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How many people doing what in Australia?

By Michael Krockenberger - posted Friday, 15 March 2002

Picture this. There is an immigrant from Asia, perhaps a refugee from Afghanistan. They came to this country for a better life. Back home they burnt wood or dung for fuel, they used little water, and they walked or caught crowded buses. Their average use of resources was far less than ours, but their life was certainly not idyllic.

In Australia they are suddenly one of us. They use our coal-fired electricity, need a car to get to and from their outer suburban home and more or less become a typical Australian consumer. They now leave a heavier footprint on the earth. They deserve their better life. But, if they had migrated to Sweden or Norway, instead of Australia, their footprint would be far lighter. This is the crux of the issue.

I’m not here to talk about the right population size for Australia. It’s a meaningless discussion without talking about consumption patterns. The debate needs to be about what people are doing. What sort of lifestyles they have, what sort of technologies they use and what sort of economy they live in.


I don’t believe that we can pluck a figure out of the air and then shut the door.

But I do believe that the old axiom of "populate or perish" does not apply in a globalised world. Population growth is an ‘old economy’ approach to economic productivity.

There is no doubt that increasing Australia’s population under current circumstances will increase our environmental problems.

Australia is an unsustainable country at a population of 19 million, and will only be more unsustainable at any larger population, other things being equal. However, the population debate after the Tampa crisis, and at the start of a new century, is an opportunity to discuss the type of Australia that we want - socially, economically and environmentally.

While here during the Tampa crisis, Bill Clinton, is reported to have said that he couldn’t understand all the fuss about 400 boat-people when, unless climate change is more effectively dealt with, there will be 400,000 on Australia’s shores.

Many of the countries which will be most badly affected by climate change, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and the low-lying Pacific island nations, are in our region. Being among the poorest countries in the world they are the least likely to cope. As a wealthy country, with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world, which has consistently undermined international efforts to slow climate change, Australia is a logical destination for future greenhouse refugees. And the answer is obviously not tougher immigration and refugee laws but doing something effective about climate change.


As a wealthy democratic country with humanitarian principles we have an obligation to do our fair share in taking refugees. If, however, our behaviour is a cause of why they are refugees then our responsibility increases even more. How, in all good conscience, do we say ‘no’ to climate change refugees who point at our profligate use of energy that contributed to their plight?

Therefore we may well face the issue of population growth whether we like it or not. The only way we can cope ecologically is to make Australia an environmental leader, not a laggard.

Post-war immigration has undoubtedly been socially and culturally good for Australia. With a name like Krockenberger I would say that wouldn’t I? But don’t take my word for it, most Australians would agree.

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This is a speech given to the National Population Summit in Melbourne on February 25, 2002.

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About the Author

Michael Krockenberger is Strategies Director for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

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