Cardinal George Pell’s claim that “no Western country is producing enough babies to keep the population stable” is a pure flight of fancy. The United States and New Zealand both have fertility rates of about 2.1, which is the long-term replacement level.

True, fertility rates are below the replacement level of 2.1 in many Western countries. Interestingly, the traditionally Catholic countries of southern Europe, including Italy and Spain, have among the lowest rates in the world. But this does not mean populations are declining or will decline any time soon.

For Australia, with a fertility rate of 1.85, the most recent ABS projections suggest our population will grow to between 25 million and 33 million by 2050. It may well continue to grow beyond that. Nor is this due solely to migration: Australia’s “natural increase” — the excess of births over deaths — was around 130,000 last year and will continue to be positive for at least another few decades as individuals born in previous periods of high fertility move through their reproductive years.

One has to wonder also about Cardinal Pell’s preoccupation with fertility in Western countries, when the global population is projected to peak at a minimum of 9 billion by 2050. Surely he’s not suggesting the Joneses have to keep up with the Lius and the Hassans in some sort of global population contest?

The growing material expectations of a growing global population are adding immensely to the great stress that unsustainable lifestyles in industrialised countries have placed on our natural environment.

There are many challenging goals Australia should be aiming for in the next 50 years, but having more babies is not one of them. If Cardinal Pell is in favour of growing populations, he should be prepared to explain how that preference can be squared with the imperative to rapidly reduce our greenhouse pollution levels and to adjust to a world in which water, oil and other key resources are nowhere near as plentiful as they have been in the past.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey