The consumption bomb

Posted: 7 September 2000

Author: Paul Harrison

Author Info: Paul Harrison, a Contributing Editor of People & the Planet, is author of The Third Revolution, Penguin Books, 1993.

Thirty years ago, Paul Ehrlich awoke the world to the coming population bomb. Now, says Paul Harrison, the closely relation consumption bomb may become an even greater threat.

It is just over three decades since we passed the peak world population growth rate of 2.04 per cent. Annual additions too are now a decade past their peak of 86 million a year. They are currently running at 77 million a year and are heading downwards.

A peak in total numbers, however, still lies at least four or five decades ahead. According to the UN Population Division's revised, year 2000, projections, the total is likely to reach 9.3 billion in 2050. The long range medium projection, which has not been updated since 1996, expects world population to level out at just under 11 billion in 2200 AD.

However, this is based on assumptions that are increasingly questionable. More and more countries are reaching levels of female fertility that are not enough for replacement below 2.1 children over the lifetime of each woman. At the latest count there are 61 countries in this category. Of these 23 had very low fertility, below 1.5.

This situation is unprecedented in times of global peace and economic growth. The UN medium projection assumes that where fertility is very low it will rise again to 1.7-1.9 children per woman. In all countries where fertility is currently above replacement level of 2.1, it assumes that it will not fall below that level.

Yet fertility has fallen below replacement level in so many countries, with such different cultures and different stages of economic growth, that it is increasingly looking as if low fertility may be here to stay.

If this became the case, then world population may peak at somewhere between 8 and 9 billion. Thereafter it may well begin to decline. The 1996 long range low projection has world population falling to 5.6 billions in 2100 AD.

None of this means that reproductive rights should have lower priority in future. Their contribution to the health and welfare of women and children are clear. Many poor countries in Africa and South Asia face huge population increases which will be hard to accommodate without major problems of land and water scarcity. In these areas reproductive rights and women's education must receive a very high priority.

Increasingly our concern must focus on consumption, and how we can cope with the effects of its inexorable increase.

Over the past 25 years, world population increased by 53 per cent, but world consumption per person (measured by income) by only 39 per cent. Assume that consumption continues to grow at 1.4 per cent the average between 1965 and 1997.pollutionPollution from steelworks, Jamshedpure, India© F.N. Petit/Panos PicturesThen over the next 50 years world consumption per person will rise by 100 per cent, while population will rise by only half that amount. As time goes on the preponderance of consumption will increase more and more.

There is a crucial difference between population and consumption aspirations. If fully assured of children's survival, most people have quite modest desires for family size. But their desire to consume knows no upper bounds. As wealth increases, people double-up their possessions: two or three cars, two bathrooms, two homes with all contents, two or three holidays a year.

Appliances improve every year and old ones "need" replacing. New needs are created that never existed before. Globalisation is making products cheaper than ever. TVs are no longer uncommon even in African shanty towns.

The number of households is increasing as people live longer and family breakdown becomes more common. Smaller households consume considerably more per person than large.

Moreover, consumption is politically very difficult to restrain. No-one can get elected promising people they can earn and spend less, or re-elected if they fulfil their promises.

In view of this much of the burden of reducing our environmental impact will rest on technology. Technology will have to deliver major shifts in improving resource productivity, and in reducing the amount of waste we create. All our institutions and forms of management which affect technology will need to be geared to this end.

In some areas the record has been good and looks likely to remain so. Productivity has kept up with demand in the case of resources that are traded on markets, and that are under the direct control of people or companies affected by shortages or prices. Global food production has kept pace with demand: although land and cereal production per person has declined, average intakes of calories and protein have continued to improve and are at record levels. Malnutrition persists, but this is due to poverty and landlessness, not to the inability of the world to produce enough food.

We have not encountered any limiting shortage of any key mineral resources or of energy. Nor are we likely to, because we continually economise and find substitutes. There has been a gradual reduction in the material used for each unit of production.

The prospects are much worse for resources that are not traded on markets or subject to sustainable management, as yet. These include groundwater, state forests, ocean fish, biodiversity in general. They include communal waste sinks like rivers, lakes and oceans, and the global atmosphere. In all of these areas it looks likely that things will get quite a lot worse before they get better.

These kinds of resources and sinks are not under the direct control of people affected by shortage or damage. People wishing to change the way a common resource or sink is used or managed have to pass through the legal or political system. They must organise, take out lawsuits against polluters, pressurise legislators and so on.

Political responses are typically slow. Usually the majority of voters have to be convinced of the need for action before politicians will risk taking action. Even then powerful and rich vested interests will lobby hard for the status quo, and will often succeed in frustrating changes that are desired by a global majority. America's coal, oil, and car lobbies have stood in the way of any significant US commitment to reduce carbon dioxide output, and the US is the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

Usually there has to be very widespread and very visible environmental damage before action is taken. The thinning of the ozone layer fitted that category well and the response was swift. North Atlantic fishing reached that point in the 1990s, yet politicians shied away from taking adequate action until the last moment: fishing stocks plummeted and there was massive job loss. Global warming is still long way from the damage being widespread enough, and attributable clearly enough to human activities, for politicians to be ready to speed up the move into renewable energy.

The question with the common resources and sinks is always: will we react in time? The answer is all the more difficult because we usually don¹t know in advance what is "in time." Many critical changes are subject to threshold effects. When a certain point is crossed, very sudden and disastrous change can occur with little warning. In many cases we do not know where the thresholds lie.

Prudence dictates a preventive approach: a stitch in time saves nine. But the history of environmental problems shows that politicians rarely act decisively until the brink is reached, and it will always be touch and go whether we are pushed over it or not.