Overconsumption vs Overpopulation

The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. For example: reducing electricity use would have roughly 100 times greater impact on common air pollution and global warming than reducing spending on telephone bills by an equal amount, as well as 55 times greater impact on common water pollution and 5 times greater impact on toxic air pollution.

Unchecked population growth in the Third World means depletion of water resources. It means famine. It means suffering. It pushes populations to clear rainforests. It pushes populations to go out and graze on land that cannot sustain cattle, and that leads to expansion of deserts worldwide. We all have a stake in the global environment.

Sorry, Folks - We Can't Resolve the Problem by Simpler Living. Overpopulation is the Problem

So I didn't know I would grow up to be a curmudgeon, but there it is. I guess I have a simplistic view of the population/sustainability problem, but I see considerable flawed logic in some of the arguments in this conversation. I have found that the data seem clear, but the reactions seem to be uncomprehending or denying of the true import, or perhaps are simply so gentle as to fail to address the catastrophic magnitude of the message.

First of all, Tim Keating's plea for a return to nature, ignores the fact that humans have never had a conscience or much discrimination with regard to potential food items. No need to chastise the dodo eaters, ask the wooly mammoth, giant sloth, moa, or any of hundreds of game and plant (and possibly human), species wiped out by our hunter gatherer ancestors. Though many hunter gatherers had a much more inclusive spiritual attitude toward other species, when it came down to nut cutting, it was them or us.

So it is today, when investors say "we will hunt whales as long as we can get a 30% profit, when they are all gone, we'll find something else on which to make a 30% profit". Human restraint is a faint hope, at best. But take away our freedom? Our right to profit? Our god given right for each couple to decide how many children to have? Well, does each couple consider the cost to the environment of each child, the fact that the other species, are being asked to provide the supreme sacrifice for their right? Like the atmosphere and the oceans, the human population is a global commons. No one has the right to overgraze.

Carrying capacity isn't a matter of opinion, there are real limits. Pollution is bearing down on us now, one of the lightest touches limits will show us. Donella Meadows, in Beyond the Limits, suggested that the entire world (5 billion at the time), might live equitably with a standard of living similar to that of western Europe. Various carrying capacity and ecological footprint studies have indicated that the American lifestyle cannot be spread to all 6 billion unless we can obtain the resources of two more planets. Can the earth support 12 billion in 25 more years, 24 billion in 40 years? Nah!

My sustainability colleagues say "sustainability is inevitable". No doubt about it. So what are the scenarios for establishing equilibrium with the environment? Well, there are the four horsemen, they should be riding through here any time now, unless we can detour them to the south. But those who argue against "population control" are deluding themselves that, by evading hard choices, they aren't responsible for the more severe mechanisms that will inevitably step in to do the job.

If the population were to increase to 12 billion, perhaps there would be enough food, if distributed equitably, for a meager existence for all. But the toll on other species would be severe - omnivorous locusts come to mind. Beyond the Limits explores many ways that an overshoot and collapse scenario could play out. But there are worse scenarios. One is a state of global dynamic equilibrium, where a balance exists between the large number of poor and the few rich. Such a bipolar equilibrium system would see war, famine, disease only affecting the large pool of poor that supports the aristocracy, who would live as far from the rabble as they could get. In this sense we Americans are all rich, my dog's daily food would keep a third world child alive for weeks. Third world nations may hope for economic success and eventual triumph of capitalism, but the underlying dynamics are solidly against it. We have set up the world economy and the multinational consumer system so that the poor will be the first to starve, but in a real sense we are eating their children even now.

What this implies is that the whole world won't starve, but that the third world will take the brunt of the limits, sort of like the sequential collapse of the front of a Volvo in a crash. They will be the ones to suffer famine, disease, and war, in order to maintain the balance which allows the rich to stay comfortable. Theirs will be the sacrifice, and the less powerful, including other species, will be the first to go.

