Malthus down under

By MELANIE LAZAROW [email protected]

This article is based on part of Melanie's MA Thesis, "From 'Terra Nullius' To 'Fragile And Full': Malthus Downunder, the History of an Idea", Melbourne University, 1998.

Two constructs of eighteenth century England supported settlement in Australia: the idea of a "criminal class ", and that of Australia as "terra nullius". The issue of a rising crime rate in Georgian England -- or rather, the belief that it was rising -- became a sharp issue. Georgian fear of the "mob" led to Victorian belief in a "criminal class". And the colonization of Australia was a partial result.

Malthus believed that emigration was suitable as a temporary method of relief from sudden excesses of population in the mother country, but he worried that his friend (Wilmot-Horton) was underestimating the danger that the vacuum created by emigration would soon tend to be filled, in accordance with the inescapable Law of Population. The groundwork for settlement was laid by Portuguese and Spanish navigators during the late 15th century, but until Arthur Phillip came sailing round South Head the population had not been demografied.

Twelve thousand miles away in Great Britain, jails were swelling. From 1717 to 1775, 40,000 convicts suffered a thinly disguised form of slavery by being sent to America. In 1717 transportation was declared official by an act which provided that minor offenders could be transported for seven years to America instead of being flogged and branded. After the rebellion of the American colonies, resolutions were passed not accepting criminals from England. The lack of a place for roughly 700 felons a year pushed English jails to a crisis point. The task of finding a place for the most problematic parts of "overpopulated" Great Britain became perceptibly more urgent in the second half of the eighteenth century. Provincial jails were filled to bursting and even after some were rebuilt three hundred convicts had to be put in a hulk in Langston Harbor at Portsmouth. The Pitt government was under pressure to find a place to store the unfit so in 1785, it set up a committee under Lord Beauchamp to decide a destination.

Many possibilities were examined including Gambia in Africa, but ultimately having abandoned all alternatives, the decision was made to found a penal colony at Botany Bay. The proposal to colonize Botany Bay with convicts was formally drawn up in an unsigned document called "Heads of Plan for effectively disposing of convicts" and was presented to Pitt in August 1786. The authorities hoped that the unexplored continent would be able to contain and control a whole "criminal class" whose existence was one of the prime constructed ideas of late Georgian and early Victorian England.

On the other side of the world Australia’s Aboriginal people had been occupying the land for an estimated 40,000 years. Fundamental change occurred with the arrival on 26th January 1788 of First Fleet of eleven vessels under the command of Arthur Phillip, who took formal possession of land claimed in 1770 by Captain James Cook. From the start of recent Australian history the British, presuming Aborigines to be non-human savages, applied the principle of vacuum domicilium (or terra nullius) which accorded the Aborigines no civil right to the land. Estimates, which are questionable, put Aboriginal population at the time of the coming of the British at 500,000. The history of settlement in Australia begins with the social construction of a legally empty continent.


We should not however assume that the colonial world of Australia was a passive receptacle for displaced convicts. Andrew Marcus points out that "In the Australian context the judgment generally reached was that Aboriginal people had not effectively ‘resisted’ the coming of the British as they had not organised themselves for warfare: the notion that this country was ‘settled’ rather than ‘invaded’ was thus widespread."

Robert Hughes describes the first years of convict Australia as "starvation years." Because they had no ploughs or draft animals it was "hack-and-peck- hoe cultivation". Even at this point we can look at the differing survival capacities of aboriginal and settler, as a mark against Malthusian population theory. The Aboriginal population lived (as James Cook had said earlier), "in a Tranquillity which is not disturb'd by the Inequality of Condition". The settlers lived on the edge of starvation in the midst of the original occupants abundance whose standard of nutrition was probably higher than that of most Europeans in 1788. For the first thirty years of European settlement the capacity of the land to meet human needs was quite different for two groups of inhabitants even though the resources could be regarded as constant. This irony played itself out almost a century later, when Burke and Wills, sought to cross Australia from Melbourne in the south, to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a distance of 8000 kilometers. They died a lonely death on their return journey. Ironically they were within walking distance from an Aboriginal group which had lived in the area for countless generations.

James Ruse, the first farmer in Australia had brought his skills from Cornwall, England. Governor Phillip gave him one cleared acre and some raw bush at Parramatta, enabling him to be the first to grow useful produce. He proudly used his knowledge to burn off timber to turn ashes into rich potash, hoed the ground thoroughly, and turned the sod over, so that the grass and weeds composted into soil. As a reward, Phillip deeded him thirty acres-the first land grant ever in Australia.

As more and more convict ships arrived for the settled convict population it meant a small gush of the most precious commodity in Australia: labor. The governors and authorities pleaded and sold Australia, and her separate states, as an ideal place to come. The emptiness needed to be filled. It was too distant and frightening to tempt immigration from the working class of Britain but the government hoped to bring capital to the shores with offers of free land and free labor. As a vast empty space the colony had land for a pittance and the government gave it away. Early Australia was universally seen as having too small a population.

In the first part of the nineteenth century the number of settlers rose from 36,598 in 1828 to 77,496 in 1836 and 128,726 in 1841. At the same time the proportion that lived in the towns dropped dramatically. Just over half the population lived in towns in 1820 but by 1829 the town population suddenly fell to about a quarter of the total. It was pastoralism that provided the impetus for expansion into new territories. The desire to have the empty spaces filled is reflected in the writings of General Sir Charles James Napier who in 1835 said:

..those beautiful and lonely scenes, which I have seen on my pilgrimage through many countries; all crying aloud for people : everywhere regions without people ! and yet despite of this we huddle together in towns…South Australia is the colony to choose…Now look at the laborer in the desert; how different, how noble are his prospects! He works hard, for high wages -he soon saves- he soon becomes the purchaser of a small farm, having exchanged his labor for money enough to make this purchase, and for his support till he raises a sufficient quantity of produce.

Napier’s sentiments come in a period when the squatters heyday had begun. Small farmers sold out to middle sized landowners and went back to the cities. The gold rushes of the 1850s brought the population back towards the cities. The desire for assisted immigrants from Britain was supported strongly by Victorian squatters who were competing with the gold diggings for human resources.

In an argument to the powers of his mother country he gave four reasons for the founding of the Colony in Southern Australia:

    1. That it will give vent to our over population.
    2. That it will be a market for our over produce.
    3. That it will enlarge the field for employing capital.
    4. That it will be a model by which to correct our system of Colonial Government.

As far as overpopulation was concerned he had a complex analysis with a focus on the county of Armagh in Ireland. He recognised that it would support two and a half times its present inhabitants. "Ireland is then more than thirty millions of souls short of its full population: and we talk of the necessity of easing the population" He was scathing of the idea that "population increases too fast for the safety of the human race.." However he was still adamant in his support for colonization. "In Australia we shall welcome the arrival of children with "blessed be he who has his quiver full of them" and so I quit this subject of colonies being a relief to population, which seems to be no more true than that you relieve the flame of a torch by lighting a taper". He marketed Australia as a place with prospects:

Now look at the laborer in the desert; how different, how noble are his prospects! He works hard, for high wages -he soon saves- he soon becomes the purchaser of a small farm, having exchanged his labour for money enough to make this purchase, and for his support till he raises a sufficient quantity of produce.

The Aboriginal population has been systematically ignored and overlooked until recently. Most accounts of Australian population have looked at scarcity or abundance purely with reference to white people.

Immigration and natural increase

Since the early nineteenth century Australian governments have sought to regulate, encourage and, at times, assist immigrants. Under section sixty-two of the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) over 27,000 people were assisted to emigrate by their parish of settlement. Gary Howells in a challenging article debunks the view of emigrants as passive victims of the elite’s schemes. Those who asked to be transported complained of "scanty employment and scant wages" Of the people transported between 1788 and 1852, about twenty-four thousand were women, one person in seven.

In the 1860s and 1870s, as the gold-rush generation settled down, natural increase (the predominance of births over deaths) took over from immigration as the main factor in population growth, which was now running at barely half the rate of the pre -1850 period.

As the sedate progress of the 1860s ripened into the relative prosperity of the 1870s, and then into the boom conditions of the 1880s, so the population grew and grew. At the beginning of this period with the pastoral industry entering a more highly capitalized phase Francis Nixon also pleaded for more people in a treaty "Population or a plea for Victoria".

By common consent, as it would appear, and to the temporary extinction of political antagonisms and party interests, an almost unanimous verdict has been given in favor of increased and abundant Immigration to Victoria from the Mother country, and from Europe generally.

He boasted that the Colony had with "unremitted energy" and "on a scale of magnitude comparatively unprecedented in the history of the world " built up all the institutions of a civilized society…" Institutions, ecclesiastical, judicial, scientific , intellectual, educational, charitable and otherwise, for which Great Britain is so justly renowned" were to be found in Australia. Hospitals, a university, public schools, mechanics’ institutes, literary and scientific bodies, a museum and a public library had all been set up. For the immigrant to come to Australia was "not necessarily expatriation" as far as British subjects were concerned.

