Review of Vaclav Smil’s Growth

First Appeared in Sustainable Population Australia’s Newsletter No. 138 February 2020


Did you know that wandering albatross chicks are up to 1.5 times heavier than their parents? Or that there is no significant difference between the economic performances of republics and monarchies? These are just two of the intriguing facts in Vaclav Smil’s latest book, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.

Czech-Canadian academic, Vaclav Smil, is one of the world’s experts on energy and has been named as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.
Growth is striking for its level of ambition, traversing an extraordinary sweep of topics: starting with microorganisms, moving to plants and animals, before exploring trends in human energy use and the history of machines, devices, buildings and infrastructure. The final two chapters are most relevant to SPA, considering populations and economies, as well as what comes after growth.
In his section on population, Smil starts with an account of the growth of the global human numbers over the last two million years. Growth then moves to assessing the causes and effects of demographic transition (changing death rates and birth rates) and total fertility rates. Growth then discusses possible future population trends, highlighting that the main uncertainty is future fertility rates, and the global significance of those rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Smil sensibly makes no firm predictions as to future global population numbers, but does discuss Earth’s biophysical constraints on sustainable population levels.

In considering what comes after growth, Smil focuses on the implications for nations of low fertility rates. He particularly discusses Japan, concluding that its infrastructure, health care, food production and global influence will be impacted by its declining population. Readers might criticise Smil’s emphasis on age dependency, but he does not specifically identify it as a problem to be ‘fixed’.

Smil’s treatment is arguably stronger for economies than population. He starts by setting out the dramatic expansion in human economic use of energy, which has increased almost twenty-fold since 1800. Smil then considers the importance of energy inputs and fertilisers to boosting food production, noting that ‘anthropogenic’ energy (essentially fossil fuels) inputs to farming increased by a factor of 130 over the twentieth century.
Growth also covers trends in material economic inputs, particularly steel and cement. Smil makes the point that while many industrial processes have become more efficient, reduced prices have led to greater demands for consumer goods, as Jevon’s paradox would predict. He argues there has been no absolute ‘dematerialisation’ on a macro level. Smil later uses a paper lead-authored by former SPA president, James Ward, to demonstrate that GDP growth cannot be decoupled (long-term) from growth in material and energy use.

Possibly the most interesting part of Smil’s treatment of economies canvasses the sources of economic growth. He supports the argument that the ‘second industrial revolution’ from 1870 – 1900 (with the introduction of internal combustion engines, running water, oil extraction and chemical industries) was more consequential to economic growth than the start of the industrial revolution or the digital revolution. Smil goes on to consider the positive effects of the demographic transition on national economic performance: the demographic dividend.
Those hoping to find a strong position on population will be disappointed; Smil is his own man, often contrarian, and would doubtless vigorously resist co-option into any activist movement. On most matters, Smil retains the scientist’s measured approach and avoids definitive statements on contentious topics. He is, however, scathing of poorly constructed arguments and flawed methodologies. For example, he criticises the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth algorithms for using what he considers are meaningless input variables.

Smil also brings a physicist’s critical eye to neoclassical economics, rehearsing common critiques of GDP as an indicator of national wellbeing. He also criticises neoclassical economics for its failure to recognise the importance of energy inputs and material flows to economic activity, stressing the impossibility of ongoing economic growth. He similarly points out the long-term material impediments to implementing a circular economy.

Smil works his way slowly to his conclusion as he focuses on the global environmental effects of human economic activity. He does not explicitly predict the collapse of the natural environmental or civilisations, or the nature or timing of disruptions. He does, however, firmly assert that the pursuit of economic growth, extending consumerism and treating the biosphere as merely exploitable resources “must change in radical ways”. Smil concludes that “The long-term survival of our civilization cannot be assured without setting…(economic) limits (at) the planetary scale.”

While Growth is not a polemical text, it does contain useful material for the activist. Beyond that, it is a fascinating read.

Choosing to have children or not

Population is an important factor in moving to sustainability. Deciding how many children to have is a deeply personal choice, but one with significant implications: having fewer children is arguably the best way most of us can reduce our environmental impact.
In this video, produced by Sustainable Population Australia, six Australians discuss the factors guiding whether they had – or did not have – children.

The Growth-Based Paradigm versus Earth Ethics by Michael Bayliss

Michael Bayliss is the Communications Manager at Sustainable Population Australia. In this paper to the 2019 Earth Ethics Conference, Michael considers the prevailing growth-based paradigm from an earth ethics perspective.

I would like to open with a fairly direct question:

Who in this room believes we can grow infinitely on a finite planet, even in the event that the globe switches to 100% renewable energy?

It is fair to say that much of the modern environmentalism focuses in two broad areas.  One, a global movement to end fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy and eco-technological fixes. Secondly, local movements that aim to protect discrete pockets of land or water from the onslaught of ‘development’ or ‘progress’.

I do not wish to undermine the critical importance of these campaigns, but I do wish to make the claim that without deeper structural claims, these endeavours will suffer the fate of trying to fan out the flames of ever-larger spot-fires.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Electric cars have been widely touted as the big techno-fix to our transport pollution crisis. However, recently there have been reports that the pile-up of old batteries are creating a brand new waste crisis.
  • The new Adani mine site will add between 240,000 and 750, 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide to global emissions per year. Compare this with the fact that Australia’s domestic emissions increased the past year by 6 million tonnes due to a growth in population of 460, 000, despite modest decreases in per capita consumption
  • For every tree we plant, or every old-growth forest that we may save (for the short term at least), Australia is losing two million hectares of land to urban sprawl annually.

In my opinion, the environmental movement deals with the symptoms, rather than the core issues.  This is why, although enjoying short terms successes, it often feels like we are re-arranging the deck chairs of the Titanic.   There are two root causes as far as I am aware:

  • We have an anthropocentric economic model that presupposes infinite growth on a finite planet, which I will talk on further;
  • That there is an inherent mindset issue in which humans place themselves distinct from, and superior to, the rest of the ecosystem. This leads to social and economic systems that are parasitic on natural systems rather than symbiotic.  My colleague Mark will talk to this soon.

It can often be quite shocking and insidious when we realise, as a society, how habituated we are to growth, to the extent where many of us can’t envision a world without GDP.  This is despite the fact that capitalism is only several hundred years old, the GDP has only been used a measuring tool since world war two and that neo-liberalism has only been around since the late 1970s.

Yet politicians and business leaders would have us believe that it has been around forever.

Ronald Regan said in the 1980s:

There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to
the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder.

This underpins an enduring myth that human intelligence will trump physical limitations and the historical reality that virtually all past human societies have collapsed or shrunk whenever they have exceeded their biological carrying capacity (as Jared Diamond’s book ‘Collapse’ informs).

It is a myth that pervades modern political discourse. Think of all the times we have been sold the mantra of ‘jobs and growth’ in previous elections.  A recent former Australian minister has even said something along the lines of ‘there’s no point in protecting the environment if we ruin the economy by doing so’.

This paradigm has also appropriated some of the environmental movement.  We now have such oxymorons as ‘green growth’, ‘decoupled growth’ in addition to the magic wand of ‘innovating our way out of problems.’  This is despite the fact historically, almost all technological innovations create more problems than they save.  The Jevons paradox (in which increased efficiency leads to more demand for a resource) is one example.  There is no free lunch from deviating from natural systems, as much as we like to keep trying to delude ourselves.

At the 11th hour, recognition of this unavoidable fact is starting to hit the mainstream.  Last month, the Financial Times, published an article by Harry Haysom, “The Myth of Green Growth,” in which he states that “green growth probably doesn’t exist.”  Greta Thunberg talked about ‘the fairy-tale of eternal economic growth’ at the UN forum.  Even the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been critical of the GDP model of economics, saying:

Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not
success. It is failure

It is worth showing a few graphs of what relentless growth this past century actually looks like.   The first of these is the ‘great acceleration’ courtesy of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where accelerating human impact is resulting in an accelerating loss of natural capital.  Earth Overshoot Day, the day each year when we exceed planetary capacity to replenish resources, is falling earlier every year.  This year we reached this on the 29th of July.

Systemically, we are benefitting one species at the expense of all other species, and the result is a rapid descent towards the Anthropocene mass extinction.  These graphs show humans and livestock versus all other vertebrates enjoying life in their natural habitat.  This is essentially a bottleneck.

You would think that all the effort we put into destroying all other life forms on the planet in exchange for our own short-term material gain might at the very least result in a sense of happiness and comfort.  Yet we are depressed, anxious, disconnected, alone, and the disparity between the haves and have-nots is ridiculous.  In essence, we are miserably killing everything around us because deep many of us believe deep inside that there is no alternative to growth.

We must move out of this mindset and create economies, societies and cultures that are self-limiting and part of the larger web of life.

There is a growing wealth of information out there, beyond the scope of a one-hour conversation, and I would further explore the book ‘The Economics of Arrival’,  the websites ‘Post-Growth Institute’ and ‘Steady State ACT’,  the journal ‘Ecological Economics’  and particularly recent articles from Haydn Washington and Michelle Maloney,  as these cover alternative economic systems in greater depth.  I just want to touch on a few of the main drivers of growth-based society and how I believe these need to be addressed.


  1. The ecosystem as a legally recognised entity.

Just to provide a few examples of this.  In Ecuador, a new constitution has incorporated a ‘commitments to the rights of nature’ and a national strategy explicitly ‘sets aside the restricted visions of development exclusively based on economic growth’ in favour of a more holistic vision of ‘good living’.

Bolivia has drawn up a Bill of Rights for the ‘Madre Tierra’ (mother earth), which includes the right for natural cycles to proceed without interruption.

New Zealand has bestowed rights on Whanganui river, with legal rights to its own integrity.

Examples such as this must be the norm and not the exception, as this provides not only a check and balance but also a legal structural barrier.


