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?