On current trends, the world’s population is likely to peak within the next 40 years, and then start dropping. But the picture for consumption is not so bright.
I’ve come across some figures on how much of a consumption problem we have. The differential between the consumption per capita of the richest and the poorest countries in the world is 32. That’s right; the per capita consumption of the United States of America is 32 times the per capita consumption of the poorest countries in Africa. If the whole developing world were to catch up to the USA (and it’s hard to argue that they have no right to try to do so), it would have an equivalent impact on the world as a sudden increase in the world population to over 70 billion.
…sustaining the lifestyle of the average American takes 9.5 hectares, while Australians and Canadians require 7.8 and 7.1 hectares respectively; Britons, 5.3 hectares; Germans, 4.2; and the Japanese, 4.9. The world average is 2.7 hectares. China is still below that figure at 2.1, while India and most of Africa (where the majority of future world population growth will take place) are at or below 1.0.
The United States always gets singled out. But for good reason: It is the world’s largest consumer. Americans take the greatest share of most of the world’s major commodities: corn, coffee, copper, lead, zinc, aluminum, rubber, oil seeds, oil, and natural gas. For many others, Americans are the largest per-capita consumers. In “super-size-me” land, Americans gobble up more than 120 kilograms of meat a year per person, compared to just 6 kilos in India, for instance. [Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360)
Note that 2.7 hectares per person is above the ecological carrying capacity of the planet – that is, we’re using resources faster than the planet can replace them – and it also doesn’t allow for the 10 million other species we share the planet with. By some estimations, the maximum ecological footprint per person we can sustain with the expected peak population – allowing for room to retain biological diversity – is 1.8 hectares.
Those who are calling for poor nations to stop breeding for the sake of the planet are, in my view, missing the point. Educate women, give good healthcare to ensure that babies survive to adulthood, and women will decide for themselves to limit their family size. We don’t have to look into history to see the truth of this (though the proof is there); we just have to look at demographic trends. But zero – even negative – population growth isn’t going to stop the pressure on resources and the environment. Here are some more figures from the Fred Pearce article.
Paul Murtaugh, a statistician at Oregon State University… recently calculated the climatic “intergenerational legacy” of today’s children. He assumed current per-capita emissions and UN fertility projections. He found that an extra child in the United States today will, down the generations, produce an eventual carbon footprint seven times that of an extra Chinese child, 46 times that of a Pakistan child, 55 times that of an Indian child, and 86 times that of a Nigerian child.
However, there is some hope, provided we get over the idea that consumption = happiness. Jared Diamond points out:
The only approach that China and other developing countries will accept is to aim to make consumption rates and living standards more equal around the world. But the world doesn’t have enough resources to allow for raising China’s consumption rates, let alone those of the rest of the world, to our levels. Does this mean we’re headed for disaster?
No, we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels. Americans might object: there is no way we would sacrifice our living standards for the benefit of people in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.
Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts.
According to the Ministry for the Environment, New Zealanders have an ecological footprint of just over 3 hectares (although it is only so low because our land is tremendously productive). So what sort of a standard of living could we expect if we dropped our consumption by – say – 40%? Not too bad, I would think. A lot of it would just be changing the way we do some things to get rid of waste. In 1900, the average Canadian had an ecological footprint of 1 hectare.
And Fred Pearce again:
At root this is an ethical issue. Back in 1974, the famous environmental scientist Garret Hardin proposed something he called “lifeboat ethics”. In the modern, resource-constrained world, he said, “each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in.” But there were, he said, not enough places to go around. If any were let on board, there would be chaos and all would drown. The people in the lifeboat had a duty to their species to be selfish – to keep the poor out.
Hardin’s metaphor had a certain ruthless logic. What he omitted to mention was that each of the people in the lifeboat was occupying ten places, whereas the people in the water only wanted one each. I think that changes the argument somewhat.