  1. GDP to be replaced by other economic models

GDP is an incredibly fraught model.  It recognises oil spills, the felling of old-growth forests and medicine sales for depression as great for the economy yet fails to recognise the loss of natural capital as anything other than an externality.

The genuine progress indicator (GPI) actually views the natural capital as an asset, and the loss of the environment as a cost.  It takes into account individual happiness and well-being and the value of the voluntary, gift and informal economies (that get overlooked by GDP).

Costa Rica is a good example.  Although GDP per capita is below many countries in the OECD, it excels in measures such as equality and happiness. Furthermore, as the country has a stable population and is not pursuing economic expansion, much of the country is protected nature.  This is instilled in the national psyche, that nature is a responsibility that must be protected with stewardship.


  1. Reduction in per capita consumption 

Definitely more of a pressing responsibility in the global north.  One interested intersection is around the appeal for shorter working weeks. This would allow people more time to engage with their communities and participate in informal economies.  This is great for mental and physical well-being and terrible for consumerism, as less disconnected people are less likely to indulge in materialism on lieu of meaningful connection.  Additionally, if people have more time to connect with nature, the more likely that are to value the ecosystem in which they live and want to protect it.

Town planning plays a key role here.  Communities built around village styles encourage people to interact, to engage in informal economies and to share resources.  Unfortunately, many growth-based societies, such as Australia, view housing as an investment ahead of liveability.  This results in outer suburban sprawl or high-rise consolidation that forces people to live their lives around how their communities are designed, e.g. long commutes and a reliance on the market to provide essential services rather than their neighbours and communities.


  1. Population

This is a controversial topic but one that needs to be discussed.

If we are to truly make changes to our relationship with our ecosystems, then the causational role that population plays must come out of the woodwork.

For example, a study of 114 nations found that human population density predicted with 88 per cent accuracy the number of endangered birds and mammals as identified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.  This was despite wide differences in per-capita wealth between countries, indicating that population is a larger causational factor than many in the environmental movement believe.

In a recent Newsweek essay, Michael Shank states that stabilizing and reducing human population is “a necessary conversation that we can’t keep avoiding.”

In Australia, there are deliberate population growth policies designed to boost GDP, largely via the housing and property sectors.  This is one of the reasons why we are losing so much wildlife and biodiversity. According to a Sydney University seminar held earlier this year, Australia is losing two million hectares of land to urban sprawl annually.  And creating a wedge between population and consumption is unhelpful.  It doesn’t matter whether we line our new houses with solar panels, drive low emission cars on the new roads, or buy plant-based foods at the new local supermarket (that was once a home to a diversity of native species).  Once we have concreted and paved over an eco-system, that’s it.  That is another piece of land that was once called home by many different species that has now been invaded for the use for humans.

Looking at the graphs, the decision to have one less child makes a far greater impact that an individual can do compared with any other individual lifestyle changes.  This is because there is one less person around to grapple with the power of will to make the myriad of lifestyle changes that are required to make any significant difference.

Fortunately, addressing population does not have to be the brutal one child or anti-immigration policies that many fear.  Grassroots cooperation between countries in which women are empowered to choose the size of their families with access to affordable family planning services always ends in not only reduced family sizes but better equality and health outcomes for mothers, children and communities alike.  We can all agree that this is a great moral outcomes regardless of whether we believe global population is an issue.  On the domestic level,  if population policy is decoupled from the interests of big business, and if immigration policy is democratised, I think we would end up a range of better outcomes such as better town planning policies, better humanitarian outcomes, and a mitigating effect on the expansionist policies of big business and mainstream governments.

Photo credit: Boorangoora/Lake McKenzie on K’gari/Fraser Island by Jonathan Miller.

Is A Sustainable Future Possible?

Dr Graham Turner is one of Australia’s leading thinkers on sustainability matters. He previously updated the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth analyses and found that after four decades they were still on track. In this paper, Turner explores what would be required for Australia to achieve true sustainability, and some of the barriers to that:

Is A Sustainable Future Possible?



Submission to the Independent Review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

About Steady State ACT

Steady State ACT is a non-government organisation which is committed to:

– raising awareness of the material limits to economic growth;

– raising awareness of the need to move away from economic growth policies and

– promoting the critical need to move to a steady state economy.

Steady State ACT is the ACT chapter of the international Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. Its website is at

Jonathan Miller is the Director of Steady State ACT. He has a background in public policy, ecology and economics and has worked with the Commonwealth and ACT governments on the environment, the economy and foreign affairs. He spent eighteen years working in the Commonwealth environment portfolio, including managing at different times natural environment heritage assessment and the Commonwealth threatened species, invasive species, wetlands and migratory species programs.

 Key points raised in this submission

  • The review should consider the operation of the EPBC Act in a broad context, recognising
    – the dependence of the wellbeing of Australians on the maintenance of our natural environment and
    –  the magnitude of the threats posed to the wellbeing of Australians by the degradation of the natural environment in Australia and globally.
  • The EPBC Act is failing in its role of protecting the Australian environment.
  • While there may be opportunities to reduce the time taken for EPBC Act approvals processes, a far higher priority is enhancing environmental protection under the Act.
  • Commonwealth environmental legislation should be broadened to
  • take into account the likely direct and indirect greenhouse gas impacts of proposed developments
  • conserve soils and inland surface and underground waters
  • redress Australia’s completely unacceptable levels of vegetation clearing.
  • Wherever possible, proposals should be assessed collectively for their impacts on environmental factors (such as matters of natural significance) or regions, rather than in isolation.
  • Consideration should be given to establishment of a separate authority to make decisions under the Act, to remove them from the direct political sphere.
  • Further advice in relation to the recovery planning and threat abatement aspects of the EPBC Act are in Attachment 1.

 Australia’s natural environment is critical to our wellbeing, it is degraded and faces major threats

While the terms of reference for this review are limited to the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, it is critical that the operation of the Act be placed in a much broader context. First, the review should consider the relationship of the legislation to broad societal views on the environment and the economy. Secondly, the review should consider in the broadest manner the significance of the natural environment to the wellbeing of Australian society.

Neoclassical economics informs the basis upon which Australian governments operate: that our natural environment is an ‘externality’ from which resources are to be extracted for human benefit. Consistent with this paradigm, Australian governments give paramount priority to increasing gross domestic product, for which environmental protection will routinely be compromised. The very use of the term ‘approvals process’ makes clear that it is expected that development proposals will be approved. This has indeed been the outcome; as of 2015, almost 98% of proposals submitted under the EPBC Act had been approved[1].

A healthy natural environment is generally portrayed in the media as providing aesthetic or recreational benefits, but it is critical to sustaining human life. Humans are an animal like any other and we require a healthy habitat to provide for our needs. Arguably, a more biocentric, rather than anthropocentric, values system would serve humans better, as well as the myriad species with which we share Planet Earth.

With every year, this need for humans to see ourselves as within and dependent upon, rather than separate from, the natural world becomes increasingly clear. Our extractive relationship with nature has brought us to a point where global environmental damage threatens to significantly disrupt human civilisation this century. In 2009, leading climate change scientist, Hans Schellnhuber, estimated that under feasible climate change scenarios, Earth’s carrying capacity could be reduced to one billion people, in contrast with our current 7 billion. On the release of a 2019 biodiversity report, the United Nations warned that

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.[2]

The report stated that one in four species globally were at risk of extinction.

World-leading energy expert, Vaclav Smil, has warned of the need for radical change to our economic models, and that the long-term survival of our civilisation will require placing limits on the scale of global economic activity.[3]

These trends and future threats are repeated in Australia. The Commonwealth’s 2016 State of the Environment Report found that[4]:

Based on the information available about vegetation extent and condition, and the small number of species for which there is some understanding of trends in distribution and abundance, the status of biodiversity in Australia is generally considered poor and deteriorating.

That report also determined that

In Australia, the key drivers of environmental change are population and economic activity.

Australia is the developed nation which is the most vulnerable to climate change[5]. The threats posed to Australia by climate change are well known and will not be canvassed comprehensively here, but they will potentially affect our natural environment, our economy, our national security, and our physical health and broader wellbeing.

Within this context, it is clear that the maintenance of our natural environment is of the highest importance. The most significant factor in conserving our natural environment is a broad understanding within the Australian society of this importance. This awareness appears to have increased dramatically over the last year, but is still not reflected in many decisions made by Commonwealth and state governments.

The EPBC Act is failing and needs to be improved

As this review’s discussion paper suggests, legislation is just one of several mechanisms the Commonwealth can use to conserve the natural environment, and the states and territories are major players in land and biodiversity management. So, the condition of our natural environment is not solely an indicator of the effectiveness of the EPBC Act, but the number of threatened species demonstrates that the Act is not working. As of 4 December 2019, 517 animal species were listed as threatened under the Act, including 54 which were extinct, with 1373 species of plants listed, of which 37 were extinct. These numbers reflect merely those species which have been through the administrative process and may well be significant underestimates of the true situation. Moreover, the fact that the Carmichael coalmine could be approved with its huge carbon footprint, significant use of Artesian water and its biodiversity impacts speaks volumes for the inadequacy of the Act.

This review was launched with an over-riding message that its priority was to find ways to ‘reduce green-tape’ and to speed up approval processes. It is the case that some approval processes take some time, and given that environmentally damaging proposals are nearly always approved, it could be argued that these long processes serve the interests of neither the environment nor the proponent. In many cases, the proposals should have been dismissed much earlier in the process. Given the parlous prospects for our natural environment, this is not the time to be further weakening environmental approval processes nor to be reducing community involvement, including powers to challenge approval decisions.

Commonwealth environment legislation should be strengthened to protect our natural environment, commensurate with its importance and the grave threats it faces this century. At the very least, the Act needs to be modernised to consider the direct and indirect greenhouse gas impacts of proposed developments. Currently, national environment legislation is mainly restricted to matters of national environment significance. The future of the Australian economy, human livelihoods, biodiversity and our broader national wellbeing are dependent on conserving our natural resources.  National environment legislation should encompass protection of all relevant natural elements, including soils and water. Australia has an appalling record in relation to land clearing, and Commonwealth legislation should also seek to prevent this. These changes would require further consideration of the settlement of such responsibilities between the Commonwealth and the states and territories.

