Population and consumption.

Two topics that encapsulate the human relationship with the natural environment are population and consumption. How we impact the environment and its many facets largely comes down to these two key areas.

Consumption is normally measured as GDP (gross domestic product) per capita (per person) and is about the best yard stick we have for comparing consumption rates of various country’s citizens around the world. The US and European citizens have very high rates and most of the rest of the world has very low rates of consumption. As the middle class of a country expands in number and wealth they tend to increase the rate of GDP per capita for the country. This has been happening noticeably in the far east and increasingly so in China and India and certain Arab Gulf States.

Theoritically the impact of high consumption rates can be debated and solutions sort to reduce that impact. Less packaging, less energy per unit of production and even ‘downsizing’ one’s lifestyle are fairly common discussions these days. What is less talked about is population.

Save the Children have recently brought out a very interesting report entitled, ‘State of the World’s Mothers: Saving the Lives of Children Under 5.’ This link offers a video summary report or you can download a pdf of the full report.

Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines made the greatest strides in reducing child deaths. All saw women’s use of contraceptives rise and fertility rates decline. Mothers were less likely to be physically depleted by having too many babies in too short a time. With fewer children , families were also able to invest more in the care of each child. Disease education and control programmes have also been key to these successes. Bangladesh has promoted family planning, a strategy that has enabled women to have fewer children, space the births and strengthen their own health and that of their babies.

This approach to family planning also allows for population growth to slow and even to stablize. In fact in some European countries the population total would be in decline if it wasn’t for imigration. All in all a win, win situation for mothers, their children and the environment. The target then becomes ‘unnecessary’ and excessive consumption of the Western countries and increasingly of the middle classes in a growing band of nations. That could well be an even tougher nut to crack!

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This entry was posted in Climate change, Development, Disease, Economics, Energy, Food & Agriculture, People, Politics, Population, War & security, Water. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Population and consumption.

  1. Dave On Fire says:

    I keep putting off writing an entry on this subject in my own blog. I have one or two points:

    First of all, well done for equating GDP (and, by extension, growth thereof) with consumption, and not (as is more often suggested, to my eternal frustration), wealth. A few things wrong with it, though, as a yardstick: GDP literally represents a country’s ‘turnover’ and, as such, the manufacture in one country of products consumed in another is attributed to the manufacturer. A GDP-cartogram, then, attributes much of “our” consumption to developing countries, and especially China. The Chinese manufacture a lot, but thus far consume relatively little; the imbalance is even more pronounced in reality than in cartograms like this.

    Incidentally, the same study did produce a cartogram by population; it is interesting to compare the two. Anyway, unchecked population growth is extremely serious, but the imbalance of pollution & consumption is so much more than that of population growth, that it still makes more sense to focus on the former than the latter. I’m not accusing you of missing that point, but many in the media (deliberately?) do, as it is a convenient way of blaming the world’s problems on those of developing nations, rather than developed ones.

    It’s also worth noting that worlds population is currently undergoing a “youth bulge”. While the West is worried about its ageing population, the median age in Iran is about 20, and in Uganda it is 14. Consequently, regardless of their fertility levels, it would take decades for the “inertia” of our young population to wear itself out. In other words, as these children grow up and have kids of their own, the population is guaranteed to grow for the next few decades. Needless to say, this will only make the consequences of climate change in the developing world all the grislier.

    Finally, one factor that limits population growth more dramatically and consistently than almost any other (less than China’s one-child policy, but more than the brutal enforced sterilizations of 1970s India) is socioeconomic freedom. When people feel confident that they can choose their own path in life – their work, their home, their studies, their partners – only a statistically miniscule proportion choose to spend their lives squeezing out kids. When people feel trapped, on the other hand, and/or deeply insecure of their future, they do reproduce bunny-rabbit-fashion, in absence of other options and in the (subconsious) hope that one or more of their offspring will survive to see a better life.

    As such, while I sincerely and wholeheartedly applaud the iniatives you mentioned, the problem of runaway population growth – like so many other problems – could best be solved by doing away with (or at least, in the case of Western governments, ceasing to promote) chronic poverty.

  2. matt says:

    Hi Dave

    Appreciate the considered contribution. Agree that GDP is not a great measure of consumption but it’s the main measurement we have, especially globally.

    On population, you are of course correct about the young populations of North Africa and the Middle East. This may be a combination of improved medical care and lack of availability of contraception. Religion may have a part to play in not allowing women access to contraceptives. Egypt has bucked this trend.

    Yes, as my post tries to communicate, in countries where the empowerment of women to guide their own family planning (or aspirations in this area) exists, this appears to have resulted in those women having fewer and healthier children. So, empowering women, providing the neccessary health care and with at least a reasonably healthy economy, population can decline or at least begin to stabilize.

  3. John Feeney says:

    Dave,

    Anyway, unchecked population growth is extremely serious, but the imbalance of pollution & consumption is so much more than that of population growth, that it still makes more sense to focus on the former than the latter. I’m not accusing you of missing that point, but many in the media (deliberately?) do, as it is a convenient way of blaming the world’s problems on those of developing nations, rather than developed ones.

    To some extent I have to disagree. I do agree that the biggest short term progress is to be made in reducing consumption, mainly in the West. But total consumption is the product of per capita consumption levels times population size. And while places like India and China is still show much lower per capita consumption than, say, the US, they are catching up at a good clip. To have any sort of chance of sustainability and a decent future in the long run, we must address population as forthrightly as we do consumption, and soon so that there will be some light at the end of the tunnel of the “youth bulge” you mention. We can’t ignore either factor in the equation.

    I’ve written about this in more detail in these articles:

    http://growthmadness.org/2007/02/09/an-unholy-matrimony/

    http://growthmadness.org/2007/02/16/population-and-consumption-both-major-players/

  4. Dave On Fire says:

    The growing middle classes of India and China are catching up to western consumption levels, but the overwhelming majority still live in poverty. Eventually, yes, it’s only fair that everyone get to live at the same level, but I don’t see how “living well” equates with “pathological consumerism”. We in the decadent west clearly need to learn to live sustainably; so will the Indians and Chinese.
    I never said unchecked population growth wasn’t a problem, by the way, but I’m instantly very suspicious when people talk about “addressing it”. What do you propose, mass sterilizations?

  5. John Feeney says:

    but I’m instantly very suspicious when people talk about “addressing it”. What do you propose, mass sterilizations?

    This baffles me. What is the problem with the word “addressed”? Really, why would that word make you suspicious? Am I supposed to say, “Let’s try to solve this problem without addressing it”?

    If you research the topic you find the approaches encouraged by experts are nothing draconian, nothing other than humane. They mostly involve bringing down fertility rates by dealing with social and related conditions which drive them up. The most widely cited approaches center on addressing things such as the status of women and childhood survival rates. Here’s a post briefly outlining some:

    http://growthmadness.org/2006/12/31/population-solutions-a-snapshot/

    Again, why the reaction to the word “address”?

    Regarding consumption, as I mentioned, it’s all in the equation; E=P*e

    There’s a tendency to want to downplay one or the other factor, usually the “P,” but Holdren shows clearly not only that we can’t ignore either, but that in recent decades the contribution of population to total consumption has been basically on a par with that of per capita consumption increases.

    Since this is the topic I write about all the time (well, something over 50% of my focus) I invite you to take a look at how I handle it on my blog. Let me know where you see a problem in terms of ethics, justice, etc., and we’ll discuss it. These questions need to be dealt with directly and openly, not with reactive assumptions. The issues involved are far too important.

  6. Dave On Fire says:

    By the way, on your own blog you claim that we in the North have more modest populations, but I don’t see how you would substantiate that. England has the same population density as India. Looking at population cartograms, I would guestimate that Europe – and especially Northern Europe – is more densely populated than most of Africa and Latin America.

    What differentiates us is our growth rates, which have slowed dramatically in the last few decades. We have finally put our population growth behind us, to concentrate solely on consumption growth.

  7. John Feeney says:

    We posted simultaneously. “More modest,” meaning smaller. Population density is generally a secondary issue. The key questions center around carrying capacity/ecological footprint.

  8. Dave On Fire says:

    So we did.

    Population density is not an issue unto itself; the point is that you can’t really lay overpopulation woes at the doors of “the South”, when some of the most densely populated nations are in “the North”. Of course, “the North” is smaller, and so is its population, but that’s more a result of how one divides the world into North and South than of who’s been outbreeding whom.

    My problem was not one of semantics; the word “address” is about the same as “solve”, or “deal with”. People have their reasons for wanting to have children, and when one sees that in terms of being a problem one is often moved to restrain their freedom to do so. This is necessarily quite brutal; I assume you’ve heard of Rajiv Gandhi? Of course, this is not the only way of seeing it; one could instead give people other options, and focus on empowerment. I’ve already said that I applaud any efforts in that direction.

    But I ultimately think that there’s something very wrong about putting the onus for solving the world’s problems on the poor and the disenfranchised. It soon boils down to Us helping Them be better people, for their own sakes and that of the world – a colonialist mindset that undermines any talk of empowerment and freedom. It’s especially galling when one sees how responsible we in the North are for both the situation in the South and for most of the total consumption/pollution.

    If we can find a way to live both comfortably and sustainably, there’s no reason why the Indians and Chinese couldn’t ultimately do so; it’s both fairer and more productive to get our own uberconsumerist houses in order than to wag a finger at the natives telling them not to breed so damn much. Why not just send missionaries?

    On a practical note, dropping this interventionism, this modern rebranding of the White Man’s Burden, would surely constitute empowerment, and thus let the “problem” be solved by those who are living it.

  9. John Feeney says:

    Population density is not an issue unto itself; the point is that you can’t really lay overpopulation woes at the doors of “the South”, when some of the most densely populated nations are in “the North”.

    Argh! It seems you’re again reading something into my words that simply isn’t there. Where did I blame the South any more than the north? In the first article I linked to in this thread I specifically address this and say things like:

    Our per capita consumption rates are many times greater, however, than those in typical countries of the South. This is the situation which causes some to say the U.S. has the worst population growth problem in the world. Because of our high per capita consumption, the impact here of any population increase on natural resources is greatly magnified.

    I have consistently blamed the North as much or more than the South. But, as I mentioned, we can’t ignore the math of the equation I presented. There are issues to be addressed in both places. So we can’t ignore population growth in the South, or even rising consumption rates there. To ignore either factor in the equation in either part of the world is intellectual dishonesty. It may arise out of good intent, but will ultimately cost a great many lives. That is why I emphasize it.

    I think my comment in the article about the North’s population being “more modest” was clear enough:

    In the North we have more modest populations (though the U.S. is a glaring exception) which are showing less growth. Our per capita consumption rates are many times greater, however…

    It was nothing but a simple comparison of the more pronounced differences between North and South, laying the groundwork for the previous quote above. I don’t even see how it conflicts with the opinions you’ve offered here.

    My problem was not one of semantics; the word “address” is about the same as “solve”, or “deal with”. People have their reasons for wanting to have children, and when one sees that in terms of being a problem one is often moved to restrain their freedom to do so. This is necessarily quite brutal

    Again, you’re attributing opinions and motives to me that aren’t there and you have no evidence for. I didn’t say people’s desires to have children were a problem. I said the social and economic conditions which lead people to choose higher fertility rates were a problem.

    You said, “I never said unchecked population growth wasn’t a problem.” Should I respond by saying, “Oh, then you want to sterilize people, maybe kill them, or at least hegemonically impose your ‘superior’ ways on them”? See what I mean? Or would you add to your statement that while you believe population growth is a problem, you firmly believe the North should not try to assist in any way in solving it? If so, then yes, we disagree. But that’s not clear.

    Of course, this is not the only way of seeing it; one could instead give people other options, and focus on empowerment. I’ve already said that I applaud any efforts in that direction.

    And I was in no way critical of your statements to that effect. Yet you reflexively assumed I was condoning efforts of a different sort. Why?

    It’s especially galling when one sees how responsible we in the North are for both the situation in the South and for most of the total consumption/pollution.

    Where have I said anything inconsistent with that? In fact, here is a quote from something else on my blog:

    With the advent of globalization, as corporations have acquired, in some ways, more power than governments, crossing international boundaries and wielding their economic influence to bring governments into line with their agendas they have become more and more powerful in generating the economic growth of which they are the primary beneficiaries. Nearly everyone is victimized as third world citizens are directly exploited and the integrity of the ecosystem is sacrificed for the profits of a few.

    it’s both fairer and more productive to get our own uberconsumerist houses in order than to wag a finger at the natives telling them not to breed so damn much. Why not just send missionaries?

    Please show me any finger wagging I’ve done and I’ll immediately retract it and apologize for it.

    But its unclear whether you really favor any sort of assistance at all. You applaud the kinds of efforts I condone, it seems. Yet you also seem to equate any assistance with missionary imposition of Northern will on the South. On the basis of your comments I could conclude that, despite the fact that population growth is in large part the result of the suppression of women, poverty, and inadequate health care, you’re against any sort of aid or social assistance to address those problems. (It would seem that might might lead to more suffering than would thoughtful, collegial assistance. There is, after all, a tradition of people helping people which goes back, we believe, to the dawn of humanity.) But I realize you may not be saying that. Any help with that ambiguity?

    Just to be clear about my position, my first focus is on the fact that our ecosystem is on its last legs, in large part because of world population having quadrupled in the last century. If we allow pervasive ecological collapse, experts believe it could mean the death of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of people. The most vulnerable will likely be those in the least “developed” countries. Nor have we left ourselves much time to deal with this. Try this warning from 15 years ago:

    http://www.actionbioscience.org/environment/worldscientists.html

    So while I completely agree with your comments about colonialism and hegemony, if forced to prioritize would have to put saving those billions of people ahead of avoiding any language or actions about which some might jump to the wrong conclusions about my motives.

    I’m still curious how you came to those ideas about my motives. For some reason you seem to be jumping to conclusions about my motives. Perhaps some who strongly oppose Northern hegemony make a part of their approach the avoidance of words like “address” or phrases like “deal with.” Frankly, I think that’s silly, and focus in stead on intellectual honesty. If there’s a problem, we can speak of dealing with it. If we’re to help in some way with an issue we can speak of addressing it. Those are not racist or otherwise harmful phrases.

    Really, I’d like to get to the bottom of this because it sounds to me as though we basically agree on the important points, yet there’s this air of misunderstanding. Could it simply be the result of the population topic having become taboo in recent years among those on the political left? That has been a serious mistake in my opinion, and is, I think, beginning to change as people confront the reality of a world in which population is expected to grow another 40% or more without any guarantee other than a set of demographic observations of recent trends that it won’t grow still further. The concern among many, though, is that we won’t make it to the 9 billion mark, as it may be impossible to go that far into overshoot of the earth’s carrying capacity. Either way, the ecological impact will be severe, and we’d best attempt some damage control.

  10. John Feeney says:

    My reply appears to have been snagged by the spam filter (too many links). So this is just to make sure Matt de-spams it. Thanks.

  11. Dave On Fire says:

    I was simply saying why I am suspicious, generally, of those who would see problems with how the poor and the disenfranchised behave – with overpopulation being a recurring theme – which the rich and the powerful must try and solve. I never said that this applied to you personally; you seemed to find it bizarre that I harbour any such suspicions in the first place, so I was attempting to clarify.

  12. John Feeney says:

    I never said that this applied to you personally; you seemed to find it bizarre that I harbour any such suspicions in the first place, so I was attempting to clarify.

    Good enough. Perhaps just a misunderstanding then. I don’t find it bizarre that you harbor such suspicions in general. I just don’t like anyone assuming that of me. There are “population activists” who are just racists in disguise. I just think they need to be exposed for what they are. Unfortunately some in the environmental movement have chosen to stay mum on the topic of population rather than get mixed up in that.

    My apologies if I misunderstood you.

  13. matt says:

    John and Dave. Great debate.

    It is true that the topic of ‘population’ is curiously one to which many avoid. Probably because all species have a natural inclination to procreate without question. Humans do of course have this unique ability to (sometimes) question their actions, especially when faced with threats that appear to result from those very actions.

    As has been pointed out by yourselves we are indeed right to look at the consequences of population growth rates and the impacts upon a burdened environment. For if we don’t question this a ‘poisoned’ and exhausted environment may no longer be able to support us. Once people begin to aknowledge and understand the urgency of this threat they will see the need for a response.

    I believe the Save the Children report brings into sharp focus many of the issues of our time (globalisation with the trade in labour and goods; the role of religion; the continued need for the empowerment of women and children; responsible consumption; respect for our environment as the Aborigines for example … to name some).

    Arguments by world leaders and particularly religious leaders about family planning in UN conferences, as occurred in Egypt are plainly irresponsible. On that I’m sure we’re all agreed!

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