13 Apr 2009

Consumption Dwarfs Population as Main Environmental Threat

It's overconsumption, not population growth, that is the fundamental problem: By almost any measure, a small portion of the world's people — those in the affluent, developed world — use up most of the Earth's resources and produce most of its greenhouse gas emissions.
By fred pearce

It’s the great taboo, I hear many environmentalists say. Population growth is the driving force behind our wrecking of the planet, but we are afraid to discuss it.

It sounds like a no-brainer. More people must inevitably be bad for the environment, taking more resources and causing more pollution, driving the planet ever farther beyond its carrying capacity. But hold on. This is a terribly convenient argument — “over-consumers” in rich countries can blame “over-breeders” in distant lands for the state of the planet. But what are the facts?

The world’s population quadrupled to six billion people during the 20th century. It is still rising and may reach 9 billion by 2050. Yet for at least the past century, rising per-capita incomes have outstripped the rising head count several times over. And while incomes don’t translate precisely into increased resource use and pollution, the correlation is distressingly strong.

Moreover, most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population.

By almost any measure, a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution.
The world’s richest half-billion people are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Take carbon dioxide emissions — a measure of our impact on climate but also a surrogate for fossil fuel consumption. Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environment Institute, calculates that the world’s richest half-billion people — that’s about 7 percent of the global population — are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile the poorest 50 percent are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions.

Although overconsumption has a profound effect on greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts of our high standard of living extend beyond turning up the temperature of the planet. For a wider perspective of humanity’s effects on the planet's life support systems, the best available measure is the “ecological footprint,” which estimates the area of land required to provide each of us with food, clothing, and other resources, as well as to soak up our pollution. This analysis has its methodological problems, but its comparisons between nations are firm enough to be useful.

They show that sustaining the lifestyle of the average American takes 9.5 hectares, while Australians and Canadians require 7.8 and 7.1 hectares respectively; Britons, 5.3 hectares; Germans, 4.2; and the Japanese, 4.9. The world average is 2.7 hectares. China is still below that figure at 2.1, while India and most of Africa (where the majority of future world population growth will take place) are at or below 1.0.

The United States always gets singled out. But for good reason: It is the world’s largest consumer. Americans take the greatest share of most of the world’s major commodities: corn, coffee, copper, lead, zinc, aluminum, rubber, oil seeds, oil, and natural gas. For many others, Americans are the largest per-capita consumers. In “super-size-me” land, Americans gobble up more than 120 kilograms of meat a year per person, compared to just 6 kilos in India, for instance.

I do not deny that fast-rising populations can create serious local environmental crises through overgrazing, destructive farming and fishing, and deforestation. My argument here is that viewed at the global scale, it is overconsumption that has been driving humanity’s impacts on the planet’s vital life-support systems during at least the past century. But what of the future?

We cannot be sure how the global economic downturn will play out. But let us assume that Jeffrey Sachs, in his book Common Wealth, is right to predict a 600 percent increase in global economic output by 2050. Most projections put world population then at no more than 40 percent above today’s level, so its contribution to future growth in economic activity will be small.

Of course, economic activity is not the same as ecological impact. So let’s go back to carbon dioxide emissions. Virtually all of the extra 2 billion or so people expected on this planet in the coming 40 years will be in the poor
The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of four Chinese, 20 Indians, or 250 Ethiopians.
half of the world. They will raise the population of the poor world from approaching 3.5 billion to about 5.5 billion, making them the poor two-thirds.

Sounds nasty, but based on Pacala’s calculations — and if we assume for the purposes of the argument that per-capita emissions in every country stay roughly the same as today — those extra two billion people would raise the share of emissions contributed by the poor world from 7 percent to 11 percent.

Look at it another way. Just five countries are likely to produce most of the world’s population growth in the coming decades: India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians, or 250 Ethiopians.

Even if we could today achieve zero population growth, that would barely touch the climate problem — where we need to cut emissions by 50 to 80 percent by mid-century. Given existing income inequalities, it is inescapable that overconsumption by the rich few is the key problem, rather than overpopulation of the poor many.

But, you ask, what about future generations? All those big families in Africa begetting yet-bigger families. They may not consume much today, but they soon will.

Well, first let’s be clear about the scale of the difference involved. A woman in rural Ethiopia can have ten children and her family will still do less damage, and consume fewer resources, than the family of the average soccer mom in Minnesota or Munich. In the unlikely event that her ten children live to adulthood and have ten children of their own, the entire clan of more than a hundred will still be emitting less carbon dioxide than you or I.

And second, it won’t happen. Wherever most kids survive to adulthood, women stop having so many. That is the main reason why the number of children born to an average woman around the world has been in decline for half a century now. After peaking at between 5 and 6 per woman, it is now down to 2.6.

This is getting close to the “replacement fertility level” which, after allowing for a natural excess of boys born and women who don’t reach adulthood, is about 2.3. The UN expects global fertility to fall to 1.85 children per woman by mid-century. While a demographic “bulge” of women of child-bearing age keeps the world’s population rising for now, continuing declines in fertility will cause the world’s population to stabilize by mid-century and then probably to begin falling.

Far from ballooning, each generation will be smaller than the last. So the ecological footprint of future generations could diminish. That means we can have a shot at estimating the long-term impact of children from different countries down the generations.

The best analysis of this phenomenon I have seen is by Paul Murtaugh, a statistician at Oregon State University. He recently calculated the climatic
It is the height of hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world’s environmental footprint.
“intergenerational legacy” of today’s children. He assumed current per-capita emissions and UN fertility projections. He found that an extra child in the United States today will, down the generations, produce an eventual carbon footprint seven times that of an extra Chinese child, 46 times that of a Pakistan child, 55 times that of an Indian child, and 86 times that of a Nigerian child.

Of course those assumptions may not pan out. I have some confidence in the population projections, but per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide will likely rise in poor countries for some time yet, even in optimistic scenarios. But that is an issue of consumption, not population.

In any event, it strikes me as the height of hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world’s environmental footprint because generations of poor people not yet born might one day get to be as rich and destructive as us. Overpopulation is not driving environmental destruction at the global level; overconsumption is. Every time we talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying that simple fact.

At root this is an ethical issue. Back in 1974, the famous environmental scientist Garret Hardin proposed something he called “lifeboat ethics”. In the modern, resource-constrained world, he said, “each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in.” But there were, he said, not enough places to go around. If any were let on board, there would be chaos and all would drown. The people in the lifeboat had a duty to their species to be selfish – to keep the poor out.

Hardin’s metaphor had a certain ruthless logic. What he omitted to mention was that each of the people in the lifeboat was occupying ten places, whereas the people in the water only wanted one each. I think that changes the argument somewhat.


Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff (Beacon Press, 2008). Pearce has also written for Yale e360 on the demographics of overpopulation and the importance of holding developing countries more accountable as global climate talks resume.

SHARE: Tweet | Digg | | Reddit | Mixx | Facebook | Stumble Upon


What's the point here? Every proponent of population reduction that I'm aware of acknowledges that overconsumption has to be reduced too. It's not either/or; we can and should do both. There is no environmental problem in the world today that can't be made better by reducing the number of humans on the planet ... and our consumption.
Posted by Dave Harmon on 13 Apr 2009

The point is population sneaks into the discussion about emissions and global warming in a particularly destructive way. The fact is that population reduction doesn't bear that much weight on environmental problems compared to consumption or the ecological foot print of, say, war.