But most importantly he called on the possessors of capital to connect themselves in any way to the colony. The country was expanding and unassisted immigration was not sufficient to satisfy the demand made by rapid development. He wanted "every encouragement" to be given to others than "mere laborers and mechanics to make Victoria the scene of their commercial enterprise and speculations." He promised profitable and safe investment in cattle breeding and sheep farming. A land of milk and honey was painted for there was "bread and work enough for all".

But at the turn of the century the declining birth rate in Australia was causing concern. According to the Bulletin in 1902, the ‘White Australia’ policy was fundamental to Australia’s existence. It was based on

the instinct against race-mixture which Nature has implanted to promote her work of evolution…Once a type has got a step up it must be jealous and ‘selfish’ in its scorn of lower types, or climb down again. This may not be good ethics. But it is Nature…the Caucasian race, as a race, has taken up the white man’s burden of struggling on towards ‘the upward path’…

By the end of the 1880s Australia had also begun to feel the effects of a rapid decline in the birth-rate. The economic crash of the 1890s may have forced some men and women to give up marriage altogether; "for the first time, older bachelors and spinsters became a significant component of the Australian population."

Between 1896 and 1930, the wheat growing capacity of the land quadrupled from 1.6 million to 7.3 million hectares. Two-thirds of the crop was exported. The application of superphosphate and the fallowing of land increased yields. New varieties of wheat allowed harvests in drier climates. In 1905 Victoria passed a water Act providing for centralised control of water supply. In 1907, Elwood Mead, the American irrigation engineer became director of the body controlling water and predicted that irrigation would multiply the population of the state from 10 to 100 times. In discussions leading up to Federation Sir Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales reminded the to-be-united nation:

We know the value of our British origin; we know that we represent a race, which for the purpose of settling new Colonies never had its equal on the face of the earth.

At the same time E.J. Brady’s Australia Unlimited marketed Australia as an ‘empty’ continent with irrigated districts capable of holding another 90 million people.

This is understandable in the context of the number of births per 1000 married women aged 15 to 45 between 1891 and 1901 falling 22 per cent. Authorities were so alarmed that in NSW in 1904 they set up a Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birthrate. In it they concluded that people had been ‘led astray by false and pernicious doctrine into the belief that personal interests and ambitions, a high standard of ease, comfort and luxury, are the essential aims of life, and that these aims are best attained by refusing to accept the consequences which nature has ordained shall follow from marriage’.

Twentieth century

After Federation science became a metaphor for Empire itself, a symbolic expression of what the Empire might become. The new Commonwealth, argued the experts, must exercise control over Australia’s human and physical resources by enlisting the methods, strategies and ethos of science. A picture of the geographic bulk of the continent dismissed any thought of it as having limited strips of cultivation potential.

The composition of the population of Australia was to become an equally "scientific" question. Eugenics grounded much of the debate and discussion of Australia’s population capacity for almost the first half of the twentieth century. Robb Watts says that "without hyperbole we can see the first half of the twentieth century as "the age of eugenics".

In 1904 in England sir Francis Galton read his paper `Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope and Aims' to a meeting of the Sociological Society at the London School of Economics. Galton urged its members to disseminate eugenics as a national religion. On the other side of the world the infant colony was also experimenting in the eugenic vein. One of the first laws of Federation imposed a method of preserving Australia for the white man. Under Section 3 of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, any person who failed to pass a dictation test of fifty words in a European language could be declared a prohibited immigrant Under the Pacific Island Labourers Act also passed in 1901 all pacific Island labourers who had migrated to Queensland were to be deported by 1905. In 1903 Parliament passed the Sugar Bounties Act which awarded compensation to planters who employed only white labour.

At the same time infant mortality was reduced by more than half between 1890s and the 1920s, thanks largely to improved ante-natal and post-natal care, while adult mortality also began to fall as the major killer diseases, such as tuberculosis, were brought under control.

The Aboriginal population did not fare well in the atmosphere of eugenics. "In 1902, a member of the Australian Commonwealth Parliament, reflecting the era’s confidence in scientific standards, stated, ‘there is no scientific evidence that [the Aborigine] is a human being at all.’ In 1927, the city of Perth banned Aborigines from the central district, and numerous other towns barred Aborigines from their streets. An amendment to the Western Australian Education Act in 1928 empowered teachers to exclude Aboriginal students on the basis of a complaint from a single European parent. "At the coming of civilization, the aboriginal tribes dwindle like chaff before the wind," Ernestine Hill told readers of her very popular The Great Australian Loneliness (1938) But in 1938 William Cooper of the Australian Aborigines League reacted to an enactment of British landing in Australia -including the putting to flight of a party of Aborigines -- by organising a national day of mourning.

This festival of 150 years’ so called ‘progress’ in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed upon the original native inhabitants by the white invaders of this country.

