Stress on the environment, society and resources?

Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

Do large populations affect and put stress on the environment, society and resources? Populations do affect and put stress on the environment. However, some claim that overpopulation is the major cause of environmental degradation. Is that so?

While populations no doubt are large in many countries, and demands on resources are obviously large, it is only one of many other causes and some of those other issues such as over-consumption based, unsustainable development may have an even larger impact. Our choice of how to use those resources (i.e. our economic policies) and for what purposes (i.e. our political directions and policies) are critical issues as well on the resulting impact on the environment to meet those uses and purposes.

On this page:

  1. Consumption
    1. Some consumption numbersNotes on the above consumption numbers
  2. Misuse of land and resources
  3. Unsustainable Development
  4. Ecological Footprints
  5. The Science of ecological limits


Existing consumption patterns as seen in Europe and North America can put strain on the environment and natural resources, which can have serious impacts on society. But, how much of the environmental degradation we see today is as a result of over-population and how much is due to over-exploitation due to consumerism and geopolitical interests?

Though most societies were efficient for the time in which they were formed, powerful nations disintegrated when too large a share of their labor was diverted to unnecessary tasks. Some societies, such as the European aristocratic structures, needlessly expended labor, resources, and capital to support militaristic elite bent on plundering neighbors and their own workers. Each of these societies became locked into a wasteful system of production and distribution. The United States is also locked into a wasteful expenditure of labor, resources, and industry.

J.W. Smith, The World's Wasted Wealth 2, (Institute for Economic Democracy 1994), p. 4.

Some suggest that the industrialized nations need to drastically change their consumption patterns that are currently seen, as this is depleting resources more than the demands from large populations as seen in many developing nations.

  • Even the 1998 Human Development Report from the United Nations politely suggested similar things:

    Today's consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating. If the trends continue without change - not redistributing from high-income to low-income consumers, not shifting from polluting to cleaner goods and production technologies, not promoting goods that empower poor producers, not shifting priority from consumption for conspicuous display to meeting basic needs-today's problems of consumption and human development will worsen.

    ... The real issue is not consumption itself but its patterns and effects.

    ... Inequalities in consumption are stark. Globally, the 20% of the world's people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures - the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%. More specifically, the richest fifth:

    • Consume 45% of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth 5%.
    • Consume 58% of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4%.
    • Have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5%.
    • Consume 84% of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1%.
    • Own 87% of the world's vehicle fleet, the poorest fifth less than 1%.

    Runaway growth in consumption in the past 50 years is putting strains on the environment never before seen.

    Human Development Report 1998 Overview, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) — Emphasis Added
  • Take for example the United States. With around 5 percent of the world's population, the US consumes about 40% of the world's resources and emits around 21% of the worlds carbon dioxide, a greenhouse-causing gas. The United States, however, is not over-populated, but the consumption-based life style does have its effects.
  • That is not to say that there are no problems in developing countries! In India for example, Delhi is a good example of a growing city. However, with this development come serious growing pains, such as pollution and unsustainable resource management.

Consumption patterns driven by current growth-based economics promote production and purchase of more and more material wealth and satisfaction. The impact on the environment from the increased need to obtain inputs such as raw materials and use of the environment, as well as increased waste, is considerable. The consumption levels of all people around the world are not the same. Take the following for example that compares consumption levels:

Some consumption numbers

Below are some numbers from the World Bank on consumption of energy in certain countries. I have shown the highest few in consumption numbers and the consumption of those with highest populations, as seen in an earlier page on population numbers.

Per capita energy consumption of selected countries
Energy (Kilograms of oil equivalent)GNP rankGNP per Capita rankPopulation (millions)No. of citizens compared to U.S. citizens

Source: World Development Report 2000, World Bank. Consumption data from Table 3.7. Size of Economy (GNP) data from Table 1.1.

