Recent projections of higher than expected population growth in Australia over the next 40 years has refocused the attention of governments and communities on population policy, according to this paper, and yet a focused policy response has not yet emerged.

With concerns about climate change, water availability, land degradation and urban growth increasing, there are growing calls for inclusive, transparent and rigorous dialogue about the relationships between population and environment. However, the population debate is unfocused and confusing. It is several debates in one, including a debate about Australia’s role and responsibilities for receiving immigrants, a debate about how many people can achieve fulfilling lifestyles in Australia in relation to the nation’s natural resource base, a debate about the perceived relationships between population growth, immigration and economic growth, and a debate about what constitutes ‘progress’ in relation to overall wellbeing of Australians. Confusion between these different debates obscures key issues.

Past and current Australian governments have argued that an explicit population policy is not needed or desirable. Unless there is some process to develop a well-reasoned intent, however, Australia will continue to have ‘strategy as pattern’—a de facto policy driven by public opinion that is ill-informed by confused and confusing partial information. Under such a drifting approach to population policy, it is likely that consumption of resources will outstrip supply leading to a decline in the quality of life for Australians.

There now exists a body of theory and information that should allow the elements of the population debate to be brought together into an open and rational debate. Of particular significance are advances in understanding the dependence of humans on the natural environment, the potential for policy and/or technology to work synergistically with the natural resource base to maintain quality of life while minimising impacts on other species as population grows, and ways in which population strategies might be linked with other elements of government policy to maintain or enhance Australia’s resilience, that is, its ability to deal constructively with anticipated and unanticipated future change. Current indications are that both Australia’s resilience and the benefits to humans from the natural environment are declining to concerning degrees but that it is not too late to take action to minimise the deleterious impacts.

Image: Scotticus_ / flickr

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