What’s Australia’s Carrying Capacity?

Mitchell Porter sent me a note some time ago that began:

“There is a thought I had a long time ago when talking with some zero-population-growth advocates, maybe your readership can shed some light on this. They were saying Australia was already near its human carrying capacity, and I remembered reading that Australia has a population of about 100 million sheep. Now granted, sheep are metabolically different from humans in a number of ways, but still, the bare fact that this continent can support that many large mammals in addition to its 20 million humans suggests to me that the human population here could be considerably larger…”

Now I hadn’t got around to putting this information with some information I have some where on numbers of sheep in Australia and how they are a species in decline … so Mitchell took the initiative of posting it at the Wiki:
http://www.jennifermarohasy.com/wiki/Australian_carrying_capacity .

Thanks Mitchell. You’re hopefully a trend-setter!

33 Responses to What’s Australia’s Carrying Capacity?

  1. Pinxi September 26, 2006 at 9:45 pm #

    Substituting 1 human per 10 sheep, you’re recommending vegetarianism, perhaps even living communally without property (as sheep do) Mitchell?
    Think of all the dental clinics we’d need.

  2. Schiller Thurkettle September 26, 2006 at 11:49 pm #

    To pull this off we would need a decent model. For instance, it must be to some extent true that the population of sheep *increases* Australia’s carrying capacity. They eat what humans cannot, and therefore deliver edible nutrients which would otherwise be unavailable. Wool exports are exchanged for other things which increase carrying capacity. So it may well be that reducing the number of sheep reduces the carrying capacity. Surely not on a 1:1 sheep:human ratio; there’s likely a resonable ratio somewhere. Perhaps even 5:1? That would mean, for instance, that reducing the number of sheep by 5 would reduce the human carrying capacity by 1.

    Then you have to consider technologies which could serve as an alternative for sheep, i.e., use similar resources for an equal or better contribution to Australia’s carrying capacity. Since this is only limited by human ingenuity, Australia’s carrying capacity is incalculably greater than today’s population.

  3. rog September 26, 2006 at 11:55 pm #

    We are always seeking foreign markets to export our surplus commodities, producers are always decrying the low prices that they are getting so it is obvious that we can support an increased population.

  4. rog September 26, 2006 at 11:59 pm #

    Israel has few/no resources yet its GDP is greater than the M/E and is attracting huge amounts of venture capital.

  5. Schiller Thurkettle September 27, 2006 at 2:52 am #

    Something relevant to carrying capacity:


    Solow, Robert M. (1987) “Growth Theory and After,” Prize Lecture, The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel


    “Gross output per hour of work in the U. S. economy doubled between 1909 and 1949; and some seven-eighths of that increase could be attributed to “technical change in the broadest sense” and only the remaining eight could be attributed to conventional increase in capital intensity.”

    “Thus technology remains the dominant engine of growth, with human capital investment in second place.”

  6. Luke September 27, 2006 at 6:19 am #

    “you have to consider technologies which could serve as an alternative for sheep ” – like what Schills?

    “Australia’s carrying capacity is incalculably greater than today’s” – so Schills how would you assess our water availability and soil resources

  7. Pinxi September 27, 2006 at 10:06 am #

    >>>>Of what relevance is national carrying capacity in a borderless international economy?

    (Why do conservative self-proclaimed free-marketeers invariably support a nationalistic agenda?)

    National savings are important for investment & eonomic development. Israel is good at saving cos they’re all jews

  8. Schiller Thurkettle September 27, 2006 at 11:50 am #

    Luke, you are far too modest. Can you not envision a technology which generates food and fiber more efficiently than sheep? Can you not envision a technology which makes more efficient use of water and soil? The patent office awaits you.

    Pinxi, you’re confusing your anti-globalist, neo-conservative, xenophobic, pro-grovernment agenda. It’s *your* people who “support a nationalistic agenda.” The neo-liberals want a planet without borders and universal freedom besides.