United States7,9738,0761102701
Russian Federation5,4144,01916971742

Notes on the above consumption numbers

  • United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and some other nations, show a higher per capita energy consumption than those listed here (UAE being higher than the U.S.). However, the same World Bank report also points out that these are net exporters of energy — that is, they produce oil that is exported — and hence consumes far less domestically than the US and other wealthy nations that typically largely purchase that oil.
  • The United States consumes more than anyone else does, followed by Germany and Japan and the Russian Federation. For example, one American consumes as much energy as 41 Bangladeshis as the final column shows, even though the American population is just over twice as large as that of Bangladesh.
  • China, Nigeria, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh are listed here as examples of the heavily populated countries to show the disparity with respect to consumption. They are also listed on the numbers page at the beginning of this web site's section on population. There, quoting from the UN population data on where most growth is in population, they say that, Six countries account for half of this annual growth: India for 21 per cent; China for 12 per cent; Pakistan for 5 per cent; Nigeria for 4 per cent; Bangladesh for 4 per cent, and Indonesia for 3 per cent.
  • Nigeria is also listed as a net exporter and so would consume less itself.
  • You can see the table of data from the World Bank's World Development Report 2000 online which has the full list of country consumption.
  • The report also mentions, The United States, Japan, and other high-income countries, with 15 percent of the world's population, consume half of the world's commercial energy.
  • The GNP ranking lists orders the size of the economy. The per capita ranking takes into account each persons share of that GNP and how a nation ranks in relation to that.
  • Because the World Bank data here is based on 1997 and 1998 figures, the population numbers shown are from that period, while in the numbers page, the updated population numbers are provided from the United Nations, but there, the consumption figures aren't available for this year (as it is too early to know). While the numbers are therefore different, the general pattern is likely to be similar today. However, it is still worth seeing the 97/98 data, due to the relational relevance.
  • Note also that I have not included information on economic sizes etc of various multinational corporations. Given that some 51 of the largest 100 economies in the world are corporations, their impact (due to the very small number of people they employ in comparison, as well as the underlying economic drivers) is also considerable. Some of their contributions obviously are accounted for in the nation statistics above but it highlights a further concentration of resource use etc. For more about this aspect, visit this web site's section on corporations.

Of course, if countries with large populations such as China and India follow the consumption models of today's wealthy nations, then the impact on the planet will be considerable. And China for example, is interested in increasing the use of automobiles. Automotive business interests are mouthwatering at the prospects of a massive market to build and sell cars, regardless of concerns on the environment.

In addition, if we look at consumption disparities today, as shown above, it also helps put another perspective on the issue of population problems and consumption problems with respect to strains on the environment.

Furthermore, if we conclude (as some resign to) that changing economic models and consumption habits are far too difficult, is the alternative to reduce population sizes in the poor countries? What of the fact as shown by the UNDP report quoted above, that the impacts and demands on the environment by the poor is far less when compared to the rich? If a sustainable planet is still the aims and goals, then in admittedly simplistic terms, one would have to do some 86 times the effort to get the same supposed gains by reducing poor populations!

And, more seriously as described in the poverty section of this web site, the wealthy have been able to influence the economic conditions to benefit them and maintain dependency and poverty in the poorer nations. Reducing populations in poorer countries without addressing economic justice issues and so on could lead to further poverty and marginalization of other people while giving a rest bit to the environment, further legitimizing calls that the poor are to blame for most environmental degradation.

The first sweetened cup of hot tea to be drunk by an English worker was a significant historical event, because it prefigured the transformation of an entire society, a total remaking of its economic and social basis. We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things.

Sydney Mintz, Sweetness and Power, quoted by Richard H. Robbins, in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), p.208.

(For more about disparities in trade and economics, the causes of poverty, consumerism, neoliberalism etc, refer to this web site's section on Trade, Economy, & Related Issues.)

Back to top

Misuse of land and resources

How land is used to produce food etc. can have enormous impacts on the environment and its sustainability. (This can sometimes challenge assumptions on the instinct and common belief that we are overpopulated by sheer numbers and that this is the major cause of environmental degradation. While populations can burden the environment, it is the relative impact of population numbers alone versus why and how resource are used that we wish to consider here.) Take the following as an example:

Junk-food chains, including KFC and Pizza Hut, are under attack from major environmental groups in the United States and other developed countries because of their environmental impact. Intensive breeding of livestock and poultry for such restaurants leads to deforestation, land degradation, and contamination of water sources and other natural resources. For every pound of red meat, poultry, eggs, and milk produced, farm fields lose about five pounds of irreplaceable top soil. The water necessary for meat breeding comes to about 190 gallons per animal per day, or ten times what a normal Indian family is supposed to use in one day, if it gets water at all.

... Overall, animal farms use nearly 40 percent of the world's total grain production. In the United States, nearly 70 percent of grain production is fed to livestock.

Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest, (South End Press, 2000), pp. 70-71.

Because industrial agriculture is using more monocultures, rather than a diversity of crops, the loss of biodiversity is leading to more resource usage, as described above. This as well as other political situations such as the motives for dumping surplus food on to developing countries to undersell the local farmers, leads to further hunger around the world. For more information on that aspect, refer to this web site's section on food dumping.

Consumption patterns in wealthier countries increase demands for various foods, flowers, textiles, coffee, etc. Combined with commercial interests in things like tobacco, largely grown by corporations from wealthy nations, and with input-intensive agricultural practices (including using herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, even if their use is becoming more technically efficient) the diversion, and misuse of land and the associated environmental damage in unsustainable methods adds up. For additional examples and information on misuse of land, refer to this web site's look at causes of hunger.

