mark o'connor - australian poet


The population debate has changed!

Since Overloading Australia was launched by Bob Carr in 2009 it proved so popular that the third edition is now sold out. But the book will not go out of stock. A fourth (updated) edition is already printing and will be available soon.

The book has helped achieved its first goal: a revitalised population debate in Australia. Articles questioning the Australian government's commitment to population growth are now appearing almost daily in papers like The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and the once-suppressed debate is now frequent on radio and on the internet.

More and more people are speaking out against the mindless pursuit of population growth, and more and more journalists and politicians are listening.  Since Overloading Australia  appeared, Mark has been in constant demand as a speaker, debater and interviewee, and has been a guest on such national programs as Late Night Live, Life Matters, Counterpoint, Radio National Breakfast, and Australia Talks.

Things are moving so fast that the book now has a special "Update" website where you can find changes to statistics and breaking news on the debate - see Overloading Updated.  For permanent as opposed to updated information about the book's arguments, see the rest of this page.


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

Acclaimed book by Mark O'Connor and William Lines
Published by Envirobook Sydney

Order your copy now!

For changes to statistics and latest updated news on the population debate, see :  Overloading Updated.

Greenhouse gases going up. Oil and gas depleting. House prices exploding. Overloading Australia explains why -- and how to stop it.

The press of numbers on this continent affects us all – those living, as well as those yet to be born. To talk of saving the environment or of climate change is meaningless if we won’t address population – a subject some think too hot for public debate. In a score of punchy chapters, authors Mark O’Connor and William Lines challenge the myths, expose the facts, and dent the denial industry.

The authors blow the whistle on population-foolish policies that lead to clogged roads, water shortages, scarce food, and no place for refugees; then provide new and fair ways to think about the issues and to limit Australia’s future population-size.

This is a book that will revolutionize the green debate, and the political debate, on population.

Also see:


Reviews and Articles on Overloading Australia

Dr Bob Birrell, Director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, writes:
"Overloading Australia provides the most informed and accessible analysis of the implications of Australia's high rate of population growth available."

Extracts from Overloading Australia

The following extracts are not exact quotations from the book but combine passages from several chapters.

And also see Boundless Plains? - map data developed by Dr Chris Watson during his career as a CSIRO soil scientist, which illustrate the obvious limits of Australia's soil and water resources.

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

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.

Moreover, Monbiot has also scrambled the maths. Even on his figures, 16-fold economic growth divided by 1.5-fold population growth, would mean 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 for ever, 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 a quarter of a million a year) are twice deaths (about an eighth 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. In fact natural increase (the surplus of births over deaths) is actually increasing. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) notes that 2007 saw 285,200 births registered in Australia, adding, "This was the highest number of births ever registered in Australia."  In 2008 they jumped again, reaching 296,600.

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

- - -

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!

Hence, 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, CRBR, 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.

In fact to keep stable, just at present, Australia's relatively young population would 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 --  probably  based on a primitive fear of being outbred and so defeated by other tribes.

By the way, people who understand demography 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 dubious justification for speaking of 2.05 children per woman, the Theoretical Long-Term Replacement Rate or TLTRR, as ‘replacement fertility’). If only non-demographers could be got to observe this distinction, part of Santamaria’s error might be succinctly described as confusing the birthrate with the fertility rate. However one must despair of getting TV presenters to distinguish between birthrate and fertility rate.

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)  put out a media release in 2008 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 population in the 12 months to end of March 2009 rose at 2.1% a year -- contrast Indonesia's 1.2%).

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!

Other fallacies-- forgetting about net migration
Some years back, the ANU demographer Dr Christabel Young pointed out another hole in the replacement rate argument. If you have a fertility rate of around 1.8 children per couple but have to factor in a net migration gain of just 80 000 per year, she calculated, this was 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 two or three times what she then assumed. (Our fertility has also increased).

In effect the pronatalists Dr Young rebuked are making not one but two basic errors. Firstly, they fall for the Replacement Rate Fallacy, and secondly they forget that Australia is a country whose net migration has long been well above zero. Hence they are quite wrong to say that the TLTRR (2.05 children per woman) is the figure that Australians must reach if their population is not to decline. It is, more precisely, the figure above which Australia's population would slowly grow towards infinity even if (by as-yet-unsighted political reforms) Australia could reach the goal of "zero net migration" -- that is, of having no more immigrants than emigrants.

In fact Australia's fertility rate is only a whisker below this danger point. In November 2009 the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which always releases figures several months in arrears, announced that in the year 2008 Australia's fertility rate had been "1.97 babies per woman, up from 1.92 babies per woman in 2007 and the highest since 1977 (2.01)".

Tricks to lower population projections
Another common pro-natalist trick, or error, is to base projections of population-growth not on the rate at which population is currently growing but on the twin assumptions that natural increase will diminish (as it must over time over time provided fertility remains close to the TLTRR) and that net migration will decrease or at most remain steady. This produces lower projections.

Yet in mid 2009 the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that Australia's population had grown at 2.1% in the 12 months to 31 March 2009. Now at 2.1% continuous annual growth, a population doubles every 33 years. If the "ship" keeps heading in that direction, then Australia would pass 50 million people by 2050 (not 35 millions as the government claims) and 100 million by 2083. It is true that for Australia to maintain this rate, net migration would need to be steadily raised once natural increase (births minus deaths) begins to retreat towards zero. However there is no shortage of persons willing to migrate to Australia; so future rates of population growth will not in fact fall unless there is a weakening of the control that pro-growth lobbies currently exert over government policy. Australia will simply grow more by net migration and less by natural increase.

Ministers and prime ministers prefer to offer much lower projections, based on the assumption that future governments will hold net migration to current levels or will actually reduce it. Thus they can pretend to be talking about where their "current settings" are leading us. Yet in fact they are building into their models the unwarranted assumption that future governments will show more backbone than they themselves have done in resisting the growth lobbies.

A further trick is that, as the population gets bigger, any flat figure that one assumes for annual net migration becomes a smaller proportion of the current population, and hence produces less frightening final figures. (The growth lobby is not fooled; it presses to have immigration set at a fixed percentage of total population.) Thus the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, claimed in 2009 that Australia was heading for 35 million in 40 years, an increase of 13 million. In fact this prediction would require a huge reduction in the current rate of growth, which would have to descend to and remain at a near-historic low of 1.15% a year (on average) for 40 years. As we have seen, the correct current projection (in late 2009), based on growth continuing at its recent 2.1% per year, is that Australia would then have at least 50 million people -- an increase of 28 million, or more than twice the influx that Swan has told bureaucrats and urban planners to prepare for.

- - -

Another trick is that governments, if they have recently raised immigration or introduced baby bonuses, will base their population projections not on the current (increased) rates of net migration or natural increase, but on the average of the past ten years or even the past twenty years. This trick is probably the explanation for the implausibly low figures for Australia's population growth that can be found on some websites, such as the CIA's on-line population tables. Such figures are contradicted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics's current and recent data.

In 2009 there was wide coverage of social demographer Mark McCrindle's observation that Australia's population had reached 22 million "40 years earlier than expected". Indeed demographic projections in Australia have repeatedly proved far too low. In effect, Australians have long been deceived by politicians and pro-natalist propagandists who used (or fell into) fallacies like those described above.

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