Do we have a population crisis or a consumption crisis?

Screen capture The dangers of overconsumption, population growth and a toxic environment

We love comments, really we do! But sometimes it seems that every post ends up with a discussion of the population crisis, like a rerun of a Star Trek episode. If we cover a tree-covered tower:

Cities aren't the problem, too many people forcing too high a living density are the problem. Until we stop ignoring the overpopulation problem, everything else is just a bandaid measure.

Or if we are discussing our individual carbon footprints:

…the biggest problem is that we have simply too many people on earth. If we could reduce human population to three billion by 2100, then the environmental problem we face will be solved - even without any technological innovation, we will more than halve the CO2 emission with such reduction.

And always: “Why does TreeHugger never talk about population?” In fact we do, we have, going almost back to our beginning. We even have this post featuring Hans Rosling, who just died yesterday, talking about how population growth is dropping in parallel with dropping child mortality rates. And we keep coming around to the fact that our problems are not caused by overpopulation but overconsumption.

In much of the world, birth rates are falling and populations are actually dropping. In Japan, they are building robots to take care of the aging population because there are not enough people to do it. Many countries are offering incentives to people to encourage them to have more children. According to Charles Eisenstein, writing in the Guardian, “More than half the world's population now lives in countries where the fertility rate – the average number of babies born per woman – is below the replacement level (around 2.1).”

carl sagan© Carl Sagan

20 years ago, Carl Sagan suggested a solution to the problem in those countries where there is still runaway population growth, that still holds true:

There is a well-documented correlation between poverty and high birthrates. In little countries and big countries, capitalist countries and communist countries, Catholic countries and Moslem countries, Western countries and Eastern countries--in almost all these cases, exponential population growth slows down or stops when grinding poverty disappears. This is called demographic transition....

Our job is to bring about a worldwide demographic transition and flatten out that exponential curve--by eliminating grinding poverty, making safe and effective birth control methods widely available, and extending real political power (executive, legislative, judicial, military, and in institutions influencing public opinion) to women. If we fail, some other process, less under out control, will do it for us."

But as we eliminate grinding poverty, we increase consumption per capita, and that is causing problems now. As Mat noted in a post a few years ago about how resources are not evenly distributed:

On one hand, a billion or more people have problems of underconsumption. Unless their basic needs are met, they are unlikely to be able to make important contributions to attaining sustainability. On the other hand, there is also the issue of the "new consumers" in developing economies such as China and India, where the wealth of a sizeable minority is permitting them to acquire the consumption habits (e.g., eating a lot of meat and driving automobiles) of the rich nations. Consumption regulation is a lot more complex than population regulation, and it is much more difficult to find humane and equitable solutions to the problem.

Tim de Chant did a great infographic that I show below that shows how much planet we consume, living the lifestyles we do in the west. We have a consumption problem; this is what is unsustainable, not our population.

footprint© Tim de Chant/ Per Square Mile

Tags: Population Growth | Poverty


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