The EPBC Act generally assesses each development application in isolation. This does not allow for assessment of the aggregation of impacts as they might apply to a region or to a species. The outcome is the ‘death by a thousand of cuts’, as developments incrementally impoverish the environment. Higher-level assessments are therefore supported wherever possible.


Other matters

  • Decisions about environmental approvals are often highly political. Consideration should be given to increasing the independence of decision-making, possibly by establishing an independent authority.
  • The discussion paper states that trends suggest that Australian GDP and Australia’s population will continue to grow. While the past trends are not disputed, future statements by the Review should make clear that future GDP to some degree, and population levels to a large degree, will be the outcomes of government policies. The future is not pre-determined and Australia can decide to reduce future impacts on the environment by its policies and actions.
  • The use of biodiversity offsets remains a highly questionable process. For example, improving the quality of remaining habitat for a species to make up for habitat destroyed still ends up with a net loss of habitat. A preferable outcome would be to retain and to improve the condition of both areas. The process has largely been used to legitimise loss of species habitat.
  • Further advice on matters related to threatened species and invasive species management are at Attachment 1.


(Attachment 1 is not provided in this post. It is posted separately as the ‘Submission to the Senate inquiry into the ‘faunal extinction crisis’.)



[3] Smil, V, 2019. Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.

[4] Jackson WJ, Argent RM, Bax NJ, Bui E, Clark GF, Coleman S, Cresswell ID, Emmerson KM, Evans K, Hibberd MF, Johnston EL, Keywood MD, Klekociuk A, Mackay R, Metcalfe D, Murphy H, Rankin A, Smith DC, Wienecke B (2016). Overview of state and trends of biodiversity. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65510c633b

[5] See for example:

Photo credit: Palm Trees by Melanie Shires

We need to talk about population


Population and immigration are difficult topics to discuss, given the current prominence of populists. The significance of the existential threats facing humanity and the biosphere this century, however, means that we cannot ignore population as a multiplier of environmental damage. The challenge is to discuss population, which we must, in a manner that is both evidence-based and respectful.

Population as an issue at the global level

Human Footprint analysis reveals that humanity is using the equivalent of 1.7 Planet Earths each year to provide our resources, and to remediate our wastes. In other words, we are living beyond the means of our planet, and eating into natural capital.  If that continues, natural systems will collapse, causing major social upheaval.  Climate change is just one expression of this breaching of planetary boundaries.

The importance of population in environmental impacts is highlighted in the illustrative equation I = P x A x T, where

I = impact on the environment

P = population

A = affluence (effectively per capita consumption) and

T = technology (which translates as the resource used and pollution created per unit of consumption).

Considering ‘T’ first, technological improvements can reduce inputs used and wastes generated per unit of product. Von Wieszacker and others identified a broad suite of areas where industrial production can reduce environmental pressures by up to 80 per cent. These improvements can be pursued as ‘no regrets’ measures, but technology cannot alone counter the ongoing increases in consumption, driven by indefinite economic growth. Such technological innovations will inevitably deliver diminishing returns over time. The Jevons paradox also predicts that efficiencies in production reduce the price of a product, enabling consumers to demand more of the product, thereby increasing the requirement for resource inputs.  For this reason, more efficient production may have limited impact on reducing resource consumption.

We could focus on per capita consumption, particularly the profligate lifestyles of wealthy nations, noting that a relatively small proportion of the global human population is responsible for the vast majority of consumption, while much of the global population needs to increase its per capita consumption so as to reach a decent standard of living. Some argue incorrectly that because current global population increase is mainly in poorer nations, population can be ignored as an environmental factor. There is, however, no avoiding the fact that population is a multiplier of per capita consumption in both poor and rich nations. The two are inseparably linked to environmental impact by the I = P x A x T formula.

Nor is population a problem only if it is growing. Arguably, the current overpopulation issue is actually in wealthy countries, many with relatively low population growth rates.  At our high levels of per capita consumption, there are simply too many of us in wealthy countries. We, therefore, should be encouraged that populations can plateau and even decline in wealthy countries, such as is happening in Japan.

There is a more difficult point here; we should all support residents of developing countries gaining access to a decent lifestyle, and this will inevitably increase their consumption and environmental footprints. A projected increase in global population from the present 7.7 billion to 11 billion in 2100 makes even more difficult the task of equitably sharing global wealth, while returning to within the Earth’s physical capacities. The total consumption of 11 billion people living comfortable lifestyles would certainly breach planetary bounds.  The ‘doughnut’ band of consumption satisfying both social justice and environmental sustainability proposed by economist, Kate Raworth, may not be possible with that many people[1]. Again, the responsibility for reducing global environmental impacts should be with wealthy countries and should not be shifted to developing countries, but we do need to understand that population is an important factor in the significant global threats we collectively face.

The importance of using any means available to reduce global consumption is highlighted by considering global economic growth, which is currently increasing at about 3.9 per cent per annum. If this growth rate were to continue until 2050, global consumption would more than triple. If it were to continue until 2100, it would increase by over 22 times. Given we are already beyond Earth’s biocapacity, neither of these situations is sustainable, and are probably unattainable, due to environmental constraints.

Population is a very relevant factor in climate change mitigation; the lower the populations of high emitting countries, the lower their total emissions would be. One study found that

…slowing global population could provide 16–29 per cent of the emissions reductions suggested to be necessary by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate change.

High rates of population increase are also a challenge for the developing countries themselves. While those in the West must not dictate population policies in these countries, we should be assisting those countries that want family planning initiatives. A paper by Dr Jane O’Sullivan has illustrated that until fertility rates are brought down, it can be very difficult for developing countries to improve standards of living.

 Population as an issue in Australia

Australian population and environmental impacts

Not all causes of environmental degradation relate to population levels, but the Australian Government’s 2016 State of the Environment report found that

In Australia, the key drivers of environmental change are population and economic activity.

The report continued

The concentration of Australia’s population near the coast, mostly in urban areas, creates substantial pressure on coastal ecosystems and environments in the east, south-east and south-west of the country.

The greatest impacts of population growth and demographic change on the environment are in our capital cities and along the coast of Australia, particularly in Queensland.

In 2010, an expert panel provided a comprehensive report to the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship on the impacts of net overseas migration on the natural and built environments. It identified a range of impacts, including water supplies, motor oil demand and traffic congestion. The report found that

… higher levels of NOM (Net Overseas Migration) impose greater adverse impacts on the quality of our natural and built environments.

… the magnitude of the impacts at all NOM levels suggests that unless substantial and timely actions are taken to address these impacts, some impacts have the potential to disrupt Australia’s economy and society.

…small differences now in the effects of different levels of NOM on various natural and built assets in many cases accumulate to large differences 10, 20 or more years down the track.

Considering some of these impacts in turn, urban expansion destroys native habitat.  It also often pushes out agricultural use of the good soils that supported settlement in those areas in the first place.

An expanding population also generates new demand for the construction of new homes and physical infrastructure, as well as a range of consumer goods. This leads to extraction of large amounts of non-renewable mineral resources, causing a range of environmental impacts.

Our growing population also has increasing water needs. Decreasing water catchment yields in southern Australia due to climate change creates further demands for new water supplies. Large dams significantly change downstream ecological conditions, impacting on fish and invertebrate populations.

Urban expansion also can also necessitate the upgrading of reservoirs to mitigate downstream flood impacts. Lake Burragorang is Sydney’s major water reservoir, and there is currently a proposal to raise its dam wall. This would lead to significant inundation of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, destroying habitat for a number of species. A major reason for the dam is to provide better flood relief for expanded settlement in far Western Sydney, a consequence of Sydney’s rapidly rising population.

In pursuit of water security, the exhaustion of Australia’s limited river systems for water supply has led to the building of desalination plants for our major cities, which have very high energy requirements. Australia has one of the world’s highest per capita greenhouse gas emission levels and an increasing population makes it ever more difficult for us to make a fair contribution to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement.

The impacts of population on the day-to-day lives of Australians

Impacts such as congestion on roads and public transport, overcrowded schools and poorer access to primary health and other services are the almost inevitable consequence of Australia’s high rates of population growth. Recently some politicians have identified increasing community concern about urban congestion and reduced access to services, particularly in our major cities.

Australia has the highest rate of population growth of major developed nations. The increase of 388,100 in 2016-17 represented a rise of 1.6 percent on 2015/16, way above increases globally of 1.1 percent, and in the United States’ (0.7 percent) and Canada (0.9 percent). The rates of increase are even higher in Sydney and Melbourne, the latter experiencing annual population growth rates of up to 280,000, or 6.6 per cent, per annum.

It is unclear whether it is even feasible for infrastructure and attendant lifestyle standards to keep up with such extreme rates of population growth, due to the competing demands on the construction sector and the annual capital requirements. If the average life of our infrastructure is, say, 50 years, then our infrastructure replacement is 2 per cent each year. If we have a population growing at almost 2 per cent annually, then this roughly doubles the necessary annual infrastructure spend just to maintain a standard of service across the community[2].

The very building of infrastructure, such as transport spines, is generally highly disruptive to local residents and current users.  If there were a longer-term goal of an ultimate population size, then infrastructure could be built with that goal in mind. In the absence of such a goal, planners have the expectation of ever-increasing populations to service, but build infrastructure that will only meet a short- to medium-term population projection. The result, particularly with roads, is that every few decades otherwise serviceable structures are demolished or augmented to jam in new and expanded infrastructure.

Finally, lags in infrastructure are likely to impact most on already disadvantaged groups, who often are pushed by housing costs to outer suburbs with inadequate services and which are more distant from employment centres.

