The Global Mail has ceased operations.
<p>Lambert/Getty Images</p>

Lambert/Getty Images

Our economy is dependent on ever more people producing and consuming ever more stuff.

The Global Economy Is A Giant Ponzi Scheme

Essential for any healthy economy is the people to power it. And Europe, North America, Oceania — they’re all losing fuel. What will this mean for superpowers, national borders, and for xenophobia?

Across once-tolerant Europe, political parties of the right are rising on a tide of bigotry. Geert Wilders of the Netherlands is the best-known example, but from Greece to Norway, from Austria to the UK, voters are flocking to far-right parties of prejudice.

In America the political/racial divide has widened over the past decade or so. The nation may have a black President, but it also has a majority on its Supreme Court just itching to overturn the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 legislation which outlawed racially discriminatory electoral laws. It also has a dysfunctional Congress split between the Republicans, whose base is overwhelmingly white, and the Democrats, who are supported overwhelmingly by all the minorities.

It’s happening in other places, too. Surprising places. Singapore, for example, is now in the throes of a raging immigration debate. So is Japan, the plunging population of which is forcing the country to, reluctantly, confront its historical xenophobia.

Even in Australia, often cited as the most successful multicultural society in the world, issues of race, ethnicity and religion are increasingly prominent in political discourse.

The question is, why?

In a word, the answer is demographics.

As we wrote in part one of this feature, half the world, including almost all the developed world, now is reproducing at below replacement level. A generation from now, according to United Nations Population Division projections, less than a quarter of the world’s women – most of them in Africa and south Asia – will be reproducing at above replacement rate. And those UN forecasts are probably on the high side, for reasons we’ll come to later.

<p>Sean Gallup/Getty Images</p>

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Australia's population has been below “replacement rate” for 30 years. As fertility rates fall, the country is becoming ever more reliant on immigrants.

And as the birth rate has plunged in developed nations, and the native-born population has begun to shrink and rapidly age, governments and business have sought to make up the numbers by importing people to prop up their economies. It’s all they know how to do, for our economic system is, at its base, a giant Ponzi scheme, dependent on ever more people producing and consuming ever more stuff.

But what happens if that all stops? What happens when you get an ageing, shrinking population that consumes less?

“The answer to that question is that we don’t know because it’s never happened before,” says Peter McDonald, professor of demography and director of the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute at the Australian National University.

But we have some leading indicators to hand, and one of them is the increasing political expression of racial, ethnic and religious prejudice.

Let’s take Australia for example, not because it is unusually racist – quite the reverse – but because it has long been one of the countries which has most enthusiastically pursued growth through immigration.

Australia is truly the land of immigrants. The United States calls itself by that name, but the percentage of the foreign-born in the US, according to most recent census data, was 12.9, of whom fewer than half (5.6 per cent) were citizens.

In Australia the foreign born make up 27 per cent of the total population. Another 20 per cent have at least one foreign-born parent.

Instead of focussing on keeping people out, the future will focus on getting and keeping them in. Declining countries will want to hold on to their young people.

Australia has long been motivated by the desire to fill up an empty continent. But as the fertility rate fell – it has been below replacement rate for more than 30 years – that Big Australia goal became ever more reliant on imported people. It’s hugely reliant on imported people.

In the year to the end of June 2012, net immigration was more than 208,300. The “natural increase” of the population over the same period was much smaller: 151,300. Just 42 per cent of the country’s annual increase in population came through births. And many of those births, of course, were to recent immigrants.

Those immigrants increasingly come from non-European countries.

They also tend to cluster, which makes them stand out in Australian society, which until comparatively recently was overwhelmingly white Anglo-Saxon.

Consider the example of western Sydney. According to Glen Capriano, an ex-Bureau of Statistics demographer now with consultant company .id, which provides data to local governments in the area, the western Sydney area grew by 111,000 people in the five years to 2011. Of those new people, more than 75 per cent – around 85,000 – came from overseas. The biggest source area was south Asia, with 30,000-plus new arrivals from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. They added to what was already a melting pot of humanity in this part of the city: Chinese, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Iraqis and Filipinos most prominent among them.

The social cohesion of western Sydney is being sorely tested by the enormous numbers of immigrants, but both major political groupings in Australia remain committed to high levels of immigration.

One side, however, has made a point of simultaneously supporting high immigration and stoking xenophobia. It’s interesting to note how their methods have evolved.

In 1988, then Opposition Leader John Howard expressed concern about the level of Asian immigration, worrying that it threatened Australia’s “social cohesion”. He was howled down for his comments and later said he regretted it.

But he had recognised a political problem: the difficulty of reconciling the industrial/economic desire for rapid population growth with the intolerance of a substantial section of the populace to high levels of migration.

It took a decade for Howard to find a formula which allowed his conservative coalition to appeal to both the pro-growth business lobby and the anti-immigrant populists, but in 2001 he succeeded. The slogan was “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” (Actually, the slogan is generally credited to the Liberal Party’s pollster, Mark Textor.)

