An unholy matrimony

[The follow-up to this essay is found here.]

The chicken knows
“Overpopulation is a serious problem getting worse every year.”

“Overpopulation is a myth.”

“There is no population problem.”

“There’s overconsumption, … but not overpopulation.”

“[The problem is] overpopulation in the South and overconsumption in the North.”

That’s just a sampling of the kinds of conflicting statements about population growth you can find on the Web and elsewhere. Is it any wonder the topic confuses people? Readers here should have little doubt which of the first three views I share. I would suggest, as well, that statements dismissing the population issue are often disingenuous and politically motivated.

Good question

But what about about the population versus consumption question? This issue is important, and comes up frequently. It was, in fact, the focus of a couple of Al Bartlett’s comments which I left out of my previous examination of his critique of the Scientific American issue on global warming. Specifically, he’s critical of ambiguity in Jeffrey Sachs’s handling of the population-consumption question. I’m less critical of Sachs’s handling of the issue, but Bartlett does have a point. It’s a topic which calls for clear communication. He also provides the solution to avoiding ambiguity on the issue. It is to keep in mind a simple equation: “The world’s rate of consumption of fossil fuels is the product of the population size and the average per capita annual consumption.” The formula was first published by John Holdren (1991) in his paper, “Population and the Energy Problem.” We can express it as:

E = P x e

Where: E = total energy use, P = population size, and e = energy use per capita.

Thought clarifier

Keeping this simple relationship in mind we can begin to think clearly about population growth and consumption. First, we see that our total consumption is tightly linked to population size. The two cannot be separated. Therefore the statement, “The problem is overconsumption, not overpopulation,” is erroneous. It’s both. In theory, the “problem” could be ameliorated, at least temporarily, by sufficiently reducing either population or consumption. But if the other quantity continues to grow, there remains a risk of the problem returning. Growth in either consumption rates or population is unsustainable.

In his commentary, Sachs gets at one side of this in his emphasis on the importance of rising consumption levels:

Even if the world’s population were to stabilize at today’s level of 6.5 billion people, the pressures of rising per capita resource use would continue to mount, as today’s poor and middle-income societies increase their resource use to live like the rich countries, while today’s rich countries continue their seemingly insatiable quest for still greater consumption levels.

What he leaves out is the other side of the equation. If per capita consumption rates were to stabilize at today’s levels, we would still be facing increasing total resource consumption as world population continues to grow substantially. [1]

What about that North-South thing?

What can we say, given this equation, about the population-consumption relationship in the North versus the South? First, as a result of the foregoing analysis, we must again acknowledge the error in one of the statements at the start of this post. The problem is not overconsumption in the North and overpopulation in the South. In both places, it’s the product of the two. And in both areas each factor is large enough to be of great significance.

But what are the implications of the differing ratios of per capita consumption to population in the two areas? Perhaps the easiest way to look at it is to notice that, under real-world conditions, if either “P” or “e” is high any increase in the other is problematic. In the South, a rough approximation is that populations are large and growing fast. Per capita consumption is currently relatively low, but is increasing and is expected to continue to do so in the coming years. Combine that with continued population growth and serious problems loom. Already, China’s population, for example, is so large that despite it’s low per capita consumption rates, it has the world’s highest total consumption of some resources. Over the coming decades, advances in clean technologies should prove essential to achieving sustainability in developing countries. But we must simultaneously attend to population growth lest the benefits of those technologies be overwhelmed simply by increasing human numbers. We must address both sides of the equation.

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, 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. For instance, with regard to oil consumption, adding one person here is currently analogous to adding about 15 in China. The problem is similar for other developed countries, though less pronounced than in the case of the U.S.

Here too, cleaner technologies will be an essential part of the solution. Moreover, the specter of climate change has brought about a new level of public awareness of the role of per capita energy use. We can hope this will slow rising energy consumption levels, at least somewhat. Clearly, though, it is imperative that we address our population growth as well if we are to have any hope of achieving ecological sustainability in the future.

The nub

The main lesson from the equation above is that we must attend both to consumption levels and population growth. To ignore either is to adopt a failing strategy. It is indisputable that neither per capita consumption growth nor population growth is sustainable.

I’ve barely touched here on the population-consumption issue. The astute reader may note that, given the facts I’ve presented, we might ignore population and still hypothetically escape catastrophe if we could develop and adopt sufficiently clean technologies worldwide over the next few decades. (In reality that is more than a tall order.) It appears, though, it’s not that simple. In this essay I’ve left out a number of important considerations which add additional weight to the importance of addressing population growth. Similarly, I’ve not addressed the observation that over the last century global energy consumption has increased more than population numbers. There again, the implications are not as clear cut as they might seem and, when examined closely, do not allow us to relax our concern about population growth. Look for those issues in an upcoming post.

