Carrying Capacity

Can a Big Country With Very Few People be Overpopulated?

Just because a country has a huge land area and a relatively small population does not mean it can continue to grow unchecked. In Canada and Australia, for instance, activists are raising the possibility that they may already be overpopulated.

Australians are worried about two wildly different negative scenarios. In one, unchecked development and consumption devastate the country’s habitat, native species and quality of life. In the other, Australia’s economy grinds to a halt as the populace ages and babies become unaffordable burdens. Both pictures suggest a population crisis begging to be resolved.

With 19.8 million people contained in an area roughly the size of the contiguous 48 states, Australia may seem drastically underpopulated to the 285 million residents of the U.S. But much of Australia’s land is arid and virtually uninhabitable, subject to frequent floods and droughts. Nearly all Australians are packed into two coastal strips, in the southwest around Perth and in the east and particularly the southeast, near Sydney and Melbourne.

Australia’s population is packed mainly into two coastal strips. Sydney, shown here, could grow from its current four million to 6.5 million by 2050.
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Sustainable Population Australia (SPA), an organization that calls for an environmentally responsible population policy, contends that Australia’s environment cannot sustain any more growth. It argues that development and urban sprawl are eating up the land, dirtying the water and taking vital habitat from wild animals and plants. The seaboards face ever-increasing pressure as more and more Australians move to the coast, and the Great Barrier Reef already has suffered substantial damage. But if the population grows to 25 million or 40 million in the next 50 years, as several current projections suggest, the effects would be disastrous, says Jenny Goldie, SPA’s national director.

"Many of the tributaries and rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin [Australia’s bread basket] will have exceeded World Health Organization guidelines on maximum levels of salinity for both drinking and irrigation within 50 years," she warns. And predicted warming and drying trends, coupled with population growth, mean "the average Australian will have to endure permanent water restrictions." Forests and other ecosystems would be threatened, and vital habitat for the koala and other national icons could be lost forever.

Australia is growing slowly—less than one percent annually. Aussie women average 1.77 children apiece, a rate lower than in years past but still high compared to other industrialized nations. Legal immigration accounts for more than 100,000 new residents each year, less than half of total annual growth. And life expectancy, now at 80 years, continues to go up. This puts the country well on track for a population of 26.5 million by 2050, SPA projects.

But the Australian Labor Party sees another story in these numbers. Wayne Swan, Labor’s minister for family and community services, has said that current birth rates could halve the population by the end of the century. "What we face is not just the fade-out of the Australian family but also the fade-out of our nation," he told the Daily Telegraph of Sydney last year, because most of the baby boomers due to retire in the next 20 years would place a massive burden on a rapidly shrinking workforce.

To combat this so-called "baby bust," the Labor Party and business coalitions such as the Australian Population Institute are calling for maternity leave, tax breaks and, most of all, increased immigration to shore up their nation’s numbers. Accelerated population growth means good things for commercial interests, from real estate to construction, and major media conglomerates have lately been giving this view nearly exclusive coverage, with headlines like "Being single is "bad for health"" and "Why women are not having babies."

Goldie does not disagree that paid maternity leave and even measures that help couples have one or two children are needed Down Under. "The average couple is finding it increasingly difficult to have children, what with the lack of job security and the cost of housing," she concedes. But dire predictions of a population crash are premature, she says, because they do not take immigration into account.

Immigration is a highly sensitive issue, though, and SPA treads lightly. Though it calls for a net zero immigration policy, meaning the same number of people come into the country as leave it, it says race should not be a factor in selecting immigrants. Nonetheless, SPA has been labeled as racist by pro-immigrant forces, thanks in part to unrelated groups such as One Nation and Australians Against Further Immigration that have seized the environment issue to further their anti-immigrant objectives. Meanwhile, other environmental organizations, trying to distance themselves from such extremists, say Australia’s borders should stay open—and instead Aussies should try to lower their resource consumption to solve their eco-problems.

"While we would not suggest that a call for reduced immigration is necessarily racist, we would argue that such a call is not acceptable," says Cam Walker of Friends of the Earth Australia. "There is no doubt that humans are having a dramatic and devastating effect on the natural systems of Australia," he adds. "We would argue that this is largely a result of how we live here, not how many people live here."

Aussies are among the biggest consumers in the world, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation, ranking with Americans and Canadians in paper, fossil fuel and water usage. At these rates, combined with projected population increases, the impact on Australia’s ecology would be "nothing short of devastating," says Walker.

There are similar arguments to make that Canada is overpopulated for the same reasons as Australia. And, as in Australia, immigration to Canada is a major contributor to population growth. The Population Institute of Canada criticizes "the largely unchallenged assumption that Canada [which had 31 million people in 2001] has no population problem since it has the second-largest land area of all countries on Earth." But, the group says, like Australia "much of the land is barren and incapable of supporting a large population." Countering the commonly held assumption that Canada is a land of limitless resources, the Population Institute points to the collapse of the cod fisheries, vanishing salmon, a growing list of endangered species and national parks "under siege."

Meanwhile, in New Zealand (a Colorado-sized country with a population of just three million), concern about population has largely taken the form of immigrant bashing and has propelled a Member of Parliament who grandstands on the issue, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, to approval ratings second only to Prime Minister Helen Clark. Peters accused Clark of "taking more positions [on immigration] than a Turkish belly dancer."