PROMINENT Australians have thrown their support behind a controversial new book which argues that population growth is the biggest threat to environmental sustainability in this country.
In a provocative attack on water conservation schemes, such as Melbourne’s Target 155, the book Overloading Australia urges Australians to ignore water conservation, forcing politicians to rethink population and immigration policy.
Focusing on perhaps the most taboo aspect of environmental debate, authors Mark O’Connor and William Lines have argued that pro-immigration and “baby bonus” policies are at odds with plans to reduce carbon emissions and secure water supplies.
“The task of simultaneously increasing population and achieving sustainability is impossible,” the book argues.
O’Connor said his background was largely in poetry, yet despite his lack of conventional expertise in demography and population studies, his book has struck a chord with prominent Australians and increasingly echoes the views of leading environmentalists.
Former New South Wales premier Bob Carr has agreed to launch the book next week, and has lauded O’Connor’s previous books about the perils of unchecked population growth.
The Australian Conservation Foundation has also called for a “substantial reduction” in the nation’s skilled migration program in this year’s budget.
In its budget submission, the foundation said Australia’s population needed to be stabilised at “an ecologically sustainable level”.
“Population increase makes it harder for Australia to reduce carbon pollution levels and is placing immense stress on state and regional planning, infrastructure and ecological systems.”
The comments will resonate with the Brumby Government, which has presided over an increase in total emissions in recent years, despite improvements in emissions on a per capita basis.
Monash University population expert Dr Bob Birrell, who has read Overloading Australia, said despite the global nature of the emissions problem, national borders still mattered because people tended to adopt the typical emissions profile of the nation they lived in.
“When you add an extra million in a society like ours you are imposing a very considerable additional burden, there is no way of escaping it, and that’s the key to understanding why the population issue is so serious in Australia; we live very high on the hog,” he said.
Australia will welcome a maximum of 203,500 new migrants this financial year, with skilled migration accounting for 133,500 of those places, and refugees just 13,500.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Evans said the Rudd Government had started developing a longer-term migration plan that would consider “net overseas migration rates and the impact of demographic changes”.
Victoria has swelled by about 1500 people a week in recent years, a rate that Premier John Brumby has described as “about as fast as we want to go”.
Australia’s ageing population
Like many other countries in the western world, Australia’s total population is ageing, and older people represent a growing number and percentage of the society . The proportion of the Australian population aged 65 years and over has risen steadily over the past two decades and is projected to rise further over the next 50 years. The major contributors to population ageing in Australia are: large numbers of ageing ‘baby boomers’, increased life expectancy, and declining fertility rates.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has reported marked increases in life expectancy. In 1998, the average life expectancy for Australian men was 75.9 years; for Australian women it was 81.5. years. In comparison, figures calculated for the period 1901-1910 are 55.2 years and 58 years respectively . Increased life expectancy for both men and women has led to growing numbers of people surviving well into old age, and a shift in the age structure of the total population, commensurate with gradual population ageing . In 1901, there were 151,000 people aged 65 years and over living in Australia (4% of the total Australian population). By 1999, this number had increased to 2.3 million (12% of the total population) .
Projections show that the observed ageing of the Australian population is set to continue . The proportion of the population aged 65 years and over is projected to rise from around 12% today to 18% by the year 2021, to 25% by the year 2051 . Record rates of increase in the population aged 65 years and over are likely between 2011 and 2021 as the peak of the baby-boom generation (post World War 2) reaches retirement age . During this period, the population aged 65 years and over is projected to grow from 3 to 5 million.
Health consequences for Australia’s ageing population
Ageing populations are due, at least in part, to increasing life expectancy, due to declining death rates (frequently related to behavioural changes, such as dietary improvements, reduced smoking and increased physical activity). However, reductions in mortality do not translate into similar reductions in morbidity and ageing is generally accompanied by ill-health. Ageing is associated with a higher prevalence of certain health conditions including: arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, dementia, and renal disease. Chronic conditions become more common with increasing age and older people often require ongoing support and assistance in daily living.
In 1995, 90% of older people had experienced a recent illness, and virtually all (99%) reported at least one long-term condition (most commonly sight and hearing loss) . The most common recent illnesses were ‘fluid problems’ (11%), headaches (9%), insomnia (9%), dental problems (7%), hypertension (5%) and nerves, tension and nervousness (5%) . The four most common long-term conditions reported by older people were eye problems (including problems corrected by glasses) (96%), arthritis (49%), hypertension (38%) and ear or hearing problems (32%) . In 1998, just over half (54%) of all older people had a disability . About 25% of older women and 16% of older men had a disability associated with profound or severe restriction in mobility, communication or self-care , causing difficulties with daily tasks such as bathing, dressing, eating, getting out of a chair or bed, walking, using public transport or communicating with others.
Approximately a third (31.5%) of the Australian population live in remote or rural areas of the country. Of these, about 45% live in regional cities, large towns and surrounding agricultural areas, about 45% live in small country towns and their surrounding agricultural areas, and about 10% live in remote and very remote areas.
The population profile and demography of remote and rural areas varies from that in metropolitan or urban centres. While it varies between communities, remote and rural areas generally have slower population growth than metropolitan and urban centres, with some areas experiencing population declines. Rural communities tend to have more children but fewer young adults. Remote areas tend to have even more children, but fewer older people.
In terms of education and employment, people living in remote and rural areas generally have lower levels of education. Employment opportunities are often limited within remote and rural communities, and household incomes also tend to be lower than in metropolitan or urban areas.
The type of diversity within remote and rural areas also varies from that of metropolitan and urban centres. Over two thirds of Australia’s Indigenous population reside in remote and rural areas. Additionally, immigration to remote and rural communities tends to be lower than in metropolitan and urban centres.
Access to resources is lower for people living in remote and rural areas, and tends to decrease with remoteness. The affordability and availability of commodities such as food and petrol is often significantly lower, again decreasing with remoteness. Remote areas in particular are less likely to have access to basic food items, including fresh fruit and vegetable.