Overpopulation is not the problem - overconsumption by the rich few is

I often hear people saying that overpopulation is the main problem to our environmental and ecological problems. Some people even claim that it's responsible for global warming. I also agreed with this idea before. But after reading more about the subject over the years I have changed my mind.

The rich countries in the "North", i.e. the West, have a "rapidly decreasing" population which is "expected to decline over the next forty years." Developing countries such as India, China and most of Africa on the other hand is where we will see future population numbers increasing.

And yes. It seems so easy to blame countries with an overwhelming rising population for being responsible for wrecking our planet, climate and environment. Because surely more people must mean more pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Right?

Not really. The West is responsible for about 80% of the worlds CO2 increase. An average person living in Great Britain will in only 11 days emit as much CO2 as an average person in Bangladesh will during a whole year. And just a single power plant in West Yorkshire in Great Britain will produce more CO2 every year than all the 139 million people combined living in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.

As Fred Pearce from the Yale Environment 360 blog notes, only a small portion of the world's people are using most of the planets resources as well as producing the most of the greenhouse gases. And those are living in the West:

"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.

[...]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."

According to Pearce overpopulation in the developing countries is not the problem. Instead the increasing overconsumption among the planets 7% richest people and countries is to be blamed. And he is not alone in claiming this. George Monbiot, Europe's leading green commentator, also agrees with this viewpoint. As Monbiot notes in a recent published article on the Guardian:

"As one the graphs King displayed demonstrated, and as the UN and independent scientists predict, the world's population is expected to peak at around 9 billion by 2060 and then to decline to around 8.5 billion by 2100.

Of course the bisophere can ill-afford to carry these numbers, and they will load an extra 40 or 50% of pressure onto every environmental constraint. It's an issue, in other words. But the issue?

Until the recession struck, the global rate of economic growth was 3.8%. The world's governments hope and pray that we'll be back on this track as soon as possible. Population, of course, is one of the components of economic growth, but the global population growth rate is currently 1.2%.

It's responsible, in other words, for one-third of normal economic growth. The rest is supplied by rising consumption. Consumption, on this measure, bears twice as much responsibility for pressure on resources and ecosystems as population growth."

Let's take a look at the ecological footprint between developing countries and developed countries in the West. An ecological footprint is the estimate on how much land is required to provide you and me with food and other resources as well as cleaning up our pollution. The global average ecological footprint is 2.7 hectares per person.

Sweden, my own country, has an ecological footprint of 5.1 hectares. The UK is on 5.3. Australia has 7.8 and Canada has an average of 7.1 hectares. The United Arab Emirates and the United States of America are on the top spot with an ecological footprint of 9.5 and 9.4. Developing countries such as China only has an ecological footprint of 2.1 hectares while India is on 0.9. And most countries in Africa are around or below 1.0 hectares.

Pearce gives even more examples of unfair consumption between the rich and poor countries:

"Americans gobble up more than 120 kilograms of meat a year per person, compared to just 6 kilos in India, for instance."

"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."

"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."

Just like Monbiot and Pearce claims overpopulation is not the problem. Even if we were to get a zero population growth around the world it wouldn't help us against the climate crisis. Instead the overconsumption among the rich few in the world is the main problem which we must deal with.

Climate Progress writes: "To avoid catastrophic global warming impacts, the rich countries need to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% to 90% by mid-century. The developing countries (not including China) mostly must slow emissions growth, peak by mid-century, then decline - while ending the vast majority of deforestation by 2020. China must peak its emissions by 2020 and then reduce after that, first slowly, then quickly by mid-century."

Overpopulation is only seen as a major problem because it's the only thing we in the West can blame the developing countries for.


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Simon Leufstedt
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Guest Sharon

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Itss not an either/or question, it both - if there were only a billion people on the planet, we could each use as much water, energy, materials as we like! But since there are 6 billion people who are all entitled to meet their needs (and wants) then yes, we also need to address consumption/share.

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Guest benbai

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I completely agree!

Take a look at this quote:

"The gist of Stehfest's presentation was that an area the size of Russia and Canada combined could be freed from use as pasture or cropland used to grow animal feed, if people switched from current levels of meat consumption common in Europe and the United States to a diet based on plant-based protein."

http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/03/vegetar...

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Guest Santtu Luopajärvi

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Indeed, overt meat consumption is a serious problem. There isn't just the question of inefficiency in producing meat (one kilogram of beef requires about fifteen kilograms of food and water); there is the logistical infrastructure required to grow the fodder and transporting it to maintain as well.

Another absurdity is the current trend to own personal automobiles, sometimes two per family. Convenient and nice, true, but hardly something we can afford. It is also rather frustrating when people talk about the ecology of buying a new, fuel-efficient, low-emission car, and seem to forget the amount of resources consumed (and the energy and resources consumed to produce the said resources...) and pollution produced in building the car in the first place.

This party can't go on for long.

