EMPTY OR FULL? THE DEBATE OVER THE POPULATION OF AUSTRALIA
Challis Professor of Anatomy
University of Sydney
Occasionally, in the debate over Australia's population, the plea is heard that Australia must do its
part in solving the problem of human crowding in other continents by establishing similar levels of
population in this continent. It needs to be stated clearly and quickly however that Australia can be no
more than a minor player in the fate of the human population of the planet. Australia currently has
about 18 million people, barely a third of 1% of the whole. Even were we to accept people from other
lands in numbers higher than anyone could reasonably expect, so that our population rose say tenfold
in 20 years, to 200 million, we would absorb only a minor fraction of the increase of the planetís
population which will occur in those years.
That said, it is of enormous importance to Australians of tomorrow how we manage the issue of
population today, and it is important therefore to understand the present state of our population. And
for that understanding a good starting point is the history of our judgements on our own population.
Reading that history it is clear that we have long been divided in our judgement as to whether
Australia is empty or full.
Empty or full?
The first European settlers judged Australia empty. In the 18th Century this continent had a human
population of several hundred thousand nomadic peoples. Their technology was little developed and
they seemed not to settle or own property in a way that Europeans could understand. The British
recognised traditions of land ownership in other colonies, in India, in New Zealand and the Americas
but Australia they judged to be no-oneís land, a terra nullius.
It was a judgement with cruel consequences which our courts have begun to correct. Even today
however, with our population far higher, with many species driven to or near to extinction by the
numbers and activities of Homo sapiens, with the Aboriginal peoples more or less completely
dispossessed, many Australians still judge our continent empty and would see its population grow
without limit. Supporters of this view point out that are island is big enough to be a continent ant that
even including its cities, Australia today has 2.3 humans per km2, a sparse contrast with Europe (104
per km2 in France, 236 in the UK, 221 in Germany), with mainland Asia (102 per km2 in China, 275 in
India) and with the islands of Japan (328) and Indonesia (93). Every Australian who travelled from
Sydney to Broken Hill or Bourke or beyond has a sense of the breadth and emptiness of our
Yet many Australians would say that this present judgement of Australia as empty as is wrong as the
earlier judgement of the pioneer British colonists. Relying not on the travellerís eye, but on measures -
of water resources, of the yields available from arable land, from grazing lands, of our marine
resources; measures of our population trends, of our economy, of our need to export to pay for our
imports - these commentators argue that the continent cannot sustain a greater population of Homo
sapiens then it already has, and perhaps cannot sustain its present population. This claim is of course
a comment on the future, a prediction of progressive environmental degradation; Australia today is not
coming apart at the seams. Nevertheless, Australians concerned at this prospect can point in
evidence to agricultural land already salinated by over-irrigation, or eroded by clearing, to dwindling
rain forests and marine yields, to multiple forms of urban pollution and to the continuing loss of
species. The apparently empty lands, this argument implies, are being exploited nevertheless,
producing the crops and ores we need to support our great cities.
A debate about the optimum population of Australia has been under way for 70 years, but has yet to
yield a consensus, whether for expansion, contraction or stability.
At the time of Federation, the colonies were recovering from a sharp economic depression,
during which both birth rates and immigration fell from historical highs in the 1880ís. The NSW
government statistician reported in 1903 that over the previous 40 years births per 1,000 population
had fallen about 30%. Immigration had fallen to very low levels and the government felt real concern,
appointing a Royal Commission in 1904 to enquire into ëThe Decline of the Birth Rate and on the
Mortality of Infants in NSWí. The Commission expressed great concern and recommended a series of
carrot-and-stick measures to persuade young couples to want and to have more babies. The
Commissionís many recommendations were ineffective when the state government sought to
implement them. A persistent fall in fertility was occurring throughout European societies in this
period, from rates of 4 children per woman to 3 or 2.5; the colonies were following suit. Never again
has an Australian government sought to influence the private decisions of parents.
The frustration of the commissioners with Australiaís growth in population was very real however. The
recognition that fertility was falling focussed attention again on migration, for the view was widely held
that Australia was empty and must be filled with people.