Importantly, the difference is that "population" has no bearing whatsoever on political or economic systems that reinforce the way the greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. Neglecting these realities or looking at ecological problems as anything but social problem is a dangerous illusion that leads to more injustice and poverty. This author is looking critically at what "sustainability" is actually looking to sustain.

I guess if you're invested in inequality, poverty and mass consumption, population is a pretty great way to frame global warming. Might also want to look into bio-fuels. If not, it's worthwhile not to look at WHO is actually doing the damage more specifically than just "humans" in general. Just because the issue at hand is an environmental one doesn't mean that blaming "population" or "humans" (as opposed to oil companies, over consumers, input-intensive agriculturalists, etc) makes anymore sense than blaming "population" or "humans" for the War in Iraq, human rights violations in China or genocide in Darfur. There ARE responsible parties with significant agency in all these situations, including global warming, and they SHOULD be held accountable- not guarded by some discourse about over population.

This is a great article Fred Pearce, and I'd be very happy to see more like this in the future!
Posted by Jesse on 13 Apr 2009

I agree with the general point of this post, but an overlooked issue relates to the marginal cost of action. For a ridiculously small amount of money — less than $10 billion — it would be possible to provide birth control to all the couples in the world who currently don't have access. From a policy perspective, you get a very large "bang for the buck" in terms of improved local — and global — environmental quality by funding family planning initiatives.
Posted by Eban Goodstein on 13 Apr 2009

Population is a moot point. If we don't reduce resource consumption population will take care of itself. Trends in world grain harvest make it clear that current methods are not sufficient to provide for a population increase.

Without the means to demonstrate to the wealthy few that they can retain quality of life while reducing consumption we go nowhere. At the very least quality of life for decision makers needs to improve in exchange for resource conservation measures.

Nobody's volunteering to freeze in the dark.
Posted by Pangolin on 13 Apr 2009

I too am not very sure about the point of Fred Pearce’s article. It’s been obvious to me for decades that lifestyle (consumption pattern) dwarfed population as determinative of per capita footprint.

Why has it not been obvious to other people? Perhaps it has to do with the overwhelming assumptions about the normalcy of the western way of life. Pearce has done the research to handily make the case for ascribing guilt. But the other shoe, which has not fallen, is some assessment of the depth, scope, and universality of the conviction that the destiny of humankind is to live as rich nations (particularly Americans) do. Pearce is like a doctor who pronounces that the patient is gravely ill, but has no recommendation for finding the cause, much less the cure, for the illness.

Yes, the problem is political. But the even bigger problem is cultural and philosophical. There is a prevailing myth about the western lifestyle. Anything less is seen as returning to the Stone Age. A great quality of life plus a sense of importance and leadership in the world does not require over-consumption. It requires intelligence, and the ability to make wise, qualitative decisions for ourselves and our descendants. It requires a rethinking of the “American Dream.” This requires the insights of the humanities. Unfortunately, this is not the discipline area that most people turn to for resolutions to climate change.
Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 14 Apr 2009

Your intention is benign and you have critical acumen. The problem is you may put them into a wrong order. Population exploration is not a regional or national problem, it is a global problem.

Massive migration and refugees flow from poor areas to rich areas will bring a disaster to our world. No matter how you emphasize the threat of overconsumption, overpopulation is still the biggest threat to all of us. Without regulation or with inadequate regulation, any thing in this world can not function well. Destructive capital market is one lesson we learned recently, will the population bomb be the another?
Posted by Feng on 14 Apr 2009

The problem is not too much CO2, because CO2 is wholly beneficial to life. If the problem is too much warmth, that too is off because CO2 does not cause warming and, besides, civilization thrives with warmth. The real problem is too many people trying to use government to control life as they see the light — and that's not freedom.
Posted by Leo on 14 Apr 2009

Let's not engage in binary thinking. It's not really a competition between consumption and population. How about both?

Yes, we in wealthy, industrialized countries clearly should reduce consumption and pursue low-carbon lifestyles — and in fact quite a few of us already are, even if it's not so newsworthy and our culture makes it difficult to do.

However, a large human population is still a problem if one looks at eco-system issues such as desertification, soil depletion, water shortages, wildlife habitat reduction, species die-off, fishery collapse and the like. Looking at these factors, even the U.S. could be thought overpopulated, considering how, for example, we are depleting aquifers to grow food (and wash cars, but still).

How many reasonably well-nourished and well-sheltered people can the earth support reasonably sustainably while leaving room for other species? Rich people drive SUVs, poor people practice slash and burn agriculture: we all contribute to environmental destruction, just in different ways. I'd wager that most cultures could learn to live more sustainably one way or another. In no way is this meant to excuse the rich or blame the poor.

Sometimes we must remember that earth systems exist to support all life, not just humans.
Posted by Adrian on 14 Apr 2009

Interesting take on a thorny issue, but Adrian is closest to my view that we tend to think of ourselves as separate from the ecosystem, when in fact we are an integral part of it and wholly subject to the problems faced by any species that gets out of kilter with its support systems.

Though it's hard to prove, instinct tells me that we face not only resource depletion and environmental degradation but also disease and other problems faced by any overcrowded species. Chickens in factory farms can be wiped out by disease, simply because they are crowded; in that environment they also lack the biodiversity that improves resilience. Are we really any different?

Not only are we reducing biodiversity around us through monocrop farming, destruction of habitat and killing species into extinction - we ourselves are dominating other species to an increasing extent. We are like a fox population that grows from an abundance of rabbits, then falls again as it decimates the rabbit population. Except we have found ways to manufacture more rabbits (with fossil fuels), delaying our own decline and in the process ensuring that our eventual collapse will be more dramatic.

So yes, carbon as an indicator of environmental health may be primarily a consumption issue; but there are many other angles that need to be considered.
Posted by Rory Williams on 14 Apr 2009

...and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

If those who feel civilization is on the brink of catastrophe due to excessive carbon usage by the greedy people like those posting here who prefer to live comfortable lifestyles in an advanced civilization they would surely jump at the only difference that could work to reduce these carbon emissions that are threatening the planet. Surely they would not choose the absolute most expensive, unreliable and minimally productive energy sources. Surely they could not be so foolish to choose power sources that are idle 75% of the time and require those fossil fuel sources be at the ready for 100% of the time. Surely no logic exists that would choose sources of power that cannot shut down one fossil fuel plant if carbon dioxide is such a pressing problem. Surely if there was a technology that could actually displace one trillion tons of coal burning each year it could not be stopped with pretended suppositions that it is impossible to provide safe storage areas for waste. We are talking about survival and a mountain repository surrounded by military sites designed for a 10,000 year life that can withstand earthquakes and nuclear explosions is not considered safe.

Surely no one can be taken seriously that accepts that we face the greatest threat to mankind and then denies the only solution possible. Surely anyone taking this position of inaction cannot be looking for a solution when by all indications are they merely want to prosper from the problem and any solution is a threat to that end.

