CWA: Population isn't the problem, consumption is the problem

"As we get women access to education and birth control, as there's a focus on human rights, the birth rate is leveling out. It's a great success story, actually. Sustainability is about consumption, not population. Indonesia has a high birth rate, but Indonesia is not going to push the world into runaway global warming. Not unless they all start consuming the way we do."Ted Nace, author and environmental activist, during a Conference on World Affairs panel that asked, "Can Science Feed the Growing Global Population?"


    1. I’m sure the first thing you linked is accurate, once we cover the vast majority of the earth in solar panels.

      From a non-biased source, too.

      Additionally, just popped into my mind, I seem to remember it used to take more power to build a solar panel than they were likely to make due to limited lifespan. 25 years rings a bell. That and obviously they need the sun, so not that ideal in some parts of the world. Anyone know anything about that?

  1. The problem is that history has shown that developing nations rapidly approach Western levels of consumption as they become more prosperous. Look at Japan and South Korea after WWII. Or China now. Sure, Indonesia may not consume much now, but in 20-30 years, labor won’t be so cheap in China and more manufacturing will move to Indonesia and other cheaper locations, meaning people there will have more disposable income, meaning they will consume more. Unless civilization collapses before then, of course.

    So, given that people consume according to their income, population *is* the problem.

  2. “Sustainability is about consumption, not population.”

    sorry, but i don’t buy that. more people consume more goods, take up more space, create more wastes. and, as jonathan badgers notes in his comment above, places like indonesia are not exempt — it is only a matter of time before they are prosperous enough to increase consumption et cetera.

    population control is the elephant in the room that nobody seems to want to address. in every book about “going green” that i’ve ever looked in, not one mentions the responsibility of having fewer children (if any at all), yet all the recycling in the world, all the vegetarian eating, all the solar panel building, all the wildlife fund donating, it isn’t going to come close to undoing the damage of adding to the population.

    perhaps it’s because it’s considered politically incorrect to expect people to take responsibility for their reproductive systems; that, and people seem to want to associate it with things like eugenics, perhaps in an attempt to discredit it as an important topic.

    if you truly love our world and the variety of life forms that inhabit it, and if you truly want to help, why continue to encourage the exponential increase of humanity?

  3. then one can ask oneself if not the western world is consuming above its means right now. Hell, i keep bumping into the dual concept that 1. once basic needs are covered, consumerism do not bring much more happiness 2. multiple people spending smaller sums have a more beneficial effect on the economy then one person spending a big sum.

  4. Ted Nace is mixed up. A declining birth rate is always a symptom of impending cultural collapse. It is never a sign of success.

    1. If by success you include keeping half of the human population ignorant, barefoot, and pregnant.

      UNIFEM, UNICEF and related NGOs have been arguing this for decades: spending a small amount of money to educate women results in fewer, healthier, more educated children (especially girls), better nutrition for the entire family, and improved economic status which trickles up from the family to the community in various ways.

  5. Most “overpopulation” arguments are covers for simple racism.

    When you read these arguments in depth, it usually boils down to too many non-white, or at least non-western people.

    America is annoyed that it is only a distant 3rd in population.

    As for food, it’s a pretty good bet that everyone could eat, at least minimal requirements, for the foreseeable future. The obstacles are political, not scientific.

    1. I suppose the boom/bust cycles of population observed in many biological systems must be due to racism, too, following your logic. If the European population in the Americas were in Europe, Europe’s total population would look much like India’s and China’s. Most of the world is now fed by massive inputs of fossil fuel. Add that to the mechanical, then the petro-chemical, and finally the green revolutions; plus, force all arable land into production, and harvest the oceans far past the limits of sustainability, and that’s our world. Humans are not exempt from rules that govern natural systems, no matter their ideological predilections.

      One other argument regarding the consumption of the industrial countries: per capita food and fiber consumption has not increased as much as total resource use or pollution. Why not? Humans can only eat and wear so much. Consumption of food and fiber may have increased 40%, or 60% in industrialized regions, but their consumption hasn’t increased 10 fold, as has pollution and aggregate resource consumption. What has changed is where people live: in cities. The result is that their food no longer moves one or two kilometers, but must be moved tens, hundreds, or thousands of kilometers.

      The shocking thing about this situation is that we’ll probably never face a shortage of food due to oil depletion because it takes only 3-7% of our total natural gas production to fertilize our land (around 1% of total energy use). Rather, we’ll starve because the distribution system won’t have enough energy available to package, refrigerate and move food long distances to cities. Of course, we haven’t begun to talk about the madness of suburban development in energy terms; the absolute insanity of moving millions each day long distances simply to get to work.

      But racism? As even a significant element in any of this discussion? Ridiculous.

      1. But boom/bust cycles don’t happen in every ecology- they happen specifically in ecologies dominated by r-selected species typified by short life spans, short adolescence, limited transmission of learned information from parents to offspring, and very high fertility (litters, in other words- and these aren’t conditions that ecologically describe human beings. Nature is filled to the gills with K-selected species that just hum along and behave themselves- after, of course, they go through the burst of fecundity that happens when introduced to a new environment. The Industrial Age was our new environment, and the best data we have suggests that we too will, within the first half of this century, reach a population steady state. Malthus was only half (a third?) right.

  6. Science can feed the growing global population. At a peak world population of 8-9 billion, it’s probably doable with today’s technology. There is an opportunity for a green revolution in multiple other climates and regions we havn’t yet capitalized on.

    Consumption doesn’t have to be resource intensive. People can have more for less, if they share, if they use local products, if they are smart about the resources that go into things. We have lots of wasteful technologies and practices. People will find ways to get what they want with what they have.

  7. You chose: war, famine, plague, or birth control.

    The tragedy is that as the developing world becomes
    stable (level population) this allows overfeeding
    the rest of the world, which continues to follow

    War, famine, plague, or birth control. Some are nicer than others.

  8. While education and medicine are the solution to an exploding population, I’m convinced that overconsumption leads directly to a declining population. People in wealthy countries choose to have one or no children primarily because they “can’t afford it”- which is preposterous when parents in developing countries can afford to have two or three or four kids just fine. What they really mean is that they can’t afford all the commodities they think their children ought to have but don’t really need by any reasonable standard. They can’t afford a house with a yard and a rec room full of electronics and soccer practice and piano lessons and an SUV. It’s a natural and probably healthy response to living in a climate of rabid overconsumption. But probably not the best situation for the planet.

    1. IMHO, it’s more because children in rich countries don’t work. When you’re a poor farmer, your kids can help on the farm starting at a very young age. Since a poor farmer can’t afford to hire employees, having children becomes an investment: they soon produce more than they need. Having more children makes you richer, not poorer.

      In richer countries, children don’t start becoming productive until very late (and that’s a good thing obviously). If you’re a parent in the US, children aren’t an investment because they don’t produce anything for you. As such, it’s more common for people here to not be able to afford having children because it’s an expense, where poor countries see them as an investment.

  9. And if the world population were 300 million, we could all consume like there was no tomorrow! What is the point of these fantasies?

    A sustainable population is not just one that you can feed adequately. And a sustainable consumption level will never be determined by people looking backwards.

  10. I think that birth control is the big white elephant in the room that nobody talks about in pretty much all the sustainability talks. Everybody is trying to come up with ways to be efficient in producing food for everybody, but I think part of that effort should go towards educating and encouraging people to stop making babies. Reducing global population means there’s more for everybody. But yeah, I know, good luck trying to tell people that without being called a nazi or something similar.

  11. “Can Science Feed the Growing Global Population?”
    Because what else is there, really?

  12. If science finds a new way to increase the food supply to feed a growing population, then that population will find a way to breed in excess of that supply of food. Population growth won’t slow untill we start starving.

    Overpopulation is the root cause behind all social and envoronmental problems.

  13. “Consumption” is a loaded word. It implies that we are using up the world, turning it into a useless place. The only way I can think of that we could really do that is with nuclear weapons. Not by buying silly electronics or showy cars. These kinds of things can be, and often are, profitably recycled.

    The problem referred to in Maggie’s post, global warming, is not consumption. Global warming, inasmuch as it is a problem, is caused by the production of greenhouse gasses. Indonesia looks like it would be an excellent place for windmills or perhaps space-based solar power stations, which both produce usable electricity without generating pollution.

    Oh, and “overpopulation” is bunk.

  14. My understanding is that birthrate decline historically comes after economic development and precedes education and full economic rights for women.
    Once childhood mortality is sufficiently low, then families in cultures without a government safety net can afford to have fewer children. Otherwise, they must have enough children that there is a reasonable chance of having adult children to take care of them in their dotage.

  15. “Can science feed the growing global population?” is the wrong question. A distraction, and a dangerous one at that. Yes, it can. At a cost of vastly increased risk and brittleness. The more science and technology you have to bring to bear just to provide basic sustenance, the most people stand to starve should that technology fail or even be interrupted briefly. A major war or natural disaster now instantly places hundreds of millions of people in danger of death by starvation. The carrying capacity of any species’ environment is not the peak, summertime-and-the-livin’-is-easy case. It’s what the environment can support in the dead of winter. Planning for the best case is horribly irresponsible.

    1. Planning for the best case is horribly irresponsible.

      Here is everything wrong with how people treat overpopulation, global warming, peak oil, nuclear power, economic collapse, foreign policy, disaster relief, and even urban planning all rolled together.

  16. All the comments in the vein of “birth control is the gorilla in the room” are somewhat missing the point that has emerged from 50 years of demography. Yes, humans, like any other organism, could run over our banks and eat ourselves out of house and home, and the road from one billion to seven billion look pretty perilous towards the future. But what is ignored is that we have really good data that unequivocally tells us that the single best way to prevent two poor starving people leveling the local flora and fauna from turning into ten poor starving people on the verge of turning into ten dead poor people is to make them less poor. Every sensible adult in the developed world has a birth control plan (that works out to sub-replacement fertility, see Europe and Japan) by dint of having money to buy it, the knowledge to use it, and things they could do with their day besides being pregnant, and all that happens without any bureaucrats dictating what a woman can do with her uterus.

    1. “…the single best way to prevent two poor starving people leveling the local flora and fauna from turning into ten poor starving people on the verge of turning into ten dead poor people is to make them less poor.”

      1. I suspect that as long as there is land not owned/used efficiently by a moderately advanced economy, there will be poor folk suffering from their less than ideal use of that land. Your solution would seem to require that all usable land be used efficiently. That’s a lot of using.

      2. What would the world look like with a steady 7 billion at or above your imagined poverty line?

      3. Posthuman immortality is going to be energy expensive. Surely we’ll have to start reducing the population before we get there. And once we do get there, well, we can’t just keep on adding new immortals.

  17. I’m sorry for posting so late, out of fear of starting a flame war.

    While I’m too old a bunny to assume any kind of direct cause-and-effect correlation, I might propose that the consumer gluttony for which we Americans are infamous is a part of the problem.

    I’m sure a number of us are careful and frugal consumers. We pay attention to how we live, what we buy and how we dispose of it but we can be also sure there are plenty of gluttonous consumers.

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