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Is more people the answer for NZ?

Written By: - Date published: 9:12 am, November 5th, 2012 - 71 comments
Categories: Deep stuff - Tags:

The estimated population of New Zealand reached 4,444,444 on the 1st of November 2012. Nothing special other than a rare moment of symmetry in an otherwise random and chaotic world. Interestingly the number 4 is associated with death in Chinese, and this population occurred the day after Halloween.

No I’m not superstitious yet the relentless growth in New Zealand’s, and the World’s, population does have serious consequences for the future. New Zealand’s population has been growing at around 1 per-cent over the past few years and we have added around 400,000 to our population in the past decade. That is a city the size of Christchurch in just ten years.

A 1 per-cent growth rate equates to a doubling in population every 70 years, therefore at our current rate of growth our children or grandchildren could live to see New Zealand’s population reach 9 million. A recent New Zealand Herald opinion piece advocated increasing New Zealand’s population by 2.5 per-cent per annum in the coming years. A 2.5 per-cent growth rate equates to a doubling in population every 28 years which would result in a population of 25 million in 70 years time.

There are clearly some economic benefits from increased population growth, however, many of those benefits are completely outweighed by the associated environmental, social and economic costs – any additional growth has to be shared among more people, so it doesn’t necessarily mean higher living standards. Maybe it is time that we stand back, count all the benefits that our small population and low population density affords us and decide whether we want future generations of New Zealanders to share in such benefits.

Instead of aiming for continued population growth, which must end sooner or later on a finite planet, why not aim for a stable population. If we can envision a world in which population growth has ended we may be happy to make the choices necessary to bring it into existence.

Imagine going fishing and knowing your grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same quality of fishing, or better, in the future due to not having to divide the resource with ever more people. Imagine not having to fight an endless succession of developers who want to destroy the places we hold sacred, such as those isolated pohutukawa lined beaches that seem in increasingly short supply. Imagine not having to deliberate whether or not to smother some of the most fertile farmland in the world with suburbia due to there being no need to do so. Imagine producing all our energy from renewable sources and then no longer needing to build new hydro-dams and wind farms in our beautiful landscape because demand has stopped growing.

And imagine no longer viewing one another as competitive consumers in a race for a piece of an ever shrinking pie, but as fellow citizens working together to build a truly sustainable future.

71 comments on “Is more people the answer for NZ? ”

  1. Pete 1

    Don’t forget, most of these new arrivals will be concentrated around Auckland, putting much more pressure on the city’s infrastructure. In contrast, South Island centres can expect very modest growth.

    • Colonial Viper 1.1

      Auckland is genius. 30% of the country’s population in just 0.3% of the space.

      We’re going to have to face up to the fact that any additional population growth is going to have to go to the provincial centres. This means actively encouraging people to leave Auckland and take their families and businesses elsewhere in the country.

      Christchurch, for instance.

      • karol 1.1.1

        There’s also Hamilton and further north like Whangarei for those of us who prefer the northern climate.

        • Colonial Viper

          Yep, and the smaller centres too. New Plymouth, Napier/Hastings, Rotorua, Wanganui, Palmerston North. A sensible plan for managing population growth would involve all these smaller centres strategically.

      • alex 1.1.2

        The key for Auckland to continue to grow is to build up, not out. Hong Kong has millions of people in an area about the size of Lake Taupo. If the population of New Zealand is going to continue to grow, we need to keep as much farmland viable as possible, or else how are we going to feed the growing population?

  2. ad 2

    If 9 million is what we all consciously chose …

    …Possibly I would want a few more National Parks and at least 10% Marine Reserves around the two main islands, and a really well organised Auckland with 5 million in it, before we aimed for 9 million total …

    … and then consign many of the remaining catchments to something quite degraded. A different sort of country. A country with older values – like a biosphere – consigned to reserves that we visited through predator-proof fences. We would be one tough little unit, I must say.

  3. Peter 3

    I’d start the calculation on a simple premise – energy. What population can we support sustainably minus fossil fuels, knowing that our use of these will gradually phase out as they run down? This also raises the question of the available standard of living. Sure, we could fit many times our current number on these islands, but without an energy surplus, we’d be scratching around.