    The fact that we’re talking about Australia is a mere accident, as our kind and generous moderator Jennifer opened the discussion about the future of her home country. Whatever can be learned to the benefit of Australia can be learned to the benefit of everyone.

    And despite what you read in the newspapers, we *all* live in “developing nations,” and development is what the vast mass of humanity prefer. If you don’t like development, there’s likely an African nation you can relocate to that’s agreed to make all their residents slaves to Europe.

    Quite a cute notion, don’t you think, that anti-global Greenies can enslave Africans without exporting them in chains? It probably reduces CO2 emissions because it keeps slavery “local.”

    You people make me sick.

  9. Paul Williams September 27, 2006 at 12:38 pm #

    Australia’s daily per capita fresh water availability, estimated 2000 is 50,000l, for a population of 20 million. Humans require about 100l per day for drinking, hygiene and domestic use. So our carrying capacity from a water point of view is 500 times our current population, or 10 billion. If we add in a requirement for agriculture, which seems fair, then daily water requirements go up to a generous 5,000l per capita, to avoid chronic water shortages. So that gives 10 times our current population, or 200 million.

  10. Pinxi September 27, 2006 at 12:41 pm #

    You’ve lost the plot Schiller. I’m pro-globalisation and pro-development. None of your other ignorant accusations fits any better. Less developed countries that participate in the global economy have the greatest success rates in reducing poverty.

    I was asking how, in the modern world, you can isolate national carrying capacity. If we can’t answer that, it leads us to consider international-regional or global carrying capacity. But to consider that, whose living standards shall we apply to the broader population? And do we have the data to estimate productivity accurately?

  11. Pinxi September 27, 2006 at 12:44 pm #

    Excellent work Paul! Open the borders then people. Who agrees we should greatly increase immigration then? If not, why not?

  12. Ian Mott September 27, 2006 at 12:47 pm #

    The concept of “carrying capacity” has it’s roots in the capacity of an area of land to feed a given number of animals over time. So in this case we need to distinguish between the capacity of the land to feed, clothe and house humans, the capacity of the oceans to do the same and the capacity of our technology to do this as well.

    Economics is, after all, a function of land, labour, capital and enterprise and this means that carrying capacity can also be influenced by our capacity to learn and adapt to change over time.

    But in the simplest sense, the calculation of the land’s capacity to sustain humans must also distinguish between cultures and habits. Clearly, we can support many more grain eating Bangladeshis than we can support others with a higher proportion of meat in their diet.

    The clearest way to address the issue is to determine the proportion of our total wheat, rice or vegetable crops that are consumed locally and then determine how many Australian equivalent consumers we support world wide.

    Approximately 85% of our grain is exported so our 20 million population is fed by 15% of our crop. Therefore, we currently provide the grain requirements of 20 million/15% or 133 million people at Australian consumption standards.

    We export 75% of our meat production so we currently provide the meat requirements of 80 million people at Australian consumption standards and probably 160 million people at less meat intensive dietary standards.

    We export more than 95% of our wool but import some of this back as finished clothing so we cannot make such a simple calculation as above.

    The question of how we might adapt our consumption patterns in future, or boost our production of food through water use efficiency etc will have a bearing on any ultimate questions of carrying capacity. A shift to more ‘Roo meat in our diet would boost total meat production and carrying capacity with minimal other impacts.

    The broader issues of the so-called “ecologically sustainable population” is laced with so many value judgements and assumptions that it defies meaningful calculation.

    What we can say is that we already provide all the food requirements of 80 million Australians from a farming base that has yet to take any serious efforts at utilising the huge water resources and lands of the tropical north.

    All their other needs are a function of their own artifice. We can house, educate, employ and entertain them all and more through their own efforts.

  13. rog September 27, 2006 at 1:03 pm #

    Before you open the borders you will have to define this welfare state thing, otherwise we will have all sorts of people living off out taxes.

    People should come here to better themselves by work not govt freebies.

    There must always be a check on medical and criminal records.

  14. Pinxi September 27, 2006 at 1:05 pm #

    So we should open up the borders then? We got plenty of land for decent homes and most countries don’t, esp the ones that need our exported grains to survive.