The Australian community seems to be becoming more concerned about these impacts of high rates of population growth, with declining support for an increasing Australian population. A 2019 ANU survey found that only 30 per cent of Australians agreed that ‘Australia needs more people’ (70 per cent disagreed), down from 45.8 per cent in 2010.  This concurs with a 2018 survey by The Australian Population Research Institute, which found 72 per cent replied ‘no’ to the question ‘Does Australia need more people?’. It seems likely that this declining support for ongoing population growth has been shaped in large part by the lived experiences of urban residents, especially in Sydney and Melbourne.

 Discussing population and immigration

Public debate and the media

Until recently, there has been limited public discussion or media coverage in Australia of population and net immigration rates. Federal Cabinet decisions on immigration quotas previously attracted little attention. The ABC, in particular, was largely silent on these matters, presumably because it feared that it would give weight to populist discourses.

Since 2017, however, there has been a significant increase in public discussion of population and immigration[3]. The rise of the extreme right in Australia understandably makes the progressive left sensitive to discourses that are racist or may have racist motivations. Ethnically diverse people are being explicitly targeted and vilified, so that people of good faith critiquing population growth and immigration policy must be cautious that their utterances do not add to this hurt. It has been argued for this reason that environmentalists should not publicly question immigration policy. But this self-censorship would be to deny the important environmental impacts of population.

Sustainable Population Australia and One Nation both support lower immigration levels, but what needs to be understood is that Sustainable Population Australia seeks a lower immigration rate for very different reasons to One Nation, focusing on the population impacts identified in this article. Sustainable Population Australia is highly supportive of Australia’s refugee intake, seeking an increase in numbers within an overall reduced immigration program.

It is important that such different motivations are acknowledged within discussions about population. Some have characterised those questioning current immigration levels as ‘anti-immigrant’.  This is misleading, in the same way as it is wrong to describe coal-mine opponents as ‘anti-coal miners’. It is clearly possible to respect individual immigrants, and to value their contribution to our society, while raising concerns about immigration policy.

Notwithstanding the sensitivities of the topic, the recent public discussion on population and immigration has remained largely civil and measured. The NSW Premier, the daughter of Armenian immigrants, was, for example, able to propose in 2018 that a pause in immigration rates would allow for infrastructure to ‘catch-up[4]’, without significant flaring of populist discourses.

While the media has focused its coverage on the impacts of population growth on urban residents, impacts on the natural environment have rarely been raised. Instead, the voices heard in pieces on population and immigration have been dominated by business interests, politicians and some demographers, who mainly bring free market perspectives. These positions appear to be based on the premise that population and economic activity can expand indefinitely. The absence of environmental voices in these public debates presumably reflects the dominant economic framing in political and media discourses, as well as in our broader society.

Discussion of population issues within the Australian environment movement

Australian environment groups have enjoyed some success in protecting particular natural areas and stopping environmentally-destructive activities, but have done little so far to address the fundamental ‘drivers’ of environmental damage, such as neoliberalism, and ongoing population and economic growth.[5]. It appears that most environment activists do not frame their thinking with concepts such as the I = P x A x T equation, planetary boundaries or limits to growth. The vast majority of the key players in Australian environment groups hold socially progressive views and are uncomfortable with arguments to limit immigration levels, because they do not seem to accord with a compassionate and welcoming national disposition.

As arguably Australia’s foremost environment group, the Australian Conservation Foundation provides a good case study of engagement with population issues. The organisation spent considerable effort developing a very balanced and well-founded population policy, which achieved broad support across the organisation. But the policy was never translated into public action. Each individual had their own reasons for opposing action, but it would appear key players were concerned that advocacy on population would be, or would appear to be, ‘anti-immigrant’ or racist.

That said, there are other reasons why an Australian environmental group would decide not to enter population debates. These include:

    • a judgement that in today’s unnuanced and combative public debates, legitimate concerns will be twisted and misrepresented as racist, thereby reducing the group’s reputation and credibility
    • that it will be more effective to direct limited organisational resources to other targets, such as reducing Australian per capita consumption or reducing the environmental impacts of current economic activities, including through improved resource use efficiency
    • a moral view that there should be few constraints on migration, as they prevent those from poorer countries improving their lot. This view can recognise the impacts of population, but give greater weight to moral considerations. It might argue that from a global perspective that any environmental impacts due to migration are just being shifted from one country to another.

The only significant Australian environment group campaigning on population is Sustainable Population Australia, and it has very firmly distanced itself from extreme right-wing views, supporting non-discriminatory immigration policy and a generous and humanitarian refugee program. Given the values and perceptions of Australia’s environment movement, it appears very unlikely that the Australian environment groups will campaign on population issues any time soon, and there is no plausible risk that they will be co-opted by nativists.  In avoiding limits to growth issues such as population, however, environment groups are arguably not tackling some of the primary causes of environmental degradation.

Population and immigration policies

Australia needs a population policy for a range of economic, demographic, social and environmental reasons, and this need was endorsed by the Productivity Commission in 2016. Even so, there is little interest in the major parties in developing such a policy. Perhaps governments have feared alienating migrant groups or business interests. The Gillard Government’s foray in this area ended abruptly and led to no obvious policy change. In the absence of an explicit population policy, the Productivity Commission has noted that our immigration policies are our de facto population policies.

Better environmental regulation and infrastructure can mitigate environmental damage, but they can only go so far. The equation I = P x A x T reminds us that everything else being equal, environmental impacts increase directly with population. Australia’s population is growing because of ‘natural increase’ (i.e. more births than deaths) and net overseas migration. Both impact on the natural and built environments, and both warrant consideration in any population policy.

Policies affecting Australian natural increase

Australia’s social services policies are pro-natalist and, for a mix of legitimate and questionable reasons, favour families relative to those without children, irrespective of the number of children parents choose to have.  They go beyond providing a safety net for the needy. Peter Costello’s ‘baby bonus’ is but one example of these pro-natalist policies. Understandably, governments do not want to interfere in the reproductive decisions of adults, but there are few if any social signals that having more than two children places increasing demands on communal resources and the environment.  Having one less child reduces a person’s carbon footprint far more than any other single measure they can take.

What is important here in government policies is the normative message that is sent, rather than the financial impact. While the average size of Australian families has decreased dramatically over the last fifty years, there does not appear to be significant public questioning of the legitimacy of having large families, which are still often celebrated in the popular media. Social service payments flowing to parents could be changed in a number of ways. Child support payments, for example, could peak at family sizes of one or two children, and even reduce with additional children. Alternatively, equivalent benefits could be provided to all people at a certain income, whether they have children or not.

Without a significant public education on the impacts of population growth, such policies are likely to be electorally unpopular. Anything that appears in some way to be managing population would be characterised as draconian. Support for ‘families’, which generally means nuclear families, is the bread-and-butter of political rhetoric from both major parties. Parents see government support as a legitimate expectation of their decisions to have children. The factors influencing people to decide whether to have children are complex and it is unclear how many people already factor into their decisions the environmental impacts of adding to Australia’s population[6].

There are, however, a number of measures which would reduce national fertility, which are non-coercive ‘no regrets’ initiatives with co-benefits, such as the empowerment of girls and women. A recent example is the provision of free contraception to Colorado teenagers, which halved teenage pregnancies. It is estimated that almost half of Australian pregnancies are unplanned and better family planning support could help address this, as would less restricted, unjudged and more freely available access to abortion.

Reducing Australian natural increase would arguably have a greater impact on reducing global environmental degradation (such as climate change) than reducing immigration. This is because Australian natural increase adds to the global population, while immigration is a transfer of people from one country to another[7]. Australian fertility rates, however, are now close to replacement levels and would be difficult to lower much further.  Natural increase also accounts for less than 40 per cent of our population growth and this proportion is declining, so it is probably difficult for further reductions in Australian population growth to flow from changes in fertility rates.

Immigration policies

Net overseas immigration contributes 60 per cent of Australia’s current population growth. Leith van Onselen contends that this actually underestimates the contribution of immigration to population growth, because children born to migrants are counted as natural increase.

The Greens’ Population Policy acknowledges limits to economic growth concerns, noting that

The current level of population, population growth and the way we produce and consume are outstripping environmental capacity.

The policy, however, does not make any explicit recommendations as to population growth rates or immigration rates, and instead sets out principles which would frame a population policy. The Greens’ immigration policy does not include such considerations. In practice, the Greens rarely if ever speak publicly on population policy.

The policies and public statements of Labor and the Coalition support high levels of immigration and a ‘Big Australia’, reflecting the free-market paradigms of these parties. Their support for a large immigration program is predominantly based on contentious economic arguments.  The natural environment appears to be ignored in these policies.

The financial benefits to the bulk of Australians from high immigration rates are questionable. Australia has a much-vaunted run of 27 years of uninterrupted GDP growth. This is in large part due to our high immigration rates, as each new resident consumes and contributes to economic demand. GDP is, however, a very poor measure of social wellbeing; while still flawed, per capita GDP is a better such indicator. Ross Gittins has questioned the value of increasing GDP through immigration, noting that while GDP grew by 1.8 per cent in 2017-18, per capita GDP only grew by 0.2 per cent[8]. Productivity Commission figures raise questions as to whether immigration leads to increases in per capita GDP.   Gittins goes on to conclude that it is business, the main proponents of high immigration rates, that benefits from immigration, rather than the broader Australian public.

A further argument presented for a large immigration program is that it is needed to avoid an ‘ageing population’ and higher ratios of ‘economic dependents’ to those in the workforce. The problem is that immigrants also age, requiring ongoing high rates of immigration, with its attendant challenges.  The approach resembles a Ponzi scheme: its benefit is only maintained if the high levels of immigration are continued. The Productivity Commission dismissed the ‘ageing population’ argument in its 2017 report. A better approach would be to execute a planned transition to a new age structure.  The identification of this problem also arguably under-estimates both the contribution of the aged in unpaid contributions to society (such as childcare and charity work) and the extent of their financial self-reliance. It is instructive that this dependency argument is never mentioned in relation to children, who may be financially dependent until their twenties.