<p>TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images</p>


Asia’s decline: Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, and most importantly China currently all have fertility rates lower than those of Europe.

With this glib formulation, community concern could be focussed on a tiny subset of new arrivals in the country (7,379 out of 208,300 in 2011-12) — those who arrived by boat as asylum seekers. Meanwhile the migration program would proceed apace, in the interests of “big Australia”.

Current Opposition policy is to cut the migrant intake but slightly, to 170,000 a year, with the goal of maintaining annual population growth of 1.4 per cent a year.

So as Australia approaches its 2013 federal election and the conservative parties, now led by Tony Abbott, with Scott Morrison as immigration spokesman, are looking to win it in the western suburbs of Sydney, a key part of their strategy is the exploitation of community concern about migrants. Yet if they win, which looks highly likely, the flow of migrants to the western suburbs will hardly slow at all. The irony is, they may win with the support of more established immigrants. Intolerance of new arrivals is not restricted to Anglos; often the previous wave of immigrants is the one which feels most threatened.

Whatever you think about its principles, it looks effective. Watch for other countries to copy it.

In the meantime, Australia remains exceptionally committed to population growth. That is what keeps its real estate among the most expensive in the world, and what keeps the roads from western Sydney gridlocked — among other effects.

“We’re certainly operating a Ponzi scheme in Australia,” says Dr Bob Birrell, an economist and migration expert from Monash University.

“Our growth is predicated on extra numbers… [and] more of our activity is going into city building and people servicing, which do not directly produce many goods that can be traded in overseas markets.

Last year, Forbes magazine, that most reliable voice of the economic orthodoxy, laid the blame for Europe’s economic decline squarely on its citizens’ failure to reproduce in adequate numbers.

“We’re depending on [the export of] non-renewable resources to provide for these things. And it’s very doubtful that it’s sustainable,” says Birrell.

Half the world is facing the problem of low fertility, and Australia, with its massive program of importing people, is providing an extreme example of one approach to the conundrum.

In a nutshell, the problem is this: lower fertility rates mean older, less innovative and productive workforces. More importantly to the Ponzi economic order, older, stable or declining populations consume less. So growth requires either importing people, or exporting stuff, or a combination of the two. Orthodox economics simply can’t cope otherwise.

Europe as a whole has been reproducing at well below replacement rate for close to 40 years. The last period for which UN data showed Europe’s total fertility rate above the replacement rate was 1970-75.

Europe’s contemporary demographics give new meaning to the descriptor ‘the old world’. The continent’s average person is over 40 now. By 2050, if things continue on trend, the average European will be 45.7. If one takes the UN’s “low variant” projection, he/she will be over 50 years of age.

And the low variant now looks closer to the mark. Fertility rates had actually rebounded a little over recent years, the result of a bit of “catch-up” after a shift over several previous decades in which women delayed child-bearing. But the European recession has set fertility rates plunging again.

<p>Jamie Ferguson/The Global Mail</p>

Jamie Ferguson/The Global Mail

The recession’s effects will likely linger for decades, in lower rates of earnings and savings, and also in reduced fertility. As the UN’s Jose Miguel Guzman points out, people without jobs can’t afford housing. And they can’t afford children. In Spain, the unemployment rate among those aged 16 to 24 is now 55.13 per cent. Overall it is 26 per cent. Greece is worse, Italy only a little better.

The figures leave no doubt that the recession has affected the fertility rate. The more important question is whether the fertility rate helped cause the recession.

The UN’s Guzman says not.

“There is not evidence of a clear link in terms of demographic change affecting economic performance. The crisis seems to be related more with the political economy than with demography,” he says.

Others say otherwise. Last year, Forbes magazine, that most reliable voice of the economic orthodoxy, laid the blame for Europe’s economic decline squarely on its citizens’ failure to reproduce in adequate numbers, in an article headlined What’s Really Behind Europe’s Decline? It’s The Birth Rates, Stupid.

The Forbes piece was unequivocal: the biggest threat to the European Union was its low fertility rate.

It went on to laud Germany as an example of how Europe should be, in that it had “offset very low fertility rates and declining domestic demand by attracting migrants from other countries, notably from eastern and southern Europe, and building highly productive export oriented economies.”

And it castigated what it called the “Club Med Countries – Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain”, for not having “developed strong economies to compensate for their fading demographics”.

The piece ended with a dire warning that unless Club Med managed to induce people to have more babies, catastrophic economic consequences would flow for all of Europe and maybe the world.

But the Forbes piece left out a key determinant of the differing fertility rates in different parts of Europe – surely not because it did not accord with the magazine’s ideology.

The social cohesion of western Sydney is being sorely tested by the enormous numbers of immigrants, but both major political groupings in Australia remain committed to high levels of immigration.

It turns out, says Peter McDonald, the countries whose birth rates have held up best are the Nordic and French-speaking countries, closely followed by the English- and Dutch-speaking countries.

“There’s a long history in France and in the Nordic countries … of governments and employers putting in place arrangements to allow women to combine work with family,” he says.