  15. Ian Mott September 27, 2006 at 3:46 pm #

    This does not amount to an argument to “open the borders” as we will be feeding this many people whether the borders are open or not. What it does do is completely refute the arguments that we have reached the limits of our capacity. We are not full. And the fact that we are not full does not mean that we must become so.

  16. Pinxi September 27, 2006 at 4:00 pm #

    why not, esp given that other countries are overflowing? Human entitlements for basic needs require more than just minimum nutritional requirements. Also, they’re in vulnerable situations and if conflict or economic shocks erodes their ability to pay, ie their markets for our exports, then where are we? Still riding on a sheep’s back? Why not consider internalising that risk (in the best free-market tradition) by letting a few more into our country?

    Why deny them access to our bountiful land and limitless skies? What reason can we ‘free-marketers’ have to deny those ‘others’ access via open borders? Having established that our human stocks are way below our carrying capacity, what reason could you possibly provide to exclude more humans other than the Nationalism that Schiller denies exists among neo-liberal free marketers?

    Plenty espouse unfettered markets on this blog. Minimal govt intervention. Do you want Schiller’s “planet without borders and universal freedom besides”? If so, is that a rule for all, or does it only extend as far as your own personal interests?

  17. rog September 27, 2006 at 4:44 pm #

    Well pixii, all these migrants will have to live somewhere and what with all the retrictions youse greenies have placed on infrastructure development eg, dams, roads, energy, enviro smart houses, stormwater tanks, green corridors, habitat preservation, cultural diversity, stamp duty etc the price of land and houses has gone through the roof and subsequently is affordable only by us greedy right wing capitalists (who are laughing all the way to the bank).

    A recent study found that house and land packages in NW Sydney had a $350,000 tax component.

  18. rog September 27, 2006 at 5:24 pm #

    I forgot EIS, OH&S and QA, these requirements have finished most small contractors.

  19. Pinxi September 27, 2006 at 5:27 pm #

    question remains unanswered

  20. Allan September 27, 2006 at 6:16 pm #

    ABC Catalyst programme had a segment about the footprint in hectares that different lifestyles take. That would relate to carrying capacity.

  21. Allan September 27, 2006 at 6:22 pm #

    Try these sites
    From the Catalyst homepage

  22. Paul Williams September 27, 2006 at 7:17 pm #

    I’m not quite sure why you’re pursuing this topic, Pinxi. What countries are overflowing?

    Speaking personally on open borders, I don’t want them. I’m pretty happy with Australia as it is.

  23. rog September 27, 2006 at 7:21 pm #

    Pinxii will never be satisfied, pointless even trying.

  24. Pinxi September 27, 2006 at 10:42 pm #

    figure of speech Paul. armed with that knowledge, if you’re prepared to reread the above, hopefully it shoudl make sense (probing at inconsistencies in some of the policy lines sprouted here, ie free markets, planet without borders and universal freedom my arse). If it doesn’t make sense, forget it, at least you’re honest when pressed & the others are a waste of time

  25. rog September 28, 2006 at 8:20 am #

    Not much point in having open borders into a country with central planning and controlled development, first things first.

    But pesky, you have yet to properly respond to my valid and very sensible points on restricted devlopment, you are inconsistent with your application of ideology.

  26. Ian Mott September 28, 2006 at 8:51 am #

    The catalyst stuff was crap laced with value judgements masquerading as a scientific approach. This “ecological footprint” analysis takes the current area of national park and divides it by the number of people to get a claimed quota of national park per person.

    But the only problem with this is that only a very small portion of the population is actually visiting the park and most of them merely use the picnic areas. More than 99% of the park undergoes no interaction with human population and hence, it’s integrity is not linked to any population threshold.

    This is especially so when the econazis spend so much of their time trying to exclude as many park users as they can get away with.

    The same applies to farmland. The fact that another 1000 vehicles a day speed down the motorway to Byron Bay has absolutely no impact on how my trees grow further up the valley. All the day trippers want is an ocean view, a belly full of chips and beer and a good lay. And they can get that in a high rise.