The most popular argument for immigration is that Australia is a nation of immigrants, and that diverse post-World War 2 immigration has created a diverse, vigorous and harmonious multicultural society. This is definitely true; we should indeed value the rich composition of modern Australia, but we would remain a multicultural society even with a reduced immigration rate.

Population levels, immigration rates and moving to a truly sustainable Australia

We have seen that human economic activity has outgrown the capacity of Earth’s natural systems to support us. Climate change, soil degradation and desertification, loss of native habitat and escalated rates of species extinction, disruptions to global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and overexploitation of freshwater sources together pose pressing, interconnected existential threats to humans and our fellow species. Australia is contributing globally to these problems[9], and we are also degrading our own natural environment[10].

Given the magnitude and urgency of the threats facing us, we should be pursuing all available avenues to reduce our environmental footprint. This includes population policies, as well as reducing per capita consumption and adopting more environmentally benign production technologies. As David Attenborough said in 2018

All of our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.

It is incumbent on Australians to responsibly steward our land and its natural systems. While difficult to estimate, there are limits to the number of people Australia can support[11]. Aboriginal Australians were living in relative balance with natural systems and had a pre-1788 population estimated to be up to one million. In 1994, Tim Flannery proposed up to 12 million as an optimal number. In the same year, the Australian Academy of Sciences recommended limiting population to 23 million. Irrespective of what a sustainable population is for Australia, an arid and mostly infertile continent[12], that number will be a lot lower in a carbon-constrained, climate change future.

The current Australian population of 25.1 million surpasses all of these estimates of a sustainable population. Our net overseas migration has more than doubled[13] since the late 1990s and we now have one of the highest immigration rates in the Western world. There is no plan to curb immigration significantly so that our population plateaus. Nor is there a target population level. We are acting as if we can indefinitely increase our population, an approach that will inevitably lead to severe impacts on our society as well as to our natural environment.

I will not propose a particular annual immigration rate, but if we are to live within Australia’s environmental limits, we will eventually need to move to a steady state economy.  A prerequisite for such a society is a stable or decreasing population. Depending on Australian fertility rates, immigration would need to equal or be smaller than emigration from Australia, which is currently at about 70,000 people per annum. Such a figure leaves significant room for an expanded refugee intake.

While welcoming large numbers of immigrants might seem altruistic, our offshore treatment of refugees and the dominance of business migration raise doubts as to the compassionate basis of our overall immigration program. While it is the decision of individual business migrants to relocate, we also need to recognise that our immigration program is, in many cases, drawing highly skilled workers away from where they are sorely needed.

Looking more broadly, if we are to ever live within Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut’, consumption of Earth’s planetary budget will need to be redistributed from current wealthy countries to current developing countries. This transfer would be supported by much higher levels of overseas development assistance. These additional funds could in part be sourced from the very high costs of infrastructure currently required to service our high population growth, and would be far more effectively used to raise living standards in developing countries.

There are no easy solutions to the existential challenges we face, but we do need to talk about population.


[1] In her 2017 book, Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth argues that social justice is not only morally necessary, but also essential if we are to achieve environmental sustainability. She argues that there is a ‘doughnut’ band of global aggregate consumption that stays within environmental bounds but provides all humans with a decent living.

[2] Drawn from work by Dr Jane O’Sullivan. See for example

[3] It is not clear why the prominence of these issues suddenly increased, but certainly Melbourne’s Age newspaper was an earlier publisher on this topic.

[4] It might take a long-term to redress the infrastructure deficit, but that is a different matter.

[5] The Australian Conservation Foundation has, however, recently undertaken work to identify the ‘drivers of unsustainability’ and is now directing some resources to changing Australia’s ‘economic rules.’

[6] Interestingly, recent research by the Australian Conservation Foundation found that a significant number of young Australian women are questioning having children, fearful of the futures such children would face under escalating climate change impacts.

[7] …although those immigrants will generally increase their levels of consumption by moving to Australia, particularly if they come from developing countries.

[8] Our high immigration rates are also masking low rates of improvements in productivity.

[9] For example, through our very high per capita greenhouse gas emissions and ecological footprints.

[10] For example, Australia has the world’s highest rate of mammal extinction.

[11] Even George Megalogenis, a leading promoter of the benefits of immigration, recognises that “our continent may not be able to carry a very large population.”

[12] Only six percent of Australia is arable land.

[13] See also this reference on permanent migration rates.

Submission to the Australian Senate inquiry into the ‘faunal extinctions crisis’

Photo: Jonathan Miller.

About Steady State ACT

Steady State ACT is a non-government organisation which is committed to:

– raising awareness of the material limits to economic growth;

– raising awareness of the need to move away from economic growth policies and

– promoting the critical need to move to a steady state economy (see Attachment 1).

Steady State ACT is the ACT chapter of the international Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy. Its website is at

Jonathan Miller is Director of Steady State ACT. He has science and forest science degrees, and has worked with the Commonwealth and ACT governments, and with non-government organisations, on the environment, the economy and foreign affairs. He spent several years managing the Commonwealth threatened species and invasive species programs.


Key points raised in this submission

  • Earth is experiencing its sixth great extinction event. The underlying cause is that humanity is extracting resources faster than nature can replenish them, and is creating wastes faster than nature can remediate them. We are destroying our natural capital and the natural processes fundamental to maintaining both biodiversity and human economies.
  • The underlying drivers of Australia’s faunal extinction crisis are similar to those for global biodiversity loss:
  • the key drivers are population and economic activity
  • these drivers must be addressed if we are to stop native species going to extinction and to avoid significant long-term threats to human welfare
  • we need to start the transition to a steady-state economy.
  • Mitigating threatening processes across the landscape generally yields greater biodiversity gains than focusing on a multitude of single species recovery actions.
  • Emphasis should be placed on preventative measures, such as
  • maintaining healthy ecosystems, to prevent species reaching threatened status
  • funding effective biosecurity measures that prevent establishment of new invasive species.
  • The development of recovery plans and the listing of critical habitat, while potentially valuable activities, may divert resources from more effective actions.

    1. The status of faunal species and the reasons for their decline

 1.1 Global context

Australia’s faunal extinction rate needs to be placed in a global context. Earth has entered its sixth great extinction event[1]. Extinction is a natural phenomenon with a natural ‘background’ rate of about one to five species per year. Current extinction rates, however, are now 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with dozens of species becoming extinct every day[2]. The Worldwide Fund for Nature’s 2016 report, the Living Planet Index[3], assessed the health of 14,152 populations of 3,706 vertebrate species. The report found a 58% decrease in the abundance of these species between 1970 and 2012.   It has been estimated that 30 to 50 percent of all species could be extinct by mid-century[4].

 1.2 Australia’s rich and distinctive wildlife

Australia’s biodiversity is globally significant; we are considered to have a ‘megadiverse’ biodiversity. A 2009 report[5] determined that 147,579 Australian species of all kinds had been described among a total estimated number of 566,398 species. In other words, it is likely that almost 74% of Australia’s species are not yet known to science. These figures also demonstrate the global significance of Australia’s biodiversity. The report determined that Australia was home to about 8% of the world’s 1.9 million described species, including 12% of vertebrate animals. Australia also has very high levels of endemism – numbers of species found nowhere else. Ninety-three per cent of our reptiles, 87% of our mammals, 94% of our frogs and 90% of our plants are unique to Australia. Australia has a significant role and responsibility in maintaining global biodiversity.

1.3 The parlous state of Australian wildlife

The Commonwealth’s 2016 State of the Environment Report found that:

Based on the information available about vegetation extent and condition, and the small number of species for which there is some understanding of trends in distribution and abundance, the status of biodiversity in Australia is generally considered poor and deteriorating[6].

Of the 511 faunal species listed on the Commonwealth’s List of Threatened Species in July 2018, 27 mammals, 22 birds, 4 frogs and one fish are listed as extinct. One fish is listed as extinct in the wild.[7] The equivalent list of threatened flora identifies 37 extinct species among a total of 1355 listed species.

The Commonwealth threatened species lists represent the endpoint of protracted technical assessment and administrative processes, rather than regularly updated, comprehensive point-in-time inventories of the conservation status of Australian species. For this reason, and the incomplete knowledge of Australia’s biota, the Commonwealth lists almost certainly underestimate the number of threatened species.

In March 2016, former Australian Government Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews, noted that Australia had the highest rate in the world for mammal species extinctions.[8]

“Thirty-five per cent of all global mammal extinction since (the year) 1500 have been Australian (30 out of 84 worldwide extinctions)”. Twenty-nine of these have been since European colonisation.

Australia is a global hotspot for biodiversity, and a major contributor to the current global sixth extinction crisis.

 1.4 Direct causes of biodiversity loss

The 2016 State of the Environment report identified habitat clearing and fragmentation, invasive species and climate change as among the key pressures on Australian biodiversity.

These pressures can be abated to differing degrees. A number of invasive species, such as cats, foxes and rabbits, have become well-established across Australia. Other than in fenced exclusion ‘sanctuaries’ (such as those run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy), actions to reduce the impacts of these widespread species can only have temporary or local effect, as complete eradication is not feasible and the invasive species readily recover in numbers or reinvade from adjacent areas.

There are, however, key threatening processes which are the outcome of current economic activities and government decisions. Habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation are being caused by activities such as native vegetation clearance for agriculture, expansion of urban settlements, and new and expanded infrastructure.

In the longer-term, human-caused climate change is likely to become the most significant disrupter of Australian biodiversity. Species may not able to adapt to the rapid projected rates of global warming, being unable to move their ranges sufficiently quickly southward and to higher elevations. It appears that the Great Barrier Reef’s Bramble Cay melomys recently became the first mammal driven to extinction by climate change.

Photo: Jonathan Miller

1.5 Drivers of biodiversity decline and species extinction

To understand the reasons for Australia’s biodiversity decline, it is important to go beyond the immediate causes, and consider the underlying drivers.