“The southern European countries have the view that they are ‘family-oriented’ countries and the state doesn’t get involved with family matters. That means women in those countries do everything – not only looking after children, but they also have to look after the older people and everything else,” he says.

Turns out the much derided nanny state works. It turns out also that the countries which have the shortest working hours, including Germany, are the ones coping best in both demographic and economic terms.

It would seem that what is needed in those southern European countries is more support for women, to ease the burden of family responsibilities, which would allow them to combine having children and working and so contribute in more than one way to supporting the economy.

Instead, many governments (and, we might add, the free-market zealots at Forbes), are prescribing austerity.

As Thomas Sobotka, one of the authors of a 2011 study on population trends by the Vienna Institute of Demography, told the Guardian newspaper, massive cuts in social spending would only exacerbate the problem.

“This may prolong the fertility impact of the recent recession well beyond its end. It could lead to a double-dip fertility decline,” he said.

But when it comes to fertility declines, Asia takes the cake.

Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, and most importantly China currently all have fertility rates lower than those of Europe.

Put it down to the Asian work ethic, so often touted by business people and politicians in Australia. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, for example, recently gave a speech endorsing the Asian way, while slamming western European welfare states. But it turns out that while the Asian way may make for spectacular growth in the short term, it results in moribund societies in the longer term.

Japan’s working-age population already is falling fast. China’s and Korea’s are about to start falling, if they haven’t already.

“I’m pretty pessimistic about the east-Asian situation,” says McDonald. “I think those countries find it very difficult move in the right direction of supporting work and family, in particular, reducing work hours.

“We are now talking about some 30 per cent of Japanese women not getting married.”

“I saw a couple of people from the Japanese government give a paper recently, essentially accepting this as an inevitability – a low birth rate forever,” he says.

It’s the same all over Asia.

“You either work full-time – 50 hours plus a week –or you’re in some crummy part time job. It’s not like the permanent part-time situation in Australia where women can work in decent jobs part-time.

“Not surprisingly, in the circumstances, a lot of women [in Asia] have just given up on the idea of family,” says McDonald.

<p>TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images</p>


Students study brochures at a job-fair in Tokyo. The number of working-age Japanese is dwindling fast.

Let’s look at some of the other countries in our region, whose work and welfare regimes Hockey appears to aspire to. Hong Kong has a birth rate of 1.09, which is on track to see its population almost halve in a generation. Taiwan is at 1.10; China, 1.55; Thailand, 1.66; Vietnam, 1.89. Even Indonesia’s fertility is just above replacement rate, at 2.23, and is falling fast. Malaysia and the Philippines are still growing pretty quickly, as are the south-Asian countries, which may give them a competitive edge for a few decades – and a growing export industry of people. But it is not projected to last more than a few decades.

Let’s return to America. The United States also is reproducing at below replacement rate, and its birthrate has declined sharply in recent years.

America relies for its growth on immigration and also, historically, on the higher fertility rates of immigrant women.

Guess what? The US birth rate not only fell to its lowest level ever in 2011, but the greatest decline was among immigrant women. Hardly surprising, really, given that most of the sources of migrants – including all of South America, are close to or below 2.1.

Nonetheless, the number of non-white births in the United States exceeded those of Anglos for the first time in 2011. Within a generation, the US will become a majority-minority country. The United States is still attractive to migrants, but not as attractive as before.

Many undocumented workers (Brazilians being a prime example), disheartened by the exploitative and depressed US labour market and by political hostility in Republican-controlled states, are simply going home. Or not coming in the first place, because their home economies present better chances.

So, let’s end our Cook’s tour of the demographic world now, and look at what it all means.

First, governments and their business backers will have to look to their industrial relations and family policies. If you do not provide support systems which allow women to cope with both paid work and family responsibilities you will (a) lose a significant part of your workforce at a time when the working-age population is already in sharp decline, (b) see unsustainably low fertility rates or (c) both of the above.

Second, even while that might slow the rate of fertility decline, it is unlikely to restore it. So they will have to look to their migration policies. In the near future, says Guzman, governments might be “encouraged to limit out-migration”.

Think about that; it turns the idea of border control – which is in any case a concept only of the 20th century – on its head. Instead of focussing on keeping people out, the future will focus on getting and keeping them in. Declining countries will want to hold on to their young people.

As a result, the United Nations projections suggest much lower migration flows in the future.

And of course, says Guzman, many countries are going to have to consider policies such as higher retirement ages and changes to pension schemes.

Guzman is quite categorical about the magnitude of the shift that needs to be made to enable societies to cope with the certainty of declining population across much of the world.

“Already,” he says, “some [countries’ populations] are decreasing. We have never experienced anything like that, and it creates fears in governments in terms of the implications for society. It is quite legitimate for governments to have these fears… to openly say ‘Okay, if we continue like this, we’re going to disappear.’

“You cannot solve it with just immigration.”