Land ownership has become more concentrated in the hands of larger companies, larger agribusinesses and so on. In addition, things like food dumping, mentioned above, increases hunger and drives rural workers out of jobs. Such effects combine and lead to an increase in urban migration as people move to the cities in hope for a better chance. These economic policies that are based less on people's sharing and development, but more on acquiring wealth and profit lead to additional stress on the larger cities to provide for more people. It also results in more slum areas, health problems and so on. Many easily conclude that by just looking at the cities that we have overpopulation in the world. While the cities are no doubt facing problems of over population, a variety of political and economic circumstances are leading to such conditions and looking only at cities to determine if the planet is over populated misses out these factors.

But cities aren't the only places that the landless move to. Some, being pushed off their own lands, will move to less arable land and forest frontiers in the hope to farm that, which may conflict with wildlife. In other cases, many may try to immigrate to other parts of the world if they feel there is no choice left in their own country. In yet other situations, economic growth can also lead to more urban migration. Sometimes this growth of cities can go in hand with decline in the rural areas.

Due to these and a multitude of other complex socioeconomic and political factors, in different parts of the world, there are different proportions of people in urban and rural areas. For example, the World Bank reported in a 1999/2000 report that 74% of poor in Latin America and Caribbean lived in urban areas, while in Europe and Central Asia it was 67%. In the Middle East and North Africa it was 58%. In East Asia and Pacific, 33% while in Sub-Saharan Africa it was 32%. In South Asia it was 27%. North and Central America have approximately 76% and 50% urban populations, respectively. (For more details see the World Bank's World Development Report 1999/2000, Table A.2. Full country breakdowns are available in the report.)

Land ownership for the poor provides mechanisms to ensure sustainable and efficient use, because of the need to care for it for their survival, as detailed for example, by Vandana Shiva, in her book Stolen Harvest (South End Press, 2000). In an interview, Peter Rosset also shows that smaller farms are more efficient.

Economic policies of the wealthier nations and their consumption demands mean that more land is often used for less than ideal purposes, such as

  • Growing cash crops (bananas, sugar, coffee, tea etc) for export to wealthier countries (primarily);
  • Diverting productive land for non-productive uses (tobacco, growing flowers for export markets, etc);
  • Clearing land and used to grow things like cattle for beef exports. (Parts of the Amazon for example, are cleared for cattle ranches so the beef can be exported for use in fast food restaurants. Smaller parts are cleared by the poor who are forced onto marginal lands, or frontier areas due to poverty.

These economic policies are often imposed on the poorer nations, through things like Structural Adjustment (SAPs). In the past, colonialism achieved similar things more explicitly, but today it is often wrapped up in complex trade and economic agreements. (One cannot separate geopolitics from economics and the environment.) For more about SAPs, see this web site's section on structural adjustment.

And because food is a commodity, then it is those who can afford to pay, that will get food. The following is worth quoting at length:

To understand why people go hungry you must stop thinking about food as something farmers grow for others to eat, and begin thinking about it as something companies produce for other people to buy.

  • Food is a commodity. ...
  • Much of the best agricultural land in the world is used to grow commodities such as cotton, sisal, tea, tobacco, sugar cane, and cocoa, items which are non-food products or are marginally nutritious, but for which there is a large market.
  • Millions of acres of potentially productive farmland is used to pasture cattle, an extremely inefficient use of land, water and energy, but one for which there is a market in wealthy countries.
  • More than half the grain grown in the United States (requiring half the water used in the U.S.) is fed to livestock, grain that would feed far more people than would the livestock to which it is fed. ...

The problem, of course, is that people who don't have enough money to buy food (and more than one billion people earn less than $1.00 a day), simply don't count in the food equation.

  • In other words, if you don't have the money to buy food, no one is going to grow it for you.
  • Put yet another way, you would not expect The Gap to manufacture clothes, Adidas to manufacture sneakers, or IBM to provide computers for those people earning $1.00 a day or less; likewise, you would not expect ADM (Supermarket to the World) to produce food for them.

What this means is that ending hunger requires doing away with poverty, or, at the very least, ensuring that people have enough money or the means to acquire it, to buy, and hence create a market demand for food.

Richard H. Robbins, Readings on Poverty, Hunger, and Economic Development

When the best agricultural land is used up as described as above, more marginal land has to be used for food and subsistence farming, which may require clearing more rainforest, or other forms of encroachment on other ecosystems.

Other uses of the world's resources by the wealthier nations include metals and other raw minerals to produce automobiles, planes and so on. For more details on this, see Richard H. Robbins, as quoted above.

Back to top

Unsustainable Development

As globalization — in its current form — increases, so too does the unsustainable development approach that it seems to prescribe, as suggested by the following quote:

[T]here is abundant evidence that the version of modernity demonstrated in current globalization trends neglects scientific evidence and tradition in equal measure — indeed, that traditional approaches to natural resource management in many communities demonstrate sounder science than development does. One need only quote the inequitable and unsustainable share of the world's energy used, and greenhouse gases produced, by the United States to rest one's case. Tradition in local resource management elsewhere has survived over many generations precisely because of its sustainability. Global warming and other manifestations of environmental degradation — which are evidently no longer future threats but very real current crises — have resulted from approaches to modernity which, in sweeping such traditions aside, continue in denial about scientific evidence.

Brendan Martin, New Leaf or Fig Leaf? The challenge of the New Washington Consensus, Bretton Woods Project, March 2000.

In many regions of the world, ecosystem stress can be seen due to human-intensive activities such as unsustainable resource extraction and exploitation via large corporations and international trading agreements that open these sources up for excessive extraction and consumerism. This could lead to numerous future global security issues. At the same time, many businesses and individuals try to calm fears claiming that nothing is wrong. Major themes used for this are:

  • To remind us of mans ingenuity to deal with any problems that may occur;
  • That the resources are abundant enough to not cause a problem and even if they do, we will adapt;
  • And that history shows that we have always come out for the better.

This cornucopian view that everything is ok, has come under much criticism, using its credible data in a partial way. It is also seen to be an excuse to avoid responsibility and therefore welcomed by some corporations who may somehow need reassurance or justification if they are using some exploitative economic measure. [The conclusion of the reassurance link suggests how this would be a favorable opinion.]

Some parts of the criticism itself has come under scrutiny because of anti-immigrant and racist sentiments in some of the environmentalists who argue against the cornucopian views and is therefore part of a continuing debate on the causes and effects of population growth and if current population growths are even a problem.

It has been noted however, that in developing countries large cities are increasing in population at a rate that is very difficult to sustain and provide for without better economic growth. This could lead to various social problems such as an increase in hunger and crime.

However, note that there is often a distinction between population explosions or growth, and cities increasing in population density. Economic and other social and political conditions may lead to many people from rural areas moving to the larger cities in search for jobs. If unmanaged, or root causes for these movements are not addressed, this can place a burden on the ability for a large city to provide in a sustainable manner.

Poverty can lead to environmental degradation, no doubt. It can also lead to a decreasing availability of land and water in some areas.

Having then suggested it is not always large populations that are ultimately the main cause of environmental stress etc, larger populations, global warming, industrial pollution, high-tech agriculture, even misplaced development priorities as well as over-consumption and non-sustainable development can all put increased pressure on the environment to provide the resources such as enough arable land and fresh water.

But to say it is only over population as the root cause of environmental problems of this nature is not enough. It is one dynamic of this complex issue. An over-consumption based approach to development may even be a larger, more potent factor. Hence, sustainable development becomes even more important overall.

Better management of natural resources, improved education in the area of reproduction-related issues as well as fairer economic and social and political environments etc., would help ensure prophesies of doom are averted. But, given the current set of dynamics affecting the world, as presented in the rest of this web site, the will to get started and do something is often affected by political interests and the need to be assured that current practices are ok and can continue without accepting accountability.

Back to top

Ecological Footprints

If we all lived like Americans, we would need two additional planet Earths to produce resources and absorb wastes ... and good planets are hard to find!

Our Ecological Footprint, Gobar Times, May 2000

The carrying capacity, or maximum persistently supportable load and the area of land required to support a city or nation — also known as the ecological footprint — can be enormous.

For some cities, or even countries, the ecological footprint can be even larger than that nation.

For example, Britain's footprint has covered many countries, especially during the imperial days. And today, London's ecological footprint for food, forest products etc has been estimated to be 120 times the surface area of the city itself, nearly equivalent to the productive land area of Great Britain as a whole. Dr William Rees, Canadian professor of urban planning, whose article is the previous link, also notes that the citizens of high income countries appropriate of two to five times their equitable share of the world's ecological output. A huge amount of land therefore needs to be sustained.

But it isn't just cities from industrialized nations that have large ecological footprints; even growing cities in developing nations, such as Delhi, are seeing their footprints increase, and with it, the number of associated problems are also rising.

The area needed to produce the natural resources consumed and absorb the carbon dioxide emitted by the average North American is almost twice the area required by the average Western European, and some five times greater than required by the average Asian, African and Latin American.

It is the consumers of the rich nations of the temperate northern regions of the world who are primarily responsible for the ongoing loss of natural wealth in the tropics said Jonathan Loh, editor of the Living Planet Report.

The Living Planet Report 2000, World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF)

With the above U.N. statistic that the world's wealthiest 20 percent of humanity consume 86 percent of the world's resources, we can roughly say that the ecological foot print of the wealthier people is pretty much the rest of the planet. (Of course, this is a high level approximation — wealthy regions within poor places also extend their footprint, but 86 percent of the world's resources are consumed by the world's wealthiest 20%. As we saw in the poverty section of this web site, half of humanity live on less than two dollars a day, and it is hard to find numbers for eleven dollars a day, which is roughly the official poverty limit in the wealthiest nation.) So, for those wondering why the poor cannot follow the example of the rich and get out of poverty themselves, here lies the answer: There is nowhere from which to get out of poverty. If resources are attempted to be reclaimed, it is a threat to those who currently use it. Wars throughout history have often been related to this. World War II and the resulting Cold War were such battles. (This is a deep issue itself. See for example, the Institute for Economic Democracy for more on this aspect.) Note, that this is also a different answer to why the poor are poor — that is, this is saying it is not because there are too many of them. It is saying they and their resources have been, and continue to be, exploited. See this web site's poverty section for more.