Our responsibility to those not as well off as we are is to bring them up to our level, not to bring us down to theirs.
Posted by Dahun on 14 Apr 2009

“However, a large human population is still a problem if one looks at eco-system issues such as desertification, soil depletion, water shortages, wildlife habitat reduction, species die-off, fishery collapse and the like. Looking at these factors, even the U.S. could be thought overpopulated, considering how, for example, we are depleting aquifers to grow food (and wash cars…)”

That‘s what Fred Pearce was saying. At its rate of consumption, and given its per capita environmental footprint, the US is greatly overpopulated:

“…(S)ustaining the lifestyle of the average American takes 9.5 hectares, while Australians and Canadians require 7.8 and 7.1 hectares respectively; Britons, 5.3 hectares; Germans, 4.2; and the Japanese, 4.9. The world average is 2.7 hectares. China is still below that figure at 2.1, while India and most of Africa (where the majority of future world population growth will take place) are at or below 1.0.”

I’ve always been horrified that ballooning populations in the poor world would increasingly take on the western lifestyle, but Pearce seems to be saying that some aspects of development will actually reduce population among this group. Yet, unless the global lifestyle “dream” changes remarkably, the environment will continue to suffer despite that lower than might be expected population increase.

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 14 Apr 2009

While I agree with the author that it is “the height of hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world’s environmental footprint because generations of poor people not yet born might one day get to be as rich and destructive as us,” I think he and others downplay the fact that many of the poor people he speaks of live pretty miserable lives and most of them aspire to live more like Americans (or Germans or Japanese).

In India and in China, many are moving from poverty into the middle class, and consuming more and more. How can we begrudge them their upward mobility? The same is true for poor people who immigrate to America, Canada, etc. It’s better for the planet that they stay poor, but I would rather see fewer people living better.

The real question that I would like to see explored is: What is the global population level at which humans could live comfortably and sustainably, with access to quality health care, clean water, food, and enough affluence to permit the development and enjoyment of art, literature, music, as well as opportunities to travel? (I’m not talking about luxury, although many of these things are luxuries now for much of the world’s people.)

The related question is what would lifestyles look like if all of the 9 billion people in 2050 (or 6.5 billion now) reduced our collective GHG emissions to IPCC-recommended levels and achieved parity?

I have never heard those questions answered.
Posted by Anne Marie Holen on 16 Apr 2009

The article uses carbon as a proxy for all environmental problems.

Climate aside, and rich people aside, there are critical matters of land, water, and biodiversity. Poor people are using up their fresh water, destroying their reefs and forests, overgrazing, failing to grow enough food on available land; they can’t afford adequate education, law enforcement, parks, or protection of species. And they are in violent conflict in places because of the above. Quite on their own and because of their own numbers, poor people — who mostly aspire to live like rich people as soon as they can — are obviously major contributors to the global problems even if they emit less carbon. Rich people are good at ruining other people’s resources; poor people are good at ruining their own.

Climate and consumption add, potentially catastrophically, to these problems. But they’re all problems, and everyone takes resources. If I was adrift in one of those lifeboats and needed to think about catching dinner for the next month and living off rainwater, I’d rather be in the one with ten people.

And whether it’s ten rich people or a hundred poor people in the lifeboat — it’s long past the time when there were enough people on the planet. No one in 1900 thought there were too few people in the world. Now every fish and butterfly is running out of room. Carbon emissions might be the biggest problem, but that's not the only serious problem and each person only exacerbates things and makes the solutions more difficult.
Posted by Carl Safina on 16 Apr 2009

Do we honestly have the luxury of leaving a potential wedge on the table because it isn’t the most important contributor to climate change? And who says “population” is only about rapid growth in the developing world?

If discussions of population deflect in any way from consumption as a focus, it is counter-productive. But why are these discussions mutually exclusive and narrowly constructed? We need to move beyond the oversimplification arguments common in the classic UN megaconference divide pointing fingers back and forth saying too much consumption, no, too many people.

There are a set of important analytical questions that serious IPCC types are investigating in this realm — why throw it overboard before we even have the results of their research? And contributions like Suzanne Petroni's "An Ethical Approach to Population and Climate Change" offer some suggestions of how to look at these questions while recognizing the priority of consumption, respecting human rights, while still having a practical discussion of population and climate.
Posted by Geoff Dabelko on 16 Apr 2009

Good information on consumption trends, but the overall argument, exemplified in the assertion that "It is the height of hubris to downgrade the culpability of the rich world’s environmental footprint," is nonsense. Population, consumption, or environmental activists do not downgrade the culpability of the rich or shift blame to the developing world poor. You've built up a head of argumentative steam to one.

Here's a simple truth. There is no nation which is not currently overpopulated. The effect of rich nations is especially intense due to higher per capita consumption.
Posted by Kieran Suckling on 16 Apr 2009

I agree with many of the reader comments that it is a questionable argument to say that population is not much of an issue because wealthy western consumption is the real issue.

The poor want to emulate the high-living Western lifestyle, and in the case of China, India and other Asian societies are moving quickly in this direction as they economically advance. I would agree that the U.S. and OECD countries must reduce their consumptive and CO2 footprints greatly.

But would anyone, including Fred Pearce, say that the huge numbers of poor of the world can continue to populate but have to stay poor? Even if the high consumption countries do reduce their footprints? I doubt this.

The Sierra Club membership had quite a fight a number of years ago over whether to take an opposition position to legal or illegal immigration to the U.S. The humanists carried the day, i.e., they did not want to stop immigration, even if it was demonstrated that the U.S. had far exceeded human carrying capacity at its present damaging lifestyle. I didn't agree with this outcome. I think it is too anthropocentric.

I agree with John Muir that "Lord Man" should not be able to wreck all the other species on the planet. Human overpopulation, overconsumption and arrogant self-regard, however humanistic, are causing the destruction.
Posted by Rich Sessions on 17 Apr 2009

Fred Pearce's essay is thought provoking, but erroneous. Although family size has decreased
to near equilibrium in America, our population is still exploding, largely due to continued immigration and subsequent offspring. Population growth in poor nations, compounded
by environmental disasters such as desertification, contributes to migration into
wealthy nations, resulting in more people consuming more resources.

According to a range of estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. population could
double, triple, or quadruple between 2000 and 2100, a wave of growth that is hard to fathom.
Whether they migrate here or not, all these additional bodies are eager to consume resources. New products, such as the $2,000 Nano (a car being sold in India), guarantee
resource consumption on an unprecedented scale. Thus, population growth in poor countries does contribute to massive resource consumption.

Paradoxically, it is possible (and not very difficult) to build a sustainable industrial civilization with a footprint that is deep, rather than wide. Ten thousand homes built of wood requires a large footprint to harvest enough trees. However, ten thousand homes built of concrete can come from a small diameter hole that gets deeper over time, without growing significantly wider. Thus, while most of us currently have wide ecological footprints, it is possible to achieve an abundant lifestyle with smaller, yet deeper footprints. Imagine a future with homes insulated well enough to not need heat, with solar panels on the roof for electricity, plus cars that run on compressed air or solar electricity, along with vertical farms to grow food (tall buildings, rather than wide farms).

If we halt population growth then we can work towards equilibrium, recycling all waste, until we need no additional resources other than energy from the sun. We can start by retrofitting our homes with more insulation, investing in energy efficient appliances, shopping secondhand, and recycling everything we possibly can.
Posted by Thomas J. Elpel on 17 Apr 2009

Fred Pearce has done us no favors by downplaying population numbers and growth then pretending that only overconsumption by a small minority is the real force behind the growth in greenhouse gases and climate change.