Peter McDonald agrees that the declining-fertility conundrum cannot be solved just with immigration, but disagrees with the UN projections of greatly reduced migrant flows.

“The UN projections are ideologically driven, in my view.

<p>Feng Li/Getty Images</p>

Feng Li/Getty Images

Workers in Kunshan, China, assemble strollers on a production line.

“The medium projection is that everybody’s fertility ends up around replacement level, and migration disappears to zero. That’s what they do to Australia for example – they push fertility up and then gradually move migration down to zero.

“I don’t see that as the future of Australia for a moment.”

“Migration [is driven by] the economic difference between the source country and somewhere else, and the political situation, of course. And the environmental situation.

“For 60,000 years people have been moving around the world for those reasons. And they will continue to do it.”

But the big picture, says McDonald, is this:

“If you are looking to migration to offset the low fertility rate, you are talking absolutely enormous numbers. Way above any capacity to actually absorb them.”

It’s not just about prejudice. There are big practical hurdles to importing large numbers of people of different language cultural practice. They need infrastructure, they need services, they need help. Even with the best will in the world, it takes time to assimilate migrant populations.

And over the longer term, as fertility declines in ever more countries, immigrants are going to be harder to come by

In the longer term, the world will have to adjust its economic system to cope with the novel concept of less. Fewer people, less consumption, lowered need for resources, energy, housing, roads, you name it. And Australia is singularly ill-prepared for that medium-term future.

In the short-term, though, it means more foreign faces on the streets of Paris and London and Amsterdam and New York and western Sydney.

And greater political traction for the prejudice mongers like Geert Wilders and Scott Morrison.

49 comments on this story
by David Longland

This is well put together Mike. It's frustrating when most media is consumed from so called, conventional sources.
And, now when lawmakers attempt to allow just a tiny bit more media diversity (and truth) they are kicked it the teeth in the name of democracy.

March 15, 2013 @ 1:55pm
by Michael Poole

You take as granted that low economic growth is a problem. It's not. Unchecked economic and population growth cannot be endlessly sustainable. What matters for living standards is not total output, but output per person. There is no reason why this cannot rise with a falling population. In fact, if the population ages and workforce numbers fall, then the economy will adapt by increasing wages, leading to businesses finding ways use fewer workers, leading to increasing productivity. If Japan is what the rest of the world will look like eventually, it doesn't look too bad. It rates very highly on indexes of happiness and longevity.

March 15, 2013 @ 2:18pm
by John

It is an interesting article, but I would say that Bob Birrell (Monash University) is the most conventional of sources when it comes to demographics and population, and can almost always be counted on for a dour prediction of the future of this country due to immigration.

March 15, 2013 @ 2:21pm
by Mike Flanagan

Seccombe is right to point out yet another gaping hole in orthodox economic theory and practice.
GW and its implications together with the finiteness of our planets resources is another reality that orthodox economics have only given scant attention to, in the theorem of either the right or the left.
Neither Marx nor Freedman et al have taken the changing of our biosphere, by the use of the cheapest available energy source, into their equations and thesis.
These dysfunctional population policies and GW have raised some fundamental questions as to the sustainability of the very basis of our lifestyles, dependant on our current economic structures.

March 15, 2013 @ 2:48pm
by mike seccombe

No, Michael Poole, I do not take for granted that low economic growth is a problem. Orthodox economics, which I am not defending, takes it as a problem. I've been a ZPG guy since I read Ehrlich at age 12, but, with respect, the precipitous drops in fertility in some places, like Hong Kong, Japan, do present big adjustment problems. A smaller, stable population is a great thing; a geriatric population is not so great. I do however, take xenophobia and race baiting as a problem

March 15, 2013 @ 3:20pm
by chrispydog

Looking at demographic projections without also considering some of the imminent changes a rapidly warming global climate is likely to bring does seem a bit inadequate. Even the US military is warning that climate change is the biggest security threat we face, and large movements of people being forced to migrate is certainly one of the likely scenarios. I seriously doubt any projections from the recent past will have much correlation with what is about to hit us.

March 15, 2013 @ 3:21pm
by harry

a dwindling population is good for the planet. to avoid needing so many young people to fund an aging population, maybe we need to look at why we defy nature and keep people alive so long with medication.

