let’s break the population taboo

let’s break the population taboo

Ulaanbaatar Mongolia

Following consultation for a population strategy for Australia, the Australian Government has just released its ‘Sustainable Population, Sustainable Communities’ strategy and ignored the most important factor: the negative unsustainable environmental impact of population growth. How is this possible when submissions pointed these implications out so eloquently and conclusively? What a missed opportunity to engage in a mature debate about population control and pave the path to a sustainable Australia that considers itself part of a global community and wishes to maintain a decent quality of life for all.

Unfortunately, the Australian Government is not alone – although this is by no means to be interpreted as an excuse.  The much loved  and extremely well respected Sir David Attenborough, known for his wonderful nature documentaries, pointed out in his President’s Lecture at London’s Royal Society of Arts: ” … the [UK’s] Government’s ‘Foresight Report on the Future of Food and Farming’….[It] shows how hard it is to feed the seven billion of us who are alive today. It lists the many obstacles that are already making this harder to achieve – soil erosion, salinisation , the depletion of aquifers, over-grazing, the spread of plant diseases as a result of globalisation, the absurd growing of food crops to run into biofuels to feed motor cars instead of people – and so on. … …It recommends the widest possible range of measures across all disciplines to tackle this.. but doesn’t state the obvious fact that it would be much easier to feed 8 then 10 billion people.”

Sir David continues: ” I suspect that you could read a score of reports by bodies concerned with global problems – and see that population is clearly one of the drivers that underlies all of them – and yet find no reference to this obvious fact in any of them.”  He concludes that there is an absurd taboo around the issue of population growth which prevents us from making progress on the most important issues facing humanity. In order to offer a decent life for everybody we need to stabilise our numbers and to achieve that Sir David proposes that we:

  • gain a better understanding about the problem by breaking the taboo;
  • change our culture to understand that having large families means compounding the problems their children and everyone else’s children will face in the future;
  • require action by Governments in the shape of solid family planning and reproductive health services freely available to every one and empower and encourage them to use it .

And by the way, the latter could prevent a large number of the 80 million unintended pregnancy that occur globally per annum. He then goes on to say:

It is tragic that the only current population policies in developed countries are, perversely, attempting to increase their birth-rate in order to look after the growing number of old people.  The notion of ever more old people needing ever more young people, who will in turn grow old and need even more young people and so on ad infinitum is an obvious ecological Ponzi scheme.

The UN is predicting that the world populations will reach 7 billion on 31 October 2011 -only 12 years after we reached 6 billion on 12 Oct 1999.  We currently don’t live sustainably. How far do we want to let the population numbers get out of hand, how many catastrophies, be they diseases or weather related does it take to provoke concerted, positive action?

Prof Mike Archer, Prof of Life Sciences, University of NSW, suggests (in a recorded interview) that:

Every continent has to take a deep breath, every country has to decide – how can we use this land we sit on sustainably rather than be driven by the insane growth in people numbers that is going to basically undermine sustainability for every human being on the planet.

That makes a lot of sense, but what can we do about this? Let’s follow Sir David Attenborough’s call to break the taboo and start debating the impact of population growth – without fear of being called racist or any other negative epithet. An understanding of the root causes as to why this debate is suppressed would also be useful.

Talking points could include:

  • the fact that only 6% of Australia is arable land
  • the appropriateness of a baby bonus to encourage a higher birth rate (should we instead introduce a no-baby bonus for couples who remain childless?)
  • people’s different cultural understanding of what constitutes a family and
  • how to reconcile people’s right to reproduce with the rights of the community to a healthy environment

and for the more politically minded:

  • the objectives and terms of reference of a Ministry for Sustainable Population (and its limitations)
  • the need for an independent Environment Commission.

For a clever graphic illustration of overpopulation and it’s side effects watch this short video:

Below are two further reference points to get ideas about the population debate in Australia:

Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) was formed in 1988. See their CEO’s response to the Australian Federal Government’s population report: Welcome to Sustainable Population Australia Inc. and more.

Dick Smith’s Population website including an outline for anybody under 30 who could win the Wilberforce Award of $1m.