Some people have researched the carrying capacity of various areas or even the planet and have concluded that the planet can only sustain a certain amount of people. However, those estimates range from some 6 or 7 billion to even a few hundred billion people.

How can these carrying capacity estimates numbers vary so much? A lot depends on the various assumptions which are invariably made to get these numbers. One thing often overlooked is the fact that as economic circumstances change, consumption habits and patterns will change. Therefore, the demand on the planet for sustaining us also changes, as does the carrying capacity. This is summarized well by Richard H. Robbins:

The problem with applying the theory of carrying capacity to human beings is that our capacity for culture and symbolic thought enables us constantly to alter our diets and the way we exploit the environment for food. ... Human beings are capable of constantly changing the rules of subsistence by altering their resource base. In fact, estimates on the Earth's carrying capacity vary widely, from 7.5 billion to 147.0 billion, depending on the technology employed to produce food (Livi-Bacci 1992:207; Cohen 1995). It is consequently difficult if not impossible to predict when our ability to provide for additional people will end, if ever.

Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), pp. 155 - 156. Also has on-line accompanying reading materials

Furthermore, the assumptions that are often missed out in trying to calculate such things, risks laying causes at the wrong place, as we shall see next.

Back to top

The Science of ecological limits

A little boy wanted to know the sum of one plus one. First he asked a physicist, who said, If one is matter, and the other is antimatter, then the answer is zero. But if one is a critical mass of uranium and the other is a critical mass of uranium, then that's an explosive question. Unenlightened, the little boy asked a biologist. She said, Are we talking bacteria, mice or whales? And for how long? In desperation, the boy hired an accountant. The accountant peered closely at the little boy and said, Hmmm. One plus one? Tell me, little boy, how much do you want one plus one to be?

Joel E. Cohen, How Many People Can The Earth Support?, (W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), p.261

The science of ecological limits is often used to conclude that population growth and numbers are the major cause of environmental degradation. However, while the study of ecological capacities and limits is important, some of the conclusions are a major source of contention. Some conclude, looking at the usually credible data of the effects, that the causes of environmental degradation are due to populations by virtue of numbers and that as a result, we are over populated. Yet, these are not automatic conclusions and cannot be taken as a given. Such conclusions are even flawed due to the number of assumptions made as well as the number of other important issues not taken into account.

Many environmentalists and others who study ecological problems and conclude population pressures to be the root, point out quite accurately and with detailed knowledge, the various limits on different ecologies based on current patterns of human activities, which they also show are being reached or even breached.

At a very high level, this is true. Humans require resources to survive. Those resources come from the environment. And hence, non-natural environmental degradation is a result of human activities.

However, from this high vantage point, where all people and their impacts on the planet are seen as equal, inappropriate conclusions form on where the root problems come from. Hence, over population (in the poorer countries) is the often-attributed root cause. However:

  • Population/demographic issues are just one aspect of human activities.
  • How we organize ourselves to make use of resources — i.e. our political and economic choices — is another major important aspect.
  • So too is for what reason we make use of resources, as it is not an obvious assumption that it is to meet all our needs. (In fact, as the poverty section of this site implies, currently — and historically — our economic policies are for increasing accumulation of capital, not necessarily to benefit all of society and the environment.)
  • Also important is how all these things interact with each other, and with the many other facets of human activities. For example, economic/political causes of population growth (and decline) are often not factored in, resulting in assumptions based on religious beliefs, uncontrollable urges, lack of contraceptives, and so on.
  • By making this base assumption of looking at population issues as a root cause, rather than a symptom of others, because that is so obviously a human impact, the risks of promoting ineffective policies, and even blaming victims of deeper causes increase, while underlying causes remain.
  • Furthermore, changes in these root causes would change the limits of ecologies to sustain a different lifestyle. These major variables would lead to different answers in these complex equations.

Observing symptoms such as environmental degradation, hunger, disease, population growth, poverty and so forth, the causes are assumed to lie in population growths (based on flawed Malthusian ideas discussed earlier in the Numbers section on this site). After all, the ideas, while simple, are appealing and make sense at a scientific and basic economic level; that as population grows, demands on the environment increase, demands on food increase etc and if not kept up, more people will go hungry, more people will be poor etc.

Hence, from the enormous, often very credible scientific data on impacts, attempts at concluding the causes of those impacts are affected by the range of assumptions and even cultural discourse that can define those ranges of assumptions indirectly or directly. That is, factors, as mentioned above, such as our choice of not only what agricultural methods we follow, what foods we grow, what lands are cleared and used etc, but also how these things are done, can all be affected by different drivers that determining the purpose of these activities.