March 15, 2013 @ 5:42pm
by Roxee

I am thinking the world economic system won't be able to adjust to cope with less, because the current economic system is predicated on more.
There were important issues missing from the article I think:
1. The role of technology as increasing numbers of jobs become automated through computer software and robotics. What we need is a whole new way of supplying goods and services to a smaller overall population where large numbers of people won't have jobs to enable them to pay for what they need. Shorter working hours with the aim of spreading available employment across the population will only work if the incomes generated pay sufficient amounts to meet needs. Without a greater redistribution of wealth from the owners of capital to the workers I can't see how this will be possible. It doesn't look like our oligarchs and plutocrats are going to be in the mood for doing that anytime soon evidenced by the rising inequality across the worl getting worse as each year goes by. Socialism is spat out like a dirty word these days, even by those at the bottom who would most benefit. Aspirational plutocrats?
2. Another issue currently off the agenda which may find its way into broadening acceptance in light of the subject of this article is euthanasia. There are increasing numbers of elderly people kept alive in less than desirable states of well being expressing the wish to be able to choose the timing of their own demise. At 55 I am hoping this becomes socially acceptable by the time I get to being old and possibly infirm. I have been a practicing nurse for 30 years and my experience has revealed the topic deserves more merit than it gets. Religious dogma still holding underserved influence over the decisions of everyone perhaps?
3. Refugees created due to climate change. If the worst case scenario plays out there will be millioms dislocated who will all need somewhere to live and all the places where they end up will need to not only have the means with which to provide them with food and shelter, but also will need the support of places that take in less, or none of them. Without planning for this I can see wars in our future over turf and resources.
We live in interesting times.

March 15, 2013 @ 7:18pm
by Grant

The Malthusian left and the xenophobic right are beginning to recognise they are on the same page. The merger of the Greens and KAP cannot be far off.

March 15, 2013 @ 8:08pm
by Gratuitous Adviser

I read an interesting piece earlier this year about China’s massive social problem because of their one child policy. In the future there will not be enough sons and daughters to take care of the oldies (4 longer living oldies for every 2 children) plus there is not an adequate social service system to come in as a safety net. In the future they might have use immigrants to man their equivalent of nursing homes, as well.

I’m personally for ZPG as well as Governments controlling immigration for the benefit of those that elected it. I’m strange I know but I have been to Europe (all the Scandahooligan countries as well) regularly since the 70’s and seen what can go wrong. The place is a tinder-box.

Another observation is that while the birth rate to mothers born in Australia is reducing, the sliding scale of that reduction is skewed down by professional and/or woman in higher socio-economic groups not wanting to have children. That is, those women that are lower educated and possibly in the lower socio-economic category are proportionally having more children than those in the educated and wealthy group. Does this mean that the dumber you are the more children you have?

Whatever happens I foresee that the generations of the late 21st and 22nd century will despise with envy the boomers and gen X because we will be the only ones that will live life in relative racial and religious peace compared with what they will be putting up with.

March 15, 2013 @ 11:07pm
by Nico

Mike, we have the internet too.

March 16, 2013 @ 3:07am
by Sean OLeary

You are right that we have a Ponzi scheme - the financial markets and the entire monetary system. Production and consumption are not a Ponzi scheme but are necessary for human survival. There is more to the science of economy than mere survival. Every economy *is* (not even "based on") but is scientific and industrial development. The problem is that we are not doing science or industry and so in Australia we do not really have an economy. The formerly "developing" world is now the only part of the world that is doing science or industry in an intentional and organised way. When policy institutionalises science and industry, then people and their needs follow and are easily met. "Producing and consuming stuff" (as you put it) is merely a by-product of industrial and scientific development. In industry, I include infrastructure development and agriculture. Production and consumption are not a Ponzi scheme, as you so derisively put it. To wish to eliminate "production and consumption" is equivalent to a desire to drastically reduce and perhaps eliminate the human race. How could any credible process of reasoning lead to such a conclusion?

March 16, 2013 @ 7:56am
by Norman

A very informative, illuminating and timely article ... excellent journalism.

March 16, 2013 @ 9:40am
by George

"Forbes magazine, that most reliable voice of the economic orthodoxy." Are you serious? They are journalists, as yourself. It sounds like you are pretending to be different to the Forbes journalists. Fanciful.

March 16, 2013 @ 10:06am
by Michael Faulkner

Yet another well -researched and thought-provoking article from Mike Seccombe and the Global Times that demonstrates the poverty of ideas and discourse so common in Australia's daily news media.

Indeed, such is the contrast that this same piece strips bare some of the postures of the imperious and garrulous generals of that wealthy American immigrant Emperor Rupert, to reveal the essence of what they really stand for : routinely conveying the most limited forms of news in the shortest time possible. Thus, 'limited ' is the driving liefmotif pushing an atrophying of ideas, possibilities and alternative interpretations of what is happening in the world. The name of the mogul's company has such an exquisite aptness.

One doesn't need to agree with everything written here. However, if it has added to the reader's existing knowledge, fostered thoughtfulness and reflection in him/ her, while generating a motivation to learn more about something included in the article, it has done its work well in better informing the reader as Australian and global citizen.

March 16, 2013 @ 11:07am
by Dean

Mike, what are your thoughts on the truth of these longer term projections? There are many factors influencing population that are in turn influenced by population, climate change seems to be a popular example. I feel that any projections beyond one generation (say, 30 years) are getting a bit dubious.

March 16, 2013 @ 11:18am
by Sam Granleese

Secco - Australia is not a Ponzi scheme. Population growth contributes to underlying growth in national output/GDP. But this does not make it a Ponzi scheme (a fraudulent fund in which investors are paid dividends from their own investment or subsequent new investors).