The 2016 Commonwealth State of the Environment report found that

In Australia, the key drivers of environmental change are population and economic activity.[9]

Like most other countries, Australia has adopted continuing economic growth, as measured by GDP, as a paramount national objective.[10]

While increased resource use and pollution are not strictly functions of economic growth, they are generally strongly correlated. When that economic growth is due to per capita GDP increases, consumers generally demand more material goods and services, such as overseas travel. Increases in population multiply the demand for consumer goods and services, as well as housing and infrastructure.

The impacts of population on the environment primarily are determined by the population level itself (rather than the population growth rate). The higher Australia’s population, the more native vegetation that needs to be cleared for settlement and infrastructure, the greater the disruption to our rivers and groundwater, and the greater the pollution generated, including greenhouse gas emissions.

It is often argued that as a large country, Australia can carry a much higher human population, but comparisons with other land masses need to take into account the aridity, infertility and the unfavourable climate of much of the Australian land mass[11]. Increasing our population not only leads to impacts on biodiversity, but also degrades the natural systems we rely upon to support our welfare and prosperity.  Australia needs a population policy and population strategy as overdue priorities.

Photo: Melanie Shires

Beyond the impacts of population growth, economic growth drives a number of the key pressures degrading Australian biodiversity, such as habitat destruction and fragmentation, and climate change.

It is healthy for a child to grow, but there comes an age when further physical growth is unhealthy. Similarly, there are limits to the healthy growth of an economy and its material throughput. We live on a finite planet and we are already exceeding its capacity to support our annual harvesting and extraction of resources, and its capacity to remediate our wastes. Climate change is just one consequence of this ‘overshoot’. Using Ecological Footprint analysis, humanity is currently using the equivalent of 1.7 ‘Earths’ to provide the resources we use and to absorb our wastes.[12][13] This means that we are eating into the world’s natural capital to meet our annual needs.

The extent to which humans are ‘crowding out’ nature and appropriating Earth’s resources is well illustrated by a calculation that in the year 2000, the total mass of all humans and livestock species made up 94% of the mass of all mammals globally, with wild mammals contributing just 6% of that biomass[14].

Arguably, Australia is also exceeding its long-term sustainable limits to growth. We are consuming and degrading our natural capital, and our high rates of species extinction are an inevitable consequence of this.

Australia’s high level of material consumption is strongly dependent on imports of consumer goods and petroleum. Fossil fuels have been critical to the Great Acceleration and our high standards of living, but we must move quickly away from fossil fuels to minimise the future impacts of climate change. It is not clear whether replacement power supplies can support continuation of our current high levels of material consumption indefinitely into the future, which has so far relied on abundant cheap energy. Put another way, Australia’s ‘human carrying capacity’ is almost certainly artificially inflated at present. In a future ‘low-carbon’ world, Australia’s population is likely to depend increasingly on Australia’s physical environment, and less on imports. This makes maintenance of a healthy physical environment all the more critical. The Australian Academy of Science argued that our population should be limited to 23 million[15]. In 1994, Professor (then Dr) Tim Flannery estimated that with currently foreseeable technology and present habits of consumption, Australia might support a long-term population of 8-12 million[16].

Photo: Jonathan Miller

Economic growth is more than just a government policy goal; it is a paradigm that dominates political thinking and media commentary. It is seen as an unchallengeable necessity. The primacy of this paradigm is reinforced by the dominance of neoclassical economics, which largely excludes environmental sustainability considerations, sidelining them as ‘externalities’. Environmental conservation is often presented as a secondary, aesthetic matter. Within such a framework, the consideration of development under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) almost inevitably leads to approval and the further incremental degradation of Australia’s natural environment.

Environmental impacts are often long-term, incremental, cumulative and not readily apparent. Climate change provides an excellent example, where the degradation of a vital natural system function – climatic regulation – is being disrupted by the cumulative effect of daily actions and decisions of individuals and organisations.  Notwithstanding the significance of this threat, governments, individuals and corporations continue to make decisions that give primacy to short-term economic benefits. The causes for this disconnect are complex but reflect the cultural frame of our society which is strongly influenced by narrow economic thinking, and our limited spatial frame of perception that does not factor in Earth’s finite nature.

The false dichotomy of the human economic realm and the natural physical world in our thinking comes at great cost. Like all other animals, humans rely on our physical environment for habitat needs – which are the critical resources and services our economy and our welfare depend on. These ‘ecosystem services’ include but are not limited to food production, raw materials, water production, energy, soil formation, pollination, waste decomposition, water and air purification and recreational opportunities. Even if we are just to take a narrow utilitarian perspective, the value of these ecosystem services is greater than the global human economy. The value of ecosystem services in 2007 was estimated to be US$125 trillion/year, compared to the global GDP of US$75 trillion/year. The same study estimated the value of the loss of ecosystem services between 1997 and 2011 was in the range US $4- 20 trillion/year, due to land use change, which represented degradation of the physical environment and consumption of natural capital[17]. This natural capital is biodiversity, and the systems and processes that support that biodiversity

So, the degradation of our physical environment has very direct consequences on human welfare. Climate change is the most critical current example of humanity living beyond limits to economic growth, in this case polluting beyond the capacity of Earth’s natural systems to remediate greenhouse gas emissions. In 2009, leading climate change scientist, Hans Schellnhuber, estimated that under feasible climate change scenarios, Earth’s carrying capacity could be reduced to one billion people, in contrast with our current 7 billion.

In summary, Australia’s faunal extinction crisis is in part the inevitable result of our society’s priority on economic growth and population growth. The fate of both humans and non-human species depends on nations, including Australia, managing their populations and their demands on the natural environment, so as to live within nature’s productive, regenerative and remedial capacities.

Rainforest. Melanie Shires

2.    Steps for better biodiversity conservation

 2.1 The need for high-level,  long-term planning to ensure Australia is a truly sustainable society

Australians and Australian governments need to recognise that not only is the degradation of our physical environment causing the extinction of our native species, it also imperils the very future of our economy and our quality of life.

Securing the future of Australia’s wonderful animals demands far more than narrow attention to decisions on development proposals and recovery actions. We need to make long-term plans for our society that reflect the finite nature of our country and our planet. This would include a long-term target for Australia’s population and other policies to maintain our natural capital and ecosystem services. We also need to responsibly address the overseas and global impacts of Australian exports and the consumption of our imports.

Serious consideration of such matters makes clear the need to start the transition to a steady state economy as a matter of urgency.[18]

2.2 Give priority to dealing with threats to biodiversity

The EPBC Act includes significant provisions aimed at supporting the recovery of threatened species.

The 2016 Commonwealth State of the Environment report noted:

Evidence for the effectiveness of recovery planning for threatened species is variable.

Once a species has reached threatened status, it is generally very difficult to recover that species. Species rely on complex natural systems for their needs. Research into the causes of individual species decline, the identification of recovery actions, and the implementation of those recover actions require significant resources. A lot of money has been spent on captive breeding of the Orange Bellied Parrot and the Helmeted Honeyeater, for example, with very limited success. Yet, we have almost 2,000 nationally listed species. While Commonwealth funds provided for threatened species conservation should arguably be increased dramatically, a species-by-species approach to recovery is likely to only ever have limited success.

Until changes to the EPBC Act in 2006, recovery plans were required for all listed species. This created a huge workload that could never have been addressed with available funding, and hence redirected funds and staff time away from on-the-ground action to plan development. The plans developed a suite of species-specific actions, the vast majority of which could not be funded and were never implemented.

A more viable approach is to focus on the key threatening processes impacting on Australia’s biodiversity, as they degrade the health of natural systems, thereby impacting on a number of species. Invasive species such as cats and foxes have played, and continue to play, a major role in Australian faunal extinction. The eradication of invasive species in the Australian Wildlife Conservancy fenced reserves has been highly effective in securing populations of the threatened species. Outside such reserves, ongoing invasive species management can be very important to biodiversity conservation.

Photo: Jonathan Miller

2.3 Prevention is much more effective than ‘cure’

The adage that ‘prevention is better than cure’ is particularly relevant to biodiversity conservation.

A limitation of the EPBC Act is that it focuses on the status of species once they are threatened, rather than stopping species reaching threatened status. Given the difficulties of recovering threatened species, it is highly desirable to avoid or pre-empt actions and threats that might impact on the conservation status of species, particularly those species currently not considered to be threatened.

To prevent degradation of the conservation status of species, whether threatened or not, preventing native vegetation clearing and fragmentation are very important. The level of native vegetation clearing in Australia is unacceptable in a first-world country and stronger measures are needed to stop this. ‘Biodiversity offsets’ are used to legitimise developments that impact on local biodiversity, but their validity and effectiveness is highly questionable. While the negative impacts of a development are likely to be ongoing, any benefits of offsets generally rely on ongoing maintenance and the security of tenure of the sites, but there is very limited funding to enforce offset requirements under the EPBC Act.

The importance of prevention of ecological damage is highlighted by the benefits of effective biosecurity measures. Whereas established invasive species such as rabbits and foxes cause ongoing biodiversity impacts and financial costs for control measures, it is much more effective and less expensive to stop invasive species becoming established in the first place. The importance of biosecurity to our agricultural industries has long been recognised, but biosecurity threats to our biodiversity have received less attention and funding. The volume of trade into Australia makes it impossible to completely prevent the arrival of new invasive species, but it is highly desirable to increase funding for detection and eradication of new arrivals at the border and beyond.

The implementation of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity in 2012 was a major step forward in improving the protection of Australia’s biodiversity. To be effective, the Australian Government needs to ensure adequate funding for the National Environment Biosecurity Response Agreement, which facilitates the eradication of newly arrived invasive species.