It is easy to assume that these activities of things like growing food, clearing land etc is to meet human population demands of basic needs and that as populations grow, that these demands increase and therefore mean an increasing demand on the environment to provide those resources.

However, as mentioned above and throughout the trade and economic section of this site:

  • Most of the demands that are actually met are to pursue profits and certain lifestyles of the few rather than meet the needs of the many.
  • This also increases poverty.
  • Hence, cash crop exports to wealthy nations; agricultural policies to intensify this process; resources going into supporting these modes of economics; and so on are large drivers on how the resources are exploited.
  • Note, this also dispels critics who say that it is in the poor countries that this degradation is taking place which shows that this is an overpopulation issue:
    • If we factor in for example what the U.N. has mentioned, as pointed out above (that 86% of the world's resources are consumed by the world's richest one fifth of humanity, while four fifths of humanity consume just 14%), and we combine the IMF/World Bank/USA policies of things like structural adjustments (discussed on this site's poverty section), then we see that while it might be in the poor countries that this resource stripping takes place, it is not to meet their demands.
    • This stripping of resources is to meet the demands of the rich due to those economic policies and agreements that have been put in place.
    • The poor consume less because the rich consume more.
    • Furthermore, as shown in the trade and economic section of this site, this is related to why the poor are poor; because the rich are rich and can enforce and influence policies in their favor.

William Rees, an urban planner at the University of British Columbia, estimated that it requires four to six hectares of land to maintain the consumption level of the average person from a high-consumption country. The problem is that in 1990, worldwide there were only 1.7 hectares of ecologically productive land for each person. He concluded that the deficit is made up in core countries by drawing down the natural resources of their own countries and expropriating the resources, through trade, of peripheral countries. In other words, someone has to pay for our consumption levels.

... Our consumption of goods obviously is a function of our culture. Only by producing and selling things and services does capitalism in its present form work, and the more that is produced and the more that is purchased the more we have progress and prosperity. The single most important measure of economic growth is, after all, the gross national product (GNP), the sum total of goods and services produced by a given society in a given year. It is a measure of the success of a consumer society, obviously, to consume.

However, the production, processing, and consumption, of commodities requires the extraction and use of natural resources (wood, ore, fossil fuels, and water); it requires the creation of factories and factory complexes whose operation creates toxic byproducts, while the use of commodities themselves (e.g. automobiles) creates pollutants and waste. Yet of the three factors environmentalists often point to as responsible for environmental pollution — population, technology, and consumption — consumption seems to get the least attention. One reason, no doubt, is that it may be the most difficult to change; our consumption patterns are so much a part of our lives that to change them would require a massive cultural overhaul, not to mention severe economic dislocation. A drop in demand for products, as economists note, brings on economic recession or even depression, along with massive unemployment.

Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), pp. pp.209-210.

Agricultural decisions, economic drivers, political, geopolitical and social/cultural influences are all enormously complex variables in the equations of ecological limits, yet, many scientists fail to look at these influences on things like environmental degradation. Instead, more readily observable tangibles, such as large population sizes where there is poverty, hunger, disease, environmental degradation, etc are used as proof that these symptoms result from growing populations and the demands they place on the environment.

Critics will point out that the poor want to consume like the rich.

  • Right. And such consumption will increase problems no doubt.
  • Larger population numbers consuming in these wasteful ways will add to the problem.
  • Hence, it is important to address these models of consumption that are now becoming global (via globalization). For example, the spread of the so-called MTV culture to other cultures are showing people what they could consume. This helps in creating demands and fashions (as fashion-driven consumption means even more use of resources, and wasting of existing resources etc).
  • It is not that the poor should be denied increased consumptions (because the UN shows how disparate it is, as mentioned above) but more that the form of consumption being promoted is what is causing the most environmental degradation and it is that form that is being spread globally. After all, as Kingsley Davis is quoted here: there is no country in the world in which people are satisfied with having barely enough to eat. (quoted by Joel E. Cohen in his book, How Many People Can The Earth Support? (W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), p.261)
  • Furthermore, as will be seen below, the poor can improve their lifestyle, while also addressing inherent waste structured into the current systems of resource usage, i.e. politico economic systems).
  • Additionally, this attack that is also made on immigrants is a double blow for them:
    • On the one hand, they are sometimes given incentives to come to the wealthier countries to help in the economy, or, they may choose to escape situations from their regions (sometimes related to global policies enforced or strongly pushed by those same wealthier countries), etc.
    • Yet
      • If they try to remain a close group that stick to their own kind then they are criticized for not wanting to integrate with the society, of therefore being a cause of tension and so on.
      • On the other hand, when they do attempt some form of integration (such as consuming the way the society in which they now live consumes) then they are blamed for being a burden on environmental resources and that immigration should be controlled or stopped because it is a cause of environmental degradation!
      • It is almost like saying (whether intentional or not) we don't want the poor to have a comfortable lifestyle like us. Too many poor having our lifestyles will mean less for us and the environment!
  • Most of the world's resources are not being consumed for the world's majority of people. Hence, it is difficult to say honestly that the world's poor and largely populated countries are the major cause of environmental degradation.
  • As a result, the point that the poor want to consume like the rich indicates that it might not be the consumption of the poor at issue, but the consumption of the rich.

