Outlining a Progressive Future

The Politics of Population

As an environmentalist I find myself regularly concerned with the way the environment movement, through organisations such as ‘Sustainable Population Australia’, is framing the discussion on population policies. As climate change and environmental degradation are becoming more real, environmentalists are increasingly turning towards population control as a method of saving the environment. Often discussed policy initiatives include lessening migration intake and even implementing policies such as the ‘one child policy’ that exists in China today. The logic here is pretty simple; by creating policies that aim to directly reduce population we reduce the amount of people who have the ability to degrade the environment and in turn reduce the impact humans have on the environment. From that sort of logic it seems like a pretty benign act. Unfortunately however, such policies can create terrible consequences through creating an insular society that ignores the problems of the rest of the world and restricts the rights of its own population.

Framed in a ‘Western’, ‘First World’ perspective populations policies such as those from, ‘Sustainable Population Australia’ tend to fall into two categories; (1) migration and (2) aiming for lower birth rates. I will have a look at both of these policy issues, within the framework of ‘first world’ and discuss some of the serious problems with such policy prescriptions.

Migration: Populations organisations often target lowered migration intakes as a desirable policy, as it provides an easy target that is measurable and somewhat politically favourable. However, such policies don’t create any beneficial environmental circumstances and simply causes serious social problems through inflicting harm on some of those who deserve it least. There are two real problems with policies of reducing migration. First, there is the obvious social problems that occur when a people reject a call for help from another group of people. Living in a society where people care and help for each other no matter where someone comes from or who they are is the sort of society I desire to live in and reducing migration intake fully rejects this ideal. Instead it creates a mantra that states:  ‘Because I was born here and was lucky enough to gain ‘citizenship’ from this nation, I deserve these resources and you don’t’. It is a simply fact that resources are spread unfairly throughout this world and rejecting migration simply says that this is something we are happy to continue to happen, which I cannot stand for.

Second however, and more interestingly for the environment movement, is that the reduction of migration simply doesn’t achieve anything, except social harm. No matter where we  live, we are all people who use resources. Whether I live in Africa, or Australia or anywhere else I live in a state that is based on a carbon intensive energy sector and moving to a different country will not change this. Therefore targeting migration doesn’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but simply changes where they occur. Therefore, a focus on migration simply doesn’t work and we would be better off targeting the production and consumption of resources on a worldwide basis to create a sustainable world population, rather than creating an insular society that focuses entirely on its own impact. 

The second policy provision that is often touted is one that is aimed at the current population of an area; birth control. There are two real problems with birth control policies. First, is the very obvious social issue of the right of a state to control ones sexuality and desires to have children. I strongly believe in the right for one to practice their desired sexual experiences as they wish (as long as consent is provided by all parties) and believe that having children is a part of this experience. I therefore have serious problems with stopping people from having children as I see it as a fundamental removal of one’s sexual rights.

Second, and again more interestingly for the environment movement, is the simple fact that stopping people from having children is a terrible policy idea. Whether we want to believe it or not, breeding and creating a future generation is somewhat important for continuation of human kind and given the extremely low birth rates in the majority of Western countries is seems somewhat ridiculous to claim that we need to drop births rates even lower. The simple fact is that if we do it, we won’t be producing enough children to support the current population when we grow old, which will create serious problems. This still ignores the serious social problems that can arise through the implementation of birth control measures, as seen in China, which are often hard to predict and difficult to solve. 

So what is the answer? There are obvious reasons to have concerns about the world’s growing population. We are now living in a world that holds 6 billion people and it is estimated by the UN that this population will continue to grow to 9 billion before we even have a chance of it dropping. We must look at how we can help curb this growth in population, but targeting migration and forcing people to stop having children is not the answer. Most studies will show that one of the most effective birth control measures is proper family planning facilities and the proper provision of methods of safer sex, especially in poorer areas. If we wish to have an impact on populations we would be much wiser to target these issues in our aid provision, not only helping population issues but also providing great social benefits for those who need them most. We cannot continue down the path that many wish for us to do as it will only lead us to a society that not only refuses to help others, but also neglects to help the environment in the meantime. 


March 22, 2009 - Posted by | Analysing the Left, Climate Change and the Environment, Human Rights | , , , ,


  1. The greater problem with population control is this.

    If you have no effective cap on consumption of natural capital (no carbon trading scheme, no extraction taxes on timber, etc), then a reduced population will largely lead to higher per capita consumption, in a problem akin to the efficiency/Jevon’s Paradox.

    And if you have an effective cap (which already works as a way of discouraging population growth by increasing the price of having a child) why do you need population control policies that go beyond supporting people’s choices? More children, within reason, wouldn’t be changing the total amount of environmental harm (as long as the political consensus behind the policies is sound)!

    Plus, more people means more happiness – unless you would be indifferent as to humanity’s extinction, more people is better insofar as we can support them!

    Comment by Robert W | March 24, 2009 | Reply

  2. Robert,

    I have to agree with you here. What I was trying to get at with this article was that instead of focusing on population control the environment movement, especially in the Western world can be much more efficient to just focus on environment issues, such as creating effective caps on the consumption of resources. We currently live in a world where our resource use is well above what is needed and we therefore should be looking at cutting that usage rather than implementing regressive social policies that aim to cut our population.

    Comment by simon2013 | March 24, 2009 | Reply

  3. Do you think that the level of resource consumption is above what is needed or above what is sustainable? I would think that to maintain our western standards of living current levels of consumption would be what is needed, so wouldnt a cut in population be better?

    Comment by Michael | March 27, 2009 | Reply

    • Michael, I think you’ve probably hit right on the problem there; ‘our western standards of living’. I think living in a world where bigger and better is all that we ever desire is something that the world cannot afford and I therefore think we are better to target out western standards of living than population. Even just cutting out the amount of waste we generate, through creating more efficient practices, would help cut resource use so much, let alone what would happen if we started to cut out the constant consumption of items that we don’t need…

      Comment by simon2013 | March 27, 2009 | Reply

  4. […] For a more detailed discussion on these issues check out my previous post on ‘The Politics of Population’.  […]

    Pingback by A One Child Policy for Australia? « Polswatch | April 22, 2009 | Reply

  5. […] simon2013 added an interesting post on The Politics of Population « PolswatchHere’s a small excerptWhether I live in Africa, or Australia or anywhere else I live in a state that is based on a carbon intensive energy sector and moving to a different country will not change this. Therefore targeting migration doesn’t reduce greenhouse … […]

    Pingback by Topics about Africa » Archive » The Politics of Population « Polswatch | April 22, 2009 | Reply

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