Australia as a creation of a more perfect portion of the mother colony meant that when Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1914 crowds sang the national anthem in Australian streets, bands played Rule Britannia’ in the cafes, and crowds cheered. At the University of Melbourne, on the following day the students sang ‘God Save the King’ at the end of lectures.

Throughout the 1920s, in a great range of fields, the dominant image was of Australia - clean, chaste, young, sane and wholesome - being assailed by external evils. Immigration, defence, tarrif protection, communism, censorship, cultural growth, industrial development, were all dominated by the same imagery, of disease, of flood, of war. In an evil world only Australia, with her British inheritance was safe. To help build the nation in this image a group calling itself the Millions Club was formed in Sydney. Any attempt to pose a limited need for immigration, particularly good pure white immigration, was seen as unpatriotic.

Much of the confidence which was publicly expressed in Australia’s unlimited development in the 1920s was shattered by the depression of the 1930s . So exaggerated had been the expectations of the 20s that the geographer, Griffith Taylor, had been ostracized because he had given the now popular view that Australia could not carry a population of more than sixty million. John Gregory professor of geology and mineralogy at the University of Melbourne made a sober appraisal of the inland region. He warned in his book on The Dead Heart of Australia that even with expensive bore-sinking and irrigation, the region’s potential for use was limited. These arguments were out of context in light of the depression’s all time birth-rate slump and more people leaving the country than arriving.

The 1930s were marked by shortages of labour leading up to a proclaimed under-population problem. The economic collapse of the early 1930s brought a new view of population. In a 1930s edition of The Australian Quarterly Wood and Litt, of the University of Melbourne, claimed that "there remains the suspicion that the process of peopling this continent has been unduly slow and hesitant. Between 1861 and 1929 the natural increase of our population totalled 3.9 millions, while the net growth by immigration was merely 1.3 millions". " Imperial policy already finds difficulty in interpreting our empty continent to an overcrowded Europe which displays increasing interest in our condition."

In 1928 Australian theorists became interested in the topic of population W.E. Agar and others published a book The Peopling of Australia. P.D. Phillips says in the introduction "To-day a small population faces the problems of a huge area for which six and a half million people feel they are all too inadequate. When we consider these problems and speculate as to the way in which they can be met, the scientific attitude demands an inquiry into the principles upon which our development has proceeded so far, how our population has increased, how we have solved certain economic and geographical problems, as a basis for policy in the future…"

The concern in 1936, with WWII threatening, was still for an increased white composition and growth of Australian population. The Associate Professor in the School of Modern Languages at the University of Melbourne, exposing the accepted racism of the time, said "Since the days of the great discoveries about the year 1500, the white race has shown a marked superiority over all other races, not only in science, in technique, and in political and social organisations, but also biologically. This natural vitality of the white race made possible its marvelous expansion over the greater part of the world."… "Today Australia", he says, no doubt, is racially purer than even Europe. It is the professed object of every government and party to keep her so. Is this object likely to be achieved? We all agree that the estimates of the capacity of Australia to carry population …are vastly exaggerated. … But however that may be, and whether we estimate Australia’s capacity at 20 millions, or at 50, or at 150 millions, the world at large is strongly convinced that a very substantial increase is still possible. If we want to keep Australia white, we must provide for this increase. There are two ways of doing it: (1) by means of a high birth rate; (2) by immigration."

In December 1936, William Dixon quotes Menzies as envisaging "the immense change for the better that would follow an increase of the population to 20 millions-three times its present number. ‘Dixon agrees, explaining that "with a population of 20/30 millions we would have little to fear from invasion, while the general conditions of living, especially the amenities of life in the country, would be immensely improved. To achieve this Australia would have to rapidly expand its production of wealth. Partially contradicting Lodewyckx, he calls for the scrapping "forthwith the idea so often and so unctuously put forward that immigrants should be selected with the greatest of care. If we are to get people in the immense numbers needed, we should not require would-be immigrants to submit to the indignity of any selection at all beyond the necessary medical examination…"

In June 1937, Wolstenholme is asking "Should We Arrest the Falling Birth Rate … of the published statements on the topic view the new situation with alarm, and characterise the falling birth rate as an "insidious malady," which must be cured at all costs, if our national existence is to be preserved". In fact, Australia’s total population actually declined by more than 10 000 during the Depression

In 1939 the then Premier of New South Wales said "There will be few to contend that we have not a great deal to gain from a larger population. There is so much we could do if we only had the people-enterprises which must necessarily be undertaken on a large scale, but are now beyond our reach, simply because of our paucity of numbers. With this growth there would. I am convinced, be an all-round gain in productivity".