As a result, depending on how one looks at it, population issues are not easily reduced and understood by science alone, but the impact of many issues in combination. Scientific methods and research can provide much needed understanding on the impacts, but risks false or partial conclusions on the causes. This can be because such ecological science does not factor in politics, economics etc and almost (intentionally or unintentionally) assumes these things to be constant, rather than extremely variable (and this variability would lead to very different answers to these equations).

By combining a variety of fields of study, it is more likely that a better understanding of causes will result. It is not that ecological sciences on these things are useless. They are not. As mentioned above, they provide useful statistics, data, trends etc. Predictions of future trends and as well as understanding of causes leading to the observed statistics, data and trends require a combination of many other fields of study and expertise.

Furthermore, as a result, the causes of population growth and declines are often also missed out. As mentioned on this section's discussion on population numbers, earlier, poverty in many areas has led to population growth as a means for economic survival, as extra hands may provide a better chance of getting out of poverty. Declines as well as growths are affected by various environmental, political, economic and social circumstances. And, as mentioned, things like family planning are only workable when these underlying circumstances are changed, such that family planning knowledge can be made use of.

Solutions such as family planning, on their own do not consider factors about how populations grow. Instead, they address what is commonly seen as ecological degradation (which is not disputed here), where it is assumed that it is due to population growth, without understanding why populations grow. (And this still needs further research no doubt.)

Poverty often results in other symptoms of such as widespread disease and outbreaks that could have been dealt with had more been spent on health. It is not population burdens that reduce health expenditure per person. For example, structural adjustment policies from the wealthy demand that the poor cut back on health expenditure, which means even health education that promotes prevention is reduced or eliminated (and is cheaper than reactionary and curative approaches as that also expends a lot of resources). Yet, when cures for outbreaks etc are actually needed, multinational pharmaceutical companies who spend billions on producing drugs promote the view that governments should not interfere with their freedom to pursue research (for profits!) etc, produce drugs and cures for people who can pay. Instead, they often concentrate on less important things like baldness cures, anti-aging remedies etc while millions die from easily preventable diseases in poor areas. This is because, while the poor are a market, they cannot pay. (More about diseases etc is discussed later in this section on population, with many more links to other information.)

Another fundamental issue is that food and health are increasingly becoming commodities. That is, it is the ability for people to pay for these and other things that govern whether or not they will go hungry, ill etc. Hence it is in the root causes of poverty that determine who gets to consume resources, and as a result, what affects environmental degradation and so on.

Hunger, as described on this web site is also a result of geopolitics that diverts land use from widespread ownership, to controlled and concentrated ownership. Economic policies of things like food aid (i.e. food dumping) are known and shown to increase world hunger, even though food production so far has more than kept up with the pace of population growth. (Of course, land degradation due to inefficient and wasteful agricultural policies makes it unlikely that this pace can continue for too long. But dealing with this by population reduction in some way will still leave inefficient agricultural methods in place, which would continue to contribute to environmental degradation.)

Additionally we saw in the previous page on hunger and population, that population growth is not the cause of world hunger, but politics and economics that affect distribution and land use etc. This following quote very sharply shows the effect and a cause of this hunger relating this to consumption demands affecting what food we grow:

in order for the elite to live at the standard it does, the majority have to go without... and this is one of the major (if not the major) causes of world poverty, albeit one that is largely ignored, unknown or denied.

The plain fact is that we are starving people, not deliberately in the sense that we want them to die, but wilfully in the sense that we prefer their death to our own inconvenience.

Victor Gollancz
How much is enough?, Never Enough Campaign

At the same time, international political/economic agreements result in using this precious land for things like tobacco, tea, coffee, floriculture, wasteful dam projects, sugar, beef and so on. Some of these things, such as sugar and beef are luxuries turned into necessities as not all consumption demands are natural demands; some demands and habits can be promoted and encouraged over others. Hence those who are more wealthy (and therefore more powerful) either economically, politically, or both, can be more influential in affecting the uses of our resources. (See for example, Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn and Bacon, 1999), for such discussions on consumerism and its history.)

As mentioned in the biodiversity section of this site, as well as elsewhere on this site, much land, including parts of the Amazon, are cleared to grow cattle for McDonald's and other fast food chains, not necessarily to meet majority human needs. And, as also mentioned, approximately one third of the world's grain production is used for animal feed.