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Guest franksands

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Dear Santtu, Some of us have no other choice, but to own two cars and drive to work every single day. Hardly convenient and nice, but what are you going to do, when the public transport is not a choice, even though we live in the metropolitan area. If you don't need a car, it doesn't mean that they can't be absolutely necessary to other people. People like you totally ruin the green ideology, pretending to have nice solutions and making laconic comments, but having no clue whatsoever as to the realities of life.

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Guest Santtu Luopajärvi

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Dear Frank Sands,

I do realize that various circumstances prevent us from "doing the right thing" on more than one occasion.

This, however, does not change the reality that the current way of life prevalent in industrialized nations is not easily supported in the long term. Therefore people ought to realize that while they may not have a choice at the moment, they should endeavour to make that choice a possibility later, and work towards finding alternative solutions. This might be as simple as trying to vote those who seem to be on the side of better public transportation (this, of course, has the complication that some might use it to garner votes, but that's democracy for you).

There is little point in feeling guilty about having two cars, but some effort should be made to find alternatives. Perhaps getting rid of this "one house per family" mentality would be a good start.

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Guest max191

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Guest sandra Knight

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We witness the immense struggle of wildlife to survive in an increasingly hostile, modern world, invaded and destroyed by the human species

The Human race is guilty of conservational, ecological and environmental crimes. What we are doing to all other species is murder! It is ecocide!

In less than 100 years of so called civilisation using technology, we have managed to destroy what took more than 3 billion years to evolve. Entire species are being wiped out. We kill everything we touch,have run out of space, land, soil, air, water and landfill sites. The only thing we haven't run out of, unfortunately, is people. 7 billion and rising fast !

The main culprit of this ecological disaster is religion, Christianity being the worst, as it keeps the prolific uteruses busy, spitting children out at a fast rate. And when they can't procreate naturally, in-vitro fertilisation is there, readily available, speeding up the breeding process, revving it up to turbo breeding.

http://helpingthem.co.uk/index.php/topic,114.0....

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Guest James Moore

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Overpopulation is logically the main cause of climate change, species extinctions, poverty, psychologically damaged children, unhappy lifestyles and even many wars (through land ownership and pop expansion) etc. Past tense, we are in the middle of the symptoms right now. To reduce the pop is the main solution. All the other measures mentioned such as carbon trading and technology-based solution will be negligible in effect and will be negated totally by the rising population of the entire Earth as a whole. Only the blind, know-it-alls and wiseacres fail to see this truth. Without a reduction in population by natural and voluntary means the Earth will impose it upon us itself with catastrophic global and frequent natural disasters the likes of which we have never seen. The Indonesian tsunami in 2004 was just an appetizer.

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Guest James Moore

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Overpopulation is logically the main cause of climate change, species extinctions, poverty, psychologically damaged children, unhappy lifestyles and even many wars (through land ownership and pop expansion) etc. Past tense, we are in the middle of the symptoms right now. To reduce the pop is the main solution. All the other measures mentioned such as carbon trading and technology-based solution will be negligible in effect and will be negated totally by the rising population of the entire Earth as a whole. Only the blind, know-it-alls and wiseacres fail to see this truth. Without a reduction in population by natural and voluntary means the Earth will impose it upon us itself with catastrophic global and frequent natural disasters the likes of which we have never seen. The Indonesian tsunami in 2004 was just an appetizer.

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Yeah, I guess that's why there are so many endangered species on the way out, because encroachment of habitat by humans is not a problem.

This is a shallow analysis of a complex problem. There's far more to overpopulation than mere consumption, and consumption is not static in the first place. Over time every one will want to consume more. Someone in Bangladesh may have a footprint of only 0.9 hectares, but how many people want to live like that? How many Bangladeshis even want to live like that? Many of them are immigrating to Western countries so they don't have to live like that.

I'm not saying we in the West shouldn't strive to live less profligately. For myself, I consume far less meat than most Americans, and live rather austerely by comparison, though I'm sure my footprint is still much larger than most people not in the West.

Still, overpopulation depends on many factors. It doesn't matter at all if a woman with ten children has a smaller footprint than a single American if she has no way to get enough water for her family, for example. It also depends on whether you value large animals like tigers, elephants, rhinos, leopards, etc. It's important to point out the consumption of the West, but simplistic and unrealistic arguments are not the way to do it.

