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March 3, 2024

Is it time to challenge the idea of Big Australia?

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Premier Dominic Perrottet recently announced his intention to build a Big NSW. Much of this Big Population and Big Economy will be generated by a doubling of the state’s pre-covid migration intake.

This is the Australian way. With one of the highest population growth rates in the OECD, Big Australia has faced little opposition. The argument is habitually hammered out – Australia needs high population growth to sustain high economic growth. The cornerstone of this growth policy is a migration program that delivers low-cost skilled and unskilled labour, capital inflow, greater military security, and the re-flush of new and younger consumers.

Impacts of growth

So how has this uncritical devotion to high rates of population growth arisen as a global, national and local phenomenon? The answer reaches into deep history.

Around 75,000 years ago a major planetary catastrophe reduced the population of homo sapiens to about 2,000 individuals. Surviving this near extinction event, humans gradually developed language and cultural systems that enabled them to migrate out of Africa and settle in new terrains through Asia, Australia and Europe.

By 12,000 Before Present (BP) the human population was around four million – a significant recovery for a species that lived by hunting and foraging in small, mostly nomadic bands. As exemplified by Australian Aborigines, these groups developed extremely sophisticated cultural, economic and technological systems which balanced sustainability with adaptive skills and knowledge.

At around 12,000 BP, however, a climate change crisis threatened human survival in particular areas of the planet; most notably along the Tigris-Euphrates river system. Along with other factors, this climate catastrophe forced these human groups to develop new survival strategies and technologies.

Main Beach, Byron Bay. Echo file photo.

New economy

This new economy involved the domestication of wild animals and the cultivation of grains and other crops.

While most historians celebrate these cultural adaptations as ‘progress to civilisation’, the real story is more complex. We now know, for example, that the early agriculturalists had lower nutrition, poorer overall health and a shorter life expectancy than most hunter-gatherers.

Agriculture also created new vulnerabilities. Farming was labour intensive, requiring larger work forces, which in turn required more food and resources to survive. Moreover, economic resources (land, water, minerals) and stored value (grains, animals, manufactured goods) could be expropriated by larger groups with greater military power.

Along with susceptibility to new forms of disease, these vulnerabilities contributed to a cultural volition around the ‘triple helix’ of population growth, economic expansion and militarism. This cultural volition continues into the present, and is also marked by the unceasing destruction of natural life systems involving the annihilation of other animal, plant and microorganism species.

By the rise of the Common Era (1 AD) these cultural changes had significantly increased the world’s human population to around 300 million. The triple helix led to the development of ever-larger social systems like city-states, nations and empires, so that by 1830 the world population reached is first billion. By 1950 the figure was 2.5 billion. Within forty years that figure had doubled again; and currently it’s around 7.8 billion.

Over the past century, the growth triad (population, economy, warfare) has accelerated to the point where it now threatens the life systems upon which it depends. Not only has the planet entered its sixth great Mass Extinction era, the biosphere is critically endangered by the escalating prospects of global warfare, pandemic disease and cataclysmic climate change.

The summit of Wollumbin/Mt Warning is a popular tourist destination. Photo australiangeographic.com.au


Corporations, developers, militarists, economists and governments – who benefit most from Big Planet – deny the negative consequences of high population growth. This denial is grounded in several arguments:

1. Population growth and economic prosperity equate to ‘progress’, and progress is always good and inevitable; 2. Humans are more important than all other species; 3. Technology and adaptive consumer practices will solve all our problems; 4. Opponents of population growth are fundamentally racist because they oppose high rates of migration.

This last point is particularly pertinent in Australia where ‘green politics’ often conflate population growth with the ethics of diversity and refugee advocacy. While these ethics are laudable in themselves, they have subsumed the rights and needs of all other species who have no voice in parliament and little protection from human violence. Sadly, not all the world’s problems can be solved by choosing Fair Trade Coffee.

Ideal Australia

Despite this censorial context, a few ecologists have spoken out against the growth agenda of Big Australia. A research team based at the University of South Australia recently concluded that Australia’s ideal population size is around 15 million.

For these researchers and others, the negative consequences of high population growth clearly outweigh the benefits. These negative consequences include: environmental degradation, climate change, food insecurity, habitat destruction, species extinction, depletion of artesian and surface waterways, destruction of forests and other natural environments, urban congestion, collapse of social infrastructure, accelerating housing and land costs, intensified social competition, conflict and alienation, suppression of working conditions and wages, overcrowding of recreational spaces.

Sacrifice’s to the dollar

All of these issues are pertinent to the Byron Shire. As residents know so well, the region has become severely damaged by private developments associated with mass tourism. As agents of the triple helix, state and federal governments are knowingly sacrificing biodiverse regions, like Byron, to the volition of economy and population growth.

The Byron community and environment are fodder for the esurience of corporate and government power. As urban populations continue to grow, Byron and other regions become tradable commodities in the pleasure of financial return.

So we need a politics that places humans, other species and the environment on an equal footing. Big Australia needs to be replaced by a Smaller Australia that uses its affluence to care for people who are already the victims of the triple helix disease. Rather than absorb the disease into our own lives and social systems, we need to help others in their recovery. Equally, we are duty-bound to reverse the destructive impact of this Population Pandemic on other life forms and the biosphere that sustains us all.

♦ Dr Belinda Lewis is a health anthropologist from Monash University. Professor Jeffrey  Lewis is an anthropology professor. He is a former Research Dean at RMIT and Professorial Fellow at the London School of Economics. His books include Language Wars and Media and Human Violence: From Savage Lovers to Violent Complexity. He recently completed a government-commissioned research report on Right Wing Extremism in Australia.

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  1. Speaking as a fundamentalist racist,
    …..As of course I have always believed immigration, after the initial humanitarian post WW2, is nothing short of suicidal in this critically over -populated planet.
    However, I have come to believe it is already too late for this country to survive for much longer, as we have long sinced passed the sustainable population limit. There has been several studies that have found that, with much better government than we have, we may be able to support 10-15 million on the most inhospitable continent,
    ( 90% below 250mm rainfall /year ).
    With exponential environmental destruction and no thought of anything apart from GDP and a quick buck, I see no hope for our children.
    Cheers, G”)

  2. Beautifully written.

    Is it time, dear authors? Well, of course, and as you explain, it is desperately overdue!

    The tragedy is that, it is in departments in institution like your own (and possible your own institutions ) that we find the conflation of which you write and the other obstacles to a serious discussion of the unsustainable population-fed endless growth economic model. I have in mind, among other things, the extent to which tertiary institutions had, in recent years, become mere extensions of the department of immigration!

    Anyway, bless you both for standing up and being counted! There is really no such thing as sustainable growth!

  3. There are some organisations in Australia campaigning on the overpopulation issue and seeking to reduce Australia’s migration rate to a replacement rate of 70K.
    Sustainable Population Australia is one of these organisations and they need more supporters.

  4. Excellent article. I suppose the population conversation is always avoided or shut down because proponents of high population know that they are either ignorant of, or in denial of the environmental, social and economic facts.


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