Between the wars: the Empire Settlement Act and Thomas Griffith Taylor
In the 1920s, with the drama and tragedy of the Great War passed, Australia's constitutional and
cultural ties to Britain remained strong, but Australians were increasingly articulating a dream of future
greatness as a nation distinct from mother England. Britain still cherished Empire, and from these two
dreams arose the concept of mass British migration to Australia. The ideal had its roots in the late
19th Century. The first British expeditions to Terra Australis a century earlier had been dominated by
prisoners and their gaolers; Australia then was a substitute for Virginia, no longer (since the success
of the colonists in the American Revolution in 1776) available as a distant dump for the excess of
Britainís gaols. In 1888, however, a report of the British Lordsí and Commons Committee on
Colonisation saw mutual benefit for Britain and her colonies in mass migration of free men. A Colonial
Conference of 1907 and an Imperial conference of 1911 gave support, and it was argued that 300,000
Britons could, without depleting Britain, emigrate each year to the dominions. A British Royal
Commission (the Dominions Commission) deliberated between 1913 and 1917, and recommended in
its Final Report (1917) a major program of British migration to stock the dominions. Winston Churchill
foresaw that with perseverance ë....a revolution might be effected in the balance of population within a
centuryí, creating an Empire of perhaps 300 million subjects, predominantly of British stock. The
Empire Settlement Act of 1922 sought joint action by Britain and her Dominions to effect a program,
and Britain allocated 1.5 millions pounds for the project. Bilateral agreements were signed between
Britain and Australia, New Zealand and Canada, of which the agreement with Australia seemed the
most ambitious. Australia thereby adopted a policy of massive expansion of the population by
migration, and between 1920 and 1929 net migration to Australia was high (349,000), though it fell
short of the agreed targets (see Borrie 1974, pp97ff).
By the 1920s however, this view of Australiaís future had come under challenge. One of the best
known of the sceptics was the academic geographer, Thomas Griffith Taylor, of the University of
Sydney. Tenaciously and undiplomatically, Griffith Taylor argued (Powell 1979) that ëall the useful
lands (of the planet) will be fully saturated within two or three hundred yearsí, and that ëthe
contemporary margins of settlement in Australia already closely approximated the limits which had
been set by the very nature of the physical environmentí. In terms which a modern conservationist
would applaud, he argued that however we might dream, the productivity of the land set a finite limit to
its population, and that the limit could already be foreseen.
Those loyal to the dream of Empire responded by pointing to the power of human ingenuity, arguing
that the continent was useless only if we believed it so. In reply, Taylor summoned what data were
available of Australiaís water and soil resources, and argued (Powell 1986) that Australia could never
support more than 60 million and predicted that we would have no more then 20 million by the end of
the century, far below the 100 million that the empire builders foresaw. Attacked as a croaking
pessimist, a prophet of environmental determinism, Taylor responded by demanding that geography
be taught in schools in place of the classics, so that the next generation could analyse the situation for
themselves. Those with a vision of growth were just as determined and, after a stormy decade of
debate, Taylor shook the dust of Australia from his boots, and left for Canada, still under attack, still
arguing cogently, persistently, undiplomatically his conservationist concerns.
This clash between ëenvironmentalismí and ëpossibilismí (see Powell et al. 1980) is paradigmatic; the
terms of reference of the protagonists did not overlap. In the short term, Taylor lost the contest; in the
long term the founding of his views in knowledge about the state of the continent, rather than in faith
in future greatness, may make his judgement the more widely accepted.
Depression and War: end of settlement, end of empire
The dream of the British-stocked Empire of hundreds of millions, built on ëmoney, markets and mení
was never realised. The dream was not broken by Griffith Taylorís assault nor by the environmental
constraints which he foresaw, but by Depression and war. In the 1930ís, Australiaís birthrate fell
below replacement levels for the first time in our modern history (see Table 1 in Birrell and Birrell
1993, also Hugo 1993), and immigration rates fell as dreams of opportunity faded in the misery of
mass unemployment, and then in the drama and suffering of war. There is little record of public
debate over Australiaís population in the years 1932-45.
The reaction to WWII: populate or perish
The Second World War was a traumatic time for Australia, as for many nations. Casualties were high
and Australians spent years under the palpable threat of Japanese invasion. Once peace returned we
reacted to the lessons of war. For Australia, those lessons were two. One lesson was that Britain
could not defend her southern dominions. The second was that we could not defend ourselves. Japan
was defeated, but the populous nations of Asia would not always be poor and subject. Concerned for
our security, yet resenting dependence, Australia adopted a dual policy. We sought a new protector,
the United States, and we instituted a policy of massive immigration, to build a population with the
economic and man-power to defend itself. The mood of public opinion was expressed by A A Calwell,
Minister for Immigration in the post-war years, who wrote in 1948 (quoted in Borrie 1974 at p 197):
Additional population is Australiaís greatest need, for security in wartime, for full development and
prosperity in peacetime, our vital need is more Australians. The Pacific War taught Australians a
lesson we must never forget - that in any future war we can never hope to hold our country unaided
against a powerful invader...Australia can increase her population three-fold or more and still provide
full employment and adequate standards of living for all.