Dave Denber's contention that "the problem isn't overpopulation in the developing countries but overconsumption by the developed countries" is preposterous, not because we aren't overconsuming, but because it suggests that if we only reduced our consumption to that of the third world, we could go on increasing population indefinitely. But many poor countries cannot even maintain their meager standard of living, and this is only partially due to the extraction of means by the multinational consumer system. They have overreached their local carrying capacity, and must make adjustments or beg to receive a greater share of global wealth.

The hope that we can act locally as Julie Hudson suggests, to achieve regional sustainability, is a noble idea, but can only help assuage our guilt so long as our resource use exceeds our local carrying capacity. And even if we could achieve local equilibrium, it would require a significant reduction in population in most areas. Sub-Saharan Africa is doing its share to establish local equilibrium or perhaps maintain global equilibrium, our pity should be informed by our guilt. The densities achieved in China and India are certainly approaching the maximum, and balance is being imposed by resource shortages and mandates. Following that path leads to a world of wall to wall people and little else, an equilibrium where the limits are imposed more equitably, in your face, every day. A drab world vision, indeed. And to what purpose?

What possible value could filling the world with more people have? Is it the right of our species to wipe out all others? Are we to measure ourselves by the mass of souls or the soul of the masses?

I know I've been brutally frank in the discussion above, and perhaps just the teeniest bit pessimistic, but the time has come to discard the rationalizations that allow us to hide from the realities and stark limits. This is the big problem. The one we can't face. Social or economic equity won't solve it, reduced consumption won't solve it, sustainable living won't solve it, only population reduction will solve it. That solution is inevitable, but perhaps we can work to ease the pain of the transition.

Perhaps we humans can seek the path that maximizes kindness to all beings. If we can't bring ourselves to personally forsake our comfort, perhaps we can chose and promote, from the security of our place and time, the path that minimizes the pain to others.

Mark E. Kelley III, PE

Note: The Overconsumption remarks are in black while overpopulation remarks are in blue italics. WOA's remarks are by Gaia

From "Small is Beautiful, Big is Subsidised: How our taxes contribute to social and environmental breakdown" International Society for Ecology and Culture. PO Box 9475, Berkeley, CA 94709, USA email: isecca@igc.apc.org (This information provided by John Revington, Rainforest Information Center)
Oct 1998

In a similar way even overpopulation must have a solution that emanates from the industrial model -- despite the fact that industrialisation is itself a root cause of the problem. Almost every policy-maker believes that further industrial development (often sugar-coated with western style 'education' for women) will end the Third World's population explosion, based on the observation that population growth in industrialised countries slowed or stopped once certain levels of affluence were reached. The South is therefore encouraged to continue developing along the industrial-consumerist track, in the belief that population growth will stabilise when consumption levels rise sufficiently.

(This is where, to be convincing, the writer should name some policy makers that are pushing industrial development. Equating improved farming practices (ie avoiding agricultural burning), fighting industrial pollution, education of women, and getting people away from abject poverty can hardly be called 'pushing industrial development' ... Gaia)

Since this theory takes the industrial era as the baseline, the role of modernisation in initiating population explosions in the first place is completely ignored. As Edward Goldsmith points out, "the experience has been the same everywhere. As soon as a traditional society embarks upon the path of economic development, its population simply explodes. It happened in Britain, where the population was under 8 million when the Industrial Revolution began, and where it increased by more than seven times before it eventually stabilised. It is happening today wherever economic development occurs..."

(It explodes due to improvement in water supplies and availability of antibiotics, which often happen whether or not the country undergoes economic development or industrialization. ... Gaia)

Wedded to the notion that viable societies must be based on the industrial model, policy makers have no qualms about hooking the planet's few remaining traditional societies into the global industrial system. IF such cultures survive the transition, their populations, too, will explode, but policymakers will have a ready solution: more development.

