Overpopulation, Over-Consumption & Environment
Overpopulation, Consumption and the Environment: We Must Act Now!
Is the planet doomed? The short answer is no, we’re not doomed, since the verb implies inevitability. Population is not growing everywhere, and the areas where growth rates are near zero or even negative (such as the United States and Western Europe) provide clues to addressing the problem in other regions. The longer answer to the doom question is that growing population is a problem that left unsolved could indeed have very harmful effects, both on the environment and our current life styles.
Just a normal day in India
However, controlling population growth rates is a relatively simple task compared to the even more critical problem of curbing seemingly insatiable desires for consumption. It is the quest for an ever-increasing standard of living that really holds our potential doom.
At this point in the debate, the doom scenario is very familiar. Pessimists have despaired at humankind’s inevitable collapse, brought on by exploding population, growing geometrically, that overwhelms a finite planet whose natural resources are fixed and whose food supply only grows arithmetically.
What role play our markets in that?
If markets are working properly (which is a separate problem), the price of a resource will rise as that resource becomes scarcer. Rising prices encourage people to switch their consumption patterns away from the scarce resource towards a cheaper substitute resource. Price increases also stimulate research that may produce technologies that can allow people to do more with the same amount of resources. Although there is not always a “tech-fix,” sometimes there is. More importantly, rising prices can make existing technologies relatively cheap enough to be viable. For instance, a rise in the price of oil may make hybrid cars relatively cheaper, allowing them to become more widespread.
Is growing population growth inevitable?
The other failing of these pessimistic models is in their conclusion that continuing population growth is inevitable. A phenomenon called the demographic transition has been observed to occur as nations develop and standards of living rise. Before a nation develops, birth and death rates are generally steady, with the birthrate slightly higher and a low rate of population growth. As development begins, death rates fall sharply (because of increased health care) but birthrates remain steady, causing increasing population growth rates. During the demographic transition, further development and rising standards of living accompany a declining birthrate, leading population growth rates to level off or even become negative (as in Spain).
Economists have developed a model called the micro-economic theory of fertility to explain how development causes declining population growth. In this view, children are seen as consumer durables and parents make decisions about how many children to have by considering the costs and benefits of children. Development increases the costs of having children. At the same time, development often decreases the benefits provided by children.
Thus by identifying reasons parents choose to have more children, the micro-economic theory of fertility can suggest specific actions to be taken to shift the cost and benefit of children curves and thus speed up the demographic transition. Granted, this theory assumes that human decisions to have children are made rationally and that parents have the ability to control family size, which may not always be the case. But even if one does not accept the micro economic theory of fertility as a causal explanation, the historical correlation between falling birthrates and population growth rates and development suggests that development will cause declining population growth rates in the developing world.
Resourcefulness is the key
In regards to resource scarcity, substitution and technological change can only increase the world’s carrying capacity to a certain extent. At some point, limits must set in since human desire appears to be infinite. Also, development happens faster than resources become scarce. Given the current gap between rich and poor countries in the world, this may not be the case.
These problems probably can be solved by human resourcefulness but given current resistance to addressing them, any report that denies there is a problem can be used politically to justify inaction.
Thus it appears that while the limits on the world’s resources are not fixed at any one level, they are almost certainly finite and not infinite. This suggests that ever-increasing consumption is not possible. The demographic transition and micro economic theory of fertility, as well as the western world’s example that they are based on, show that population growth ceases to be a problem when living standards reach a certain level. This suggests that the best way to moderate population growth (and probably the only way, short of draconian control measures) is equitable development and standard of living increases. However, stopping rampant population growth does not guarantee that our doom is averted. As the example of the United States and Western Europe also illustrates, escalating consumption levels can happen even in the absence of population growth.
Increasing consumption desires are a subtler, more serious, and more difficult to solve problem than population growth. Moderating consumption levels requires moderating human desires and human nature, as well as going against a capitalist cultural system that is based on the assumption that economic growth can increase forever. Some would argue then that although our doom is not inevitable from a material or physical standpoint, we are doomed by our culture and our nature. I believe that kind of fatalism underestimates the human potential for self-restraint, as well as dooming us by a lack of action. However, changing human and societal values is a slow, incremental, and inexact science. It requires millions of individuals not only deciding that acting a certain way (moderating consumption in this case) is right, but also deciding to share that standard with others and even hold others to it.
Moderating human desires and a morality revolution
Basically, a global movement towards sustainability requires no less than a morality revolution that rejects excessive consumption and goals of permanent economic growth. History tells us this is possible, since the reverse shift happened in the early modern period in Europe when capitalism developed originally. However, historians have not yet figured out why that shift occurred. One major hypothesis relates it to the rise of Protestantism. Whether this theory turns out to be correct or not, it suggests the potentially large role to be played by religion. In fact, this is a role religion is beginning to play, through movements like “What Would Jesus Drive?” There is also a large role to be played by re-designing education curricula to teach the next generation to value sustainable living.
In conclusion, therefore, our doom is not inevitable, certainly not because of dangerous levels of resource scarcity nor burgeoning population growth. The greatest danger lies in escalating consumption desires. The possibility of moderating these desires exists, but the process is far from easy or obvious.