    I suspect it’s actually around 2-3 million people at a reasonable standard of living, which puts us well over currently.

    The corollary is that NZ has a moral responsibility to the peoples of the Pacific, who will be needing resettlement, so we may need to prepare a bit more thoroughly for this.

    • Steve Wrathall 3.1

      Rubbish. the catastrophic sea-level rises that the alarmists have been predicting for decades are manifestly not occurring. Sea level rise of 3 mm/year
      is not catastrophic, is not unprecedented, and is entirely managable.

      • Colonial Viper 3.1.1

        Humans don’t understand exponential effects at all well.

      • One Tāne Huna 3.1.2

        What’s that pissy whining? It’s Wrathall trying to blow harder.

        Meanwhile, back in the real world, predictions for sea level rise encompass a wide range based on several conditions.

        Why does Wrathall persistently misrepresent the truth? Is he delusional or mendacious? Does anyone care?

        PS: the graph linked above dates from 2007, since then, NOAA reports that:

        In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that global sea level would rise 18 to 59 cm (7 to 23 inches) by 2100. Since then, several groups have presented findings that suggest this estimate is too low…

        • Steve Wrathall

          Predictions are not evidence. Observations are:
          “For years, people have warned that the smallest nations on the planet – island states that barely rise out of the ocean – face being wiped off the map by rising sea levels. Now the first analysis of the data broadly suggests the opposite: most have remained stable over the last 60 years, while some have even grown. ”

          In a thread on the dangers of over-population one would think that the real reason so many of our Pasifika brethren need relocating would not be too hard to work out.

          • One Tāne Huna

            Numb-nuts – the graph shows where observations end – NOAA’s observations since then show that estimates were too low.

            All that was in my comment, the point of which is that the predictions you claim are dire in fact fall within a broad range. Got any more feeble strawmen?

        • Reagan Cline

          Oke Bay to Rawhiti will be easier – let alone all the other awkward passages.

  4. weka 4

    Hear hear.
    In the face of peak oil/everything and other things beyond our control (GFC, CC), does NZ have the capacity to produce food for its current population? What is the ideal ratio of population to landmass for sustainable farming/horticulture here? AFAIK no-one has done this kind of calculation yet. It would be good to know. 

    • Colonial Viper 4.1

      One small family per acre of flat fertile land, using good techniques and technology, is a good guide. Not much meat, but milk and eggs, and plenty of fresh produce.

    • joe90 4.2

      According to this info-graphic living off-grid you’d need around two acres, 8100m2, to support a family of four.

      • Rogue Trooper 4.2.1

        Excellent link joe. 🙂 (we have already made a start; built the hens a coop a couple of weeks ago)
        I certainly would not grow grain; input-output ratio is important to someone who likes a lotta spare time to read and commune. 🙂

      • weka 4.2.3

        There is a difference between how much land a family of four needs and how much a country needs divided by population. Feeding yourselves on 2 hectares is a different kind of food production than cropping grains for flour. Most people don’t live on 2 hectares, so the calculations need to look at our actual population, dietary needs, and the variation in land and climate across the country – growing dairy products in the high country is a different thing entirely than growing them in Southland. I am of course talking about sustainable farming.
        Add into that drought, extreme weather events, and crop failures.
        The x acres per family calculations are very broad and aimed at people who want to go ‘off grid’. What we need is some serious multi-disciplinary academic work that looks at the NZ context. And that needs to be broken down by area. The West Coast for instance needs an analysis of what can be grown there and what needs to be brought in across the mountains and how that might happen when oil is no longer cheap. When that analysis is done, we will have a better idea of what populations could be sustained here over time. I doubt that increasing the population would be sustainable (and as others have mentioned, it’s not just food).

  5. ianmac 5

    I keep on asking what is the optimum size of Nz’s population. Someone pointed out that Britain 66mil and Japan 100+ mil both have a similar land size to NZ.
    But sooner or later some clever person is going to say, “Enough!” Then whatever the imperative drives the need for 1 or 2% growth will have to be adjusted.
    So why not do it now? Avoid trying to increase the population artificially. Enough I say.