The incursion of Red Imported Fire Ant (RIFA) in south-east Queensland provides a salutary case study. The impacts of the RIFA are listed as a key threatening process under the EPBC Act, and place numerous species at threat. The huge super colonies formed by fire ants transform landscapes and their biodiversity, as well as inflicting painful and sometimes deadly stings to humans, and impacting agricultural production. In the USA, the ant causes $7 billion in impacts and control[19]. If not controlled, the pest could spread to most of the Australian continent, causing an estimated additional 140,000 medical consultations and 3000 anaphylactic reactions each year. It is to the credit of Australian governments that they have now funded a comprehensive eradication campaign, but this would have been much less expensive and more certain of success if the funding had been provided in the early 2000’s when the incursion was almost eradicated.

Ultimately, climate change might be the greatest threat to Australia’s biodiversity. Recent increases in the frequency of bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef give some indication of the threat posed. The future of both human society and our biodiversity are dependent on mitigation of the threats posed by climate change.

Alpine grassland. Jonathan Miller

2.4 Critical habitat identification and registration under the EPBC Act

There has been recent public comment about the lack of identification of critical habitat, as entered in the EPBC Act’s Register of Critical Habitat. While the responsible Minister is required to create or maintain the Register, there is no requirement to list critical habitat for any individual listed species or ecological community.

Ideally, critical habitat would be identified widely for listed species and ecological communities. In practice, identification of such habitat, and particularly its boundaries, is generally not a clear-cut process. Importantly, the Environment Department as a matter of good process and natural justice, needs to consult the landowners of candidate areas for critical habitat listing. This is potentially very time consuming, whereas the benefits of listing under the Act are limited; the EPBC Act only provides protections for listed critical habitat areas on Commonwealth land.

It is therefore important to recognise the trade-offs in resources between the work needed to lead to a critical habitat listing, and other activities undertaken by Environment Department staff working on threatened species.

3. Acknowledgements

 Steady State ACT acknowledges the following for their assistance in drafting this submission: Ian Penrose, Dr Anna Schlunke and Dr Geoff Mosley.

Attachment 1. What is a steady state economy?

 A steady-state economy has a constant (or mildly fluctuating) population and constant (or mildly fluctuating) per capita consumption.

Energy and material flows are reduced and kept within ecological limits and there are constant stocks of natural and human-built capital. This is done by:

  1. maintaining the health of eco-systems and the life-support systems they provide;
  2. extracting renewable resources like fish and timber at a rate no faster than they can be regenerated;
  3. consuming non-renewable resources like minerals at a rate no faster than they can be replaced by the discovery of renewable substitutes and
  4. depositing wastes into the environment at a rate no faster than they can be safely assimilated (this means a steady-state runs on renewable energy.)

Rather than aiming for growth, a steady-state economy aims for:

  1. sustainable size;
  2. a fair distribution of wealth, where there are limits to inequality;
  3. efficient use of resources: reuse, recycling, using circular processes instead of linear and
  4. a high quality of life.


[1] See for example Cerballos G, Ehrlich P and Rodolfo D (2017). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, July 25, 2017. 114 (30) E6089 – E6096

[2] Chivian, E. and A. Bernstein (eds.)  2008. Sustaining life: How human health depends on biodiversity. Center for Health and the Global Environment. Oxford University Press, New York.

[3] Worldwide Fund for Nature (2016). Living Planet Index.

[4] Ibid. and Thomas, C. D., A. Cameron, R. E. Green, M. Bakkenes, L. J. Beaumont, Y. C. Collingham, B. F. N. Erasmus, M. Ferreira de Siqueira, A. Grainger, Lee Hannah, L. Hughes, Brian Huntley, A. S. van Jaarsveld, G. F. Midgley, L. Miles, M. A. Ortega-Huerta, A. Townsend Peterson, O. L. Phillips, and S. E. Williams. 2004. Extinction risk from climate changeNature 427: 145–148.

[5] Chapman A, 2009. Number of Living Species in Australia and the World 2nd edition. Report for the Australian Biological Resources Study.

[6] Jackson WJ, Argent RM, Bax NJ, Bui E, Clark GF, Coleman S, Cresswell ID, Emmerson KM, Evans K, Hibberd MF, Johnston EL, Keywood MD, Klekociuk A, Mackay R, Metcalfe D, Murphy H, Rankin A, Smith DC, Wienecke B (2016). Overview of state and trends of biodiversity. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65510c633b

[7] (viewed 29 July 2018)

[8] Reported on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s website on 4 March 2016:

[9] Jackson WJ, Argent RM, Bax NJ, Bui E, Clark GF, Coleman S, Cresswell ID, Emmerson KM, Evans K, Hibberd MF, Johnston EL, Keywood MD, Klekociuk A, Mackay R, Metcalfe D, Murphy H, Rankin A, Smith DC, Wienecke B (2016). Overview: Overview. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65510c633b

[10] This is a relatively new phenomenon, postdating the Second World War. The modern concept of GDP was developed in 1934 by Simon Kuznets, who ironically argued against using the indicator as a measure of national welfare.

[11] To reinforce this point, Antarctica is larger than Australia, but its unfavourable environment means that it cannot sustainably support a large population.

[12] Global Footprint Network website.

Sighted 24 July 2018.

[13] Australians have a far greater average ecological footprint than the global average. If all people had the same human footprint as Australians, humanity would need about five ‘planet Earths’ to meet our needs.

[14] Smil V, 2011. Harvesting the Biosphere: The Human Impact. Population and Development Review 37(4): 613-636 (December 2011).

[15] Australian Academy of Science, 1995. Population 2040: Australia’s Choice. Proceedings of the Symposium of 1994 Annual General Meeting of the Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.

[16] Flannery, T, 1994. The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Land and People.

[17] Costanza R, R de Groot, P Sutton, S van der Ploeg, S Anderson, I Kubiszewski, S Farber, R Turner, 2014.
Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environment Change 26 (2014), 152 -158.

[18] A steady state economy is a dynamic market economy that efficiently allocates goods and services but uses the lowest feasible rates of natural capital depletion to achieve a high quality of life. It features a sustainable population, a fair distribution of wealth and low resource use. (After James Magnus-Johnston in Positive Steps to a Steady State Economy. Edited by Haydn Washington for CASSE NSW. 2017).

[19] Information drawn from Invasive Species Council, 2017. Fact Sheet: Red Fire Ants

Why we don’t act on the threats facing us

Contemporary scientists could be forgiven for thinking they are modern-day Cassandras; they can foresee the perils we face, but their ‘prophecies’ go unheeded. This is currently most apparent in relation to climate change. Indeed, each new soberly-worded report of future climate disaster is relegated to a few column-centimetres deep within newspapers –ironically, often some pages after coverage of recent weather events.

Science has been critical to the dramatic improvements in material living standards in Western countries over recent centuries, but the dominant discourse in these countries is nowadays couched in economic, rather than scientific, terms. I have heard a number of scientists exclaim in frustration: “the facts are clear; why won’t the government act on them?”

If only human cognitive processes were so rational! Of course, there are vested interests inside and outside governments, and we may favour our own immediate interests over future generations’. Our values may also vary. But these does not fully explain the gap between evidence and action.  Surely the majority of us want to keep our planet habitable? We live in a democracy, and we must collectively bear some responsibility for the actions of our governments. Unfortunately, our cognitive processes are subject to a range of distortions, and those of us with a long-term concern for the health of our planet must bear these in mind.

Distortion 1: We are best at acting on very immediate threats

Some argue that one of the main reasons we fail to engage with climate change is that the threat is not sufficiently clear-cut in its presentation. The theory goes that our ancestors’ brains were attuned to detecting immediate, readily-perceptible, mortal threats: the hunting tiger or approaching hostile warriors. Climate change does not present in this way; if we look out the window, everything generally looks normal and un-alarming. Individual extreme weather events may have been made more probable by climate change, but ultimately climate change is only evidenced in trends in climate statistics, and their longer-term impacts. The world therefore goes on, our lives are not immediately threatened, and we feel reassured.

While some politicians will encourage fear and anxiety for their own needs, for some reason the deteriorating condition of our planet is generally not raised in such terms. Climate change is taking its grip on the planet, and human consumption is overshooting the earth’s productive capacity, yet our Prime Minister can brightly extol that “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”. A crisis? What crisis? Let’s continue down the current path.

Distortion 2: Inadequate perspective

It is not surprising that our ancestors understood the world to be flat. Such a view seemed supported by day-to-day observation. Such an understanding is, however, untenable for astronauts, or the majority of us who have seen photographs of Earth from space. Perspective can radically change our understanding.

Using that perspective of Earth from space also makes it very obvious that our host planet and its resources are finite. It becomes clear that we cannot indefinitely increase global human consumption and pollution. Economic growth therefore must also be constrained, as it is strongly correlated with consumption and pollution. Yet, almost every national government, as well as intergovernmental groupings such as the G20, have economic growth as a key policy priority.

A further failure of perspective is that most of us have little direct experience of the impacts of our individual actions and choices on our physical environment. This is because we do not see the extraction of resources and the pollution created to produce or consumer goods. Nor do we suffer the direct consequences of those activities.

Distortion 3: Ideology

Neoliberalism has helped to shape a more self-centred, narcissistic, and fragmented society. Commercial media and advertising reinforce a highly materialistic lifestyle, whereby personal and social worth are demonstrated by material wealth. The flip-side of that is the withdrawal of the individual from the communal realm to identify as individuals, or as families. We are told, even by governments, that we are foremost consumers, rather than citizens. An apparent result of this is an increasing reluctance to sacrifice individual benefits for the broader good of the community. So, we hear statements from some Australian politicians that they would not take any measures to address climate change which would damage the Australian economy. An extraordinary approach, given that unabated climate change will devastate our economy, along with our society and environment. If such a philosophy had applied during the 1940s, the Australian government presumably would have decided that we could not afford to defend ourselves against the approaching Japanese army, so as to avoid deleterious impacts on our economy.

