Minister for Sustainable Population: What’s in a name?

The new Prime Minister’s minor renaming of the Population portfolio to Sustainable Population suggests there’s a political agenda in play and a new way of thinking about “big Australia”. The terms sustainability and population have been conflated so the Government can walk a new path through the “big Australia” and “boat people” minefields.

But what it’s also saying is that you can’t have one without the other – population growth and environmental sustainability have to be traded off. The two concepts are necessarily in conflict, always and forever.

Population distribution, Australia (www.worldmapper.org)

While that’s perhaps true in a narrow sense, it doesn’t follow that Geelong is necessarily more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne (according to the ACF it isn’t!) or that both have a lower environmental “footprint” than New York.

In fact despite its considerably larger size, New York is substantially more environmentally sustainable than Melbourne. Large concentrations of people provide economies of scale in, for example, the consumption of energy by favouring travel by public transport and smaller, attached dwellings. Bigger is often more environmentally sustainable.

Of course bigger cities also tend to produce larger negative externalities. But the main reason that size is often accompanied by problems like traffic congestion and unaffordable housing is the failure of political and policy systems.

Housing in reasonably accessible locations is unaffordable largely because political forces limit redevelopment; traffic is congested because drivers aren’t made to pay the real costs they impose on others; and public transport is inadequate in large measure because of insufficient investment.

Bigger cities offer greater diversity, specialisation and access to key services. We can get these benefits without most of the problems if we make the right decisions – like investing in key infrastructure, imposing a price on externalities and allowing key markets to operate relatively freely.

Earlier generations seemed to understand the need to “think big”. As I discussed last week, the risk of disease in the nineteenth century meant that further expansion of cities would not have been possible without massive investment in reticulated water supply and waste disposal infrastructure.

Our cities can be both bigger and better if we make the right decisions. That’s not easy, but as I pointed out here, Australians have a pretty good track record of making hard decisions.



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