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Guest UncleB

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The nuclear fission feast about to break loose in the West will change the numbers dramatically! Even China now has nuclear sourced electricity plants and electric bullet train networks! Cutting down Western oil consumption, allowing Western populations to shrink, returning some Western lands to rural uses, even tapping the excess heat from nuclear plants to operate greenhouses, heat homes grow gardens, as Sweden has done will help balance the equation. Much that once required heavy labor in the West is now performed by machine, large high caloric high fat diets for laborers is not called for! Expect a lighter faster smarter breed to overtake the Great Hulking American Neanderthals of the "Smoke Stack" era, Cars are made in Asian factories, mostly by 89 pound computer assisted women, no longer American made with bruit force of a 6 ' 5" 280 pound man, so as he dies away, so does the market for his food - the American diet. With electromechanical assistance and computer driven machines much more is accomplished by very much weaker smaller, rice and veggies diet beings, a break for the farmers for a starter, and the environment certainly suffers less! Science has provided even the bio-gassing of humanure, and in Oslo, Norway city buses are run on these gases, same story all over Sweden and into parts of England. The anomaly in the picture, the Great Hulking American Neanderthal, the product of corporatists and capitalists selecting the largest strongest, humans they could find, and force feeding them, breeding them, to giant size, for the rapid exploitation of the easy resources of America is over now, and they stand, huge frames, great biceps hanging at their sides in the soup-lines, unemployable in a modernized America they built with their own hands, ready for the American Medical Cartel's "Insurance Corporations" to cut them from even decent medical care, a penalty for their unemployability and a certain death sentence - such is life for the capitalist. Even Gobbles or Himmler would marvel at this, I am certain! None the less, rapid changes are occurring in the U.S. and the Western World that will rescue the environment. Proof positive that this is actually underway, you ask? Check out the ruins depicted in these sites for photo-proof positve of the change America undergoes as we speak!

http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/2Nrlnk/exiledonli...

http://www.100abandonedhouses.com/

http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/index.html

http://www.jamesgriffioen.net/index.php?/prairi...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8YdmLkDmjU

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hhJ_49leBw&NR=1...

Caution! This documentation is not complete! The "Rust Belt" outlines even more damage, and some large cities have given up on restoring and are speaking of turning space once occupied by city dwelling Great Hulking

American Neanderthals into farmland! Cleveland, Ohio, parts of New York, Even sections of Boston! Nothing is sacred! The text books that describe Detroit City as grand have outlasted the place they were written about! In a very few decades all will be rubble and slum. Even the more recent flurry of McMansions are foreclosed and stripped of all value by the night-scavengers in exchange for food! Beware! do not believe the popular propaganda about the U.S.A. - it is just that! Propaganda! Americans cannot afford the oil they burn now, and are falling deeply in debt just maintaining a weak scaffolding of their Status Quo. Expect a total breakdown in the decades to come. Expect relief for the Global Warming situation and expect a burgeoning Asia to assume in large part, the 80% of world resources America now commands. Decades, not longer!

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Hi there, I was wondering could you please tell me the source of this quote? […]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.†Many thanks, Lena

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Guest Simon Leufstedt

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That quote comes from this Yale Environment 360 blog post: http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2140

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Guest Kasia Yechimowicz

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China produces more CO2 than the USA and by 2020 will produce half the worlds CO2.  While I agree that the Western Democratic nations MUST lead the developing world (it cannot lead itself because of inherent corporate and government corruption and embarassingly low levels of education) we cannot simply blame ourselves and forgive the developing nations of any responsibility.   Overpopulation makes Climate Change, and environmental problems as a result of agriculture, and scarce resources even more difficult.  We have nearly reached Peak Oil BECAUSE of overpopulation.  Until world incomes increase to a level that is considered enviable by Western Democracies we cannot afford to pay for food grown in sustainable ways, such as in greenhouses, or to obtain resources from space that are too expensive or dangerous to extract on Earth.  We need to halt climate change, halt population growth, eliminate capitalism and replace it with an economics that respects biology and democracy and permits a sustainable existence for humans and other animals on the planet.

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Guest Kasia Yechimowicz

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 Humans cannot exist on a plant based diet entirely.  Observe two relate species: the gorilla and the chimpanzee.  The gorilla is entirely herbivore and as a result requires an enormous gut (like cows, deer, moose, elk, cariboo, wildebeest, bison) to process plant matter.  The chimpanzee, like us, is omnivorous and lacks this enormous gut.  Humans require some meat content in their diet because of the sheer energy content contained within it.  Your brain consumes 1/4 of all the calories you consume and like it or not meat is an important part of a balanced diet.  Humans should eat what is called the Paleolithic diet, essentially leafy greens, nuts, berries, and meat as a suppliment (not a main course).  This is what we have eaten for the last 2 million years, it's what we evolved to eat, and we cannot alter this in a few decades.

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Guest Kasia Yechimowicz

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Fish: 1:1.7 and Chicken 1:1.9 efficiency in terms of calories out vs calories in.  Both require low energy inputs. As for cars there should be a restriction on the number of vehicles per house hold, and rations on the quantity of fuel available.  The latter would end the use of Minivans, SUVs and Pickup trucks, and push the use of fuel efficient vehicles rather than Mercedes, BMW and other offensive road vehicles.  Lastly, oil should be used to produce electricity for road vehicles since the internal combustion engine is only 20% efficient yet an oil fired power plant is 40% efficient.

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Guest Kasia Yechimowicz

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 Elect government representatives who will expand public transit and make it free for public use.  Light rail is also an excellent option in addition to electric buses.  One of my favourites is car sharing schemes where you simply pick up a car, drive to where you are going and someone else picks it up to go somewhere else.  Later after work or whatever you simply pick up another car and go wherever you are going.  Computers have made the logistics of this scheme a piece of cake.

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Guest Kasia Yechimowicz

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 This is extremely dated as China will account for half by 2020.  The developing world is the source of most of the methane in fact.

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