Another unhelpful consequence of neoliberalism has been the marginalisation of the natural environment. Possibly this is also a result of the dualism within our western societies, which separates us humans from our physical environment. In neoclassical economics, the ‘environment’ is seen as an externality, removing it from our main focus. The central contemporary narrative of politicians and the mainstream media is about economic throughput and the provision of services and goods to humans. To the extent the environment provides such goods and services, well and good, but increasingly we emphasise the goods and services provided through the ‘economy’ as a human system alienated from the ‘environment’. Unfortunately, neoclassical economics also does not recognise a range of laws of physics and those shortcomings are highlighted as we overshoot global limits to growth.

Distortion 4: Disconnection with our physical environment, and our essential reliance on it

Those seeking to raise the alarm on the environmental crisis face a related problem. Indigenous cultures generally have a very strong understanding of their dependence on a healthy natural environment. In contrast, urban dwellers in wealthy countries are increasingly removed from the natural processes that support them. So, the term ‘environment’ has become trivialised and is now primarily be seen as a source of aesthetic values. Politicians associate the ‘environment’ with ‘cute and cuddly’ threatened species and troublesome impediments to economic development. Mainstream Australian media commentary rationalises ongoing incremental loss of natural habitat as a necessary enabler of prosperity, reflective of a society which lives on digging up and selling off its natural capital. In this discourse, the notion of the physical environment as human habitat is completely lost.

Distortion 5: Tribalism

Further barriers to environmental action are raised by the belief systems of society’s modern ‘tribes’. For many, particularly conservatives, climate change and other global existential threats cannot be readily integrated with their expectations of capitalism generating ongoing rises in material living standards.  A person will take extraordinary measures to protect the core beliefs central to maintaining their identity, or ‘sense of self’. To the extent that their worldviews and identities are threatened by the existence of anthropocentric climate change, it is easier to deny the existence of that threat. In these circumstances, they will gratefully accept specious arguments that validate their positions. This is made easier, because the climate change messengers, environmentalists, are a despised tribe. Furthermore, to square their desire not to accept the science of climate change, many now also have to demonise the unimpeachable climate change scientists themselves.

Distortion 6: Implicatory Denial

Even among those who accept the science of climate change, many engage in implicatory denial; they do not accept, or do not act on, the steps needed to mitigate climate change. So we have inadequate and half-baked climate change policies to act as a political fig-leaf. We certainly have a gap between the translation of the Paris climate change agreement and current national greenhouse gas reduction policies. Anything to avoid disrupting ongoing-growth capitalism; it seems that some would sacrifice the habitability of our planet before they would disrupt contemporary models of capitalism.

We are sold the line that we can solve climate change with some technical fixes, and happily continue ‘business-as-usual’ growth economics. It won’t work. Climate change is just one planetary boundary we are breaching by annually consuming resources more quickly than Earth can produce them, and creating pollutants more quickly than Earth can remediate them. Ecological footprint analysis indicates we would need ‘1.5 planet Earths’ to support our current levels of consumption. At current global economic growth rates of 3% per annum, global consumption will increase more than tenfold by the year 2100.

There are opportunities for reducing ecological impacts through more efficient and cleaner production methods, or ‘decoupling’.  Decoupling however cannot be a sufficient redress for the impacts of economic growth, as we would need to find ongoing annual efficiencies greater than the global economic growth rate indefinitely. Decoupling is part of the broader hope for ‘techno-fixes’. Techno-fixes are a desperate hope akin to awaiting the arrival of a messiah. It is the optimistic view of Mr Micawber that “something will turn up”. In the case of climate change, such techno-fixes take the form of geoengineering, ludicrously speculative proposals with large unknown but potential huge side-effects. They are but ways of avoiding addressing the underlying cause of climate change – overconsumption and overpollution.

To create a global society that limits climate change to two degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees, will require massive changes. Those in ‘developing countries’ need to consume more to achieve basic levels of health and welfare, while those of us in the rich world will need to consume much less to limit the total global consumption. Our economy is totally reliant on the transport of goods across great distances, and this is strongly dependent on fossil fuel consumption. The great advances in food production over recent decades have also relied heavily on the availability of large amounts of cheap oil. In a future which is both carbon-constrained, and oil-constrained, all this will change, and local communities will need to be far more self-reliant.

Taking personal responsibility

For most of us, climate change is a little like death – occasionally we are reminded of our mortality, it scares us…and then we just carry on, ignoring this unpalatable reality. Some of us do try to reduce our footprint. But then we take an overseas holiday, despite the huge greenhouse gas emissions caused by air travel.  We can justify our actions by rationalising that our personal sacrifices will have minimal impact globally. Moreover, our primary concerns are often working long hours to feed, clothe and educate our families. This provides a psychological cocoon to shelter us from having to really consider the parlous future of life on Earth.

We are all implicated here. This is not a call for taking on guilt. We need to accept that merely living on this Earth, we will have impacts. We should, however, be mindful and responsible in our day-to-day choices and actions, conscious of our impacts.

The habitability of our planet will not be saved by individual actions alone; this is a conceit of libertarians and defenders of the ‘free market’. Systemic actions will be essential to creating a truly sustainable global society. But systemic action does start with the awakening of every individual. As Alice Walker said, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”

We need to give up the mind-games that allow us to validate what we know is unacceptable. We need to root out our own perceptual distortions. We then need to act as if planet Earth is what it is; the only known habitat for human and non-human life anywhere in the universe.

This post has been adapted from an article by Jonathan Miller first published by the Frank Fenner Foundation in the November 2016 edition of Nature and Society Journal.

The need for a steady state economy


While governments worldwide strive to maintain or increase economic growth, an international movement is asking the G20 to plot a path towards a steady state economy.


Across the globe, maintaining and increasing growth in gross domestic product is the pre-eminent national policy goal. Yet, there is growing scientific evidence that growth is a major cause of unsustainability, and many are questioning the benefits of economic growth.

The argument for a steady state economy starts from the understanding that exponential growth in the extraction of physical resources cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. The 1972 study, Limits to Growth, identified the risks of continued global growth in resource use and pollution. Frequently misunderstood, the work did not make predictions as to future resource exhaustion, but instead modelled a range of scenarios for population growth and resource use. Its main conclusion was that our current path would expand the economy beyond Earth’s capacity to support it, and that after this ‘overshoot’, production of food and other essential materials would collapse (possibly by the mid 21st century).   Dr Graham Turner from the University of Melbourne has recently re-run[i] the Limits to Growth scenarios and found that they have proved accurate over the past 40 years.

Our economic system is totally dependent on the health of natural systems to deliver physical resources and manage our wastes. Ecological Footprint[ii] analysis undertaken in 2007 found that humans were using ecological services 1.5 times more quickly as the Earth can renew them, causing an ongoing degradation of global natural capital. Twenty-seven scientists co-published a paper[iii] in 2009 identifying nine key planetary boundaries as safe limits for human impacts. Four of these boundaries are already being exceeded: climate change, biodiversity loss, phosphorus use and nitrogen use and pollution.

Growth proponents argue for continuing GDP expansion to improve lifestyles, and particularly to provide a decent standard of living to those in the developing world. The record, however, has at best been patchy. In many countries the recent decades of high global economic growth have led to significantly increased wealth disparity, a key correlate of social problems. Over the last three decades, only 10% of global wealth generated[iv] has flowed to the poorer half of the world’s population.  The gross numbers of people[v] with incomes less than $2 per day have remained similar over that period. Government policy interventions, such as land reforms, support of smallholders and social security have generally been more important in addressing hunger than free market-driven economic growth.

Proponents also claim that economic growth is essential to addressing environmental problems, but increasing extraction and pollution associated with economic growth are actually the causes of our global environmental problems. This fact is largely masked by environmental burden-shifting, with increasing production in the third world of goods consumed in the first world. The poor in developing countries are also much more vulnerable to the current and projected overshooting of global environmental boundaries, being driven by economic growth.

Economic growth is currently strongly linked to levels of resource throughput and a rising population. A key question is whether economic growth can be absolutely decoupled from resource use and consequent pollution. Not all economic activity relies directly on physical resource use and there are opportunities to improve significantly improve resource use efficiency. For example, curtailing heat losses from buildings can reduce both heating costs and greenhouse gas emissions. ‘Cradle to cradle’ strategies and adopting circular economies are also highly desirable approaches for reducing the environmental pressures of resource use.

While these strategies, in theory, could bring human environmental impacts back within safe global boundaries in the short-term, continuing exponential economic growth would likely ensure these boundaries are breached in the long-term. There are two main reasons for this. The first is described by the ‘Jevons paradox’, which identifies that when technological gains improve the efficiency of resource use, consumption of that resource actually rises due to increased demand. The second reason is that to achieve absolute decoupling of economic growth from resource use would require ongoing improvements in resource efficiency at a faster rate than economic growth, and would therefore also need to be exponential in the long-term.

Moving to a steady state economy is therefore proposed as the only viable long-term means of staying within global environmental boundaries. The key elements of a steady state economy are a constant population and a constant low-level economic throughput of material and energy.

Moving to a steady state economy provides the opportunity to return and stay within global environmental boundaries. The steady state economy model also recognises that it is not possible for all of the projected 2100 global population [vi]of 11 billion to live sustainably at current developed world levels of consumption. Global footprint analysis indicates this would require more than five ‘planet Earths’. To enable the developing world a decent standard of living, it will require significant reductions in first world levels of resource consumption and pollution, and possibly significant global redistribution of wealth.

But moving to a steady-state economy does not mean ‘returning to the Stone Age’ and could actually facilitate improved lifestyles and well-being. Health, individual happiness, secure employment, leisure time, strong communities and economic stability are key goals for a steady-state economy.

Climate change is now widely considered the single greatest threat to our global civilisation. But it is just one of a number of global environmental threats to our livelihoods, driven by exponential growth in consumption and pollution. For these reasons, CASSE is arguing the critical need to start the global transition to a steady-state economy.

This post has been adapted from an article by Jonathan Miller first published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs in 2015 in Australian Outlook.