There are so many things wrong here. An example: your argument for Germany is economically naive, or worse misleading, in ignoring the main influencer on Germany's relative competitiveness: the Euro discount. The weaker the Euro becomes - by the likes of Greece, Spain, Italy, et al - the cheaper German outputs are relative to other currencies like the USD or Chinese Yuan.

This rambling grab bag of statistics and assumptions is really a headline in search of an essay. I was disappointed to get to the end of many thousands of words and find no coherent conclusion.

March 16, 2013 @ 4:44pm
by Rod Banyard

If "Migration [is driven by] the economic difference between the source country and somewhere else, and the political situation, of course. And the environmental situation." we cannot know what will happen unless we know how these drivers change. I suspect this as as good as it gets for Australia. With climate change and creeping urbanisation it is likely that cost of food, water and energy in Oz will increase. And we can see little prospect of the incomes keeping pace, especially if world consumption of minerals declines. Perhaps techonolgy will save the world but it is doubtful it will maintain Australia's advantages. Perhaps the only way of maintaining immigration, if that is what we want, will be to rely on a decline in the economy and stability of other places.

March 16, 2013 @ 7:51pm
by saslim

The best economic brains need to urgently accept that unending growth is simply not sustainable (assuming they can even acknowledge a proposition which is the antithesis of all they are and know) and subsequently, develop and implement a new economic theory based on zero growth ie. an economic framework that is really sustainable.

Paul Erlich's ZPG proposition was (is) right on the money. It is astounding that otherwise intelligent and rational people have been blinded (by greed and self-interest ?) to the obvious unsustainability of current economic theory/practice of unending growth in a finite Earth.

The new economic order may however not be necessary if global warming results in a catastrophic decline (ie. mortality) in world population due to:

• catastrophic food shortages caused by significantly lower rainfall in the world's food growing areas
• catastrophic decline in water supplies for human consumption
• catastrophic and frequent crop failures and domestic animal mortality as a consequence of inability to adapt to rapidly increasing temperatures and lower rainfall.
• catastrophic decline in animal pollination agents (eg. honey bee populations) as a result of their inability to adapt to a much hotter world and the disappearance of their food sources (eg. nectar producing plants). Scientists are working on developing new variants of food plant species that can survive a much hotter and drier world but no one, it seems, is currently working on breeding new variants of animal pollination agents that can survive a much hotter and drier world ie. no pollinating agents => insufficient/no crops to harvest => insufficient/no food to feed the world's population => global famine.

Hopefully, the coming catastrophic decline in world population will occur before things have passed the point of no return (ie. on the path toward extinction of all life on Earth as we know it), and hence allow surviving those species which may have survived (which may or may not include homo sapiens) to eventually reach a state of natural equilibrium over decades/centuries/millennia. If homo sapiens should somehow survive, it is hoped that she/he will have learned from our past/current stupidity, and create a new human civilisation which is truly sustainable and, most important, which looks after and nurtures the totally intertwined wonder that is Gaia.

March 16, 2013 @ 11:24pm
by Jack Stephens

Perhaps the world is blindly adjusting to emerging new economic realities. The reach of computer driven robotic production is reducing the demand for an ever increasing number human jobs with no end in sight. A new social structure will be required for this new type of economy when the current employer-employee model becomes obsolete.

March 17, 2013 @ 8:04am
by Chris McElwain

This is another considered piece of journalism and one of the many reasons I love to read The Global Mail. I find this information very intellectually provocative and it adds another layer to the issues of national and global population. Please keep providing this kind of excellent work.

March 17, 2013 @ 8:50am
by Christopher

Happiness and longevity in Japan yes but when you have whole towns, villages even islands emptying, there social structure slowly deteriorating. Japan has a lot of adaptation to make. And yes many places of the world also will empty due to climate change. Rising seas, much of Bangladesh many of the pacific islands. Who will take these millions?

March 17, 2013 @ 9:01am
by Andrew Smith

Interesting article and opinions but several points, but firstly what is the definition of "immigrant" and "population" as they are confused, distorted and conflated, i.e. headline figures cited in media by Birrell, Sustainable Population Australia etc. include temporary residents under the 12/16 month rule i.e. international students, 2nd year backpackers, 457 workers, dependents and sometimes even Australian citizens,

Like John says, Dr Birrell has yet to find anything positive about "immigrants" in his decades of research which suggests some bias?

Many of Ehrlich's Malthusian predictions have not come to fruition, and he conveniently ignores or prevaricates.

A former counterpart of Ehrlich is John Tanton a "nativist" who runs the Social Contract Press in the USA who has set up numerous anti immigration front organisations e.g. FAIR, Numbers USA, Progressives for Immigration Reform etc. with links to Australia. Various investigations in the USA have found links to eugenics, bigots, white supremacists etc. through Tanton's own correspondence whereby even neocons keep their distance.

Future projections suggest that only sub Saharan Africa will have significant populatin growth but according to Oxford University's Prof. Ian Goldin the world will be competing for workers and professionals from Africa to fill gaps, while stating that immigration and remittances (with education and better economies) is not only best development aid, leads to reduced growth rates.