As Paul Ehrlich and others have noted for decades, human impact on the environment is multiplicative. In his I = PAT equation he gave weightings to population, affluence, and technology as they impact the environment. From a climate change perspective we could rewrite this in different ways, but it would be moronic to leave population out of the equation.

Let's start with this rewrite. GGE = PCF That is greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) = population (P), per capita consumption (C), and energy produced from fossil fuels (F). We could diddle with this, but it contains the basics. Now let's consider Fred's notion that population doesn't matter, a view held by many economists among others, but a view held by no ecologist that I can name.

Greenhouse gas emissions are going to continue to grow so long as any one of these three variables continue to grow, P, C, or F. P continues to grow at about 80 million per year and has increased from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6.8 billion today. C continues to grow virtually everywhere where that is possible because few if any people anywhere are "satisfied" with their current levels of consumption. Barring disaster, then, C will continue to grow as well. With both P and C growing, reductions in GGE will have to come from sharp reductions in F, fossil fuel usage.

That may happen, but not soon enough to keep the Earth's atmosphere from having a CO2 level in perhaps the 500-600 ppm range (or more), up from close to 390 ppm today and perhaps twice the 270 ppm that prevailed at the beginning of the industrial era.

Because their supplies are finite, fossil fuels sooner or later will face declining production, probably with concomitant rising prices, and GGE will finally level off, then drop.

Is that enough? Not if the vast majority of climatologists, including those at the IPCC, are right, or even close. Because much of the increase in productivity that has allowed rapid population and consumption growth to occur over the last century has come directly from our discovery and use of fossil fuels, we should expect productivity declines to set in as fossil fuels become scarcer unless we can truly replace them at a sufficient scale, which right now looks unlikely.

Nothing in human nature bodes well for cutting consumption levels in the short run — people want more, whether they need it or not, and billions on Earth really do need more. However, as the EROEI for fossil fuels, first for oil and natural gas, then for coal, falls, the likelihood of production decreases will rise. At that point, with ever more people, we will start to see declines in the standard of living. By then, cutting people may no longer be an option, so population declines will set in, mainly in poor countries.

Would it not be much easier to start now to curtail future population growth, so that if production declines do set in we could decrease consumption growth and not cut population numbers? As Kenneth Boulding observed several decades ago, "Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist." We cannnot pretend that population growth is not part of the problem, though I would be happy to admit that the additional 3 million plus added to the U.S. population each year is more problematic for the environment than 3 million additional people in Bangladesh or Sub-Saharan Africa, but that is not the whole point, Fred. More people are going to provide more environmental stress, no matter where they are born or where they subsequently move to.
Posted by Gary Peters on 17 Apr 2009

Posted by Anne Marie Holen on 16 Apr 2009: “The related question is what would lifestyles look like if all of the 9 billion people in 2050 (or 6.5 billion now) reduced our collective GHG emissions to IPCC-recommended levels and achieved parity?...I have never heard those questions answered.”

It’s tricky to answer this. I think Fred Pearce is saying that as developing nations approach western lifestyles their populations, perhaps less prone to infant mortality (and the subsequent race for child replacement), will actually increase less rapidly and eventually level off to western proportions.

And even were it possible to sufficiently reduce AGW at 9 billion humans, I agree with one commenter that we are a species in ecological overshoot and way overpopulated. But since I won’t voluntarily leave the scene any more than the next person will, I strive toward accommodating however large a population results from collective trends.

For this reason, your question interests me a great deal. Were there to be 9 billion people on earth, I would envisage a way of life along the following lines:

- The model for the global lifestyle is closer to the third world than to the west.
- In important ways, the world is more like it was 100 years ago than it is today – twice again as much forest, wetland and grassland,
- A vast “contraction” of the built environment, implies the end of sprawl,
- The contraction of the built environment is achieved less by demolition than by imposing vegetation on every available surface, and by the narrowing and making, permeable of roads and other paving,
- Most new construction is either underground (as in basements, etc) or so small and well designed (as in tree houses, etc) that it does not appreciably displace vegetation,
- Dependence on big power and big transmission is decreased – domestic energy supplies predominate,
- Basic needs (like education, health management and food production) are largely handled in the local community,
- Online communication reduces much of the need to travel for work and education,
- Public transportation is the predominant means of travel,
- Vastly increased community networks and sharing of amenities like cars occur,
- Differentiation in wealth does not compromise resources that are in the “global commons,”
- Urban centers are very efficiently run and use a fraction of today’s energy (and wilderness is incorporated into even the most sophisticated urban places),


These kinds of changes (which approximate a lifestyle similar to camping while not destroying civilization-as-we-know-it) allow room for all the amenities of city life, entertainment, travel and adventure that we have today; public transportation in myriad forms connect rural or outlying populations to hubs of urbanity

Posted by Trevor Burrowes on 17 Apr 2009

It's interesting to look at the facts and figures and projections. But what about the motivation for this continued consumption ad nauseum? Does anyone ever ask the question why are we doing it? And are we getting the desired results (happiness)? The indications are that we aren't really getting what we are after.

Since consumption seems to be creating an environmental problem, and we clearly would like to do something about it, why don't we get personal and encourage each of us to ask 'Why am I buying/doing this? Does it really make me happy?'

Challenging questions, bringing up more questions...
Posted by flynn washington on 18 Apr 2009

Fred Pearce’s article denying that there is a taboo on discussing the population issue is itself an example of that taboo. One way in which the taboo is manifested is through articles, such as his, that are more likely to confuse rather than help the public’s understanding of the issue.

The theme underlying the entire article is that all global problems are driven by over-consumption and any mention of over-population is an exercise in shirking responsibility. Pearce gives figures for the greenhouse gas (ghg) production of the richest 7% (50% of carbon dioxide emissions) and poorest 50% (7% of emissions) of the global population and uses figures such as those to downplay the importance of population size. He does not address the impact of poor countries starting to develop, including China and India, both with massive populations. For example, in 2001, China’s ghg emissions were only 42% of US levels. China’s total ghg emissions now exceed those of the US, despite being much smaller on a per capita basis. (Not surprisingly, Pearce points out the latter but not the former fact.) China’s ghg emissions are also anticipated to double within a decade. Its emissions are increasing about 10 times faster than in the US.

In downplaying the impact of population growth, Pearce states, “Moreover, most of the extra consumption has been in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population.” This is not true. The UK, Australia, Canada and the US are still growing rapidly, primarily as a result of immigration. The population of the US is projected to increase from 309 million in 2008 to 402 million in 2050. In other words, the population of the highest consuming country is projected to increase by 93 million people in 41 years. As the environmental and political situation deteriorates in many developing countries, there will be increased migration pressure from low consuming to high consuming countries.

Pearce makes a passing reference to the environmental problems caused by population growth (overgrazing, destructive farming and fishing, deforestation), but dismisses the effects as having only a local impact and essentially argues that the impact of this population growth over the next 40 years will be negligible relative to the impact of increased ghg emissions in rich countries due to economic growth. He makes the erroneous assumption that per capita emissions will stay the same as today. As we saw for China, there is no basis to make this assumption. Furthermore, Pearce completely ignores the impact on climate change that deforestation might have, both in liberating the carbon stored in trees and in the reduced capacity to take up carbon dioxide. Most deforestation is occurring in developing countries. In addition, Pearce conveniently ignores the fact that the activities of poor people can contribute to ghg production. For example, soot (black carbon) from the huge numbers of cooking stoves, primarily in Asia and Africa, is now believed to be the number 2 (after carbon dioxide) contributor to global warming. Carbon dioxide and soot are believed to contribute 40% and 18%, respectively, to rising global temperatures (NY Times, Third world stove soot is target in climate fight, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, 16 April 2009). If there were fewer people, there would be fewer stoves, and less cutting down of forest to put into those stoves.

