Saturday, July 27, 2013

Clarification about the "Fortress World"

Someone from a Facebook group called "Sustainable Population Australia" has stated that for me to raise the possibility of "Fortress Australia" is "a vicious and petty slight on Australians who have already sacrificed much prosperity to accommodate 7+ million who we've welcomed."

Here is a brief clarification. First, there are limits, not only of population, but of affluence and tolerance. It is amazing how many species and people the world can accommodate, but it is not infinite. I am Malthusian in the long run (no space here to defend Malthus; certainly though he has not been proved wrong; the general principle of a struggle between problems and solutions with regard to the support of human numbers is irrefutable.)

Secondly, there are "sweet spots" of population resource ratios. Indigenous Australian population probably totaled less than a million. Given their technology (including their choice to reject subsistence farming, a technology known in nearby New Guinea) they might have been able to feed more, but not 20 million more. Perhaps the optimal population in Australia (for today's technology) is less than 20 million; it is certainly less than 1 billion. But our collective tolerance of immigration reflects the dominant view that we can accommodate more than 20 million, even if that is sub-optimal. So, if we have welcomed 7+ million that is not necessarily at the "sacrifice of much prosperity", any more than immigration to the US in the 19th and 20th century lowered US living standards. But at another part of the curve, the capacity to accommodate 7 million might be at a higher cost, including to our prosperity.

As I wrote in a chapter in a report published this year by the Australian Academy of Science if Australia is to go for a really low population (say 25 million) then later this century we will be invaded, for sure. This is due mainly to the chaos beyond our borders which I think is inevitable - indeed which I first predicted in a published paper in 1991, and have consistently repeated.

People living in "fortresses" do not necessarily exclude more people; they exclude those who are unwanted, particularly welcome are people with skills and money who can strengthen the fortress. These days (in Australia) asylum seekers arriving by boat are collectively unwanted. I think the preference for rich and skilled people is reality, not vicious. But the real risk of what I mean by "fortress" refers to a mentality which cares very little if at all for people living outside the fortress.

We haven't quite got there, as a country (or a world) but we are moving towards it, eg as reflected by our low aid budget. In fact, we have been moving this way since at least 1980, and the large increase in refugees in the world in part reflects the failure of modern economics and development theories. But it also reflects intolerance, corruption and indifference in the world that exists beyond our borders, eg see my article from 2000 about a global "claste" system (here is a free version).

I have chosen to respond here, rather than directly to my critic, as I feel that a conversation just with that person is unlikely to have much success or benefit. My critic also says I have my head in the sand concerning population; which suggests little familiarity with my academic work, for example.

In summary, I think we are heading for an intensified retreat from the project of global civilisation; what is emerging is a "triage" world in which disorderly parts (Somalia, Congo, Syria etc) are increasingly sequestered, where people fleeing chaos are managed in camps; these trends will intensify as climate change and other limits to growth get worse; but for some decades people such as me in Australia will do ok. But eventually it will become intolerable, as desperation drives more brutal attacks and more brutal repulsion. I do think Australia needs to send a strong "fend" signal to asylum seekers (perhaps justifying the proposed New Guinea strategy); but I also think we need to do much more to promote stability and genuine development off shore.

I have been working towards this since 1989, when I co-founded the NGO Benevolent Organisation for Development, Health and Insight (BODHI), but I think the attempt is failing; but that's partly because not enough elites have sincerely tried. We could and should try much harder, in the very limited time we now have.


  1. Absolutely wonderful and accurate response, my own views against asylum seekers or illegal immigrants is far harsher and unforgiving in the face of the possible future problems which will be created by the overburden of immigrants and not only to the country to which they are emigrating but the country from which they are leaving as well.

  2. I understand why many people are hostile to asylum seekers (who are here lawfully, at least under present law - while most visa overstayers who are here are actually illegal yet better tolerated). However, there but for an accident of birth go I. I can also understand the motivation of those who seek asylum. If I had the misfortune to be a Rohingya (for example) living in racist Myanmar, in fear of my life and denied citizenship then I would definitely attempt to escape (eg to here) rather than enduring life in a camp; even if I thought there was only a 50% chance of success.

    I think almost all humans are territorial; Australians may be less territorial and more tolerant of diversity than (for example) Japanese, but there are limits to our hospitality and tolerance. Since there is so little evidence that limits to growth are widely understood I foresee intensification of fortress world and strengthening conflicts in developing countries, especially. I foresee growing oppression, flight attempts, and expanding refugee camps.

    This is a very depressing prospect; sorry about that. Another paper on this, free on line, is here:,d.dGI