The 'development-as-solution' theory also ignores the fact that overpopulaiton is primarily a problem because the planet has a limited capacity to absorb the impact of human activities -- an impact that multiplies exponentially with rising levels of consumption. One might ask which is the bigger problem: that world population has doubled since 1950, or that the number of cars -- and everything that goes with them -- has increased tenfold in the same period? Stabilising the world's population by encouraging more industrial development is like 'solving' the problem of overfishing by building more trawlers. This absurd population policy can only seem rational when viewed through the fragmented lens of the industrial worldview.

The Most Harmful Consumer Activities

Cars and Light Trucks
The manufacture and, more important, the use of consumers' vehicles cause more environmental damage--especially air pollution and global warming --than any other single consumer spending category.

Meat and Poultry
Meat and poulter production requires large amounts of water and causes 20 percent of the common (as opposed to toxic) water pollution related to consumer expenditure. It also uses a significant share of the nation's land--800 million acres for grazing livestock and an additional 60 million acres to grow animal feed. Red meat causes especially hight amounts of environmental damage for the nutrition it delivers.

Fruit, Vegetables, and Grains
Irrigated crops grown to meet consumer demand use an enormous quantity of water (30 percent of consumer-related water use). pesticides and fertilizers cause 5 percent of consumer-related toxic water pollution. Food crops also use substantial amounts of land.

Household Appliances and Lighting Electricity seems clean and nonpolluting when it's used in the home, but most of it is generated by burning polluting fossil fuels, especially coal. Appliances and lighting are responsible for 15 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions related to consumer expenditures and 13 percent of consumer-related common air pollution.

Home Heating, Hot water, and Air Conditioning
Cooling and heating homes and water has an impact on global warming and air pollution similar to that of appliances and lighting. Systems that rely on electricity or oil contribute heavily to both problems. Most fireplaces and wood stoves are especially high air polluters.

Home Construction
The land and wood used for new home s are responsible for about a quarter of consumers' impact on wildlife and natural ecosystems. Six percent of consumer-related water pollution comes from manufacturing the materials for new homes and disturbing the soil during construction.

Household Water and Sewage
Despite advances in sewage treatment, municipal sewage remains a major source (around 11 percent) of water pollution, especially affecting coastal areas and estuaries. Interestingly, households' home water use is only 5 percent of th total compare d with nearly 74 percent for food production and distribution.

form the Union of Concerned Scientists

The following is an excerpt from the opening program in the radio series "Deep Ecology for the 21st Century," . The series is produced by New Dimensions radio.

MICHAEL TOMS: It's difficult to listen to that kind of view. It strikes me that consumption patterns are also part of this equation, aren't they?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, of course. One of the things that Canadians and Americans seem to like to say is, "Oh, well, the problem is population. It's those colored folks, those yellow, brown, black and red people that are breeding like rabbits, and we've got to stop population growth." It's not that simple. Our impact on the planet is not just a function of how many of us there are, but what our consumptive patterns are. The average Canadian or American consumes about twenty times as much of everything as the average person in India or China; so the Canadian population, then, is 600 million Chinese or Indian equivalents.

('Colored folks'? 'Like rabbits'? Come now, we Americans say that? Talk about stereotyping. You are losing your credibility. ...Gaia)

Your population in the United States is almost 300 million, so you're talking about a population of six billion Americans in terms of Chinese equivalents. We use a hundred times as much as the average person in Somalia or Bangladesh; so you're talking about thirty billion Americans in Somalian equivalents. And that's three billion Canadians in Somalian or Bangladeshi equivalents. We in the industrialized world-in Europe, Japan, Australia and North America-are the major predators on the planet. There are about 1.2 billion of us. But in terms of our consumptive demands, we are by far the major destructive agent on the planet. Although we're only twenty percent of the global population, we consume over eighty percent of the planet's resources. We produce certainly far more than eighty percent of the planet's toxic products. So, while population definitely is a limiting factor, the fact is that we in the industrialized world, in terms of consumptive patterns, are the major problem on the Earth.

