Thoughts on ‘The future of us’ by Liz Allen

I disagree with the crux of what Liz Allen says but before I go any further I have to pay my respects to anybody with seven kids and a career who can also write a book. Whatever I might think about her economic and environmental claims, when it comes to life admin she’s a machine!

Since reading Peter North’s Growing for Broke I have come to see that the whole GDP centred pro-growth big Australia plan is very much running on so called ponzi dynamics and offers nothing as a model for a sustainable environment or economy. I contacted Treasury’s Centre for Population in June to see if they could tell me this was not the case and received only spin. I remain on the prowl for the smoking gun to tell me I am wrong and everything is fine.

I had heard of Liz Allen from people in Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) that she was very influential in the public debate. So when I heard that she had written a book I leapt at it. Although I am really pretty passionate about this stuff there would be no better news than finding out I am wrong and I hoped that Liz Allen’s book, The future of us, demography gets a makeover would do that.

One of my central concerns for big Australia — that a growing population means urban sprawl which means we have fewer farms, higher consumption and less bush — is not addressed at all in the future of us. All the scenarios she details for her vision of a high growth Australia involve the destruction of vast amounts of farm and bush that will impoverish us, kill huge numbers of animals and hasten climate change. Talking population and leaving ecology aside is really misleading.

I was really excited early on when she said that she would debunk carrying capacity. Yes I would have wasted my time with all this limits to growth stuff but I could also stop worrying. The book mentions carrying capacity twice and does not debunk. Firstly, Easter Island is given as an example of exceeding carrying capacity but its extinction was actually by slavery and invasive species. Secondly, this

Attempts to define optimal population size or carrying capacity are pointless anyway, because these figures are constantly growing as we discover innovative new techniques and technologies that allow us to do more with less. It’s like trying to hit a moving target.

Not incorrect but misleading. Although the actual calculus of carrying capacity is complex and dynamic the basic phenomenon — that no land has an unlimited capacity to support people — is very relevant to our well-being and should inform our resource allocation decisions.

She says, Australia isn’t headed for a Malthusian catastrophe: we won’t drain the country dry and starve to death. We’re innovators, and innovators thrive in a crisis. No, we actually might. We are trashing this country very hard and it does not have an unlimited capacity to absorb it. We really might cook it if we keep this up. Innovation misses the point that basically any human activity in modernity has some environmental impact. It also misses the point that a lot of ecological problems have massive lead times. It is a massive gamble that any number of ecological problems won’t pop the planet before the innovations can be devised and scaled. The other problem is that the same forces that drive innovation also drive habitat destruction. If we are in a crisis it will be so much harder for any bush to be preserved when food prices are soaring. Major ecological crises may also be coupled with a collapse in the rule of law which would eliminate a lot of higher end innovation.

Liz Allen misreads the political economy of migration and population in Australia. She says she is resisting the political establishment when in fact her position is the same as both political parties which are strongly committed to using migration to grow the population. Her position mirrors the liberal and labor parties and some of their biggest donors.

Things like this Australia’s demand-driven, skills-based migration program is the means by which our economy stays afloat, but our politicians often seek to problematise immigration for political gain. First they invent a problem where there is none, then they appease voters by offering a ‘solution’ to that problem. The whole exercise is nothing more than a fantastic play of political pageantry.

Politicians do problematise migrants and some certainly more than others so this claim is true but it is really misleading. The defining feature of the political economy of immigration is that for the last 70 years both parties of government plus the Greens have been completely committed to high migration and high population growth. The only exceptions are one nation which call for lower migration but not for lower population and the Australian Democrats who no longer exist. By all means condemn Hanson but she is irrelevant when the ALP, LNP and Greens all want rocketing population growth.

Political parties are not all the same and there are substantive and important differences between liberal and labor at every election on issues like climate change, industrial relations and the rule of law. There just aren’t any differences between them on the main features of their migration and population policies. In particular, neither are willing to reduce migration to a level where it would significantly affect the number of houses being built because that would put every bank, supermarket and property developer in the corner of the other party. It would also put every home owner who thinks that their interests are well served by rising property prices against them.

I was surprised that as an academic demographer that Allen had basically swallowed hook, line and sinker the spin that John Howard was anti-migrant. If you want to understand someone, look at what they do more than what they say. John Howard merged refugees and migrants in the public mind, merged offshore processing and refugee quantum in the public mind, made no reduction to refugee numbers and nearly doubled net overseas migration in his final five years in government after Tampa. I expect journalists to fall for that one but not academics, all the data is there.

In The future of us Liz Allen says Australia’s population would continue to grow even if immigration were to stop altogether. This is extremely misleading. Any population will keep growing even when fertility falls below replacement rate due to demographic momentum, the tendency for growing populations to continue growing after a fertility decline because of their young age distribution. So yes, if all migration stopped tomorrow Australia’s population would keep increasing until about 2030 or 2040. However, it would then start falling whereas with high migration it would still be growing then. Cutting migration cannot stop the population from growing now but it can stop it growing quite soon. It is delayed but many things in demography are. This is relevant because whereas it is very unlikely fertility will fall much lower, migration levels are completely a choice made by sitting governments. Most people in a loving relationship are going to have one or two kids regardless of what the government does. Government is therefore unlikely to be able to cut fertility in half for example. On the other hand, migration is all a function of government policy so could be cut by 50% with a stroke of the ministers pen tomorrow. It does not matter whether we slow our population growth by lowering migration or lowering fertility but one is possible and the other is not.

As Liz Allen says if we’re to survive as a nation, we need to get past our fear of change and confront it head on. That is absolutely true but the answer is not to try to grow the population. The answer is to understand that every economy on earth is operating with ponzi dynamics — the current system needs growth or will seize up. It will be a painful transition from a growth economy and a growth society to a sustainable society but the sooner we do it the easier it will be. We cannot continue with a growth economy because we will run out of resources and/or foul the planet so that it will no longer support us. It is normal for humans to be in denial about this and look for Belle Gibson style ‘alternatives’ to a difficult lesser of two evils decision gate. Liz Allen is someone who has lead an amazing and impressive life but the contents of her book The future of us are dangerously misleading when we need to face facts.

If you think any of the above is wrong please get in touch on twitter @steadystateeddy. All feedback is really appreciated.

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