[Please go here for the follow-up to this essay, which contains discussion of the second issue mentioned in the paragraph above.]

[1] Notice that since the bulk of world population growth in this century is expected to come from developing countries where per capita consumption is currently relatively low, the effect in this scenario, specifically on energy consumption, would be less than if population growth were evenly distributed around the world. In reality, as Sachs notes, those countries are expected to continue a strong trend of increasing their per capita consumption rates, thus compounding the effect of population growth.
Offline references: Holdren, J. (1991). Population and the Energy Problem. Population and Environment, 12 (3), 231-255.
Image source: loveitmadly, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 license

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


19 responses to “An unholy matrimony

  1. What a great idea to use a simple equation (E = p * e) to demonstrate the problem of population growth and consumerism. I’m thinking about ways to show where the upper bound of E might lie. Pimentel does that with respect to the US in one paper by accounting for land for food, land for solar energy production, per capita energy use for a high living standard, and then solving for population — giving a result of 40 to 100 million for the USA.

    Of course, some immediately bring up fussion energy as the sustainable panacea. It’s remarkable what ideas people have about a technology that has not been demonstrated and of which they know next to nothing.

    Speaking about people who know next to nothing or, perhaps more accurately, know a lot of things but fail to make rational sense of them…

    One of your leading quotes (“There is no population problem”) is from Sheldon Richman then at the Cato Institute. Were there a hell, the libertarnians would have a special corner of it. If we manage to create a truly civilized society in the future, people will look back at libertarianism and shake their heads in wonder that such a foolish concept once got so much attention.

  2. I think Pimentel’s done some good work. I hope to take a closer look at his stuff soon.

    Yeah you’re right about fusion. It was also one of the things Julian Simon mentioned in one article when he basically said, ‘We have right now all the technology we need to colonize space. So we can go on growing the population for billions of years.’ So he seemed to advocate (a) trashing this planet, because there are always others, and (b) heading to those other planets right now. Guess I missed the memo about having that level of technology all set to go. :-/

    You know, I used to see some merit to libertarian ideas. Freedom, simple theory, etc. But in the last couple of years I’ve seen how the prominent libertarian groups are completely willing to lie about environmental issues to promote their stance against government regulation. (e.g., the link to Cato in the post above, as well as their climate change denial.) So I hear you.

    I will say, though, that, oddly enough, there seem to be some with libertarian leanings who sympathize with some of the views I push here. I have a friend back in the Midwest (where we were for a couple of years) who used to comment supportively on my old blog fighting sprawl and development. There was also a libertarian (leaning toward anarchist) who linked to that blog from his. I was a bit surprised because, though I didn’t say a lot about possible government interventions I’d think there would be an assumption that that’s what I had in mind. (In truth, my focus was just on exposing developer propaganda, leaving alternatives mostly to others.) So I think there may be some who embrace only some of the libertarian ideas, perhaps avoiding the more destructive ones. I’m not sure. But I sure haven’t liked any of the official libertarian environmental stances I’ve seen.

  3. As with any group even the liberatians, although strangely fixated on the idea of small government as a panacea for all the world’s ills, have their more rational members willing and able to see a bigger picture. So I hear you too, John.

    Of course we need intellectual freedom to pursue ideas about how to address growth and consumerism. The hard part is how to create some sort of social contract to address those problems — that is, if we can acknowledge them as being problems. I submit there is no government today, of any type, that can either acknowledge the nature of the problem you highlight in this post or begin to address it in a rational way. My hope is that we can create one.

  4. “I submit there is no government today, of any type, that can either acknowledge the nature of the problem you highlight in this post or begin to address it in a rational way. My hope is that we can create one.”

    That’s the rub alright. I *think* I’m seeing more talk about population and the destructive aspects of standard economic policies. Rick Shea mentioned that too in a comment here. I’m not positive though, because maybe I’m just sensitized to the issues so I notice when someone mentions them. But if enough people start talking about them, I hope that will eventually push toward the acknowledgment you mention. (And I hope “eventually” isn’t far off, but it’s a tall order, I know.) Then, to address it, well, clearly it’s not going to be addressed nearly as soon as it should be (yesterday), but even later is better than nothing. I just really hope we don’t lose so much biodiversity before then that this earth becomes only some sort of shadow of what it was.

  5. What if it turned out that the biggest consumers were also the biggest producers. Imagine that the best baseball playerwas also the highest player on the team. Should we cut his salary?

    Just wondering.

  6. highest paid player on the team

  7. Ross,

    I’m not positive I’m understanding your question. Are you talking about individuals or industries and such. i.e., are you asking, what if some vital industries are among the biggest consumers?