Between 1947 and 1950, nett immigration into Australia increased over tenfold, from 11,000 to
150,000 per annum and remained over 100,000 net as late as 1990; and as recently as 1990,
immigration exceeded fertility as a cause of increase in our population (figures from Bronowski and
Thus, in the aftermath of World War II, Australia renewed the policy of population growth last adopted
in the 1920s. Because birthrates had fallen sharply during the War and the baby-boom was still a
gleam in the collective eye, it was a policy of growth by immigration. Because the policy was driven by
the fear that military threat might quickly descend on Australia from Asia, we sought migrants from a
less alien continent, from Europe. Few modern commentators acknowledge the point, but Australiaís
post-war immigration policy was a real liberalisation of our prewar policy of settling Britons to spread
the Empire. We took in people from every European culture, with strange tongues and dress and
noisy extended families. But we still feared Asia. The terrible bombing which the Japanese had
inflicted on Darwin was fresh in our minds and we had learnt with discomfort of the pragmatic plans of
the Australian General Staff to abandon Australia north of Brisbane if the Japanese did invade. So the
liberalisation did not extend to Asians. Nowadays, many Australians are quick to condemn the
European emphasis of our post-war immigration policy but in its time and context, this emphasis was
neither illiberal nor controversial. Faced with the same threats, we would probably react again in the
Population policy in the Cold War (1950-1989)
The threats to Australia have not, of course, remained the same. During the decades of the Cold War
much change occurred in the issues which determined our attitudes on population.
The end of fear
Most importantly, our end of fear of our Asian neighbours faded, for two reasons (see Chapter 6 in
Betts 1988). First, our fear of being invaded, given acute reality by imperial Japan, slowly diminished.
In defeat, Japan remained studiously pacific. The spread of communism to China and Indochina kept
the fear alive for some years but, as the Cold War settled into stalemate, the call to defend the free
world slowly lost its urgency. Second, our Asian neighbours, once so alien, gained independence and
began to adopt democracy and its institutions. None showed any propensity to follow Japanese
bootsteps towards Darwin, and some fought with us to contain the emergencies and wars which flared
in our near north, in Malaya, Korea and Vietnam. Racial, language and cultural differences remain
between Australia and her neighbours, but political differences have narrowed, and we have found
common interests in trade and regional security. By 1974, when the Federal Government
commissioned a National Population Inquiry, the issue of fear of conquest had faded so completely
that military security was not mentioned in its Report, even as an issue to be dismissed. The 1991
Report of the Nation Population Council (Withers 1991) similarly made no mention of military security.
The old dream of growth without limit is still cherished by many responsible Australians. The dream is
given eloquent expression by Mr. Hugh Morgan, a chief executive of Western Mining Corporation. The
following passage represents his argument:
If Australia had a population of 100 millions, say, and a growing, dynamic economy, we would not
have to worry about immigration. We would be, along with the Japanese, and Germany, a significant
world power...But that is not the case. We have the potential to be become a great nation but,
apparently, no longer the will. In another generation, if we continue in our present course of drift, self
doubt and despair, this country will be up for grabs... (Morgan 1991).
Morgan is a business leader with a long-term view; his company is seen by government, and sees
itself, as part of Australiaís long-term economy. His view is clearly a continuation of the vision of
growth which Griffith Taylor had criticised 70 years before, and it is shared by a significant number of
Australians. Former Prime Minister Mr. Fraser, for example, argues for a much larger human
population of the continent and successive Chief Ministers of the Northern Territory have spoken of
the opportunity to double our population, by settlement of Australiaís northwest. This view has not
been decisive, however. It was not, for example, able to prevent a major reduction in Australiaís
immigration target from 120,000 in 1992 to 80,000 for both 1993 and 1994 and to lower levels since,
decisions driven by public concern at unemployment (not over-population).