Only with the beginning of World War II, bringing the arrival of refugee settlers and the cautious resumption of assisted immigration, did the population begin to grow again. Australia ended World War II with a population of about seven million people. After 1945 Australia experienced its biggest ‘baby boom’ since the 1860s. Penicillin and other medical advances contributed to a steady decline in mortality.

After World War II

The old slogan of "Populate or Perish" was reintroduced. In 1946, the Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell, arranged with the British government to provide free passages to Britons who wanted to migrate. When the numbers proved insufficient, Calwell and his successors made similar agreements with the governments of Holland, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and other European countries. In August 1947, Australia launched a program aimed at increasing the population by 1% a year through net migration. Subsequently, Australia’s post-war population grew at a rate of 2 percent per annum, a doubling every 35 years, a growth rate similar to those obtaining in undeveloped countries. In 1955 Australia received the millionth post-war immigrant. Between 1947 and 1980 Australia gained nearly three million new settlers, representing over 58 percent of post-war population growth. Many migrants were directed to the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme which was a massive construction mobilising vast numbers of workers and huge amounts of money against the rivers of the Snowy Mountains to give them "direction and purpose"

A "correspondent " from the New Statesman and Nation reported: "Prime Minister Chifley indicated how seriously he regarded this question when he said recently that he was prepared to risk political unpopularity to ensure a flow of migrants to Australia. Mr Arthur Calwell, Commonwealth Immigration Minister, went further… "Australia is in danger of extinction within the next 25 years," he said. Australians had to decide whether they would survive or become a Eurasian nation "under the same people who, not long ago, were torturing Australian troops. Our hope for salvation lies in being able to induce fine types of Europeans to throw in their lot with ours."

The imagery of the late ‘40s ditched to a large extent the idea of a racial or national type, in the eugenic mold, replacing it with ‘the Australian Way of Life’. In the new Cold War context Australia became an important bulwark of ‘freedom’. Australia’s racial identity became less important than its alliance with the United States in the Cold War. At the same time industrial imagery was being employed with companies such as B.H.P establishing their position central to Australian identity. "Many writers have dated Australia’s ‘coming of age’ in that decade after the depression" There was a concern with "maturity" replacing the pre-depression celebration of Australia’s ‘youthfulness’. Assisted immigration began by Chifley differed from previous immigration schemes in that a large proportion of migrants were not British. Between 1947 and 1964 more migrants were added to the population than in the 80 years after 1860.

But there were countervailing tendencies to the desire to populate. Lawrence Boys questions how big Australia really was in the London Institute of World Affairs Journal "Looking at a map of Australia it strikes you as being a very big place for so few people. There it is, an island of some 3,000.000 square miles, about the same as the United States of America with a population less than that of New York". Boys puts forward an argument which echoes from Osborn writing at exactly the same time about Australia, that it is a fallacy that Australia can absorb many more migrants. The reasons given are that Australia lies "athwart the arid zones of the Southern Hemisphere - in the same latitude as the great deserts of South Africa and South America. The centre is a wasteland. "

As Australia went into the 50s Richard White comments that the early 20th centuries interests in physiognomy and later in social Darwinism is replaced by an Australian cultural interpretation embracing institutions, social patterns and so on. He further argues that there was a change of emphasis in the social sciences from heredity to environment, the same change that saw the demise of eugenics. The new Australian "way of life" shifted from a rural "type" to an undeniably urban or suburban vision. In 1951 the Commonwealth celebrated its jubilee with an article on ‘the Australian Way of Life’ promoting the home the garden and the car.

The 1960s saw the resurgence of diversity and the birth of a strong protest movement. The population debate changed in political terms. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the United States took population to the international arena. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon made population planning programs a major hurdle for U.S. foreign assistance.

Between 1947 and 1971 Australia’s population had grown from 7.5 million to 12.6 million, an annual rate of almost two percent. But in the early 70s it again began to slow. Assisted immigration in the mid-1970s was running at less than a quarter of the rate in the mid-1960s. As in the 1890s, adverse economic conditions - the oil price crisis of 1974, inflation, rising interest rates, and growing unemployment- had helped to precipitate a major demographic shift. The advent of oral contraception in the mid-1960s offered many women greater reproductive choice. By the early 1980s those in their twenties were reproducing at only half the rate of their counterparts in the early 1960s.

In this period the Immigration Reform Group was formed by liberal humanitarians mainly in Melbourne to press for reform of the white Australian policy. In its manifesto, Immigration: Control or Colour Bar? it called for quotas, but excluded no particular groups or countries. It influenced Prime Minister Holt to formally abandon the white Australia policy in 1966. In the liberal-humanitarian vein Prime Minister Whitlam appointed a Commission, headed by Justice A.E. Woodward, to advise the government on ‘the most appropriate means’ of recognising traditional Aboriginal interests in land. Woodward’s reports detailed procedures for Aboriginal land claims and conditions of tenure and in 1976 the Commonwealth passed the Land Rights Act, which enabled Aborigines under certain strict conditions, to make claims to unoccupied and unalienated Crown land in the Northern Territory.