In one example to downplay population, Pearce says that a woman in rural Ethiopia can have 10 children and do less damage and consume fewer resources than the family of the average soccer mom in Minnesota or Munich. Furthermore, even if each of her 10 kids lived to adulthood and produced 10 kids of their own, the entire clan of 100 would “still be emitting less carbon dioxide than you or I.” Perhaps, but let’s take a look at Ethiopia. It had a population of 12 million in 1900, 24 million in 1960, 85 million in 2008, and is projected to have a population of 183 million in 2050. Not a problem?? Could this rate of population growth have anything to do with Ethiopia’s endless food crises? Ethiopia has gone from being 40% forested in 1900 to less than 3% forested today. Could this have anything to do with the erosion and loss of agricultural land in Ethiopia? The Nile, which originates in Ethiopia and flows through the Sudan and Egypt, is reduced to a trickle by the time it reaches the Mediterranean Sea, because the burgeoning populations of those countries are using the water unsustainably. In 2008, the United Nations Environmental Program produced an atlas based on 40 years of satellite images of Africa that showed a continent with vast losses of forest cover and biodiversity as well as erosion, desertification and drying lakes. Could population growth be behind the unsustainable use of resources and environmental degradation seen in much of Africa, and could those dwindling resources in turn be responsible for much of the apparently ceaseless conflict embroiling that continent?

Pearce states correctly that the world as a whole is approaching replacement level in family size. What he doesn’t mention is how lopsided the birth rates still are, with some countries having made very little progress toward stabilization. According to the UNFPA’s State of World Population 2008, the global total fertility rate (average number of children per woman) is 2.54. In the more developed regions, the TFR is 1.60, while in the less developed regions it is 2.73. However, in the least developed countries (a subset of less developed regions), the TFR remains a very high 4.60. Most of the world’s “biodiversity hotspots” are in poor countries and will be very adversely affected by population growth. Even if those burgeoning populations do not produce large amounts of greenhouse gases, their impact will be huge in terms of habitat and species loss. The loss of the unique flora and fauna on the island of Madagascar through deforestation is a case in point of the rapid growth in the number of very poor people having a devastating impact on irreplaceable biodiversity.

Human population growth is the most pressing problem of our times. There is no environmental problem that will be solved in the absence of human population reduction. Contrary to what Pearce says, overpopulation is a driver of environmental destruction at the global level. His assertion that talking about “too many babies in Africa or India” is denying the importance of overconsumption and downgrading the culpability of the rich is pure balderdash. Population growth and consumption are not mutually exclusive, they are synergistic in their destructive impact.

Pearce uses a combination of accurate facts mixed in with omissions, distortions, and non-sequitur conclusions to muddle the reader’s understanding of the population issue. The fact that someone who denies the impact of human population growth on the future of our planet can be the environmental consultant for New Scientist shows that the taboo about population growth is alive and well and that the mindset of denial has insinuated itself even into discussions that purport to be rooted in science.

Madeline Weld, president
Population Institute of Canada
Posted by Madeline Weld on 18 Apr 2009

Fred Pearce is dead wrong. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, two primary factors account for greenhouse gas emissions increases over the past three and a half decades: growth in wealth, and growth in population.

Here are a few quotes from the IPCC 4th Assessment Report, the main summary report on "Mitigation":

“GDP/per capita and population growth were the main drivers of the increase in global emissions during the last three decades of the 20th century. … At the global scale, declining carbon and energy intensities have been unable to offset income effects and population growth and, consequently, carbon emissions have risen.” (p.107)

And again:

“The global average growth rate of CO2 emissions between 1970 and 2004 of 1.9% per year is the result of the following annual growth rates: population 1.6%, GDP/per capita 1.8%, energy-intensity (total primary energy supply (TPES) per unit of GDP) of –1.2% and carbon-intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of TPES) of –0.2%. "(page 107)

Many similar statements are found in the 4th Assessment Report.

If Pearce's main point was that fat-ass American consumers shouldn't ignore our consumption's contribution to global warming, then that is right on.

However, he is wrong to try to downplay population as a factor. It has been a factor, as the IPCC report states.

Moreover, it will be a factor in the future. All those additional poor billions coming down the pike will need food, shelter, energy, etc.--providing all of which will add to climate change.

It does no good to point out how little GG emissions some of these countries generate per capita, because they want to raise their per capita energy use, in order to raise people out of poverty. And most of us would probably agree that poverty alleviation in these countries is a noble goal, even if it means increasing per capita GG emissions.

Pearce also conveniently leaves out any discussion in his article of the one large industrial country with a rapidly growing population: the United States.

According to the Department of Eneergy, between 1990 and 2003, U.S. per capita CO2 emissions increased 3.2%, while total U.S. CO2 emissions increased 20.2%. Why the discrepancy?

Here's why. During that same period, America’s population increased 16.1%.

More people drove more cars, built more houses, etc. Population growth greatly increased total emissions and it is total emissions, not per capita emissions, which quantify our full contribution to global warming.

The US cannot get it together to halt GG emissions increases, without ending our population growth. This is indeed a "taboo" subject, among most US environmentalists, because most of our population growth now comes from immigration.

We're on track to double our population in fifty to sixty years, from 300 million to 600 million. Does anyone really think that is a minor matter, when it comes to our GG emissions?
Posted by philip cafaro on 18 Apr 2009

This article can't be debated intelligently because it fails to lay out explicitly the quite different impacts of human beings on different systems and resources.

The writer passes lightly over the recognition that overpopulation can degrade and delete local
resources, land and water and bring hardship to local communities. This oversight is indefensible and dumb, and reveals his political biases.

The water table in India has dropped by hundreds of feet in the most valuable agricultural area; crops that sustain all of India and provide the farmers' living are now likely to disappear in the coming decade.

The disappearance of glaciers will soon cause "water wars" across the globe, assisted by attempts to privatize water as it becomes scarcer.One nearly occurred in Bolivia a few
years ago. We will see more conflicts shortly.

Destruction of forests for firewood not only add to greenhouses directly through burning of this
wood but by reducing trees that would otherwise absorb CO2 (as well as protect soils and
watersheds, etc.)

And not least, overpopulation inevitably leads to local and regional conflicts over water, land and resources, as witness Darfur.

Indirectly, the social and economic impact of overpopulation means continued oppression of women. It is inarguable that the lack of women's education is directly connected to poverty,
underdevelopment, and ill health of both women and children. As rural areas become poorer,
people migrate to the slums of large cities where polluted water and crowding foment disease.
The issue of greenhouse gases has been obscured by discussing it as if the per capita production and release of GHGs were relevant. It is NOT relevant. From the point of view of the atmosphere, it is the total amount of CO2 that counts. Whether the gases are released by 300 million Americans or 2 billion Chinese (whose impact in terms of CO2 is now larger than the USA) is absolutely irrelevant.