Dr. David Suzuki is the author of The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature (Prometheus 1998) and co-author, with Peter Knudtson, of Wisdom of the Elders (Bantam 1992).

From what I've read, the number eighty percent applies to goods and services. Yes, the developed world could use a lot of improvement in the overconsumption area, but what does the 'service' part of goods and services have to do with resources? So how much of the world's resources do well-off people consume? Secondly, you fail to mention how much of the resources consumed are renewable. In the developed world, food production is mostly renewable, water supply and quality is mostly renewable, home heating and cooking are renewable. Oil and building materials are not renewable. In less developed countries, people are depleting their soils, using polluted water which can only become more polluted, burning up their forests in agricultural burning and providing fuel for cooking, they are crowding into polluted cities. They too are contributing considerably to global warming through agricultural burning. This is now. In 20 years things will be much worse for the (then) 8 billion people in poor countries, while the 1.2 billion richer people will probably still be 1.2 billion. How they will be affected by global warming, overfishing, economic crisis, migration, etc, spread of disease, threats from exotic species, is hard to determine. ... Gaia

from the Rainforest Information Centre:
The photo on your home page appears to show a street scene in an asian or middle east country. perhaps it woul be more appropriate to show a scene in new york or some other western country, since population growth in the west is a much more serious issue. this is because per capita resource consumption in industrialised countries is at least twenty times more than resource consumption in third world countries. any suggestion that third world countires are somehow more to blame that industrialised countries in likely to alienate many people and be counter productive.

First of all - there is no 'blame' here. There is a problem, and it exists all over. China, which is becoming affluent, has serious pollution problems. Many other SE Asian countries have maxed out on their resources, partially due to inefficient farming practices. Many people in Africa have already denuded their land, much of it no longer suitable for farming. Slash and burn agriculture, which used to be no problem, due to smaller numbers of people using it, is still very much in use by third-world countries. In many cases, it is a 'must' for those without mechanized farming. This has added greatly to air pollution and global warming. Most western countries have slowed their growth tremendously. Third world countries, which have managed to obtain better drinking water and antibiotics, have decreased their death rates without a corresponding decrease in birth rates, causing population doubling in just a few decades. AIDS, which is a sexually transmitted disease, is running rampant in Africa, and fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, is slowing population growth there. If AIDS should ever mutate to an air-borne transmitted state, then we ALL are in big trouble!

Yes, the western world uses a lot of resources, but it has a lot a resources. This is not a justification of overconsumption, I agree, but other parts of the world are using up their resources and it will get worse because of population doubling.

Oddly enough, your name Rainforest would imply that you know about the cutting down and the burning of the rainforests. Perhaps you do not think that this a problem for all of us?

My concern is the population problem. Yours is the over-consumption problem. Which one do you think deserves the most attention?


Thanks for your response to my comments on the photo on your web site. It seems that we may be talking at cross purposes. Misunderstandings are easily created in discussions about population. I wrote my message in haste and perhaps didn't express myself clearly enough.

My point is that population growth in rich countries is also a problem, despite the fact that rates of increase are much lower than they are in third world countries. This is because a child born in a rich country has perhaps twenty times more impact on the planet's resources than a child in a third world country. Therefore, any attempt to say that poor countries should reduce their population growth, while rich countries do nothing, smacks of double standards.

If industrialised countries were making a serious attempt to reduce their consumption of resources -- many of them imported from the third world -- then perhaps they could be excused for saying that over population was not a problem in their nations. But that is not the case. Economic growth is still the ultimate goal of all governments.

I believe it is misleading to separate the two problems of over consumption and overpopulation. Bill McKibben calls the United States' failure to curb its population growth, in recent times "ominous because population is not the only problem -- it's population multiplied by consumption and by efficiency". (Wild Earth, Winter 1997/98)

I think Paul Ehrlich came up with the equation I=PAT, where I is impact, P is population, A is affluence and T is technology. Perhaps this offers a helpful way of combining the two, so long as one realises that the social complexities of any situation cannot be contained in a simple formula. I can be reduced by reducing P and/or A and/or T.