As the Greens state, it is not the raw numbers of population that count, but how we live, and in Australia's case a lot has to be done to improve sustainability, i.e. it's about us, not them.

March 17, 2013 @ 1:08pm
by venze

The notion of having more people to produce and keep consuming more and more to boost economy may not be seen as sustainable anymore. Frugality and prudence will be the order of the day. Does it really matter to have fewer people if one lives simple? (vzc1943)

March 17, 2013 @ 1:32pm
by james

i'm sure you only publish comments that are in line with your ideas,everything else is"defamatory"right.just letting you know you cant censor my mind or others no matter how hard you try.your ideas are the ones that are dying.

March 17, 2013 @ 2:34pm
by K.D. Afford

James Lovelock said we needed to return to around the population we had c.1900, that is around 2,000,000,000. We cannot live at 140% of our ability to produce, everything is finite and in particular fossil fuels the cause of much of our woes - C02 levels - even on current usage is due to run out in as little as 40 years. We cannot continue to grow our way out of our problems, more people= more chaos, less services. Visit The Stable Population Party of Australia to find out the answers, they are there but we will all have to accept a far different way of life than we now aspire to.

March 17, 2013 @ 4:01pm
by feden

Since when is not liking violent and sharia loving muslims a prejudice? We are talking about radically different values here which are incompatible with western democracies.

Also in regards to Australia there is another factor contributing to our 150+ thousand immigrants a year, and it's the fear we will be invaded or attacked, either by Indonesia or China. A bigger population will make this alot more difficult.

March 17, 2013 @ 4:16pm
by wilful

I cannot think that underpopulation is the fundamental threat. Yes it has to be adjusted for and managed, but a world of 8 – 10 billion is for me a far scarier prospect than a world of 4 – 6 billion. If current economic orthodoxy cannot create growth in living standards without growth in population, then it is by definition unsustainable, and by definition must change. TINA. People are voting with their wombs anyway.

March 18, 2013 @ 11:15am
by Lisa

V interesting read.
> There are two points missing from this article tho, one that almost all industrialised nations experienced a post war baby boom and therefore the size of that cohort had significant impacts on society and the economy throughout their lives and will have an even greater impact on the age structure as the continue to get older. Eventually they will die and then the bulge in the population age structure will have gone. Also, he fails to develop the delayed childbearing trend of the baby boomer children who are yet to reach the age of ‘completed fertility’’ (age 49). So replacement rate may be achieved (and appears on track actually). So once the baby boomers die and fertility is completed for their children, we may see a stable population growth rate (without the need for immigration).
> The other point which I still grapple with... particularly with the Club Med countries is the fact that even though fertility rates declined and women appeared to choose the education/career path option instead, the economy did not grow (even tho more people, particularly women, were working). In Asia tho, economic growth did occur when fertility rates declined so significantly.

March 18, 2013 @ 11:57am
by Andrew Mitchell

Well written story and should be a wake up call to Australia and its over the top worries over boat people and our reliance on the export of our resources. I hadnt thought of Australias immigration policy as a giant Ponzi scheme, although I am an migrant myself.

March 19, 2013 @ 1:59am
by a don

I would have thought that there are many opportunities to study what happens when populations decline e.g. After wars or famines/plagues (such as smallpox ravaging native populations in Australia and South America). There have also been examples of civilisations declining rapidly due to environment changes such as rivers silting up or the land being denuded of fauna and flora - the Roman armies were pretty good at that.

I also am more concerned about the global population growth than domestic decline due to lowered consumption.

March 19, 2013 @ 10:54am
by Tony D'Ambra

Again as in part 1 growth is accepted as imperative, and there is no analysis of unregulated capital flows, inequality, and the giant military-industrial complex that skews the allocation of resources against improved health, education, and social justice. Sure free up women to choose their vocation and their fertility, but we can do a lot more right now to balance population growth and economic opportunities simply by dismantling structural inequality within and across borders.

March 20, 2013 @ 6:24pm
by Richard

It is stories like this that make me love this paper.

March 21, 2013 @ 8:04pm
by Andreas

In 20 years even cloning people will be legal. Well, why not making babies in vitro (from willing parents), arranging robotic nurses, transient solutions for kindergardens, individualized education based on personal choice, working from home (age 0 - 200), increasing individual energy independence ...

March 21, 2013 @ 10:37pm
by Chris Owens

The primary consideration of any population policy should be the carrying capacity of the land, with a safety margin to built in to allow for reduced yields expected to arise from climate change, drought, etc. Our political process only considers the here and now of the electoral cycle, and therefore these issues are of no concern for politicians keen to artificially boost demand by importing more consuming units.

Change will need to be forced on us.

March 22, 2013 @ 6:49pm
by Chris Lee

bravo bravo bravo

March 23, 2013 @ 6:19pm
by Gerard

Your analysis does not go into how to solve the riddle of how a capitalist system can work in a no or negative growth situation. And that's the real situation facing us. And the answer is, it can't. Which spells way bigger trouble than those you have alluded to above. Good otherwise, just stopped short of the real deal.