Every additional amount of CO2 from any source adds to the total, whether it is electricity fueled by coal or gases from burning of firewood. The more poor people in Africa, the more firewood burned. The point is that we have to move entirely away from fossil fuels and arguing over who is more to blame is just plain stupid and meaningless.

The first arguments over Kyoto absolved the less developed countries from compliance. Now that global warming has advanced so far, it is quite clear that reductions must be made by all
countries. Larger cutbacks will be required in those countries that use the most energy, but it
is the TOTAL impact of all energy use that is ecologically relevant. Political finger pointing won't solve the problem.

The fact is that the severest impact of global warming will be felt initially by he poor countries,
whether Bangladesh, where nearly all the population lives near the coast and faces sea level inundation of crop lands, or Bolivia and Ecuador which depend on the disappearing glaciers and rivers of the Andes for drinking water, or India, where overpumping of water for irrigation (since the Green Revolution forced them into raising crops requiring irrigation as opposed to the traditional kinds) has depleted the aquifers.

I am always amused not to say outraged by the left, which has remained completely disengaged from environmental concerns for forty years, only to wake up like Rip Van Winkle in the 21st century to shout out about western industrial nations' overconsumption... something pointed out back in 1972 by The Limits to Growth and the Blueprint for Survival, and pointed out repeatedly since then by many academics and activists, who were of course attacked by the left for their supposed indifference to poverty, using the argument that growth would cure poverty. Not at has made it worse. The gap between rich and poor has widened every year, as growth accelerated.

This article is the leftist's way of justifying overpopulation rather than acknowledging it, and
of attacking consumerism and capitalism. In fact, it is striking that in recent years the left has
barely mentioned capitalism as it turned its attention to Imperialism as the gravest threat on

Of course imperialism is simply a route designed to clear the way for industrialism (e.g. control of resources and labor) to flourish. But ideologically it fits in with their narrow view of the world, because it is a lot easier to rouse up the anger of the poor and oppressed against imperialism and colonization than it is to actually get one's hands dirty in stopping economic growth (which they long looked to as the solution to the corporations did too, making the left little more than a rowdy appendage to the consumer/capitalist society).
Posted by Lorna Salzman on 18 Apr 2009

The problem with Pearce's, (and the anti-do-anything-about population people like him) conjecture is that they are putting the cart before the horse.

Pearce in essence is maintaining that if we all just lived in poverty then by golly A LOT more of us could inhabit the planet (thereby robbing resources like LAND and water from the other 99.999999% of species which also have a right to exist). That is the reverse of what logic dictates is the better solution. If there were less of us, then more of us could live better. It's as simple as that.
Posted by Byron on 19 Apr 2009

My personal strongly-held non-scientific speculation is that, while it is absolutely true that both population and consumption are problematic, it is consumption that drives destruction. As development and improved quality of life delivers the impoverished from wretchedly oppressive conditions, it also increases the cumulative ecological footprint. The riddle of combining sustainability and social justice has yet to be solved. This is THE work of the 21st Century.
Posted by lou Gold on 19 Apr 2009

Well, Flynn, I just finished reading Stumbling on Happiness, and although it isn't really about happiness, it does drive home the fact that many decisions we make are not on the conscious level. What we are conscious of is the tip of an iceberg.

I've concluded that most of what we do in any given day is try to increase or maintain our stature. Our urge to status seek is what is eating the planet. Every day is a hunt for activities that reward us with barely perceptible hormone releases that inevitably lead over time to pushing our genes into the future. Happiness can be measured as it fluctuates with the levels of those hormones in the bloodstream, depression by a lack of them.

I think the above article is largely a strawman argument.

I have never heard anyone "blame only" the poor people in Africa and India and Asia for obliterating the biosphere. It is universally recognized in environmental circles that every one of us does our share of damage, including the poor subsistence farmer, but especially wealthy Americans. And nobody "blames" the poor farmer for trying to feed his family.

This is the third article on population to make the rounds this week. I discuss them in detail here:

Posted by Russ Finley on 19 Apr 2009

The amount of CO2 produced by each person every day by breathing and it is 288 liters. I took the 288 liters times the 5 billion people in the world times 365 days in a year and converted this from liters to metric tons and came up with 54.8 billion metric tons per year caused by the people of earth breathing.

Add to this total the amount of CO2 produced by all the cattle, pigs, goats, chickens, turkeys and other domesticated animals and the amount of gas produced is easily doubled. We can easily multiply this by 1 ½ by considering all the wild animals on the earth. This is a very conservative assumption. Three quarters of the earth is covered by water and inhabited by fish, whales, krill, lobsters, crabs, squid…etc…that all require oxygen and produce CO2. The amount produced in all the world’s oceans and lakes is conservatively 3 times that of land based life. Remember that the oceans are deep, large and life exists on many levels unlike land-based life that is necessarily surface based. For the purposes of this discussion we can neglect insects, worms, and grubs etc. that also require oxygen. Using these numbers the total amount of CO2 being produced by animal life on the planet is very very conservatively 540 billion metric tons (tonnes) annually. This figure could easily be 600 to 700 billion tonnes.

The total amount of CO2 according to the IPCC caused by fossil fuels each year worldwide is 6.3 billion metric tons per year. This is, at most, 1.2% of the total production of this gas. Even reducing human emissions by one half ( an impossibility) would only cut the total by 0.6% or 2.31 PPM.

Pretending that the warming that had occured was caused by fossil fuels is nonsensical. Pretending that CO2 from fossil fuels warmed the earth when the earth is now cooling as carbon dioxide levels increase is totally absurd.
Posted by Dahun on 19 Apr 2009

So, human's are responsible for 3 1/2 percent of the CO2 output. The rich are responsible for over half of the CO2 production. Therefore, the rich are not human. Alternatively, your "facts" are hogwash as is this whole topic.

I really think that is one of the saddest commentaries on our educational system that so many people could be fooled by this idiocy.
Posted by Burke on 19 Apr 2009

Fred Pearce — do you live like you preach?

Do you live on a personal 2-acre footprint, with 12 children and one on the way?

Have you considered that two parents + 12 children = 2x2 + 2x 12 acres footprints? that is a total of 28 acres footprint for your family? And that grandchildren will follow adding to the
28 acres footprint before you and your woman die?

I would rather live well, childless, with my mate in U.S. on a combined 2x9= 18 acres foot print. With a bit of care, I can be MORE environmentally conscious, and reduce my footprint.

You can't — if you live like a Bangladeshi, and choose to NOT limit the number of children you bring into this world.

Fred Pearce, would you really WANT to live like the poorest people on our overburdened planet?
Posted by stilldreaming on 21 Apr 2009

This just a few days ago from the faculty of the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at SUNY:

"According to a survey of the faculty..., overpopulation is the world's top environmental issue, followed closely by climate change and the need to develop renewable energy resources to replace fossil fuels."
Posted by John on 21 Apr 2009

I'm of the opinion that population growth is more harmful in some countries than others, basically correlated with consumption levels. It is immoral for Americans to have lots of kids, unless they also live extremely resource-constrained lives. I accept that morality is contextual, by the way.

But population growth in the rich countries is not just a matter of births. As one reader above notes, population growth in rich countries also comes from immigration flows. In the United States, the highest birthrates correlate with immigration from poor countries - the same people who'd like to get in the boat, except that they're hoping for their own ten places, not just one.