The "population grew from 10.40 million in 1960 to 14.418 million in June 1979". During World War II, authorities and the press boasted that 98 per cent of the Australian population was either born in Britain or of British decent. "By 1979 the immigration to Australia of refugees from the pre-war Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania … from the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, Holland, Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece and Turkey, had so changed the composition of the population that 11.8 per cent had no connection by either birth or decent with the … British Isles."

After years of increased migration and diversification of population the 1970s unhinged the project of growth because of increased unemployment and economic stagnation. World War II which destroyed massive amounts of capital worldwide, ironically excluded Germany and Japan from investment in arms giving them world advantages in manufacturing capital. The arms race between Russia and the USA absorbed investment allowing a long boom period which benefited Australia. Living standards were comparatively high, and some freedom and confidence built up in the population to expect and demand a continuing rise in standards. The inevitable crisis of capital began to emerge again in the early 70s. "In the first half of the 1970s Australia’ unemployment rate fluctuated around a figure of 2 to 3 per cent. By 1976 the rate had climbed to a new plateau of about 5 to 6 per cent, a level maintained for the rest of the decade. The reformist Whitlam Government, with aims of promoting equality and uplifting the horizons of the Australian people, met the beginning of the downturn with eventual controversial dismissal. The early 1980s saw a second jump to a figure somewhat in excess of 10 per cent - a level maintained until around the end of 1983. The rest of the 1980s saw a return to the rates ruling in the late 1970s, but the 10 per cent plateau was restored in the early nineties and has been maintained ever since."

A downturn in economic growth, increasing population and unemployment led government bodies to begin a plethora of reports, inquiries and submissions. This intensification of interest in population as a problem coincided with the end of the economic boom period of the 50s, 60s and early 70s. The list of reports that follow spread from the early 1970s to date indicating a deep unease in Australian society. This fear and uncertainty is manifested in an exponential increase in reports on population and immigrants. [* See note at end.]

Environmental issues

The second half of the 20th century has a corresponding current, "the environment", running parallel with immigration, intersecting in reports and ideology and playing a key role in immigration debates. In many ways the Malthusian equation which focused on food supplies are reintroduced with no fundamental alteration using environmental resources as the base line. This is not only an Australian phenomenon. We can look at United States parallels in David M Reimers,. Unwelcome Strangers : American Identity And The Turn Against Immigration, Chilton Williamson’s The Immigration Mystique : America's False Conscience and How Many Americans?: Population, Immigration And The Environment by Leon Bouvier and Lindsey Grant. This closing of boundaries coexists with so-called globalization, where only capital is internationalized while states are strengthened to legislate and control labour behavior and flow.

Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet written in 1948 makes this point:

There is still a wide divergence of opinion regarding the population that the country is capable of supporting. One school even believes that, somehow or other, the continent can ultimately support 100,000,000 people or fifteen times its present numbers. Another school of thought claims that twice the present population of 7,500,000 would represent the optimum density. One obstacle to straight thinking regarding population possibilities of Australia revolves around the fact that popular opinion persists in the belief that large area means proportionately large resources. But when the great extent of natural desert land is removed from consideration and the climate, topography and soil of the habitable areas have been analysed, it seems that four-fifths of the country could not be settled more densely because of rainfall deficiency or other negative factors".

Osborn recapitulates the stream of counter arguments to Edwin Brady’s Australia Unlimited begun by Griffith Taylor in the 20s. Taylor worked for the Weather Services which in its early years was bonded with the Intelligence Branch and placed under the Department of Home Affairs. Administratively, therefore the Service was answerable to a bureaucratic-political hierarchy obsessed with national defense. The type of questions he had to answer were "What were the specific spatial limits to existing and proposed rural industries? Why such empty spaces? Would the centre always remain a liability, the North an invitation to desperately over-populated neighbors?"

Against authoritative opinion Taylor was determined to debunk the boosters and fell severely from grace. To the nationalists he was seen as a miserable Jeremiah calling from the black depths of environmental determinism. Daisy Bates claimed that Taylor’s pessimism amounted to gross slander on the spirit and skills of Australia’s British pioneers. Taylor also challenged the White Australian policy much to his detriment. Ironically it is now the proponents of Taylor’s fragile continent theory who are seen as present day racists.

