David Suzuki: Overconsumption, not overpopulation, is the biggest problem

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      What’s the biggest challenge in the world? Climate change? Economic disparity? Species extinction? A western billionaire—maybe a member of the one percent the Occupy protesters are talking about—will likely say population growth. A lot of well-off people in North America and Europe would agree. But is it true?

      It’s worth considering, especially in light of the fact that, somewhere in the world, the seven-billionth person was just born. In my lifetime, the human population has more than tripled. (I know I’m guilty of contributing to the boom.) But is overpopulation really the problem it’s being made out to be? And if so, what can we do about it?

      First, supporting more people on a finite planet with finite resources is a serious challenge. But in a world where hunger and obesity are both epidemic, reproduction rates can’t be the main problem. And when we look at issues that are often blamed on overpopulation, we see that overconsumption by the most privileged is a greater factor in rampant environmental destruction and resource depletion.

      I once asked the great ecologist E.O. Wilson how many people the planet could sustain indefinitely. He responded, “If you want to live like North Americans, 200 million.” North Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Australians, who make up 20 percent of the world’s population, are consuming more than 80 percent of the world's resources. We are the major predators and despoilers of the planet, and so we blame the problem on overpopulation. Keep in mind, though, that most environmental devastation is not directly caused by individuals or households, but by corporations driven more by profits than human needs.

      The nonprofit organization Global Footprint Network calculated the area of land and water the world’s human population needs to produce the resources it consumes and to absorb carbon dioxide emissions. If it takes a year or less for nature to regenerate the amount we use in a year, that’s sustainable. But they found it takes 1.5 years to replace what we take in a year. That means we are using up our basic biological capital rather than living on the interest, and this has been going on since the 1980s.

      As people in developing countries demand more of the bounty and products we take for granted, environmental impacts are bound to increase. The best way to confront these problems is to reduce waste and consumption, find cleaner energy sources, and support other countries in finding ways to develop that are more sustainable than the ways we’ve employed—to learn from our mistakes. Stabilizing or bringing down population growth will help, but research shows it’s not the biggest factor. A United Nations report, The State of World Population 2011, concludes that even zero population growth won’t have a huge impact on global warming.

      But, just as it’s absurd to rely on economies based on constant growth on a finite planet, it can’t be sustainable to have a human population that continues to increase exponentially. So, is there any good news? Well, population growth is coming down. According to the UN report, the average number of children per woman has gone from six to 2.5 over the past 60 years. Research shows the best way to stabilize and reduce population growth is through greater protection and respect for women’s rights, better access to birth control, widespread education about sex and reproduction, and redistribution of wealth.

      But wealthy conservatives who overwhelmingly identify population growth as the biggest problem are often the same people who oppose measures that may slow the rate of growth. This has been especially true in the U.S., where corporate honchos and the politicians who support them fight against environmental protection and against sex education and better access to birth control, not to mention redistribution of wealth.

      Population, environmental, and social-justice issues are inextricably linked. Giving women more rights over their own bodies, providing equal opportunity for them to participate in society, and making education and contraception widely available will help stabilize population growth and create numerous other benefits. Reducing economic disparity—between rich and poor individuals and nations—will lead to better allocation of resources. But it also shows that confronting serious environmental problems will take more than just slowing population growth.

      Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.




      Nov 1, 2011 at 7:56pm

      The population would drop quickly and resource consumption would also plummet if the education system and media were liberated from the control of the corporate oligarchy and financial super elite.


      Nov 1, 2011 at 8:59pm

      Don't worry, David Suzuki, the wealthy conservatives are working hard to cut down world population by engineering more wars and creative destructions. Media is spewing more propaganda 24/7 to rally for people's support. You can be assured they are working tirelessly on this matter. However, when it comes to redistribution of wealth, you can forget about it, it will never happen. Ever. Why would they share anything with dumb liberals?


      Nov 2, 2011 at 9:55am

      "Reducing economic disparity—between rich and poor individuals and nations—will lead to better allocation of resources."

      That was called communism during the 20th century and as we all know it was a resounding success... NOT!


      Nov 2, 2011 at 10:08am

      I absolutely agree with the over-consumption concept. Only problem is countries like India and the continent of Africa in general have 3-10 kids per family. If this was controlled, maybe more resources could be available for the more developing countries. This could, also, help with jobs and so on and son....


      Nov 2, 2011 at 11:36am

      "Giving women more rights over their own bodies"

      How about ALL rights over their own bodies instead? How about if a woman starts a business and makes a billion dollars, you don't get to steal it and hand it out to your friends in the poverty industry? How about full body ownership regardless of sex or nationality?

      "Reducing economic disparity—between rich and poor individuals and nations—will lead to better allocation of resources."

      How about leading by example Suzuki? You can start by "allocating" me one of your giant houses. Remember, if you don't respect other people's property rights, you don't get to have them either.


      Nov 2, 2011 at 11:47am

      What is wrong with using more resources per person if there are fewer people? What is wrong with 200 million living like North Americans, if it is not having an adverse effect on the earth? Obviously that's not going to happen for a while, because the world population is still growing, but with gradual decrease, it can be acheived.

      The way I see it, population growth needs to slow way down, and then we can all have adeqaute standards of living, without living off "biological capital" as is stated in the article. However, *for the time being* it is unfair for us in the developed world to take as much as we are, because it is more than our fair share.

      @Goldorak: no, that's not called communism. Reducing economic disparity can be acheived by taking actions that allow those who are less well off to become better off, without negatively influencing others. Why must everything that mentions addressing this *massive problem* we have be dismissed as communism? Everyone gets that communism doesn't work, but what we have right now doesn't either.

      James G

      Nov 2, 2011 at 11:54am

      I wonder if a certain mindset can reoccur in a prominent person every few generations as if an avatar? Harry Bloy and Trofim Lysenko were recent examples but think all the way back to our cave dwelling ancestors. Would one individual whose cave was stacked with preserved meat and its' entrance littered with bones, be munching a haunch of venison and burping out the virtues of shifting to vegetarianism?


      Nov 2, 2011 at 1:25pm

      Over-consumption by having numerous kids isn't the problem being talked about here.
      It's about how, for example, US food stamp prices ($32/week) are more than enough to live off of, but the average American still spends $120/week on food ($48 of that, away from home).

      People eat too much. They drive too much. They consume without considering the real costs of things.

      Places like India have much higher birth rates, but things like car ownership rates nowhere compare to those in North America.


      Nov 2, 2011 at 2:45pm

      I believe the novel Ishmael outlined this very well in 1992


      Nov 2, 2011 at 3:42pm

      If we switched our diets to be mostly plant based it would dramatically cut down on the the land and resources used to produce meat. There would be enough plant foods to feed every human in the world and we'd all be healthier. But that would mean less $$ for fat pockets of dairy, meat and medical industries. It's sad that the most important decisions of the human race revolve around $$.