Population Growth and Ecological Footprint - It's About Equity, Environment & Preventing Collapse


ecology equity economy photo

photo: Franz Drewniak/Creative Commons

Sometime later this year the human population will pass the 7 billion mark. As I write this we're at 6.9 billion and ticking upwards by about one person a second, or so the population clock at Global Population Speak Out tells me. Even with the widely (widely) disparate levels of natural resource consumption across nations by the end of August each year our collective ecological footprint begins outstripping the planet's ability to regenerate what we've taken--we start going into ecological debt. This depletion of natural capital is driven by a comparatively small percentage of the world's people in wealthy nations, but the impact of billions of people living at subsistence levels is not insignificant as well. In short, when talking about human's environmental impact you simply can't separate population growth and resource consumption--even if many people try to, pointing fingers at each other and carelessly invoking Malthus. When it comes down to it though the two play against one another, both bumping up against the hard ecological limits of the planet--as I've written about on a number of occasions.

There's one part of this debate that is all too often not mentioned by the environmental community, but should be: Equity.

how rich am I? image

Without going into specifics of my income (along with population growth another taboo discussion for some), in the United States I earn very nearly the median income in 2010 for my writing. Nevertheless, compared to all of the people on the planet I am in the top 0.91% of the richest people in the world, as the image above from the Global Rich List shows. Surely if this is the case those of us living in wealthy nations can afford and manage to adjust our lives so that there is a more equitable distribution of wealth both domestically and internationally.
5% of World's Population Uses 33% of Resources
Some stats to keep in mind, all come from the 2010 State of the World report from Worldwatch Institute as TreeHugger covered it at the time:

As it stands now, 500 million people on the planet (about 7% of the world population) is responsible for 50% of all CO2 emissions. At the other end of the scale, the bottom 3 billion people are responsible for just 6% of the total. The United States leads the world, with its 5% of world population roughly responsible for one-third of all global expenditures on goods and services.

If that level of resource consumption was extended globally, the planet could support just 1.4 billion people.

To equitably support current population levels and not continue to degrade the ability of the planet to support us, we'd all have to live like the average person in Thailand or Jordan--roughly $5,000 a year's worth of consumption.

And remember that population growth is expected to continue until we hit about $9 billion people (or perhaps more, if recent UN warnings bear out). Which means that the global resource pie gets sliced into even smaller and smaller equal pieces--or relatively equal at least, I'm not advocating absolute equality as the ideal.

The hard part of this should be obvious if we hold on to equity as a virtue (and make no mistake I think we should): If a minority of the world's people consume the vast majority of the world's resources, doing so ecologically unsustainably, and there's a large group of people claiming a right to have what that minority do, a recipe for collapse is quickly created.

limits of growth chart

Chart: Christian Guthier/Creative Commons.

Beyond the usual (and valid) suggestions of increasing women's education and reproductive freedom, creating more gender equity, and lifting people out of absolute poverty, there are several things to do that may be able to prevent this both concrete and conceptual:

Greater Efficiency Can Help, But Not Solve This Problem
Efficiency and waste. Improving the former and reducing the latter can certainly help everyone do more with less resource consumption. Will it make up for the fact that the ecological footprint of the average citizen in the United States is roughly four times the carrying capacity of the planet and even that of the average person in China is unsustainable as well? Probably not, but both are critically important.

Until Environmental Damage Is Incorporated Into Economics We Will Continue Making Bad Choices
Start measuring more than GDP, incorporating well-being and environmental factors (like depleting natural capital), and reporting this as the baseline of national worth. We need to have, report and act upon, accurate information about the relationship of our economic activity to the environment. Plenty of more articulate people than I have written extensively on alternate economic indicators such as the Genuine Progress Indicator, so I won't go on about it. This data exists and is regularly calculated already. Now let's start reporting it and acting upon it.

'Developed' Is A Bad Term For What Industrial Nations Are
Getting rid of the terms 'developed' and 'developing' as applied to nations. Even 'emerging economy' is problematic. Developed and developing signify complete in some way or being in the process of reaching completeness. Emerging is a variation on this. All imply inherent goodness in consuming resources like those of us in the US, in Europe, Japan, Australia, etc etc etc do, when in fact ecologically speaking that level of consumption extended globally is a disaster in the making.

I'm not sure what should replace these terms, nor do I think that this would solve the practical problem of ecological overshoot, but if refining our language in how we think about this seems important.

Continued Idealization of Economic Growth Is Delusion
Going along with this is moving our expectations and language away from growth economics to steady-state economics--another huge subject not always explicitly connected with population growth. We have been so indoctrinated with the notion that growth is good always that this may be difficult, but given what we now know about the ecological limits of the planet and how in the highest consuming nations of the world any growth is likely uneconomic, to not cease talking about economic growth as an unqualified good thing is just delusional.

We Have to Be Able to Calmly Talk About Population Growth & Resource Consumption
Break the taboo on talking about population growth and reacting kneejerkedly to it as somehow an infringement on personal liberty necessarily and in all cases--and assuming that if someone brings it up the next words out of their mouth will be about eugenics, enforced population controls, one-child policies, or they are crypto-communists, crypto-racists or outright nationalist. While I admit I don't have a hard stat on it, I imagine a fraction of one percent of people wanting to have this discussion are any of those negative things.

If we cannot even have a nuanced discussion of the relation of how our personal reproductive choices, the group reproductive choices of nations, as well as how our individual and collective consumer choices combine into environmental and social impact, we will surely choose the to continue down the path of collapse.

More on Population Growth, Ecological Footprint, Equity:
When Population Growth and Resource Availability Collide
Connecting the Dots: Population Growth, Consumerism & Biodiversity Loss Tangled Together
Population Growth, Climate Change Degrade African Soil, Threaten Millions With Starvation: Worldwatch
Australian Anglican Church Says Population Growth May Break Commandment 'Thou Shall Not Steal'