The old dream of a great Australia has found an ally in a new-old dream which seems to me to hark
back to a social dream with which Malthus had to contend. In his time the idea grew that the evils of
society - conflict at the personal and class level, immorality, poverty - would be solved by the
perfection of the individual. Education and technology were recognised as powerful; combined with
Christian faith and ethics, it was hoped, mankind would progress to a new level of achievement, a
synthesis of piety and progress. Much of Malthus' writing was directed to challenging this idea with the
cold facts of demography; that a clergyman should challenge so Christian a commitment was part of
the controversy which Malthus stirred.
In our time I sense that dream alive again in the human rights movement, which sees human progress
as blocked by intolerance; and sees new heights of human progress achievable when all forms of
intolerance are eliminated. Eminent Australians such as Malcolm Fraser and Brian Burdekin speak as
though the only problems which Australiaís faces are those of discrimination and intolerance. They
sense that a big-hearted opening of Australia to the world's needy will create no problems because
big-heartedness, tolerance, respect for human rights are virtues, and they instinctively reject the
possibility that such virtues might have consequences which degrade our environment, drive unique
species to extinction and leave a bitter environmental legacy for our grandchildren.
In recent decades, many environmentalists have described in terms of personal hurt and injury, how
they have been attacked as racists for expressing the view that the needs of the environment of this
continent might conflict with human rights concerns for unlimited immigration (see for example Moore
1991, MacLeod 1991, Coulter 1991). Passionate commitment to principle often leads to intolerance;
we know this from our own history of political and religious wars. Still it is ironic that the modern
commitment to tolerance, to the elimination of discrimination and the hatreds which generate
discrimination, does not make its advocates tolerant of those who question their assumptions.
The doctrine of human rights addresses many human problems in valuable ways, but it provides little
guidance when we are faced with the reality that admitting another 1 million of the worldís needy to
Australia would exacerbate still unsolved problems of environmental degradation, from river pollution
to soil erosion and salination of once-fertile land.
We need to understand, if we are to understand our times, that the fall in fertility which worried the
federation fathers continues to a degree no one predicted or planned. Although the historically low,
below-replacements birthrates recorded in the Depression and War were reversed in the 1950ís and
1960ís, the reversal proved transitory. For reasons no-one really understands birth rates dropped
again in the late 1960ís, ending what is now called the baby boom. Birth rates in Australia have been
below replacement since 1975 (Hugo 1993 and Table 2.1 in Bronowski and Shu 1992), but now
without any external crisis or internal depression. Australia has thus participated in the trend familiar
to demographers of Europe, throughout which birth rates have since 1975 fallen below replacement
(van de Kaa 1990, Bachi 1990). Fertility in Australia has been below replacement now for 20 years
now, too short a time to produce a negative rate of natural increase, but long enough to ease the rate
of natural growth to less than 1%. Our population has remained at the low end of range predicted for
the turn of the century because, during the World Wars and the Depression and since the latter part of
the Cold War, Australians, in the privacy of their families, have decided to have fewer than our
parents, and fewer than needed for natural replacement. To those who dream of the greatness of
Australia this makes mass immigration more essential than ever; to those who dream of an Australia
in which tolerance has no limit this creates an obligation and an opportunity for Australia to express
that tolerance by unlimited immigration; to those who dream of a sustainable Australian society, this
creates an opportunity to manage our population in that quest for sustainability.
It is of interest to plot the role of knowledge in the debate over our population. One summary of that
knowledge can be found in the Report of the National Population Inquiry to the Federal Government,
submitted in 1974, which drew together prior attempts to estimate the carrying capacity of Australia. It
is an interesting feature of their summary (Table V.1 in Borrie 1974) that attempts to estimate the
sustainable population of Australia stopped with the onset of World War II, which is understandable
enough, but did not resume when massive immigration programs were envisaged and implemented
after the war. When the Council met, nearly 4 decades had passed without a published consideration
of the question, and the Councilís Report did not break this drought. It made no recommendation for
an overall population for Australia, noting that ëthere is no common national equation regarding
population growthí. The Report sensed some consensus that the largest cities were overcrowded, but
not the country as a whole.
One substantial assessment of the carrying capacity of Australia was published during the Cold War
(Gifford et at. 1975), by a group of scientists of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial
Organisation. In a short, impressive summary entitled Biophysical constraints in Australian food
production: Implications for Population Policy, their theme was stated in terms which today sound
It is inevitable that continuous population growth must cease sometime. Smooth transition to a stable
population...is impossible in the absence of a long-term population policy. Biophysical aspects of
current population policy can only be responsibly based on what we know.