But the debate about overpopulation was forming within an international context. Malthus’s ideas were disinterred and given a modern gloss in the late 1960s. This is important since most of today’s environmental debates about population and Australia’s carrying capacity have their origins in the Neo-Malthusian dominated 1960s movement.

Arguments have been made that Malthus’s ideas were rediscovered after the Second World War as an ideological weapon to justify the Cold War Simons talks of William Vogt’s The Road to Survival which despite the many losses of life in the War claimed the world was overpopulated.

Vogt, it is true, said the United Nations "should not ship food to keep alive millions of Indians and Chinese this year so that 50 million should die five years hence" Vogt claimed famine would hit Germany, Japan and China unless the USA intervened. He complained that the USA was being blackmailed:

Unless we pay we shall leave a vacuum that would suck in the police state from the east: and-there would be no more of this self-determination nonsense…

The solution, he said, was to tie US food aid to ‘national programs leading to stabilisation.’ Doctors as far as Vogt was concerned "apply their intelligence to one aspect of man’s welfare -survival-and deny their moral right to apply it to the problem as a whole… Anything we do to fortify the stench-to increase the population -is a disservice to both Europe and to ourselves"

These ideas, best sellers, but still outlandish in the late 1940s had, by the 1960s, become vital weapons for the ruling class. As Hans Magnus Enzensburger explained in his pioneering study of the environmental movement:

The neo-malthusian arguments… Found expression at a particular moment in time and in a quite particular context. They originate almost exclusively from North American sources and can be dated to the late 1950s and early 1960s - a time when the liberating movements of the third world had become a central problem for the leading imperialist nation.

Nothing could be better for the American ruling class than to put down the domination of the third world, not to imperialism, but to there being too many of the victims of imperialism. There were policy implications too money that used to be invested in economic growth would now be put into population control.

During the 1960s these ideas spread into popular consciousness. Terms were born like "population explosion" and "biological time bomb". They were kept there by a series of publications which purported to offer a scientific justification for racist and imperialist actions. One of the most famous was The Population Bomb by Dr Paul Ehrlich, follower of Vogt. It was published in May 1968 and was an instant best seller.

The opening chapter was one paragraph long, titled The Problem and describing ‘one stinking hot night in Delhi a couple of years ago’. Ehrlich, his wife and child were taken by taxi through the city slums. They didn’t like it:

People eating, people washing, people sleeping, people visiting, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to the buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, and noise, heat and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened. Since that night I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.

Engels recorded similar scenes in Manchester in his Condition of the English Working Class. Hogarth drew the same slum scenes in London in the 18th century. But they blamed the horror of what they saw on poverty, not overpopulation. Talk of overpopulation invariably has racist implications when it is raised in the western industrial world. The same racism was evident in Judith Wright’s keynote address to the Australian Conservation foundation’s National Conference in 1988 where she referred to India and china as "two of the worlds most highly populated areas". This is highly misleading. Population is much higher in western Europe than either of these countries. Because living standards are much higher the high density of living is concealed.

Ehrlich’s work was an invitation to genocide. He urged the government not to send food aid to countries where ‘dispassionate analysis indicates the food-population unbalance is hopeless’. The occupants of the Delhi slums were to be left to starve, but food could be sent to ‘the Pakistani government under the tough minded leadership of President Ayub Khan’. In other words to a tyrant sympathetic to the USA.

Instead of food Ehrlich supported an Indian politician who proposed compulsory sterilisation for all men who had more than three children. These ideas had practical results. In India a mass (often compulsory) sterilisation campaign was carried out. In Australia immigration control and the full-continent theory began to become more popular.

The Population Bomb made Ehrlich into a media superstar. He appeared regularly on TV chat shows and his thoughts were featured in the newspapers. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, continued to popularize these theories in a television series A Question of Survival, produced by the TV science unit. Ehrlich was one of the presenters.

The epitome of these theories was a study done by a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the Club of Rome in the late 1960s. The Club, founded by Italian Business consultant Aurelio Pecci and supported by the chairman of Fiat, commissioned MIT to draw up a computer model of the world and to predict future events. The model was complicated, but it came up with simple solutions. Unless something was done fast, the world would, within a few decades, be overcome by overpopulation, pollution and raw material shortages.

No matter which way the variables were altered, said the leader of the team Dennis Meadows, catastrophe could not be averted. The only solution, argued the Club of Rome, was to halt economic growth, not just population growth as people like Ehrlich were demanding.

This dismal prediction was compounded by a warning that any attempt to deal pragmatically with the coming crisis, to simply ‘muddle through’, would make matters worse. Meadows dressed up this pessimistic conclusion in fancy language. He called for ‘counter-intuitive ‘ solutions, implying that disaster could only be averted by strong world government and determined central planning.