And for the more globally minded you could listen to Sir David Attenborough’s President’s Lecture at the Royal Society of Arts, London 10 March 2010:

About the author: Ulrike Schuermann is an experienced international consultant & social profit coach. Her main areas of interest are social investments, income development for social profits; sustainable development and business and human rights. She regularly facilitates workshops for social profit organisations and corporations and can be contacted at enquiries@momentumpartnerships.com


  • “a mature debate about population control” is what we all need, but the mere consideration of matters of who shall live are understandably avoided by most people, and certainly by decision makers, even though we ALL are stakeholders.

    • Thanks Bill and yes, we are indeed all in it together and it will be interesting if we are able to sort this challenge out or if we allow things to continue as is and bear the consequences. I think there are many low hanging fruit that we could tackle before we have to touch the big questions.

  • Does our current model of capitalism require, in some ways, population growth for financial growth? For some major companies & countries to continue their rate of economic growth, surely population growth would have a part to play in achieving this. I think we need a worldwide economy that can be comfortably static before we can expect the population to be.

    • Thanks for commenting. Yes, the current model relies on growth and that’s what drives our population policies – and that’s why – to a large extend – we have this population dilemma. Who will drive the required change? Governments? Business? Consumers? That’s the debate we need to have.

  • Thanks for opening up this discussion. There is no doubt that there is a taboo on public debate on population, largely because of the fear in Australia of being tarnished with racism and xenophobia. Big business is always pushing for more immigration. My own stance has shifted on this over the years, from being a supporter of increased immigration in order to develop a bigger market for culture in Australia (which has now been achieved), to now supporting a moratorium on immigration because of considerations of urban congestion and sprawl, and the unintended consequences of unregulated ethnic and cultural fragmentation of communities.

    How to break the taboo? I’d certainly be interested in further discussion about this, and possible initiatives to draw together broad sections of the community who would have a common interest in breaking the taboo on debate – that could be interesting.

    • Thanks Vern – it would be good to think through the arguments and assess the ‘low hanging fruit’ like family planning to see what could be done immediately and consider longer term strategies.

  • kman

    The following is just how it was when I grew up in Australia…In the late 1960’s we had a population of around 12 million. Under the Liberal Government at the time and an the Australian dollar would get you $ 1.25 US.

    The country was prospering without a mineral boom and there was no such thing as GST. Rental properties and homes were in good supply and inexpensive,unlike today where a recent survey showed that Sydney is the second-most-unaffordable housing market in the world. And there were jobs for everyone who wanted one. The husband went to work and the wife stayed at home to raise the kids. And no one had to work long hours, in fact there was talk of 35 hour work week.,and even government employees did not have to sign work contracts.

    There were two mail deliveries each weekday and one on Saturday. There was no real waiting time for hospitals and emergency services were all first class. The trains and bus fares were inexpensive, uncrowded and ran on time. You could drive right across Sydney without any real traffic in no time at all, and except for the Harbour Bridge there were no tolls. The beaches and other public facilities were also uncrowded, and in the big cities, water was not even an issue.

    The crime rates were very low, and people even in the Western Suburbs did not lock their windows or doors. There were no ethnic gangs battling on our city streets with knives, machetes and guns. and the only gangs we had were the Surfies and the milquetoast, criminally dressed and coiffured Bodgies and Widgies. Unfortunately now the idiotic cult of ethnicity (multiculture) has filled our cities with the most viscous criminals from the third world who have been brought up in brutal, totally lawless societies. The violent crime and drugs as are seen today were unheard of in the 60’s, unlike today where these third world criminals have introduced the knife, sword and machete culture into our society. They also run the majority of the drug trade, prostitution, kidnappings, car theft, re-berthing, home invasions, ram raids, standover crimes, muggings, stabbings, murder, welfare fraud and the list goes on and on.

    Back in the 60’s, good schools and unis were much easier to get in to and the class sizes small. And the only homeless people were those who chose the lifestyle. Now our once prevalent suburban tennis courts and bowling greens are sealed in concrete, as are the many once green grass house lawns, and the vacant lots that the kids used to play in – all gone to make way for high rise apartments even in our iconic leafy suburbs. And we were growing our own produce instead of ploughing it under and then importing it.