With food export eliminated...(food)...could be supplied...for 60 million...without...agricultural instability.
If...the present...proportion of food export (65%) (is)...maintained then of the 60 million people
supportable on Australian protein diets, only 22 million could be resident in Australia.
In short, their survey of post-war trends led to an estimate of sustainable population towards the low
end of the prewar analyses summarised in Borrie (1974).
From the mid-1970ís through the 1980ís, years in which concern over the environment, the
greenhouse effect and the loss of biodiversity was growing, the population of the planet was rising
more rapidly than ever and Australiaís immigration rates remained high, the question of Australiaís
population was left unconsidered. We gave great attention in this time to the symptoms of the plague
that our species has become, but little attention to the plague itself. This silence is evidence of the
power of the human rights movement to stifle the expression of concern over population. Accounts of
the effect of concern for human rights on the immigration debate (e.g. Chapter 1 in Betts 1988 and pp
226ff in Birrell and Birrell 1981) make clear that in Australia it was politically correct in this long period
to be concerned about environmental degradation, and politically incorrect to comment on its cause in
The post-Cold War present (1989-1993):
Since the end of the Cold War a remarkable change has occurred in the debate over Australia's
population; from being an issued ignored it has become part of the political mainstream.
The environmental movement has begun, remarkably slowly, but has begun to include the
management of population in its programs of environmental conservation.
A distinctive population movement has appeared in Australia, which includes academic groups and
one public interest group, Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population. Their memberships
are in the hundreds rather than thousands and they lack the international networks which make the
green movements so effective but they resemble the green movements in being focused and
articulate and galvanised by knowledge.
The academies of science have taken up the issue, an international consortium of academies meeting
in New Delhi in 1993 (Graham-Smith, 1994) , and the Australian Academy of Science convening a
symposium on population in 1994 (Stone, 1995).
The need to control population has been taken up by parties with other agenda. Both Australians
Against further Immigration and the One Nation Party cite environmental concerns for the control of
immigration, together with their more xenophobic agendas. This may be a unwelcome development
for the population movement, but those group would not plead the environmental argument if they did
not feel that it gave strength and acceptability to their other agenda.
The mainstream political parties which form our government and alternative government have begun
to take up the issue. The Federal Governmentís National Population Council, while avoiding the
question of sustainable population did note (Withers 1991 at p 123) that ”national ecological
integrity...may be advanced by lower population growth” and also made some procedural
recommendations which were quite radical (Withers 1991 at p 124): that our present Department of
Immigration be replaced by a Department of Population, that its Minister have Cabinet rank, and that
the Governmentís Bureau of Immigration Research become a Bureau of Population Research (it
became BIPR, the Bureau of Immigration and Population Research in late 1992, and in late 1994
became BIMPR, the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research). The Council
clearly foresaw the need to address population as an issue.
In 1994 the House of Representatives Standing Committee for Long Term Strategies, a bipartisan
committee of legislators, with a general brief to report on “matters...relating to the strength and
well-being of Australia” undertook an Inquiry into Australiaís Population Carrying Capacity.1 The
report of the Committee, published in late 1994, reinforced and extended the 1991 Report of the
National Population Council and recommended two elements of policy would have been novel for
any Australian government. The Committee recommended that Australia should not pursue rapid
population growth, essentially for environmental reasons; and strongly recommended the
development of a policy on population, which should determine (rather than be determined by)
Three of Australia's political parties have adopted a population policyThe Democrats were the first to
adopt a population policy, in 1990. Citing concerns about the human impact on the Australian
environment, they adopted a policy of zero net migration. The One Nation party has adopted a similar
policy of zero net immigration, citing concerns over the environment and over social cohesion. This
year the ALP adopted in its platform a policy on population. The policy does not recommend a specific
limit to migration and much is said in the full text of the policy about human rights and the good things
which migrants have brought to Australia. Nevertheless, the ALP now accepts that it is time to have a
policy, that migration levels should be decided within the framework of population policy and that
environmental constraints must be a major factor in determining population size.
The conservative coalition of Liberal and National Parties is now the one major political
grouping not to have a policy on population. I know from my own correspondence with the relevant
Minister that they are listening on the issue; that the old unwillingness to take it on has gone; and that
- like conservative parties elsewhere - its thinking may be moving faster than its formal policies. The
concept that a limit to population is set by available resources is now part of the mainstream of
political ideas. And that idea was the central point of Thomas Robert Malthus, in his 1798 Essay on
the Principle of Population as it affect the Future Improvement of Society..