    I think you may be getting at the idea that good things may come at a cost. And while that’s true, we need of course to look at when that cost is starting to outweigh the benefits. Internal combustion cars were great when there were only a few of them (small population…), but today their contributions to climate change and other problems is making their benefits something less than great, I’d say. So whether through technological solutions (about which I think many may be a bit overly optimistic) or societal changes, we need to reduce those costs.

  8. As self-interests go, the reality is we will only settle for stabilizing population and consumption, never to reduce. That is the paradigm of our times.

    But it is necessary to do both in order to reduce per capita consumption. I am all for it. I doubt I will see this attitude change in my lifetime. May be in my 1.26 children.

    I also agree with your assessment of optimistic belief in technology that will save us. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To use this much energy simply means we need to produce the same amount. No magic here.

  9. “I doubt I will see this attitude change in my lifetime.”

    You may, unfortunately, be right. I figure, though, that *any* bit of progress or nudging toward that attitude change now (e.g., getting more people talking…) may lead to actual change sooner, even if “sooner” is in 50 years rather than 70. That difference may turn out to really matter for upcoming generations, I think.

    “I also agree with your assessment of optimistic belief in technology that will save us. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. To use this much energy simply means we need to produce the same amount. No magic here.”

    Yeah, I think that’s right. I recall Al Bartlett referring to Eric Sevareid’s Law: “The cheif cause of problems is solutions.” Sorta funny, but true too.

  10. Re: “The cheif cause of problems is solutions.”

    – —


    Now: if people in general are actually starting to come to terms with the idea that the human population’s overconsumption of fossil fuels is the real problem we are facing today; ie. when it comes to global warming / manmade climate change, and are able to grasp the fact that the fossil fuels in question, are, predominantly, coal, oil, and natural gas …

    The answer to the question that all of us will be quite able to give, is: “We should quit making use of all that oil, coal and gas, okay?”

    But that’s much easier said than done, now isn’t it? 😉

  11. The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

    The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

    Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

    Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
    Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
    Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
    Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist.

    Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

    If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

    Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

    When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

    There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

    People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

    Emotion ends.

    Man becomes machine.

    A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

    A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

    A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.





    To read the complete article please follow either of these links :




  12. Sushil,

    Interesting stuff. I certainly agree with a lot of it. Are you familiar with the “slow food” movement and the “work less” party?

  13. Pingback: love your baby, have only two « Trinifar

  14. Pingback: Population and consumption: both major players « Growth is Madness!

  15. Pingback: Admit it Betsy, we agree: Part 1 « Growth is Madness!

  16. Magne Karlsen

    “Long at last!” – I thought to myself, as I was reading an article in Norway’s biggest (but exceptionally tabloid) newspaper VG, on the subject of overpopulation. I’ve been anxiously waiting for a mainstream media mention of the problem for years now.

    The Norwegian newspaper article was totally not interesting. It simply made the case: “Hey, we should also be thinking about the topic of overpopulation, really.”

    But there’s better news as well. The Observer (from the UK) has put a knowledgeable person on the job. She’s got the intelligence to lay down the facts of the matter, and also the courage to look at the cause for the silence on the matter.,,2036598,00.html

    Quote: “The biggest obstacle to debate is the matter of possible solutions. Propositions such as ignoring disease or limiting life-saving medical treatment can be ruled out as unacceptable, and birth control is objectionable to many on moral, religious and libertarian grounds. It is not surprising that green groups and politicians, worried about offending supporters, stay silent.”

    Quote: “It is understandable then that people are worried about discussing population, but fear of misrepresentation, offence or failure are not good enough reasons to ignore one half of the world’s biggest problem: the population effect on climate change.”

  17. Magne,

    Very interesting stuff. I’m going to try that Guardian article later tonight as this connection is just too slow right now. (Out of town on a dial-up connection.) But thanks, that could be a significant development.

  18. I did read the story. It really is ground-breaking in a way. I think it’s the first mainstream story I’ve seen discuss, at all, the reasons why the population issue has become a taboo topic, and to state that it’s absurd that there’s no public debate over it.

    My only quibble was that she sort of framed it only as ‘half the climate change problem,’ when in fact it’s much more than that. (not that that’s not a lot itself) There was only fleeting mention of how it’s an environmental problem beyond climate change. On the other hand, it may make strategic sense to link it strongly to climate change rirht now, as that’s something people are paying some attention to.

    I wanted to post a comment on it, but I didn’t see a way to do it. I think comments on it may be closed. Given the title, “No one is willing to address the accelerating growth in the world’s population,” I wanted to say, “We’re willing. We’re talking about it every day!”

  19. Pingback: Let’s reduce consumption « Tony Isn’t a Credible Source