So. I repeat my suggestion to you that your photo of a third world country could be interpreted as suggesting, incorrectly, that overpopulation is a problem exclusive to poor countries. I assure you that by saying this I do not in any way suggest that overpopulation is not a problem. It certainly is, and I am grateful that you are attempting to do something about it.

Sincerely, John Revington

I guess what we are talking about is a matter of degrees. We need to get out our measuring sticks. How much is it a problem that the developed world overconsumes vs how much is it a problem that underdeveloped countries are suffering (and will suffer) from their own overpopulation (sans the effect of the overconsumption of the developed countries)?

Would you have me call my page www.overconsumption.org? Put up a picture of a crowded auto mall? Why don't you do it? I'll even point to your page.

Personally I believe that the 9 billion people that are due to be here in 2050 is pretty scary, either way you look at it. And the rich people have lots of room to tighten their belts while the poor people cannot.

The poor are already outstripping their resources and suffering ill health from their own pollution. They need our help. It's either help them to limit their population (by small venture loans, education of women, health clinics, etc) or inviting them to come live on our farmland, or both.

dear karen,

i read your reply to my email carefully, several times, but remain puzzled. i cannot see how it relates to the message i sent you. you don't need to explain to me that overpopulation in the third world is a terrible problem. i know that already.

sincerely, john revington

Hi John,

I'll have another go at it. You can tell be if I'm still missing the mark:

> My point is that population growth in rich countries is also a
> problem, despite the fact that rates of increase are much lower
> than they are in third world countries.

Agreed, population growth in rich countries is a problem. I have bemoaned the overpopulation problem in the US, feeling very cramped here in California. Also, I have a section on teenage pregnancy, which is higher here than in any other developed country. However, most other 'rich' countries are experiencing a negative population growth.

> This is because a child born in a rich country has perhaps
> twenty times more impact on the planet's resources than a child
> in a third world country.

Here is the 'matter of degrees' comes in. If you say twenty times more impact, can you back that up? I do not dispute that rich people use more resources than poor people. How much? What kind of resources? Ones that will ultimately count when it comes to the future of this planet, but not necessarily ones that are of immediate concern?

Then there is the question of pollution, which is not necessarily an overconsumption problem, but nevertheless a very pressing problem. Plus there is the degradation of arable soils, depletion of wildlife, cutting down trees for farmland, etc. Do you consider these 'overconsumption' problems, attributable mainly to the 'rich'?

> Therefore, any attempt to say that poor countries should
> reduce their population growth, while rich countries do
> nothing, smacks of double standards.

Rich countries ARE doing something about overconsumption, most have done something about overpopulation, and poor countries ARE starting to bring down their population growth.

>smacks of double standards.

This is not a matter of standards, but a matter of practicality, or 'natural consequences'. I don't like imposing my standards on others.

When poor people see that now more of their children are surviving childhood, and that they do not need to have quite so many children to help them in their old age, and that, indeed, it would be difficult to feed so many and that they can better the quality of their lives by using family planning, then they come around. That's when birth control should be made available to them.

> If industrialised countries were making a serious attempt
> to reduce their consumption of resources -- many of them
> imported from the third world - then -

How many are imported and what is the impact of the importing? Is it something the poor need now? Like what? Or is it something the poor can afford to sell to the rich and use the money for their own betterment?

> perhaps they could be excused for saying that over population
> was not a problem in their nations. But that is not the case.
> Economic growth is still the ultimate goal of all governments.

Agreed, the idea or economic growth, based on consumption and growing population, is doomed to failure in the end.

> I believe it is misleading to separate the two
> problems of over consumption and overpopulation.

I don't think I have. Overpopulation leads to overconsumption as well as to pollution and degradation of the planet. Which will have the bigger impact: overconsumption + pollution + degradation by the poor, or overconsumption + pollution + degradation by the rich?