Tribute to Malthus
The great question is now at issue Malthus wrote in his pioneering 1798 treatisewhether man shall
henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable .. improvement; or be
condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery......
In his day as in ours....
It is much to be lamented that writers on each side of this momentous question keep far aloof from
each other ... Their mutual arguments do not meet with a candid examination.....
The core of Malthus' argument was as follows:
That food is necessary to the existence of man
That the passion between the sexes... will remain .. in its present state.
Assuming (this)... I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth
of produce subsistence for man.
This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence.
This difficulty must fall some where; and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of
With hindsight it is clear that Malthus misjudged all his major points. He underestimated the power of
population, estimating it able to double the population of (say) England in 125 years. He did not
anticipate that medical science and public health measures would reduce the death rate so that in our
time, the doubling time of the world's population would drop to 30 years. He also underestimated the
power of the earth; he considered it impossible for agricultural productivity to keep pace with the
population growth rates which he anticipated, let alone with those that have actually occurred. He
suspected that the affluent would have the resources to control their conditions of life; but he assumed
that the masses would always be battlers, more or less helpless in the face of hardship. He did not
anticipate how large a section of the community would become middle class, and both determined
and able to control their fertility, and he therefore he did not anticipate the extraordinary drop in fertility
which has over the last century fundamentally weakened the power of population. He did not guess
that fecundity could or would ever be separated from 'the passion between the sexes'.
He and Griffith Taylor would have claimed some justification in the slow natural growth of Australia's
population which, without the mass immigration of postwar years, would now have plateaued at
perhaps 10 million, but they would have expected the slowing to be caused by recurrent famine. In
fact it has occurred in an abundance of food and other resources, because of continually falling
So it is easy to argue that Malthus was simply wrong, and his ideas of no relevance to the growing
debate about Australia's population. Yet he left one abiding insight which, as this conference shows,
many still find relevant. He understood the potential for population growth to overwhelm every other
advance in the human condition. Despite our present ability to pick holes in his argument it seems
hard to deny, when increasing tracts of our own country are subject to salination and our topsoils to
erosion following brief periods of clearing, irrigation or inappropriate grazing; when hundreds of
millions of Chinese are threatened by a flooding river (the great Yangtse floods of 1998) because they
have settled in the lee of flood-control dams, now silted and in danger of bursting; when we know the
masses settled there because, as in Bangladesh, all the unthreatened land is full; when we know that
this over-inhabiting has followed the clearing of forests and jungles, which has threatened hundreds of
species, to increase human settlement; when we see how all the progress in the infrastructure of India
is overwhelmed by the insistent high growth of its population from 200 to 400 to 800 to 1000 million;
when we sense how much of the political passivity of China, the willingness of its masses to accept a
politically oppressive regime, stems from their collective memory of recurrent famine; it is hard to deny
this central point.
There is one more issue that I sensed in reading Malthus and that still seems relevant. Malthus spent
much of his time arguing against the view, which today seems absurd, that the solution to the
problems of humanity lies in the perfectibility of the individual. Proponents of this view hoped, prayed
and believed that education, self improvement and Christian self-discipline would rid society of greed,
corruption, revenge, cruelty, wrongful passion between the sexes and, somehow, the problems raised
by the insistent growth of populations. t would be hard today to understand why so utopian a view
could ever have gained wide currency, if our own debate over population were not similarly blurred by
an impossible dream to which many decision-makers subscribe. We know the value of economic
growth for prosperity; we know the importance controlling our activities so that they do not endlessly
degrade the environment. So we have set up commissions and committees and symposia to help us
attain a condition of human perfection known as sustainable development. In my view the hope that
we can devise ways of growing without limit and without impact is as forlorn - and as obviously forlorn
- as the old hope of individual perfection.
Malthus' thesis was in retrospect one of cool realism in the face of dreams of unlimited progress made
possible by an impossible perfection. Such realism is still needed. The slow but insistent admission of
the issue of population to the political mainstream is evidence that in the tense calm of the Cold War,
in the noisy calm which has followed its end, that realism is spreading. The old dreams of expansion
and perfection still persist however and it remains important to encourage the realism which was
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_ This paper is an update of an earlier article with the same title (Stone 1995b)