    • Peter 5.1

      It’s still a highly movable number. Part of it depends on infrastructure. If we invest in rail and better housing now, we can support a much higher population for the long term. If we don’t, then we’ve got issues.

      Food systems need serious thought too.

      At least we’ve been building up renewable electricity capacity recently. That’s a big advantage over other countries.

    • Colonial Viper 5.2

      UK imports 40% of the food it consumes. Price and supply shocks of durations greater than a month or two would greatly affect living standards there.


    • Sanctuary 5.3

      According to the population matters think tank, New Zealand has a sustainable population of about ten million – http://populationmatters.org/documents/overshoot_index_2011.pdf – before we seriously impact on the environment.

      My personal view is we should aim for a population of around 7-9 million, with a bias towards the lower end – sort of like the Reserve Bank Act’s inflation band only for our population.

      There are some frightening stats on that site. The UK is 44 million people over its capacity to support them, Japan is a staggering 108 million over carrying capacity. No wonder the WWII submrine blockade was so effective.

      The whole discussion about optimal population for New Zealand presumes political parties having developed population policies – policies on how many people we should have and where should they live. In turn, that would drive policies like whether or not to envourage large/small families and where/how/if to push regional development. It also presumes that generational policies around population growth are broadly non-partisan. Unfortunately, for the far right ideologues who dominate our political decision making such policies are anathema. They would prefer doing nothing until a chaotic Malthusian overshoot “natually” adjusts the population, since that is the market in operation. Better millions as yet unborn be condemned to death in a degraded environment that a population policy if the population policy runs counter to their ideology!

  6. Olwyn 6

    “…imagine no longer viewing one another as competitive consumers in a race for a piece of an ever shrinking pie, but as fellow citizens working together to build a truly sustainable future.”

    These “fellow citizens” must include those who have already immigrated here. It is terrible to invite people to live here and then subject them to anti-immigrant propaganda. That said, I think that with immigration, along with many other neo-liberal initiatives, we are asked to mistake correlation for cause, while our masters harbour no such confusions. Where there is a thriving economy, of course immigrants are going to add to its thriving. Immigration by itself, however, does not cause an economy to thrive, especially when it is primarily used to drive house prices up and wages down.

  7. xtasy 7

    New Zealand is amongst many migrants from more densely populated parts of the world considered one of the few remaining “refuges”, where low population density may offer a better chance to survive in a reasonably decent way in future.

    If it was not for the use of fossil energy like petroleum, coal and the likes, the present world population would not be sustainable at all. Even with maximized use of alternative energy for transport, electricity for homes and industry, it is unlikely that the present population of the globe would be sustainable. There will always be some arguing otherwise, but who wants to live in over populated places like the mega cities (with slums) in India, China, Brazil, Indonesia and where-ever else? Who wants to even live in lands with over-intensive agriculture, ripping the rest out of the grounds, leading to erosion and so forth?

    Sadly increased inward migration can be like intensified tourism. The cherished “refuges” with lots of green and clean environments soon end up looking rather over-used and messed up.

    That would happen to New Zealand, should it reach even 10 to 15 million population, let alone more.

    This country cannot be Noah’s Arc for refugees from all over the place either, so I would rather see no more than 5 to 6 million people maximum live here.

    • Sanctuary 7.1

      “…Even with maximized use of alternative energy for transport, electricity for homes and industry, it is unlikely that the present population of the globe would be sustainable…”

      This is a great point. The world population currently has about four billion people who weren’t here pre-fossil fuels and the green revolution. At some stage towards the end of this century, the cost of producing food for these people will rise in line with rising fossil fuel prices. We will be OK – assuming a free market government doesn’t allow a food producing oligarchy of food producers to export food for higher profits while we native starve, something I wouldn’t take as a given – even if we have rationing. The big die will occur in Africa, and tthe poor parts of Asia, and, I suspect, in the grossly overpopulated (because of the curse of religion) desert countries like Egypt.