    So doubling the population would halve the so-called footprint but have minimal impact on quality of life.

    The main reason for having a modest rate of population increase is political and economic. New arrivals invariably take up an existing residents place in the unemployment line. It takes time for the stimulation in demand by migrants to feed through into a job for them. And the larger the intake the longer that queue becomes and the more concentrated their disadvantage becomes and the greater their political alienation.

    But if they have all come from cultures with a pronounced record of anti-rural bigotry, (as in the past 30 years) then none of the above applies and they can all stay where they are.

  27. Pinxi September 28, 2006 at 12:47 pm #

    rog you are a bullying troll and you repeatedly show that your only concern is your own selfish interests. You rarely justify you 1-liner attacks and childish put downs. You put the hard word on others to dig up evidence and then usually you don’t respond rationally despite one going to great effort to justify one’s point. Onus is on you for ever more to prove everything because I’ve done enough digging to explain things for your benefit to last a lifetime. Ignorance is a choice in your case rog. Other commenters here would do well to distance themselves from you lest they’re tainted by association and appear duller than they are.

  28. Pinxi September 28, 2006 at 3:29 pm #

    I couldn’t open that vic gov link but Motty the ecological footprint considers developed land separately to land for agric, forestry etc. ie it would support increased residential density as it makes a smaller footprint in developed (unproductive) land. It ignores pollution, it only looks at direct area use for known sinks & sources and productivity measures. Yes it is an aggregated measure as it deliberately seeks to get a big picture overview (not a weakness in itself, but limits how its results can be interpreted), and mostly focuses on actual direct consumption and wastes. As to what local perversions it may have been subject, I can’t say.

    there are millions of disadvantaged people in rural areas throughout the world, they’d be glad to pick yr stone fruit for $1 a day & camp in yard. We’ll let them in then.

  29. rog September 28, 2006 at 4:05 pm #

    Cant think why I am so underwhelmed by your teenage angst pinkey, must be old age.

  30. rog September 28, 2006 at 4:07 pm #

    You will have to argue your case with the ALP, they are dead set against rates and IR.

  31. Davey Gam Esq. September 29, 2006 at 1:05 pm #

    Is ‘carrying capacity’ a static condition (as some may assume) or a more dynamic interaction between humans and the land, mediated by changing knowledge and technology? Good farmers improve the carrying capacity of their land. I suspect that Australia’s carrying capacity is now much greater than it was in the 1700s. Might it be greater, or smaller, as time goes on? If oil runs out, without a replacement, our capacity may shrink. Given an energy breakthrough, such as pebble bed nuclear power, large areas currently uninhabitable might become habitable. Cheap desalination could increase water supply. Are we talking about a moving target, with unpredictable forces acting upon it? Anybody game to model that?

  32. Ian Mott September 29, 2006 at 2:05 pm #

    Pinxie, I’d just be happy with two guest workers, one to get rid of my Lantana and the other to expand and tend my forest. Both are jobs that currently exist but as I cannot afford to pay anyone else then they are on my list of things to do in 2029.

    A couple of unemployed East Timorese would do. And if we run out of Lantana there is a landslip to be stabilised, road ruts to fix, foxes to shoot and creek banks to restore.

    But it seems the green/left have more important things to think about.

  33. Pinxi September 30, 2006 at 4:49 pm #

    In my experience Motty the righty liberals care even less for rural issues. I’ve heard ‘liberal’ types declare that environmental issues should be the responsibility of the farmers and nothing to do with the city (I don’t recall hearing such ignorance from any lefty types). eg defending widespread use of exotic plants in cities. (btw I hate lantana & can’t believe people want it as garden plant). My experience tells me that a liberal’s locus of responsibility only extends to personal gain – emphasises rights, minimises responsibility – so screw the farmers, they all get handouts from ‘my’ taxes anyway. You’ll be happy to know I do my best to put such ignorant city folk back on the straight & narrow, no matter what their political standing.

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