photo: Greg Scales via flickr
We've covered this one on a number of occasions but with World Population Day just passed, it's worth bring up again: In a new op-ed published at Grist and elsewhere, Fred Pearce argues that all the focus on population growth rates in the developing world and its impact on the environment is misplaced. When it comes to eco-impact it's really rising rates of natural resource consumption, for which developed nations remain largely to blame, which is the bigger issue.Women Having Fewer Children, Even Without Education or Escaping Poverty
Here's a good example from Pearce on how in a growing number of places the sometimes-called 'population bomb' is defusing itself:
Family-planning experts used to say that women only started having fewer children when they got educated or escaped poverty -- like us. But tell that to the women of Bangladesh.
Recently I met Aisha, Miriam, and Akhi -- three women from three families working in a backstreet sweatshop in the capital Dhaka. Together, they had 22 brothers and sisters. But they told me they planned to have only six children between them. That was the global reproductive revolution summed up in one shack. Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest nations. Its girls are among the least educated in the world, and mostly marry in their mid-teens. Yet they have on average just three children now.
India is even lower at 2.8. In Brazil, hotbed of Catholicism, most women have two children. And nothing the priests say can stop millions of them getting sterilized. The local joke is that they prefer being sterilized to other methods of contraception because you only have to confess once. It may not be a joke.
Women are having smaller families because, for the first time in history, they can. Because we have largely eradicated the diseases that used to mean most children died before growing up. Mothers no longer need to have five or six children to ensure the next generation, so they don't.
Poor People Aren't the Problem, Consumption by Wealthy Is
And the crux of Pearce's argument, that consumption is the real issue:
With half the world already at below-replacement birthrates, and with those rates still falling fast, the world's population will probably be shrinking within a generation.
This is good news for the environment, for sure. But don't put out the flags. Another myth put out by the population doom-mongers is that it's all those extra people that are wrecking the planet. But that's no longer the case.
Rising consumption today is a far bigger threat to the environment than a rising head count. And most of that extra consumption is still happening in rich countries that have long since given up growing their populations.
Virtually all of the remaining population growth is in the poor world, and the poor half of the planet is only responsible for 7 percent of carbon emissions.
The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 40 Nigerians, or 250 Ethiopians.
How dare rich-world greens blame the poor world for the planet's perils?
Some greens need to take a long, hard look at themselves.
More Consumerism Not Needed, Anywhere
It's in this last part that Pearce really nails it in terms of defining the problem and pointing his finger at the right people--though it's also where I think the importance of talking about rising populations (even if this is slowing) comes back in. And why I've said that for people in the United States, the decision to have fewer children is one of the greenest choices you can make in your life.
Recent stats show that China's per capita emissions are roughly those of France's (in other words, four times lower than those average in the US). The dominant economic consumer model still flogged around the world is to attempt to continue expanding consumer spending and call it progress, ignoring the environmental consequences in the process.
One look at tables on the ecological footprint of different nations shows that continued attempts to emulate levels of consumption considered normal in America, Europe and a number of rich places will cause further ecological destruction, social conflict or both.
A reasonably equitable distribution of the planet's resources, among humans and non-humans, dictates that those of us at the top of the heap start consuming less, way less--Pearce's point in urging that long, hard look in the mirror.
More People = Less Each Person Can Have
Recent work by Worldwatch Institute shows how much consumption could be sustainably supported at different population levels. Roughly: At US consumption levels, it's about a billion and a half people; at current population levels everyone can have about what the average person has in Thailand; at projections for 2050 by the UN, it's more like lower middle class in India. To me that shows population and consumption are intimately mated.
Even if it is we in the developed world who have a much, much bigger adjustment to make in what we consider normal levels of consumer consumption. We need to redefine what we consider wealth, what we consider normal consumer behavior.
More on Population Growth & Consumerism:
Cult of Consumerism at Root of Planet's Environmental Degradation & Destruction
Australian Anglican Church Says Population Growth May Break Commandment 'Thou Shall Not Steal'
The Best Way You Can Go Green: Have Fewer Children
Is Paul Ehrlich's 'Population Bomb' Defusing Itself? Fred Pearce Thinks So