      Here is an excellent discussion on the relationship between energy and populations…


  8. Bill 8

    That phrase “sustainable future” suggests that the future has to be protected (which it doesn’t) but more perniciously, that capitalism/markets have to be sustained. And they most certanly must not be sustained Anyway, a replacement rate population and a future that will sustain human society? Yup.

  9. vto 9

    Population is to a large extent like water finding its level.

    New Zealand’s flow only recently began so it is only just getting underway. The population will rise to its natural level, which is realistically a similar population density to that which exists in most other nicely habitable parts of earth. i.e. europe asia americas etc

    It will have little to do with the desires of the present population and will mostly occur through world events and demographic changes which governments have little control over.

    Just move away from Auckland…

    • Colonial Viper 9.1

      and will mostly occur through world events and demographic changes which governments have little control over.

      Nation states have always actively controlled migration/immigration and can control birthrates too if they wish.

      • Pete 9.1.1

        Indeed. China’s giving consideration to relaxing their one child policy

        • Colonial Viper

          Basically nation states are extremely powerful entities – which is why the Right Wing neolibs have spent 3 years limiting, discrediting their activity and role in society.

          And today we have a bunch of politicians who buy into that very same agenda.

      • Populuxe1 9.1.2

        Let’s look at the means by which states have actively controlled migration/immigration and birthrates other than the ethically more acceptable financial incentives:
        Forced migration (Nazi Germany, Turkey, France and Italy, United States).
        Forced abortion and sterilisation (China, North Korea, Nazi Germany, Azerbaijan)
        Genocide…. But that might be a bridge too far.
        Hmmmmm. Charming!

  10. Fisiani 10

    Every person in New Zealand is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant. That makes New Zealand a land of immigrants. People have been coming here for about 800-900 years.
    The environmental effects of steady migration can easily be mitigated and the economic benefits are obvious.

    • Draco T Bastard 10.1

      And that ^^^ is meaningless tripe. Really, Fisiani, you made absolutely no argument just some bald assertions that are obviously wrong as the country, and the world, is limited.

      • Fisiani 10.1.1

        NZ and the UK are roughly the same size. We have 4.4 million people and they have 66 million people. Their environment seems adequate. Do You really think that we could not cope with a few more people? Your lack of faith in NZ is sad. Your intemperate comment denies self evident truisms.

        • Draco T Bastard

          The UK cannot support it’s own population and that’s with fossil fuels. Take those away and the population that they can support is about 6m.

          Your lack of faith in NZ is sad.

          It’s got nothing to do with faith and everything to do with hard physical reality.

          • Colonial Viper

            The UK could do about 15M population I reckon, just with coal. Like the 1900’s.

  11. MeToo 11

    If we grow through immigration, not natural population growth, then I can’t see any problems EXCEPT NIMBYism and how that growth might be managed.

    After all, immigrants to NZ already exist somewhere else in the world, eating food, needing shelter, producing waste. Immigration doesn’t increase demand on the world’s resources, it just redistributes it. What this column reeks of is let them live somewhere else – NIMBY – because I don’t want to share my piece of paradise with them, if it means I have slightly less room or have to become more resourceful with my use of resources.

    Why are any of us here? Because NZ let us in – if we are immigrants – and now we are here we want to close the door to others? Or we had the good fortune to be born here – in which case it is nothing we have earned, it’s just our damned good luck. Something we want to deny to others, except our children who, like us, have done nothing to earn being here, it’s just their good luck to be born to NZ parents.

    How any population growth is managed is another issue.

    • millsy 11.1

      So youre quite OK with an overcrowded country then?

      • Fisiani 11.1.1

        A New Zealand of a 10 fold increase, 44 million people could hardly be considered overcrowded. Singapore has 4.5 million in an area the size of Lake Taupo. You really have to get out in the world to realise how this young country of New Zealand is still significantly underpopulated.

        • millsy

          If you like Singapoer, then why dont you go live there.

          You may love to aspire to a New Zealand of overcrowded streets, thick filthy smog, rivers like open sewers and teeming slums, but I dont want to.

          Mind you, you are on record as condoning class sizes of 60-70 students in our public schools.

          • Fisiani

            Your description of Singapore proves that you have never been there.