One other issue - Andy Revkin has a post on DotEarth on looking for cleaner burning low-cost stoves for the never-to-develop countries. This is apropos to Pearce's article because although the rich countries produce the largest quantities of greenhouse gases, poor countries contribute soot, which has its own melting and thus feedback warming effect when it ends up on ice and snow. More people in poor countries contributing "traditional" pollution exacerbates the effects of overconsumption in the rich countries.
Posted by Erik on 22 Apr 2009

Since the population growth from births in the U.S. is for practical purposes zero and over population is such a great problem....then we should set an example and hold our growth to zero. We do not need to consider any great education program or institute methods such as huge taxes for "excess" children. We certainly do not want to institute government control over how many children we should have or even encourage abortions or some other draconian method. Simply enforce existing immigration laws.

We would then lead by example and show how a civilized country humanely handles it's population. Oh, and to the problem that we use too much fuel and produce too much carbon dioxide, please be aware that North America as well as Eurasia are huge carbon sinks which make these areas net negative producers of CO2. This is due to the abundance of plant life occurring naturally and due to agriculture.

Surely it can be argued that we pollute more especially by burning one trillion tons of coal each year, however since those complaining the most refuse to utilize the most effective measures to stop this and continue to insist on the least efficient, unworkably fluctuating sources of power that cannot shut down one fossil fule plant, I cannot take them seriously when they complain about the problemm.
Posted by Dahun on 25 Apr 2009

If 6 billion people burn all the world's oil in a century we end up with catastrophic
climate change.

If 3 billion people burn all the world's coal it still gets burned and we end up with
the same result.

Population is, of course, a serious issue, but more recently it is being used by
climate denialist folk to argue, effectively, "there is not a climate problem just a
population problem".

This is the last in a very long line of rather desperate denialist arguments.

The fact it is far easier (and more ethical) to halve our consumption levels than to
halve the numbers of people.

This is not to diminish sensible population abatement measures, let's just keep it in
Posted by Chris Harries on 27 Apr 2009

It is easy for us to say that people in poor countries should not breed so much, but quite apart from the culture, how can we tell a woman who will be dependent upon her children when she is old, in the absence of any social security system, that she should not have as many children as she can, in the hope that at least a few of them may outlive her?

Further more, since when did standard of living equate to having lots of stuff, or being fully automated? Developed countries are full of bored people with so much time on their hands that a whole industry (the leisure industry) caters to their jaded needs - and even then many seek relief from their boredom in drink, drugs and pornography (not that these are ONLY found in out jaded society, admittedly).

There is actually quality of life to be found in chopping wood, walking to market and making meals rather than buying fast food. Maybe a return to these healthy pleasures could be made chic and fashionable by the same irresponsible governments who have hitherto pandered to corporate interests.

We know that the media leads fashion - otherwise who would pay the overstuffed advertising companies if such methods didn't have a measurable effect? So how about governments of developed countries using sustained media campaigns (including soap operas and other oblique means) to inject into our bloated, bored and meaningless communities a desire to get back to the real world and start doing things for ourselves - walking, baking, growing vegetables, buying clothes to last, inventing, making-do and mending.
Posted by C Gregg on 27 Apr 2009

"There is actually quality of life to be found in chopping wood, walking to market and making meals rather than buying fast food. Maybe a return to these healthy pleasures could be made chic and fashionable by the same irresponsible governments who have hitherto pandered to corporate interests."

The making of things chic and fashionable is a corporate activity for making money. It isn't meant to liberate.

Perhaps, as you suggest, enlightened governments (and what optimism imagining that requires!) could use media tools to bring change, but my recent browsing through Derrick Jensen's "Endgame" has rubbed the shine off my optimism in that regard.

Posted by TRB on 30 Apr 2009

I actually wondered if Pearce could be serious. Considering that a billion Indians are running out of water, importing food, (and all wanting cars); to say nothing of Africa's 'bushmeat' hunting ruining the continent's wildlife, and genocides sparked by lack of rain or shrinking farm-plots — how can anyone say the human swarm isn't an enormous problem? Americans are fat and wasteful, sure, but not even Ethiopians (who Pearce singles out for their very low carbon emissions) want to live like Ethiopians. It might be virtuous to help the poor, but the object of helping the poor is to help them be less poor, and of course the poor don't wish to remain poor. So where does that lead — everyone wants to use more resources. Therefore, the only hope is a world with far less people leading far better lives.

No one in 1900 thought there were too few people in the world. And there are now four to every one who lived then. In 2050, there will be eight or nine to every one who lived then. Now every fish and butterfly is running out of room. The Chinese may emit far less carbon and ride bikes to work. They're also eating the fins off the world's sharks, emptying the world's forests of wood and the reefs of fishes. They use parts of tigers, gall bladders of poached American bears. On Long Island where I live several people were recently arrested for smuggling large numbers of pond turtles to Chinese buyers; the Chinese have eaten essentially all the turtles in east Asia. No one thinks India or China are better for having a billion people each.

Certainly the Chinese don't with their one-child policy. A quarter-billion would be better for everyone concerned, especially for the Indians and Chinese now faced with water scarcity and the need to import food. Worldwide, a tenth as many people would be better still; it would slow every problem and ease every tension, maybe even re-diversify cultures. Compassion itself dictates that far fewer people would mean far less suffering.

There is great virtue in being mindful and wasting little. There is very little virtue in extreme poverty. I'd be happy to give up a lot of American over-consumption for the sake of balance. But I want to live among a few people who can sell me a pair of binoculars, play jazz, camp in national parks, send us pictures, drink safe tap-water, sail, and write literature. When and if the developed West gets clean energy, there will be very little to recommend against it, in comparison to the chaos, danger, despotism, censorship, ignorance, and filth of many other places. (I'm speaking from first-hand experience — and I go to the good places to study wildlife, not the war zones and slums.) Over-population — even at the current level, even for the poor — cannot be sustained by the available land and freshwater. To say nothing of simply crowding out other species. Of course, we could eat plankton paste. But we all know we won't do so until after we've gobbled down the last few fish. Then, if we somehow forbear eating the whales, we'd probably starve them.
Posted by Carl Safina on 01 May 2009

"There is very little virtue in extreme poverty. "

Please define the term "extreme poverty." In Brazil, for example, does it refer to someone living in a favela? Is it a hunter/gatherer in the rainforest? The term might apply to one and not the other.

"I'd be happy to give up a lot of American over-consumption for the sake of balance. But I want to live among a few people who can sell me a pair of binoculars, play jazz, camp in national parks, send us pictures, drink safe tap-water, sail, and write literature."

What does this have to do with consumption patterns (and by consumption I include that of wildlife and forestry for industrial agriculture, to make stupid, oversized mansions, etc.)? You can do all the things you list with hugely decreased consumption of environmental resources. Sprawl development, for example, is a hugely destructive form of consumption that, if stopped, would not take away from the pleasures (but might even increase) the pleasures you describe.

"When and if the developed West gets clean energy, there will be very little to recommend against it, in comparison to the chaos, danger, despotism, censorship, ignorance, and filth of many other places."

I disagree strongly with this characterization of the non-Western world, which a) is not monolithic, and b) has many places with a charm, naturalness and vibrancy often missing in the West. (This explains the growing phenomenon of eco-tourism, for instance.)

