Overpopulation AND Overconsumption

Exactly as if we didn’t have bigger things to worry about, here comes a new ‘debate’ right in time for July 11, World Population Day: Which is more of a problem, overpopulation or overconsumption?

Really? Really? This is like arguing about whether green M&Ms taste better than blue ones. (Of course they do.) You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that both are major barriers to living sustainably as a species on Earth. Equally obviously, while we haven’t got a chance at totally addressing one or the other, chipping away at both is something we need to be doing.

First, a crucial link: It’s because we both have so many humans and some of us consume so much that we’re in such a pickle. If we had a total population of maybe 1 million  people who drove Hummers and ate primarily beef and dairy products, the Earth would probably be fine. If we had under 2 billion people on the planet, everyone could probably (if prudently) enjoy first world luxuries like electricity and running water and reliable transportation and medical care without endangering the planet. But as David Attenborough  puts it, “I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people. The same problem becomes harder, or ultimately impossible, when more people are involved.” So overconsumption? Easier to deal with if there are fewer overconsumers. Pretty obvious, right?

While both the overpopulationists and overconsumerists are both right, the real issue is not which group is righter; it’s how to deal with both issues without totally trampling over things like human rights and cultural traditions. (After all, if I were a despotic but environmentally concerned dictator, I could simply put contraceptives in the water supply or enact consumer rations.) I think our success in the future is going to depend on two things: getting the first world to cut back its consumption and its population, and improving the standard of living in the third world sustainably while also reducing its population.

I don’t care if the current birthrate in America is 2.1, or just about ‘replacement’ levels. (I disagree with the term ‘replacement’ because our long lifespans mean many overlapping years in which more of us are consuming.) One American child has almost 7 times the carbon footprint as one Chinese child, and probably more than that compared to, say, an Ethiopian one. Assuming that Americans are unlikely to return to third world levels of consumption or suddenly experience massive die-offs, reducing the population while modifying our consumerism seems like a reasonable middle-of-the-road path to me. (How? That’s another problem entirely.)

The situation looks a little different in third world countries, but as with first world countries, easy access to, cultural permission/empowerment to, and knowledge of how to use contraceptives is a must. Let’s start by preventing unwanted pregnancies and births everywhere. Then maybe we can use renewable energy and water saving technologies to not only revamp the way first worlders live but also help the third world develop in a far more sustainable way than we did.

Of course, this plan depends heavily on:

  • global respect for the natural world
  • voluntarily having fewer children on a massive scale
  • using money and resources for philanthropic purposes
  • putting sustainability in front of gratifying our every immediate desire
  • giving new technology to people we can’t profit from
  • resource sharing
  • acting effectively and cooperatively as a species
  • thinking and acting on behalf of the second or third generation
  • starting a cultural revolution against rampant consumerism

Um…can I take the despotic but environmentally minded dictator after all?

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Krys on 07/16/2010 at 09:31

    My partner and I have decided not to have biological children, and I know other couples who have made the same choice. I find it encouraging that so many people are choosing to be childfree, but every time I start to feel like we’re making a difference, I see someone who has enough children to make up for all of us. Overpopulation is the great taboo, because nobody wants to interfere with reproductive rights. However, when a couple chooses to have six children, they’re affecting the whole earth.

    Reply

    • Posted by ailanna on 07/16/2010 at 10:27

      I hear you on this one. I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s right to have one or two children, but three? four? And you call childfree people selfish?

      Reply

  2. Thanks for some great, reasoned thoughts about this stupid debate! I would add that the last thought in your post could be inferred to imply that technology is the answer to reducing the impacts of consumption. I submit that technology will play a very small role in this. REALLY changing our lifestyles is what is called for. And let’s hope the developing world can skip the wrong turn we made, and go directly to a modest AND more fulfilling lifestyle.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

    Reply

    • Posted by ailanna on 07/18/2010 at 18:14

      Thanks for your comment, Dave! I didn’t mean to imply that technology was the answer (in fact, I think that technology has enabled our most extravagant, thoughtless, and destructive habits), but I do think it can offer a middle ground between, say, living without electricity and having a dead planet. If technology were being developed primarily to further sustainability rather than profit, I think we’d be in a much better position. Of course, if we had that attitude towards sustainability in the first place, it would also be reflected in smarter consumption habits.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Emily on 07/18/2010 at 21:59

    Your goals/objectives for a better, more sustainable world are complete and clearly written. Very inspiring! If only the American government, corporations, world organizations, and those with the power and money worked towards the same objectives.

    Imagine if our tax dollars supported renewable energy instead paying for interest on the deficit, or if the G8 met to discuss localization instead of globalization, or if the UN worked towards spreading wealth instead of dissolving wars, or if Wal-Mart sold sustainable products at a fair price instead of crappy products at a low price…

    Even better, imagine if we, the masses, didn’t need a dictator to enforce your 9 objectives. What if we plebeians made conscious decisions and actions? You and I and many other people are trying to make a change, but how to get the rest of the careless population to join us?

    Reply

  4. Posted by ProfBob on 04/22/2011 at 23:19

    EARTH DAY
    About a year and a half ago Science Daily noted that overpopulation was the biggest threat to our world. Global warming was second. Obviously overpopulation increases the use of the irreplaceable natural resources; increases the waste and pollutants that affect our air, water and land; reduces the amount of water for drinking and farming; reduces the amount of arable land available for each person; increases famines and poverty; and increases illegal immigration to escape these problems. Uninformed people criticize Malthus, but what he said is true. His Britain is a net importer of food today. For skeptics, rather than saying that the facts are not true and hoping you are right, it would be wise to look at the evidence and criticize it with evidence rather than with hope. I suggest that you read Book 1, especially the sections on skeptics, in “In Search of Utopia” at http://andgulliverreturns.info. It is authoritative, documented, and free.

    Reply

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