Does Population Growth Really Drive Ecological Destruction?

You Can't Have Infinite Growth On A Finite Planet
You Can't Have Infinite Growth On A Finite Planet

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There are a lot of people out there in the world. I mean, a lot. Do you ever come back to a crowded city after isolating yourself in the country and just stop and look around in amazement at how many people there are? You start watching them. You see one guy throw his litter on the ground. Idling cars spew their toxic fumes into your lungs. Behind you, a guy with a white laundry sheet full of fake designer bags empties them on the street and says, “Get them now. Only $10!” as dozens of pedestrians flock to his store. And then you think, “This is just one city.” How could the 7.4 billion of us not be destroying the world? We have a serious overpopulation problem!

Population Has Reached Unprecedented Levels, But Is It The Real Cause Of Scarcity?

Is Population Really The Issue?

A cursory glance at the world would certain seem to indicate this. The exponential growth in human population over the last few centuries has been, in a word, stunning. In the past 300 years, we have grown from 250 million to over 7 billion today – a 2800 percent increase in just a few centuries. All of these extra people place extraordinary demands on the Earth’s resources leading to deforestation, desertification, and pollution at rates that are far too great for the planet to continuing supporting life as we know it. Scientists have confirmed that as a result of the human demands being placed on the planet, we are all causing and witnessing the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history (the last one wiped out the dinosaurs). The logical conclusion that follows is that there are simply too many people on the planet.

So then, what are we to do? Certainly, there is data that shows that as a country becomes more developed and its wealth increases, the reproductive rate in that country diminishes. On the other hand, as countries develop, while people might reproduce less, they actually consume more resources. For example, the average Indian consumes 35 times less than the average American; the average Chinese consumes 53 times less. Then there are the more drastic measures that involve committing some really terrible acts against the poor in the world. I certainly don’t want to be part of the planning or implementation team for any of these insane ideas.

But hold on. If Americans are consuming orders of magnitude more goods and services than others in the world, perhaps there are other factors we should look at. After all, a large population, in and of itself, is not a problem. Rather, it is the environmental impact of that population that, if too great, poses the threat. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), saw that population was just one of three factors that contributed to environmental impact. The others were affluence and technology. Affluence is measured as the amount of resources used per person while technology has to do with the environmental impact per unit of resource used.

Could Affluent Lifestyles Of The Wealthy Contribute More To The Collective Ecological Footprint Than The Poor Masses?

Affluence - The Often Overlooked Factor In Human Population Discussions

Affluence measures the amount of natural resources consumed by each person – all of the oil to run our cars, the coal to provide electricity, the aluminum to package our goods, and the copper to facilitate our communications. Here is an interesting statistic: even though Americans comprise just five percent of the world’s population, they actually consume 25 percent of the world’s oil, 23 percent of its coal, 27 percent of its aluminum and 19 percent of its copper. When we look more deeply at the root cause of our collective environmental impact, we find that most of the damage is happening as a result of the actions of people in countries with relatively small populations.

Fortunately, affluence and technology provide additional levers to affect the real issue – environmental impact – that seems to be caused by runaway population. For example, the Internet is creating other ways of doing things by reducing the resource intensity of affluence through what is becoming known as the “sharing economy.” Most of the resource intensive machines Westerners have in their homes are rarely used. Our cars, for example, are used on average less than an hour per day. Instead of each of us having to buy and maintain our own car, we can use car sharing services like GetAround and ridesharing services such as RelayRides and Lyft. The sharing economy utilizes goods much more efficiently and at a lower individual cost since the costs of maintenance, storage, repair, and recycling can be shared. Without reducing access (and in most cases even extending it further), we can begin to recreate our communities around the principle of sharing while at the same time reducing the natural resource intensity of our consumption habits.

Learning How To Share Resources Efficiently Could Dramatically Reduce Environmental Footprint While Increasing Levels Of Access To Those Who Lack It

Technology - The Third Factor In Human Ecological Footprint Calculations

As promising as the sharing economy is, technology is another lever that has the potential to either increase or reduce our environmental impact. Technology is kind of a wildcard in this way. Its applications vary and can either have a beneficial or disastrous effect on the environment. For example, mining technologies such as mountaintop removal are incredibly destructive. By blowing up mountains and clear cutting forests to extract the coal below, mountaintop removal turns lush mountain ecosystems into wastelands.

On the other hand, 3-D printing is a technology that can create almost anything from homes to clothing to even metal objects (seriously, check out that last one), removing nearly all waste from what are currently very wasteful production process. If sourced from a sustainable building material, 3-D printing (and distribution of its products through the sharing economy) would dramatically reduce the environmental impact of the resources we use in almost every area of our lives.

So is population growth really a problem? Under our current, wasteful, ownership-based economic system, population growth is a huge problem. Each additional person becomes a “consumer” that buys, owns, and discards most of the material objects they come into contact with. There are three factors that drive environmental impact: 1) Allocating affluence through ownership-based economic models; 2) coordinating technological improvements based on maximizing cost-efficiency (rather than resource efficiency); and 3) the number of people on the planet.

Our society wastes resources to fuel economic growth, resulting in levels of affluence far beyond what is necessary to meet human needs, and this catastrophic waste is poisoning our water, destroying ecosystems that sustain the lives of countless species, and isn’t even making us happy. Given the enormous waste present within current economic systems and technological development, it is maniacal to entertain ideas of population control when the population that needs “controlling” aren’t even the ones making the biggest impacts. The good news is that using the levers of affluence and technology, we can reduce our environmental impact while still extending access to life-sustaining resources to all without having to discuss inhumane ideas of how to depopulate the planet.

3D Printing Is A Far More Resource Efficient Technology And They Can Even Print Houses!

Many people see scarcity in the world and assume the reason is because there are too many people and too few resources. In reality, scarcity is manufactured by an economic system that requires it to function. The problem of ecological footprint is not solely due to population growth; It has far more to do with the inefficient use of resources due to an economic system of individual ownership and a culture that defines your worth by what you own.
Chris Agnos

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