Like Malthus 150 years earlier, The Limits to Growth was influential but wrong. The book sold in millions and helped inspire a wave of populist doomsday literature. David Stenhouse’s Crisis in abundance, Coombs’s The fragile pattern : institutions and man and Sir Macfarlane Burnet’s Dominant mammal; the biology of human destiny are some Australian examples. As science, The Limits to Growth was fundamentally flawed. All the ‘limits’ it explained were physical. No attention was paid to the social and political factors that threatened famine in the third world and pollution and stagnation in the first. The Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University produced a devastating critque of The Limits to Growth which they originally planned to title Malthus with a Computer, but then pointedly called Thinking About the Future.

Tim Flannery’s articles and books, Roslynn Haynes’s High tech : high cost? : technology, society and the environment all pay homage to population as a fundamental problem. The question of population size featured strongly in the agendas of such groups as those calling for Zero Population Growth in the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) was a leading voice in the lobbying to have the number of immigrants reduced. In the 1990s major divisions have emerged in the ACF the Australians for Ecologically Sustainable Population influencing anti immigration debate within the ACF At the 1991 Ecopolitics Conference in Sydney a range of groups such as Australians Against Further Immigration and Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population vigorously put forward their case for low immigration rates. Rob White points out that while there is an overlap between the conservatives and the radicals in the Australian Green movement "many people who started out with a narrow environmentalist view are currently grappling with the interconnections between issues such as pollution and poverty, or exploitation of nature and exploitation of people."

The final chapter of the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Populate and Perish poses People vs the land. The theme of the Australian population taking from and giving nothing back to the land is an ongoing saga. Tim Flannery, Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum, is on an anti-immigration crusade. In a 1997 article he says that Australian cities "are so large that they face daunting problems".

Sydney, in particular, is finding its infrastructure and amenities strained under the burden of four million inhabitants. Its own river system, the Hawkesbury, is severely degraded and can no longer cope with the demand placed upon it as both a drain and water source The city’s wildlife is being elbowed out by increasing development …while concrete is replacing greenery at many locations around the foreshore.

The National Population Council (Australia). Population Issues Committee produced a report Population Issues And Australia's Future: Environment, Economy And Society. It fed into Flannery’s theme of environmental degradation being caused by too many people. It states, "Malthus was thus correct in his assumption that population could easily outstrip food production, given a fixed quantity and quality of natural resources. Malthus was incorrect largely because he did not foresee that people would be willing to trade off environmental degradation for food". Doug Cock’s People Policy, Australia’s Population Choices sums up the mainstream case for stabilising Australia’s population for "environmental, ecological, economic, social and quality-of -life reasons".

Thus Malthusianism is still with us; and the battle against it remains important for socialists.


[*Of these reports, the first and most comprehensive was that of the National Population Inquiry (NPI), often referred to as the ‘Borrie Commission’, which worked over the early 1970s and presented its main report to government in 1975 with a supplement in 1978. Also in 1975 Australian immigration : A Review of the Demographic Effects of Post-War Immigration on the Australian Population was presented to parliament. 1974 brought Australian population policies, some key issues : ACOSS evidence to the National Population Inquiry and by 1976 we had Attitudes Towards Immigrants In Australia followed by Reflections On Zero Growth Of The Australian Population in 1977. 1980 witnessed Population And Public Welfare Policy In Australia : A Report To The Secretariat. In 1983 Recent Trends In Immigration was published. Population Monitoring And Forecasting. Intergovernmental Issues, Concerns and Options by the Advisory Council for Inter-government Relations came out in 1986. 1987 had a family focus with What's Happening To The Australian Family? By the National Population Council. bIn 1991 Provincial Cities And Country Towns In Australia : A Demographic Analysis To Show The Extent Of Population Stagnation And Ageing, And Imbalance Between The Sexes In Provincial Regions :Report Summary was produced by the Australian Institute of Urban Studies. In December 1991 the Population Issues Committee of the National Population Council presented its report entitled Population issues and Australia’s Future to the government. Population issues and Australia's Future : Environment, Economy and Society : Final Report by the Population Issues Committee of the National Population Council was published in 1992. Population Movement and Social Justice : An Exploration of Issues, Trends and Implications was issued in 1993 by the Social Justice Research Program. The World Population Conference of 1994 focused attention on the issue with Australia National Report on Population : For the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development. Immigrant Families : a Statistical Profile and Population and Economic Development : A Report to the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia were brought out by various federal bodies. Then in December 1994 the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Long Term Strategies presented its report on Australia’s Population ‘Carrying Capacity". In 1996 English Proficiency: and Immigrant Groups and Immigrant family formation patterns in Australia were published by the Bureau of Immigration, Multicultural and Population Research.]

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