News & Media Opinion Pieces Population & Health

Population & Health

The following article appears this week in Medical Observer.  The author is DEA national committee member and GP, Dr George Crisp.

WITH a higher growth rate than many developing nations, the debate on Australia’s future population is well overdue.

In the driest inhabited continent, with the poorest of soils, determining a sustainable population must be a priority.  Yet we are led to believe that population growth is not only inevitable, but that our future prosperity depends on it.  But growth is neither a solution to our demographic imbalance – which it merely serves to propel and magnify it into the future – nor is it a requirement for economic development.

Our growing cities, with greater congestion and longer commuting times, result in less leisure opportunities and worsening air pollution, contributing to the diabetes and obesity epidemics and increasing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.  Increasing population density squeezes health-promoting green space out of urban centres and suburban sprawl is overtaking arable land and promoting our dependence on driving cars.  Poorly planned growth is making our cities less healthy and less resilient.

Even in recent prosperous times, infrastructure, including healthcare, has not kept pace. Hospitals are overcrowded, with shortages of doctors, staff and equipment.  Our health service is hardly coping now. How will we treat more patients and access commensurately more services in ‘big Australia’?  More people consume more electricity and this is being used as an excuse to build more coal-fired power stations, escalating carbon emissions, air pollution, and water use. All of this comes with considerable health impacts.  WA’s century of declining rainfall, the tribulations of the Murray Darling basin and the recent stark reminder that Australia’s rainfall is highly unpredictable will make for very tough water management decisions.  These decisions will be complicated by the greater variability and extreme precipitation events arising from further climate change.

Another issue is food security. Although currently a net exporter, we cannot take food security for granted.  There are biological and physical constraints to food supply. Not only water, but oil, phosphate, soil and ecosystem integrity.  Peak oil poses a particular problem, as modern agricultural productivity and distribution are entirely dependent on plentiful oil and its products. As growing oil demand outstrips decreasing supply, prices will rise and availability fall.  As an importer of oil, our trade balance will deteriorate and our economy stall.

Then there are the effects of climate change and ocean acidification, the scale and consequence of which are difficult to quantify, but likely to significantly impact on population carrying capacity at a regional and global level.  Displacement, through sea level rise, freshwater depletion and famine, may result in the need to accept large numbers of climate refugees.

The assumption that our population can continue to grow is clearly challenged by a convergence of natural boundaries. The environment’s carrying capacity is finite, determined by nature and the services it provides. Services which are being further compromised by our activities.  It is essential that we examine the limitations and landscape of these factors as we cannot afford to continue blindly stumbling into the inescapable problems of our own making.  Whether by smaller footprints or fewer feet, we will have to live within our ecological means on our finite planet.

There is a very good reason why, in nature, things just stop growing.