Population, consumption and poverty

Posted: 26 January 2008

The impact on the environment of growing human numbers is complicated by the levels of consumption involved. Many commentators (such as Norman Myers and David Pimentel) believe that the earth's carrying capacity is already being exceeded by the planet's 6.6 billion people and their lifestyles.

In particular, they point to the excessive and wasteful levels of consumption in the more developed countries which, if repeated in the populous developing countries, would lead to even more intolerable pressures on the land, water and atmosphere.

Consumption cartogram
Consumption cartogram
Countries have been stretched to indicate their effective consumption based on Global Footprint Network 2006 and corresponding 2003 CIA World Factbook data. © Jerrad Pierce. Click for full-size image
According to Myers, since the middle of the 20th century "humankind has consumed more natural resources (and caused more pollution and waste) than in all previous human history."

While the global economy has grown five times, consumption of grain, beef and water has tripled, the use of paper has grown six-fold and carbon emissions have grown fourfold. Continued into the future, such trends are clearly unsustainable.

China's consumption of key metals and minerals is expected to increase significantly over the coming decades to meet the demands of both its own population and that of the wider world. Rio Tinto, one of the world's largest mining companies, claims that China's rapidly industrializing economy will consume more than half the world's key resources within one decade.

The country already accounts for 47 per cent of all iron ore consumption, 32 per cent of aluminium, and one-quarter of all copper. Within a few years, Rio Tinto is projecting that China will consume 58 per cent of all iron ore, 45 per cent of aluminium and one third of all copper. (Source: London Times, "China's Growth could Spark Political Tensions, Jan. 28, 2008)

Global warmingThe burning of fossil fuels already threatens devastating levels of global warming. Today, each citizen of the United States emits over 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide, compared to 2.7 tonnes in China and a global average of 3.9 tonnes. But fossil fuels are expected to meet 95 per cent of additional energy needs between 1995 and 2020, with increasing amounts coming from countries such as India and China. Unless there are major changes in policy, CO2 emissions could rise by 70 per cent in that time.

Similar challenges relate to issues such as transport, agriculture, fishing and pollution. Here are a few examples of the problems that lie ahead:

  • Cars. The richest one-fifth of the global population owns 87 per cent of the world's vehicles, which together make up over 15 per cent of CO2 emissions. What would be the environmental consequences of a 13-fold increase in car ownership by 2025 which would occur if the world were to match America's present car ownership?

  • Food. So far food output has kept up with population growth, but experts are divided on the prospects for the future, since the world's grainlands have shrunk by some 6 per cent since 1981 and there has been only a marginal growth in irrigated land since 1990. At the same time both population and growing affluence are increasing demand.

  • Water. There are 500 million water-short people today, a number that is expected to grow to 3,000 million by 2025. At the same time, humans are using 40 per cent of all plants' net annual growth on land - leaving only 60 per cent for all other species. What will happen as population adds four or five extra billions, and people demand more from plants?

  • Fish. Like a man who lives on his capital, rather than his income, the world's fishermen have harvested more than nature can replenish of the world's fish stocks. The once abundant North Atlantic cod may be commercially extinct. Canada has closed its cod fishery. West Atlantic blue fin tuna are down to only 10 per cent of their former bounty. The demand of growing human numbers is only part of the reason for overfishing, destructive fishing methods and pollution and coastal degradation - the other part is greed.
Much thought has gone into how the world can move away from the brink of a consumption-borne disaster. This is not necessarily by consuming less, but by developing goods and services that are less harmful, by moving from wasteful forms of consumption to useful ones, and by finding new 'green' incentives in the place of damaging subsidies.

Price of poverty Equally important will be the need to eliminate the growing gap between rich and poor. A recent UNFPA/UNEP/IUCN study looked at regions which are especially vulnerable to the combined impacts of population growth, poverty and a fragile environment.

It concludes that countries such as Ethiopia, Madagascar and Haiti are typical examples of societies which are highly stressed as a result. On the population front they called for a package of measures in such countries which would reduce infant, child and maternal mortality, educate girls in particular, provide informal education for adolescents, improve agricultural extension work, secure land tenure, provide credit and empower women.

Related links

For more on consumption, read the Worldwatch State of the World 2004 report and visit their special site on-line portal on consumption.

See also: NOVA interactive: Earth in Peril

Sources:Towards sustainable consumption, A European Perspective. Edited by Brian Heap and Jenny Kent. The Royal Society, London, UK, 2000.
Report of the International Workshop on Population-Poverty-Environment Linkages. 23-28 September 1998. UNFPA, UNEP, IUCN.Vital Signs 2007-2008, Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC, 2008