"(I'm speaking from first-hand experience — and I go to the good places to study wildlife, not the war zones and slums.)"

Nevertheless, you appear to be very limited in your view of the non-Western world, many of whose problems are directly attributable to the Western manner of consumption.
Posted by TRB on 03 May 2009

Who is willing to say, as Gus Speth has said, that capitalism and consumption are in lock step. Who wants to begin the process of breaking that bond. Attack the problem at it's source. No I am not a communist or anti-capitalist per se. I happen to think that if capitalism doesn't change, events will force it to change and with that we may be forced to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Posted by Chris Pratt on 14 May 2009

If China had not implemented a one child policy, they would be on track to add another 500 million people to the planet. Instead they are near their peak population, and will start to decline this century.

Tell me that 500 million extra Chinese would not make a huge impact.

Many population control programs were dropped in recent decades, and countries which allowed women to control their fertility are now seeing rapid increases in population.
Posted by George on 24 May 2009

If the global human population were around 5 to 10 million, as it was for nearly all of our history, how serious would our environmental problems be?
Posted by John on 28 May 2009

To be more precise, I should have said, "If the global human population were no more than about 5 to 10 million..."
Posted by John on 29 May 2009

with 1 billion in increase every 12 year and 8 months it truly will dwarf consumption. Each of the world population only have about 22000 sq meters (45.63 km2) of the total landmass each, every billion ad 6.1 more to that number.

We have no longer any margins for disaster.
Posted by peter on 04 Aug 2009

There's no sustainability silver bullet, in my opinion. Getting there might be the most multi-dimensionsal, interlinked, interdisciplinary challenge humans have ever faced. Surging population and frenetic consumption should both be addressed. It's true that those that use "population" as a way of transferring responsibility to the poor are morally in the wrong-- but a smaller population is still good for everyone. In a Full World, less people = more prosperity/person. Addressing population is a piece of solving the poverty puzzle, too.
Posted by Scott on 07 Aug 2009

Chris Pratt makes a good point and one that is being shared by many others. It is difficult to understand how the world economies can continue to grow without large scale consumption. On the other hand it is difficult to understand how the world can support increased levels of consumption. Finding a solution is difficult but needs to be as important of a goal as reduction of CO2 emissions.
Posted by Bert Hartmann on 22 Aug 2009

When I run the math, every single person on the planet (man, women and child) could own a third of an acre in land in Australia and the rest of the earth would be empty.

Pretty interesting, eh?
Posted by Markus Allen | Filing for Personal Bankruptcy on 24 Aug 2009

How can such an intelligent man make such a foolish analogy? Comparing consumption of beef in the USA to India. Hey Fred! Don't know if you ever heard this but the cow is a sacred animal over there. You lost me there and you never got be back.

Posted by steve on 07 Mar 2010

This is a very dangerous argument to make because it can possibly encourage population growth in developing countries which is an enormous challenge for other reasons -- lack of livelihoods and conflict. There is more to the world's problems than just carbon footprints!

Furthermore, the highest population growth that is still persistent is in fact in the highest consumption countries as well -- namely the Gulf states of the Middle East and among the most radical ideological populations (note that fanatical elements in all three Abrahamic faiths are the ones who want the most kids!!) -- what a diabolical mix.

The solution is to link environmental conservation to livelihoods and still keep the focus on population control until we can find stuff for people to do with their lives!

Posted by Saleem H. Ali on 03 May 2010

It's amazing how many comments, seeking to dismiss Pearce's argument, end up proving his point instead. It is quite easy to point to deforestation in Ethiopia, water table declines in India, and a variety of other environmental problems and blame them on local overpopulation by Ethiopians, Indians, and so on. It is even easier when these extreme signs of environmental degradation seem to be less severe here in the United States. However, just because your suburban refuge doesn't seem as apocalyptically close to the brink of environmental destruction doesn't mean you're off the hook for environmental degradation.

To the contrary, Pearce's argument is that the consumption patterns of wealthy nations are just as if not more culpable for such ills than the expanding populations in poorer countries. You don't have to "live like Ethiopians," but try living without driving a car, eating meat, shopping at the mall, taking a shower EVERY day, and so on. Pearce's argument is that those changes will have far more of an impact than if a family in Ethiopia decides to have 2 instead of 6 kids. I'm inclined to agree.

Posted by Chris Flood on 30 Jun 2010

To the contrary, Pearce's argument is that the consumption patterns of wealthy nations are just as if not more culpable for such ills than the expanding populations in poorer countries. You don't have to "live like Ethiopians," but try living without driving a car, eating meat, shopping at the mall, taking a shower EVERY day, and so on. Pearce's argument is that those changes will have far more of an impact than if a family in Ethiopia decides to have 2 instead of 6 kids. I'm inclined to agree.

Posted by siste on 30 Aug 2010

I just sent this post to a bunch of my friends as I agree with most of what you’re saying here and the way you’ve presented it is awesome.

Posted by Scoojelf on 16 Nov 2010

Surely the problems are not so much over-population and consumption but of population distribution?

Posted by Taryn on 09 Dec 2010

What most of you people either refuse to see or just have not seen is that the USA was pushed to consume for so many years just to grow the capitalist economy that requires infinite growth which as we know today is not possible. So what do we do? There is no real solution to a world that is anything like what we now see. There will allways be people that think they deserve more then the rest because they think for whatever reason they deserve more. Till we see we are all brothers and deserve the same as all the rest. untill that time comes we will allways be in Jeopardy and in danger of destroying ourselves.

It all goes back to Eve picking the forbidden fruit and that desire to know more then all the rest.
Whether it's a better life, better food or a faster car that desire will allways be there. Though there is allways a desire for us to help each other. It's sort of like good and evil. I guess we will see if selfishness wins out over a desire to help thy fellow man. Cause if it does god help us cause it will allways lead to jealousness ,hate and then war.

Posted by Hope for our future on 12 Dec 2010

I just sent this post to a bunch of my friends as I agree with most of what you’re saying here and the way you’ve presented it is awesome.

Posted by exelejelmigue on 27 Jan 2011



Will Increased Food Production Devour Tropical Forest Lands?
As global population soars, efforts to boost food production will inevitably be focused on the world’s tropical regions. Can this agricultural transformation be achieved without destroying the remaining tropical forests of Africa, South America, and Asia?

In the Pastures of Colombia, Cows, Crops and Timber Coexist
As an ambitious program in Colombia demonstrates, combining grazing and agriculture with tree cultivation can coax more food from each acre, boost farmers’ incomes, restore degraded landscapes, and make farmland more resilient to climate change.

Wendell Berry: A Strong Voice For Local Farming and the Land
For six decades, writer Wendell Berry has spoken out in defense of local agriculture, rural communities, and the importance of caring for the land. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about his Kentucky farm, his activism, and why he remains hopeful for the future.

In Flood-Prone New Orleans, an Architect Makes Water His Ally
As these photographs and illustrations show, architect David Waggonner has decided that the best way to protect low-lying New Orleans is to think about water in an entirely different way.

In Developing World, A Push to Bring E-Waste Out of Shadows
For decades, hazardous electronic waste from around the world has been processed in unsafe backyard recycling operations in Asia and Africa. Now, a small but growing movement is seeking to provide these informal collectors with incentives to sell e-waste to advanced recycling facilities.


Donate to Yale Environment 360