March 25, 2013 @ 5:01pm
by Mike

@Gerard: One of the problems with dealing with the no/negative growth situation is that we still churn huge numbers of students in marketing related disciplines whose entire professional careers are predicated on the reverse. We need to be thinking about educating children more thoughtfully about their future social and professional roles (and that shouldn't just be abdicated to the schools).

March 31, 2013 @ 8:06am
by demografix

Who said you can not have a decling population and a growing GDP?

April 1, 2013 @ 8:13pm
by Ironbark


The finite planet says you can't have perennial real economic growth whatever population growth or decline might be. With technological advances you might have higher GDP per capita in a declining population, but unless total GDP declines, you're bound to have ecological limits.

Capitalism is undoubtedly the "search for markets" because it dies with stagnation. But only stagnation or contraction looks likely to save the planet or large parts of it.

How can we move to a non-growth economy, whatever the ism-ic label attached to it?

April 6, 2013 @ 12:02pm
by Tom

Great article. I found the terrorism link particularly interesting.

April 6, 2013 @ 8:33pm
by greg


April 13, 2013 @ 3:43pm
by Rick

Why so pessimistic? Your comment "Fewer people, less consumption, lowered need for resources, energy, housing, roads, you name it" also means for those people left, an abundance for consumption, plentiful resources, energy, housing, roads, you name it.

April 15, 2013 @ 10:41pm
by MattM

Japan is an interesting case study. Despite the protests of economic gloom and doom due to their declining population, the prospects for Japan are looking pretty good:
Further, Japan invaded China due to the resources needed for their rapacious growth spurt that rocketed their population up and tensions still remain high, Japan built nuclear power stations in the face of Tsunamis to cater for growing power demands - that didn't work out too well either. I'd suggest we take a good look at Japan and rapidly seek to follow suit.

China's move to economic dominance actually came after their population growth was slowed through the one-child policy.

In fact, if you look into history where economies have recovered and/or done well, it's always proceeded with slowing of population growth or even the decline.

And that is for a number of reasons but the primary one being, less dependents = more disposable income = more cash flowing around the economy.

In relation to population decline, I am astonished that people believe that given we are growing at over 80 million a year - primarily from countries like India and China - that's over 200,000 additional mouths to feed at the dinner table. It's a race against time to try and come up with the food and water resources and funding and they simply aren't there.

In Australia, this quote from the Australian Stable Population Party (who in turn quote the Australian Academy of Science):

'AUSTRALIAN ACADEMY OF SCIENCE: What did the AAS say about 23 million? This was before even greater environmental concerns like climate change and peak oil became prominent...

"In our view, the quality of all aspects of our children's lives will be maximized if the population of Australia by the mid-21st Century is kept to the low, stable end of the achievable range, i.e. to approximately 23 million."'

The thing we should be most concerned with is how to get our population humanely down to sustainable levels which afford a decent quality of life for all rather than worrying about trying to keep it growing.

April 18, 2013 @ 2:15pm
by Clive

Rick and MattM You're both close to the mark. But is anyone listening? Nope, apart from a few independents and some of the greens the whole immigration debate is being run by big business.
Sadly Oz has headed down the US route where all the pollies are just paid mouth pieces for business. I heard Barry Jones talking about meeting new comers to the Labor Party. He asked some what it was they were passionate about. Their we need to be.

April 23, 2013 @ 6:11pm
by bart wilson

Even in Australia, often cited as the most successful multicultural society in the world,

Surely you are joking - has Mike ever been to places outside of Sydney or Melborne

April 24, 2013 @ 9:24pm
Show previous 46 comments
by Peter Brady

An obvious issue when trying to resolve "what do we do about this crazy situation" is to ask - "what alternative is there ?"

If we all keep trying to fix / patch a system that is so completely wrong for modern society - no progress toward a sustainable and comfortable future will occur. The ridiculous belief that what applied even 100 years ago, let alone 250, should still apply is shortsighted and well, ridiculous.

The only way we can get to where we need to go is to rebuild the system - find the alternative. There is a possible solution here -

May 10, 2013 @ 10:40am
by rand

MattM summed it up: China has had a one-child policy for 30 years. How long have they had skyrocketing economic growth? 30 years. It should be obvious to even the dullest politician or more importantly to the members of the political parties that choose them. Sad thing is when people like Bob Brown cop out on the issue and say 'you can't put a figure on population size'. Once they wake up to the number of votes they can win hopefully things will change

June 2, 2013 @ 3:04pm
by delwyn saunders

I wiah more in the media would pick this up and run with it. Somewhere, somehow, sometime the Liberal Party must be "educated" re the changes needed to the present taxation problems at the very least. The media treatment is at the moment so shallow. Australi deserves better.

November 25, 2013 @ 4:59pm
Type a keyword to search for a story or journalist