          • Populuxe1

            Singapore, while a bit authoritarian for my tastes, has got a lot going on – and awesome food.

        • thomas

          Overcrowded is a very subjective term as is underpopulated. At our current level of consumption/standard of living NZ could likely double it’s population and stay within our nation’s carrying capacity (http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/trends/newzealand/). Singapore on the other hand has vastly overshot it’s carrying capacity (http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/trends/singapore/) and relies on importing virtually all of it’s food and energy. As a geographically isolated nation I think it is only prudent to maintain spare biocapacity and maintain being a net food exporter.

          • Colonial Viper

            Being a net food exporter will make us a very influential country in the latter half of the 21st century.

      • MeToo 11.1.2

        Define “over-crowded”.

        A single dwelling on a quarter acre is over-crowded if you are used to living on a farm.

        Auckland now is over-crowded compared to the Auckland of my childhood – so many stand alone houses on 800-1200sqm sections have been lost to infill housing. And yet we have such low population density it is hard to get a good public transport system. Result, most people own cars.

        I loved being overseas in large dense cities that were well-planned with good public transit. Key words here are “well-planned”.

        • millsy

          Then why dont you go and live there then?

          Look at the likes of London, New York, Rio de Janerio, etc, they all have rempant crime, homelessness, sky high rents, pollution, and slums on a mass scale. Do you really want them here?

          • Populuxe1

            You apparently don’t get out much. I feel safer wandering around London, Paris or Berlin at 1 am then I do in any New Zealand city, and New York was massively cleaned up by Mayors Blomberg and Giuliani. Rio is an amazingly vibrant city. You sound like some provincial tosser who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

            • Rogue Trooper

              I gave the contrast assertion some thought, and I Agree!; I value and enjoy giving encouragement, where encouragement is due, so thanks for that,
              sanefully yours,
              (bet ya didn’t think it was possible for a person to consider all other people, did ya?)
              🙂 la la la la

            • millsy

              Guiliani law and order policies resulted in a facist NYPD that targeted black people.

            • Colonial Viper

              Rio a vibrant city? Sure. But how safe? Only 40,000 homicides a year in Brazil.

              • Populuxe1

                Given Brazil has a total population of 196,655,014, that’s probably not too bad, however that still doesn’t make any less ridiculous the idea that London, New York and Rio for all their drawbacks (and every city on earth has drawbacks) are incredible places to live for various reasons and to suggest otherwise makes one look like a provincial tit.

                • Colonial Viper

                  Given Brazil has a total population of 196,655,014, that’s probably not too bad

                  Sure on a NZ population basis it’s only 900 murders, or 17 killings a week on average. Not bad right?


          • Murray Olsen

            Rents in Rio de Janeiro are much less than in Auckland, and I would say Auckland has at least as much petty crime. Rio is also much more culturally vibrant than Auckland and does not have streets full of public drunks. In three years in Rio, I was never the victim of any crimes. In three weeks in Auckland, I had my car broken into and my bank cards cloned. There are disadvantages, but I would think very hard before I called the urban sprawl of Auckland superior.

    • Draco T Bastard 11.2

      Or it could just be the desire to live sustainably and recognising that places that have much higher density populations aren’t sustainable.

    • Colonial Viper 11.3

      NZ’s always pulled above its weight in terms of accepting refugees and displaced people for resettlement. I think we should continue to do so, but with rising sea levels we might find that a lot of these people start coming from our own Pacific backyard.

      But its our right as a sovereign nation to determine what suits us in terms of migration and immigration policies and I would suggest that a population increase of more than 2%-3% a year for the next decade or two would be quite unwelcome.

      And don’t forget that we have almost a million NZers overseas who will come back if things go topsy turvy internationally. They get utmost priority.

      • Mickey Mouse 11.3.1

        “And don’t forget that we have almost a million NZers overseas who will come back if things go topsy turvy internationally. They get utmost priority.”

        Just as long as they bring their full payment for student loan, traffic fines and anything else left unresolved when they left.

        • Murray Olsen

          Like money they made manipulating our currency, to the detriment of all of us? Or the billions in tax havens? It’d be nice if some of that came back.

