Population policy is one of those deeply vexed issues that often seems to bring out the worst in political discussions. Too often it is used as a cypher for racist politics. Too often, those who are honestly trying to grapple with the issue sensibly are labelled racist by association. I wish I knew which of those two categories Julia Gillard’s comments of recent days belong to – dog whistle or unfairly criticised as such. I suspect we’ll find out very soon.

Meanwhile, within the Greens Party membership, it’s no secret that there is a longstanding dispute over how to deal with and communicate on the issue. I stress that these are my opinions and not necessarily those of the party.

Having got the preamble and the caveats out of the way, here’s my 2c on population.

Australia is not an island.

Not on this increasingly small globe, it isn’t. And it’s not earth-shattering to note that population is an issue of far greater significance globally than it is locally. Population stresses overseas dwarf any here in Australia. With business-as-usual approaches to foreign policy, aid and climate, those stresses will inevitably boil over and inexorably head our way. And here’s the rub.

Australia is not an island.

Australia, frankly, cannot be a fortress. No matter what we do, if people want to come here – as they will in coming decades more and more – we won’t be able to stop them. If you think a few thousand refugees each year is difficult to handle, wait until climate-related desertification, sea-level rise and storms start uprooting tens of millions of people from Bangladesh to Kiribati, from the Mekong delta to the plains of western China. Scott Morrison’s tough rhetoric will not be able to stop them coming to Australia.

We need to accept that the path we are heading down currently is a dead end. We have to change direction.

What does that involve?

In my opinion, our task is threefold: help slow population growth around the world and in our region; help turn around the climate crisis so populations in our region don’t face the huge stresses it would bring, driving them in our direction; and massively change our own economic and social structures so that Australia can cope with a larger population.

By investing wisely in appropriate aid, education (particularly of women), Grameen-style micro-financing, renewable energy and other projects in our region, Australia can help slow population growth in the developing nations that surround us. By reducing their population stresses, we can increase their relative standard of living (and do so sustainably, if we put in the effort, by helping them leapfrog our fossil fuel addiction and head straight to renewable energy and fuels) and thereby decrease the pressures that send people in our direction.

By working positively towards a fair, science-based global solution to the climate crisis, we can avoid the tremendously increased stresses that are projected for the large populations of poor people in our region. There are actually great synergies to be gained – seriously tackling climate change will involve major investment in sustainable development from countries like Australia in our developing country neighbours. And it will also involve the third task.

By radically changing our own economy – re-building our energy networks for 100% renewable energy, re-designing our cities for localised, livable hubs linked by fast mass transit, replacing our vehicle fleet with electric engines, re-discovering community food gardens and boosting sustainable local production and much more – we can build a country which can sustain many more people. It’ll take decades, but that’s OK. As long as we start fast.

Remember that ecological impact is a factor of population x consumption x technology. If we make the shift to sustainable technology and make the choice to consume less, we can sustain a larger population. And here’s another positive feedback loop – if we make the choice to consume less here in Australia, we lead by example those in developing countries who see our consumption as the key to our standard of living. This will not only help the global community be more sustainable, but could also reduce the pull factors bringing people to our shores.

Now, regardless of all this, some will doubtless raise the spectre of problems with integration of people from different cultures. As a child of refugees from the holocaust whose parents were seen by many anglo Australians in the late 50s as alien and slightly scary, this, in my opinion, is largely a question of attitude. As we get used to each wave of migrants, we realise that they aren’t scary and they actually add to our society. If, instead of demonising refugees, we welcomed them and helped them become actively citizens, we would build a more cohesive society. If we didn’t lock asylum seekers behind razor wire when they arrive, would we be less anxious about them? I suspect so.

So here’s an idea – how about we try to be friends?

Oh, and one final point.

Australia is not an island.

We are one pretty damn lucky country on a very small planet. We have a responsibility to play our fair role on this planet, and that goes for dealing with population stresses just as much as it goes for the climate crisis.

Let’s not pretend we can shut our eyes, close our borders, and hope it’ll all go away. It won’t.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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