    The argument that a nation-building government would be bold enough to choose a bigger Australia has absolutely no merit at all, because as we can see today, all what was good about Australia in 1968 is not good today. This is true especially in what have become our third world cities, where much of our heritage and quality of life has gone forever. And yet our population has doubled, which proves conclusively that more is NOT better. A slow controlled immigration policy as we had post war would ensure the elderly would be taken care of in their old age.Barry Cohen former Hawke Labor minister rightly points out that “The most absurd claim made by the “big is better” brigade is that more people guarantees greater prosperity… Really? They might care to explain why the two countries with the highest gross national income per capita are Luxemburg ($37,499) and Switzerland ($36,987), with populations of 500,000 and 7.7 million respectively. Right behind them are Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Israel and Finland, all of which have populations of fewer than 10 million.

    At the other end of the spectrum is China with 1.339 billion and India with 1.184 billion. Both have just discovered the Industrial Revolution, enabling them to lift their GNI to $865 and $441 per capita per annum. Is it any wonder they want to come to Australia where 22.4 million people have a GNI of $19,213.”

    There was an old song called “Tar and Cement” It should be the theme song for those who oppose this mindless paving over of our country.

  • kman

    Just in case anyone is still interested.This is something I read many years ago and it influenced me a lot in the way I view unlimited immigration.

    Behavioral sink
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    In 1958, ethologist John B. Calhoun conducted over-population experiments on rats on a farmland in Rockville, Maryland which resulted in the publication of an article in the Scientific American of a study of behavior under conditions of overcrowding (Calhoun 1962), also referred to Crowding into the Behavioral Sink . This study that had a considerable influence (Ramsden & Adams 2009) has become a touchstone of urban sociology and psychology in general (Hock 2004); the term has passed into common use.
    Calhoun provided a cage of rats with food and water replenished to support any increase in population, but the cage was fixed at a size considered sufficient for only 50 rats. Population peaked at 80 rats and thereafter exhibited a variety of abnormal, often destructive behaviors; his conclusion was that space itself is a necessity. Subsequent studies[who?] involving humans have shown it is not mere lack of space that causes the behavioral sink; it is the necessity for community members to interact with one another.[citation needed] When forced interactions exceed some threshold, social norms break down.[citation needed] Thus social density is considered more critical than geometric spatial density.[citation needed]
    Notable conditions in the behavioral sink include hyperaggression, failure to breed and nurture young normally, infant cannibalism, increased mortality at all ages, and abnormal sexual patterns. Often, population peaks, then crashes. Actual physical disease, mental illness, and psychosomatic disorders increase. There are eating disorders; in human populations, drug and alcohol use rises.
    The only known counter to the effect of the behavioral sink is to reduce the frequency and intensity of social interaction.

  • Jarrod

    Thank you for highlighting this extremely important issue. It seems to me that the mainstream media actively do all they can to mislead or discourage discussion on overpopulation.

  • Greg

    Sooner or later we, or more likely our children and grand children, will have to make a difficult choice between allowing nature to control our numbers through famine, disease, war and genocide and controlling our own number through humane as possible means.

    Preferably that wil be through contrception and family planning but, if necessary, we will have to consider either enfoced fertility control along the lines of china’s one child policy, or some sort of easily transmisible genetially engineered biological vector that temporarily renders those it infects infertile for a period of months or years……but is otherwise harmless.

    E.G. Genetically modified cold viruses might be ideal as they spread rapidly through populations but also ‘burn out’ as immunity to them spreads. Hence any fertility control would be self limiting and would require a new virus strain to be genetically modified.
    Perhaps they could be modified to secrete enough oestrogen into the infected person to either reduce sperm production, ovulation or both for a time.

    Multiply this effect across billions of humans and there is likely to be a substantial drop in cumulative fertility without the need for any one to be ‘culled’ or permanently sterilised. Everyone would share more or less equally in burdon of reducing their fertility.

    Out of government enforced fertility control and fertility control via a random and impartial viral infection, I know what I would prefer.