    • thomas 11.4

      “Immigration doesn’t increase demand on the world’s resources, it just redistributes it.” This statement is not necessarily true. Migrants who relocate from low income nations with low per-capita ecological footprints to high income, high per-capita ecological footprints are likely to adopt the high-consumption lifestyle of the nation to which they have migrated – thereby increasing demand on the world’s resources. In fact, it is likely that this lifestyle is a “pull” factor in their decision to migrate. However, this is no excuse for NZ (and other nations with high per-capita ecological footprints) to maintain such over-consumptive lifestyles and we should endeavour to reduce our per-capita ecological footprint to a globally sustainable level. Unfortunately there are no nations with a globally sustainable per-capita ecological footprint that also have a high quality of life.

  12. Draco T Bastard 12

    I’m going to put in my comment that I made on the NZHerald article:
    There’s one thing we need to know before we consider increasing population – what is New Zealand’s population cap.

    NZ is of limited size – It’s not getting any bigger. Within that limited size there are limited resources but what we actually need to know is just how much of those resources we can use on a sustainable basis.

    Once we know that and have then decided, collectively, just what each person/family/whanau should have available to them as far as use of those resources go then, and only then, will we know enough to make a rational decision about increasing population.

    I would be highly surprised if the NZIER even gave to seconds thought to these physical limitations which means that they’re talking out their collective arse – pretty much just like every other economist*.

    Personally, I would be surprised if we could support much more than we already have.

    * Economist: Someone who wouldn’t know what an economy was if they tripped over one and yet are stupid enough to go on about it as if they did**

    ** Which just goes to show how stupid our politicians are as they listen to them

    See also my Social Democratic Economy Part II

  13. Rich 13

    If NZ cities had the population density of London or Amsterdam we could house tens of millions without increasing our urban area. What’s more, with public transport being more viable and improved general use of infrastructure, resource usage per capita would decrease.

    Is it right that we hog a large and fertile chunk of planet for our relatively small population?

  14. Mickey Mouse 14

    I reckon we don’t specifically need ‘more people’ although we could absorb another 2% p.a. quite easily for the next decade or so, as long as they agreed to not live in Auckland – however we do need ‘better’ people, and sadly many of those are leaving, not staying.

  15. xtasy 15

    It amuses and worries me, how some clear city dwellers here try to justify more migration, more population, more use of the land in a manner to just feed and power the ones living on it. NZ is still largely (2 thirds) living off exports of agricultural, horticultural, forestry, fishery and viticultural types. That is still what NZ largely lives off, through trade getting what else it needs.

    Surely there is much space and deserved option to change this, but in all honesty, this will never become a Germany of the South Pacific, and it will never compete with Chinese or even Malaysian wages for factory workers. So truly there will be limits.

    I am all for more value added production and diversification, but be realistic, if you allow so much immigration to have the people consume the agri products that can be grown here locally, then there will not be the exports that NZ still relies on.

    Some may love to live off an acre or two, but as I grew up on a farm, I know that climate, fertility, affordability of fertiliser, diseases, pests and so have significant impacts on life and what you can grow and harvest.

    This dream of living off the land on small sections, to feed 20, 50 or more millions here, to share the resources with migrants from poorer or over-populated places, this must be put into perspective. Once your neighbour steals your crop at night, because his may have been spoilt for a reason, once hedge arguments and more arise, you will know what human behaviour can deteriorate to. Read perhaps about the history of Easter Island, to get a grip of what can happen, or about the downfall and destruction of Mayan civilisation, just for examples.

    I am totally for balanced, sustainable agriculture and other development, but do not turn NZ into another Japan, UK or whatever else. You will be digging your own graves, as the future will be very damned bleak, once oil hits $ 200 a barrel and more! Fertilisers also are largely made from oil by the way!

    • Colonial Viper 15.1

      Once your neighbour steals your crop at night, because his may have been spoilt for a reason, once hedge arguments and more arise, you will know what human behaviour can deteriorate to.

      Yep. Just check out the details of the Scott Guy case.

  16. xtasy 16

    I can easily “feed” millions, no matter where, just give me the capital to do so, and I surely will!

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