Brits and Aussies Speak Out on Immigration, Population, and Ecological Sustainability

By Philip Cafaro on June 17, 2010

By and large, American environmentalists remain too politically correct to address immigration and population issues. Meanwhile, our colleagues in the United Kingdom and Australia have recently been showing more courage. I find this hopeful! If it can happen there, it can happen right here in the United States.

In Britain, a small, crowded island filled with nature lovers, concerned environmentalists are fed up with continued population growth. Exhibit A is David Attenborough, respected world-wide for presenting six decades of award-winning nature documentaries for the BBC. Says Sir David, according to an article in the Times of London:

There are three times as many people in the world as when I started making television programmes only a mere 56 years ago. It is frightening. We can't go on as we have been. We are seeing the consequences in terms of ecology, atmospheric pollution and in terms of the space and food production.

Topping the list of Attenborough's concerns is habitat loss and species extinction. But as he says: "I've never seen a problem that wouldn't be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more. Population is reaching its optimum and the world cannot hold an infinite number of people." He advocates halving immigration into the United Kingdom, in order to preserve as much of the landscape as possible. As he put it a few years ago, at the close of one of his documentaries, "The Life of Mammals": "Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, maybe we should control the population to ensure the survival of our environment."

Attenborough sits on the board of directors for the Optimum Population Trust, a British group advocating for population stabilization in the UK and worldwide. Among other good work, they recently sponsored a study by the London School of Economics titled "Fewer Emitters, Lower Emissions, Less Cost." It showed that curbing population growth is a much cheaper way of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions than many of the technological fixes that tend to get much more press.

Down under, Aussie environmentalists are also questioning the wisdom of endless population growth. Partly this has been spurred by a recent government study which showed that at current levels of fertility and immigration, Australia's population will increase 60 percent in the next 40 years, to 36 million people. Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd approves, saying: "I have said before that I believe in a big Australia. This is good for our national security. Good for our long-term prosperity. Good in enhancing our role in the region and the world."

While Rudd argues that "the time to prepare for this big Australia is now," polls show that his fellow citizens disagree with him. Apparently, most Australians would prefer to start planning to keep this population growth from occurring. Apparently, they aren't convinced that a bigger Australia will be a better Australia.

One response has come from the Australian Conservation Foundation, the country's largest conservation group. ACF has filed a formal nomination for finding population growth a "key threatening process" to Australia's biodiversity, under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. According to ACF's director of strategic ideas, Charles Berger:

The bigger our population gets, the harder it is for us to reduce greenhouse pollution, protect natural habitats near urban and coastal areas and ensure a good quality of life for all Australians. More people means more roads, more urban sprawl, more dams, more transmission lines, more energy and water use, more pollutants in our air and natural environment and more pressure on Australia's animals, plants, rivers, reefs and bushland.

"We need to improve urban and coastal planning and management of environmental issues," Berger continues. "But we can't rely on better planning alone to protect our environment. Rapid population growth makes sustainable planning nearly impossible, so stabilising Australia's population by mid-century should be a national policy goal"

ACF's nomination cites many government reports that acknowledge the direct link between population growth and environmental degradation. It also details the role population growth plays in destroying habitat and reducing biodiversity in four specific areas around Australia. The nomination's recommendations call on the government to reduce overall immigration levels and set a national population policy that will stabilize the country's population by mid-century.

For those of us who have advocated for Environmental Impact Statements regarding current and proposed U.S. immigration policies, this effort suggests how such an approach can help make explicit the environmental costs of immigration-driven population growth. The Australian government is legally required to take this application under consideration. If the nomination is found to have merit, the government will need to propose ways to alleviate or mitigate the environmental costs of population growth. By pushing the issue in this forum, ACF is helping Australians to make the immigration/population/environment connection – unlike their PC American counterparts.

Meanwhile, important Australian politicians are also jumping on the bandwagon. While the current prime minister has endorsed the goal of a "Big Australia," the opposition leader, Labor MP Tony Abbott, has taken the opportunity to put forward a plan to cut immigration levels in half, in order to reduce population growth. Said Abbott: "At the moment, it's growing in an out-of-control and unsustainable way . . . Australia's large cities are choking on their traffic and Australia's environment is under pressure everywhere. That's why the Coalition rejects Mr. Rudd's big Australia population target of 36 million people."

Where are the Democratic politicians here in the U.S. who would be willing to buck the Hispanic and cheap-labor lobbies, and advocate for national population policies that are in the common interest? And where are the mainstream religious organizations to match Australia's Anglican Church? Its Public Affairs Commission recently warned that current rates of population growth are unsustainable. In a new discussion paper, they state:

Out of care for the whole of creation, particularly the poorest of humanity and the life forms who cannot speak for themselves . . . it is not responsible to stand by and remain silent. Unless we take account of the needs of future life on Earth, there is a case that we break the eighth commandment – Thou shall not steal.

The discussion paper argues that government financial incentives encouraging childbirth should be scrapped. "In the context of unsustainable global population growth, it is inconsistent and arguably irresponsible to provide financial incentives for population increase," it says. It also calls on the government to cut immigration into the country.

An American observer can only watch all this activity with wonder and admiration. The honesty! The willingness to tackle all the real issues at the heart of biodiversity protection, global climate change, and general sustainability! People who can talk honestly about these issues have a fighting chance to achieve sustainable societies. People who can't, don't.

Environmentalists here in America know, in our heart of hearts, that stabilizing our population is one key to creating a sustainable society. Yet we dither and talk around population issues, afraid to offend allies on the right or the left.

Many thanks to our friends overseas, who show us that it doesn't have to be this way! We can talk about what is necessary to create sustainable societies. And that's a start.