And I haven't mentioned human impacts, such as starvation, disease, continuing poverty, overcrowding.

Thank you for your thoughts on this. You have really helped me clarify mine.


Dear Karen,

Thanks for your last email. this exchange has been an interesting exercise and it has challenged some of my assumptions and ways of looking at things. it seems we agree that overpopulation is a problem in rich countries as well as in the third world. what we disagree about is the extent of the problem. rather than debate that particular issue, i'd like to explain the underlying attitude which led me to make my initial comment about your photo.

In working at the rainforest information centre, i have spent quite some time looking at the causes of rainforest destruction, and in doing so, i have come to the view that poor countries are routinely exploited and oppressed by the rich and powerful. i find it hard to imagine that any balanced examination of the evidence could yield any other conclusion.

The 1992 environment conference in Rio was one place that this became very obvious. George bush's comment that "the US way of life is not negotiable" was the most blatant example. third world debt is another area of exploitation. many people believe that this problem is so severe that until it is solved, there can be no genuine protection of the world's tropical forests. the international squabbles over carbon emissions are another example of exploitation and double standards. the whole push for globalisation is another. so are the low prices that third world countries receive for their goods on the world market. then there is development aid, which supposedly aims at helping the poor overcome their poverty, yet so often leaves them dispossessed and disempowered, while those who dispossess and disempower them are well paid for doing so.

So when it comes to the question of population, are things going to be any different? is it realistic to expect that in this particluar issue, rich countries will put aside their power and their self interest and think only about what is good for the countries they claim to be helping?. maybe, but in the light of all the other areas in which they are exploited, wouldn't it be prudent of poorer countries to be a little wary? the world's industrialised countries have a record of not looking too closely at their own behaviour.


More on Overconsumption
Although overpopulation is a big problem, I feel overconsumption is an even bigger issue. Americans make up only 5% of the world population but produce 25% of its waste. Americans consume and waste too much. To be honest, the 25% figure is probably outdated. If capitalism were to be more efficient and used less materials, who knows, we might not have some of the shortages we have now. If the economy were to have more farmers, scientists, medics, and less bureacracy, brokers, bankers...I know its a fantasy, but if only the world's economy would stop focusing on profit and start focusing on what society needs to survive and to protect our way of life before it is impossible. Personally, I feel people who make a living off the selling and buying of others in the market are parasites to society!
... Irving

Yes, Americans use a lot and waste a lot. However, third world peoples don't have much to waste, and since their population is growing, they are outstripping their land of soil, wildlife, and trees, while polluting their water and air (they have very few controls and use pesticides indiscriminately and they have very inefficient farming practices due to lack of machinery, so they use slash and burn). Actually, Americans are more efficient in many ways.

The key to slowing population is improving the economic status of third world peoples and the self esteem of women, so helping them produce more doctors, scientists, bankers, and so on, would help the whole world.

Is this a myth: The out-of-control population growth in the developing nations is the problem.

The United States, with only 4.7 percent of the world's population, consumes 25 percent of the world's resources and generates 25 to 30 percent of the world's waste. Compared to an average citizen of the country of India, a typical person in the United States uses:

50 times more steel
56 times more energy
170 times more synthetic rubber and newsprint
250 times more motor fuel
300 times more plastic

I am not disputing the truth in these statistics or the idea that Americans suffer from 'affluenza'. However, one has to look at which of these things are renewable, which of these things there are plenty of, which of these things are the result of exploitation, which of these things will affect future generations of Americans as much or more than they will affect the future of the developing countries, and which of these things can Americans, in their cleverness, will find a way to do without when the supply becomes short. These numbers mean nothing until then.

One also has to worry about what happens if the people in India start buying refrigerators, cars, and increase their living level a bit - there are so many of them and the numbers are growing so fast. But more likely we should worry about the tremendous degradation of the land and of species that is accelerating in countries in India because of the overwhelming population.

The United States releases about 40,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per person each year.