The habitability of Australia [22 September 1920]

[Editor: This article was published in The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.), 22 September 1920.]

The habitability of Australia

What has science to say in answer to a question as to the population-supporting capacity of Australia? This subject is dealt with in a very interesting manner by Dr. Griffith Taylor, Associate Professor of Geography in the University of Sydney, in the current number of “Science and Industry.”

Every thoughtful Australian has often wondered what the future nation will be in numbers. What will be the Australian nation’s comparative position in( the world when this continent has a population which is equal to its supporting capacity?

Dr. Griffith Taylor’s article, he says, is “largely concerned with comparisons based on recent physiographic-research.” We shall find, he adds, that we have “reason to be proud of the future of Australia, even though it is not so well endowed as the older centres of white settlement.” It is particularly well suited for climatic studies, because “it is free from variations due to elevated plateaux, high ranges, and deep gulfs and inland seas.” Unfortunately these very characteristics are a distinct handicap as a dwelling place for man.”

The following table gives the conclusions Dr. Griffith Taylor has arrived at “for a future date which is by no means outside the province of present-day politics.” The table indicates the limits of future white settlement:—

 British Control.
U.S.A. Control.
Other States.
North America17951310702
Argentine, &c.115115
South Africa76682
Australia and N.Z.6262

So far as the white races are concerned — Dr. Griffith Taylor does not give a similar table for the future of the coloured races — the superiority of numbers will belong to the United States. Take that country and the British Empire together, then the English-speaking white races will far outnumber all the other white races, and if the white races continue to be the dominating races on the earth then the future is rich with promise for the English-speaking white peoples. And this leadership will have its origin in the two British Isles which seem so small when measured against the continent of Europe.

Of the 377 millions of British white folk whom this student of climate sees coming into existence, Australia and New Zealand will support 62 millions. So the Greater Britain will not be here. Only one-sixth will be Australians or New Zealanders. Should South Africa remain within the British Empire it may hold a larger white population in the future — that is to say, the climate does not forbid it, the conditions are favourable for a total South African population of 76 millions.

Now let us see how Dr. Griffith Taylor finds the basis of his speculations:

If we glance at a world-map, representing either population or vegetation or rainfall, we shall find that the most striking feature in all these maps is the belt of empty arid lands which lies along the tropics in both hemispheres. There are the regions where the trade winds are supreme; and where they blow from the continents to the ocean they are desiccating (drying) winds Their realm covers half the surface of the globe, and where a broad belt of land is affected (as in Australia and Northern Africa) the result from an economic point of view is well-nigh disastrous. Here then is the first and the chief burden which Nature has laid on the Australian. Nothing can make up for the large extent of our continent which lies below the constant sweep of the desiccating trade winds. There is of, course some compensation in the well-watered east coast for the barren interior and west. Queensland owes much of her prosperity to the constant south-easters, which give her the heaviest rainfall in the continent. Hereabouts they blow from sea to land.

It is depressing to hear from Dr. Griffith Taylor that we have just missed a very good thing. “There is little doubt that a site some 10 geographical degrees to the south of our present position would have made Australia a rival of the United States of America, whereas her natural assets cannot compare with that country.” Tropical Australia is deficient in plateaux, and compares in this respect badly with the tropical portions of the Americas, of Asia, and of South Africa. “Only in Northern Africa and Australia has Nature been niggardly.” Tropical Australia is double the size of Rhodesia, but while 90 per cent of Rhodesia is a plateau with a cool climate, only 4 per cent of tropical Australia is similarly favoured.

Temperature and rainfall are the conditions that encourage productive settlement. Health and comfort are real factors in the occupancy of a territory by a white race. The Atherton plateau is a most valuable tract of country, but there is so little similar country in the interior of Australia. Even a range of mountains like the Andes in the centre of the continent would not mend things because the atmospheric currents contain no moisture. Mountains do not make moisture, though they may influence its precipitation as rain. Of the artesian water Dr. Griffith Taylor says:—

Given a region with insufficient rainfall, it is obviously an enormous asset if a subterranean supply can be tapped. In the eastern half of Australia nature has compensated for her disposition of the highlands by placing a series of permeable sediments (at various depths to 6,000 feet below the surface), in which a considerable proportion of the rain is collected. The origin of the artesian water is still a vexed one, but the balance of opinion certainly favours present rainfall, and possibly Pleistocene ground-water father than ‘plutonic’ sources. There are also several other small artesian basins, but they do not compare in importance with the Queensland basin.

Irrigation will create settlement in favoured localities, but “can make no practical difference to the general character of a continental surface.” At present only one part in a thousand of the lands needing irrigation has actually been benefited. Dr. Griffith Taylor discusses the distribution of Australia’s rainfall very interestingly, and also the distribution of the industries.

Of course the intelligent reader, knowing that Dr. Griffith Taylor’s speculations as to the future of white settlement are wholly founded upon his comparative studies of the habitability of the earth, will be careful not to take them too literally or press them too far. But that they contain considerable truth is hardly open to doubt by a thinking mind. It is possible for an unthinking person to imagine and then believe in a future Australia which will hold a population enormously bigger than the student of climate has ventured to indicate, but a little thought should convince any Australian that, comparatively, Australia’s population supporting capacity will never be very high. Nature has settled that question.

What then? Well, let us not look at the capacity in the disparaging temper which tends to make a thing less than it really is. Say that Australia and New Zealand are full when they contain about 62 millions of people. But that number is equal to the population of the United Kingdom to-day with three times the Commonwealth population added to it. Of course the climatic prohibition will keep this continent in an inferior place as regards population to Asia. When Northern China is filled up our population, though our territory is filled up, will look very small alongside that of China. But what this teaches us is that we should exercise the greatest care in the admission of immigrants. National power does not consist entirely of numbers. Britain assures us that a race can be mighty which is not overwhelmingly numerous.

The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.), 22 September 1920, p. 4

Editor’s notes:
The two large quotes by Griffith Taylor have been placed within blockquotes, so as to distinguish them from the rest of the text.

niggardly = miserly, stingy; to act in a mean or miserly manner; to be ungenerous with money, time, effort, etc.

plateaux = plural of “plateau”: a large mainly level area of land which is higher than the land around it; a tableland

Pleistocene = of or relating to the first epoch of the Quaternary period, being the period of time between approximately 1.8 million and 11,000 years ago (also known as the Ice Age), during which modern humans first appeared in the fossil record

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