauding the USA’s ban on people from Islamic majority countries under Trump, which was found by a federal district court to be discriminatory. 

A meme used by the Australian far-right, Blair Cottrell far-right figure photoshopped into a photo with Dick Smith.

This threat of white nationalists hijacking the environmental movement in Australia needs to be guarded against. A similar internecine debate could start like the Sierra club – manufactured by cynically or naively – splitting the Green vote, encouraging demagoguery, harming minorities and marginalised people and leading to an intellectual dead end. Already members of the far right have signalled their intent to use Dick Smith. Clifford Jennings, who claims to have started the alt-right in Australia says he no longer defines himself as a fascist “but if you must label me I’m a Dick Smith style pragmatist.”



The problem is growth and consumption, not population

Environmentally, focusing exclusively on a population debate is a dead end. It is true that the world has overshot its carrying capacity since the 1980’s, meaning that consumption patterns are accelerating above the limited natural resources. While this occurs ecosystem integrity and ecosystem services are run down, resulting in collapse of species, deforestation, degraded farm land, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Population however is not the cause of these issues. 

Complex statistical modelling published in Nature for example has shown that population is not a contributing factor for increased emissions over the long term to 2100. The research used an adapted version of the IPAT equation (a concept developed by Ehrlich) where the environmental impact is equal to population times affluence times technology being used. Affluence was measured with GDP and emissions intensity (both related to consumption patters). In doing so it found that population was less impactful on the growth of emissions, with affluence and consumption having a far great impact. 

A useful concept to understand the impacts of lifestyles and the global inequity that currently exists is the ecological footprint – that is the amount of land and water it takes to sustain a person or nation. Australia has one of the highest ecological footprints in the world. According to Global Footprint Network we would need 6 planets if everyone on the planet lived like an Australian. Globally the earth is at an ecological deficit. Stopping immigration, however, won’t stop this appetite for a lifestyle based on ecological destruction. 

In effect, the lifestyle we enjoy is unsustainable and unfair. We therefore need to be part of the solution by redefying a “good life”. A “good life” should be one which is sustainable and attainable by everyone and still occurs within ecological boundaries. This may sound like a fantasy but it is possible, as shown by researchers at the Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds in their paper ‘A good life for all within planetary boundaries’ recently published in Nature. They conclude: 

“Our results suggest resource use could be reduced significantly in many wealthy countries without affecting social outcomes, while also achieving a more equitable distribution among countries.”

The study found that there are enough resources for everyone on the planet to live within planetary boundaries, but this requires wealthy nations to reduce resource use. They point to degrowth and steady state economics as two tools to achieve ‘a good life for all within planetary boundaries’. Another way to say this is we can live within the carrying capacity of Earth. 

This is true for carbon emissions as well. Australia has the highest emissions per capita in the world and joins a tiny minority of world (18%), according to Prof Will Steffen, that consumes the majority of the worlds resources (74%). This is clearly not equitable. Instead of dealing with the realities of over consumption and endless economic growth, George Monbiot argues, “People who claim that population growth is the big environmental issue are shifting the blame from the rich to the poor.” This is exactly what is happening in terms of emissions and ecological footprint of the rich more broadly.

Ecological footprint by country Global Footprint Network 2014.

Changing to a sustainable ecological footprint is hard because it goes beyond individual decisions and requires structural changes. A shift would require changes to systems such as transport, agriculture and construction where unsustainable consumption or greenhouse gas-emissions are embedded in things we have no control over (such as visiting a hospital or how a road is made) or are “locked-in by circumstances”. Such a change would require political leadership and new economic management and tools. 

There have been challenges to the status quo from proponents of circular economy, degrowth, and environmental economics that recognise biophysical limits and effects. The European Commission has adopted a 2018 Circular Economy Package, which is a step in the right direction. New tools include, for example, measuring the economy with Genuine Progress Indicator or the Happy Planet Indicator in place of GPD. The Happy Planet Index collects life expectancy, wellbeing, ecological footprint and inequality to form a metric for each country. Structural change may come also from having reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have managed to thrive in Australia for 80,000 years. There is a need for a National Representative Body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples such as the proposed Voice to Parliament. Such an institution may help push the structural changes needed and offer a different perspective. 

Escapism based on framing sustainability in terms of a population caps are alluring because one ignores the painfully complicated issue and status quo exploding reality of transitioning to a de-growth/post-growth economy. One academic who has attempted to raise the issue in a nuanced way is Dr Samuel Alexander from Melbourne University. Alexander is a degrowth scholar who has written extensively on the issue and writes: 

“In order to move toward a just and sustainable global economy, the developed nations must reduce their resource demands to a ‘fair share’ ecological footprint – which might imply an 80% reduction or more (depending on the resource and context) if the global population is to achieve a similar material living standard. But such significant quantitative reductions cannot be achieved if we persist with the dominant economics of GDP growth. It follows that the developed nations need to initiate policies for a post-growth economy at once, and in time the developing nations will also need to transition to a post-growth economy, so that the global economy comes to operate within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet while providing a sufficient material standing of living for all people. This is humanity’s defining challenge in coming years and decades.”

Alexander goes on to elaborate some polices to legislate a post growth society into existence. 

Citing the need for resources caps, working hour reductions, budgetary decisions that encourage less consumption through green infrastructure, shifts to renewable energy, banking and finance reform, reconceptualising a good life and distributive justice. These policies show that sustainability is more complex that population, something that Ehrlich now acknowledges.

There is a better way to think about population

It is easy to focus on migration and immigrants as a cause of economic problems which overlooks structural genesis of issues. Domestically, decision makers, of all levels of government, can and should plan for population increases. Rural areas can play an important role in settlement of refugees and migrants. It has been shown that migration to rural areas can help promote positive social transformation.

There is a moral need to reject a simplistic notion of the reduction of population as a panacea for planning, environmental and social issues. There is a need to create an atmosphere where the issue of population cannot be hijacked by right-wing populists, which it is at the moment. We must strongly guard against being drawn into a neo-white Australia movement, rejecting any efforts by nativists to “seduce environmentalists to join their cause for purely strategic reasons”.

A population policy is complex and requires evidence based informed decisions. Good decisions can’t be made through ugly race politics, the environmental movement needs to guard against being used in the continually emergent culture war. 

Further reading 

I’m an environmental journalist, but I never write about overpopulation.  – Here’s why:

Greenwash: Nativists, Environmentalism and the Hypocrisy of Hate:

Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it:

Here’s what a population policy for Australia could look like: