View Full Version : Consumption a bigger threat than population.

Magda Hassan
04-17-2009, 07:02 AM
Consumption Dwarfs Population as Main Environmental Threat

A small portion of the world's people 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. 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 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 "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.


Peter Lemkin
04-17-2009, 07:27 AM
Without going into the details or the calculations, if the current world population of about 6.7 Billion were to consume at American levels we would need 5-6 Earths in order to supply the resources, energy and handle the waste. In case you didn't notice, we have only one Earth, and to add injury to insult the population will reach at minimum 9.5 billion and perhaps as much as 12. Most Environental Scientists that I trust calculate the carrying capacity for humans on Gaia is only one billion. The time factor we have to correct all this is likely in the range of 25-30 years to make a gigantic start and 50-100 years to turn this all around or go the way of the dinosaurs............:trytofly: [so the political poo is not the only deep doo we are in!!!]

Magda Hassan
09-30-2009, 07:10 AM
The Population Myth (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/09/29/the-population-myth/)

Posted September 29, 2009
People who claim that population growth is the big environmental issue are shifting the blame from the rich to the poor

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 29th Septeember 2009
It’s no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it’s about the only environmental issue for which they can’t be blamed. The brilliant earth systems scientist James Lovelock, for example, claimed last month that “those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational.”(1 (http://www.optimumpopulation.org/releases/opt.release26Aug09.htm)) But it’s Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational.
A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions(2).
Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that around one sixth of the world’s population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest. Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning Rs30,000 or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce.
Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to us. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for example, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together(3 (http://www.foei.org/en/publications/pdfs-members/economic-justice/gasnigeria.pdf)). Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm(4).
The paper’s author, David Satterthwaite, points out that the old formula taught to all students of development - that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I=PAT) - is wrong. Total impact should be measured as I=CAT: consumers times affluence times technology. Many of the world’s people use so little that they wouldn’t figure in this equation. They are the ones who have most children.
While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth. I’ve been taking a look at a few superyachts, as I’ll need somewhere to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they’re accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet’s RFF135, but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour(5 (http://www.ybw.com/auto/newsdesk/20090802125307syb.html)) I realised that it wasn’t going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which sucks up 850 l/hr(6 (http://www.jameslist.com/advert/5480)). But the raft that’s really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3400 l/hr when travelling at 60 knots(7 (http://machinedesign.com/article/118-wallypower-a-high-end-power-boat-0616)). That’s nearly one litre per second. Another way of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre(8).
Of course to make a real splash I’ll have to shell out on teak and mahogany fittings, carry a few jet skis and a mini-submarine, ferry my guests to the marina by private plane and helicopter, offer them bluefin tuna sushi and beluga caviar and drive the beast so fast that I mash up half the marine life of the Mediterranean. As the owner of one of these yachts I’ll do more damage to the biosphere in ten minutes than most Africans inflict in a lifetime. Now we’re burning, baby.
Someone I know who hangs out with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the lower Thames valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath temperature, all round the year. They like to lie in the pool on winter nights, looking up at the stars. The fuel costs them £3000 a month. One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the African peasantry. But at least the super wealthy have the good manners not to breed very much, so the rich old men who bang on about human reproduction leave them alone.
In May the Sunday Times carried an article headlined “Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation”. It revealed that “some of America’s leading billionaires have met secretly” to decide which good cause they should support. “A consensus emerged that they would back a strategy in which population growth would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat.”(9) The ultra-rich, in other words, have decided that it’s the very poor who are trashing the planet. You grope for a metaphor, but it’s impossible to satirise.
James Lovelock, like Sir David Attenborough and Jonathan Porritt, is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). It is one of dozens of campaigns and charities whose sole purpose is to discourage people from breeding in the name of saving the biosphere. But I haven’t been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to address the impacts of the very rich.
The obsessives could argue that the people breeding rapidly today might one day become richer. But as the super wealthy grab an ever greater share and resources begin to run dry, this, for most of the very poor, is a diminishing prospect. There are strong social reasons for helping people to manage their reproduction, but weak environmental reasons, except among wealthier populations.
The Optimum Population Trust glosses over the fact that the world is going through demographic transition: population growth rates are slowing down almost everywhere and the number of people is likely, according to a paper in Nature, to peak this century(10), probably at around 10 billion(11 (http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/sixbillion/sixbilpart1.pdf)). Most of the growth will take place among those who consume almost nothing.
But no one anticipates a consumption transition. People breed less as they become richer, but they don’t consume less; they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, in Lovelock’s words, “hiding from the truth”. It is the worst kind of paternalism, blaming the poor for the excesses of the rich.
So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against superyachts and private jets? Where’s Class War when you need it?
It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.
1. Optimum Population Trust, 26th August 2009 Gaia Scientist to be OPT Patron.
2. David Satterthwaite, September 2009. The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change. Environment & Urbanization, Vol 21(2): 545–567. DOI: 10.1177/0956247809344361.
3. http://www.foei.org/en/publications/pdfs-members/economic-justice/gasnigeria.pdf
4. For example, Satterthwaite cites the study by Gerald Leach and Robin Mearns, 1989. Beyond the Woodfuel Crisis – People, Land and Trees in Africa, Earthscan Publications, London.
5. http://www.ybw.com/auto/newsdesk/20090802125307syb.html
6. http://www.jameslist.com/advert/5480
7. http://machinedesign.com/article/118-wallypower-a-high-end-power-boat-0616
8. 15 US gallons/nm = 56.775l/nm = 31 l/km.
9. John Harlow, 24th May 2009. Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation. The Sunday Times.
10. Wolfgang Lutz, Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov, 20th January 2008. The coming acceleration of global population ageing. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature06516
11. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005. World Population Prospects. The 2004
Revision. http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/sixbillion/sixbilpart1.pdf