As an aside, vegetarianism therefore has another meaning if you think about it this way!

  • Vegetarianism (or a large reduction in meat consumption) indirectly would help free up land for other uses such as growing food for others to eat as well — or in the case of beef consumption, help in reduce the pressures on natural forests such as the Amazon.
  • Vegetarianism (or a large reduction of meat consumption) in an indirect way, could be a choice for those wishing to play a part in helping combat world hunger, environmental degradation etc.
  • Likewise, reducing or eliminating tobacco and alcohol consumption can also be seen as indirectly helping address world hunger and environmental issues.
  • Tobacco for example, is very water and nutrient-thirsty, hence less tobacco demand in theory would help stave off some environmental degradation if positive alternatives are appropriately supported, both politically and economically.
  • If demands for such products were to decrease, that land could be used to grow other things such as food to feed the local people.
  • All the support industries to promote, market and sell the consumption of such products, is, paraphrasing J.W. Smith's book title, wasted wealth by what he describes as wasted labor due to wasted capital. (See World's Wasted Wealth, Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994.)
  • Of course, these alternatives cannot work in isolation. Economic alternatives also need to be addressed for the farmers and others who would lose out. This hints towards the need to address systemic and deep changes at the core, but this could be a starting point for people to research into issues of causes of world hunger, poverty, inequality, of additional anti-tobacco campaign themes and so on!

Of course, it is more complex than that, as political aspects of land control and its use still need to be addressed. (For example, there is obviously the risk of using that land to meet other demands such as drugs.)

Sugar, as another example, has historically required slavery-based plantations, and even today, sugar is grown in vast amounts, especially in various poor nations, for consumption of fast foods, soda drinks, candies/chocolates sweets and other confectioneries. All this requires intensive use of pesticides, fertilizers and so on, while decreasing biodiversity and increasing land erosion and water consumption as mentioned in parts of this web site. Indirectly, there are additional enormous environmental costs that are not usually factored in. That is, the costs of using resources in the industries that support these things. As a very incomplete example, many resources are required:

  • To create, maintain and support the office buildings where people work in these industries
  • To support the marketing
  • To support efforts in creating demands as well as meeting real and resulting demands
  • To distribute and sell
  • To create new ideas and products
  • To create, maintain and support factories to make the actual products
  • To create the materials for packaging
  • To deal with the waste/disposal of these packages
  • To deal with resulting health problems and the resources used to deal with them
  • To pay and support lobbyists to help governments and regulation agencies see their perspectives
  • and so on.

An entire industry is a wasteful industry when looked from a social and ecological perspective — but an efficient one when looked at from profit and capital accumulation perspective. (And I fail to go into the resources consumed to educate in fields like psychology where the psychology skills are used for marketing and sales related positions to better understand how to get people to buy things, what will increase profits, what will reduce it, and so forth; on the field of economics that promote such things; and so on. Note I am not saying we should not teach psychology or economics etc; I am hinting that the resources spent on the direction of our educational systems are also an issue.)

As J.W. Smith details in his book, World's Wasted Wealth II (Institute for Economic Democracy, 1994), many other industries exhibit such waste. Some are more difficult to see compared to others, as all these aspects are structured into the system, and even the inequalities that this results in, are hence structured into laws and processes.

(Critics sometimes point out that the consumpion issue is misleading because it leads to suggestions of sharing the same pie more equitably, and that same pie, or wealth, is not enough for everyone. However, missed from this argument is what can be seen from the list above. That is, not only is sharing of the world's wealth desirable and necessary, but so too is the elimination of waste in these ways. So much waste is ingrained into the system, that removing these inefficiencies, and sharing the remaining wealth, (as the wealth is not just wasted, but concentrated as well), that it is theoretically possible to share the wealth in a way that wasteful consumption and systems are addressed. At the same time, the consumption of the poor can increase in a manner that addresses issues of poverty and sustainability etc. Of course, alternative, sustainable oriented policies are needed, and it is no easy task. But in terms of the criticism, this is an important issue.)

We can see then that there are enormous impacts on the environment from things like:

  • The politics of globalization (in its current form) is shown to increase poverty;
  • All the effects of these policies including wasteful consumption contributes to further environment and resource usage
  • Additional resources employed to support such a system also contributes to wasted resources (from the buildings that people sit in to implement these policies, from the educational and government systems to promote and teach these things, to the support industries around the offices, to distribution systems of products from this form of globalized trade and so on)
  • The U.N. statistic mentioned above is very revealing in this context; 86% of the world's resources are consumed by the world's richest fifth of humanity.

To document all this structured waste (or inefficiency for society, but efficiency for profit making), is beyond the scope of this section of this web site. However, J.W. Smith, from the Institute for Economic Democracy, describes many aspects of this in incredible detail in his book, World's Wasted Wealth II (1994). As well as describing the wasted labor that this waste brings, the root causes of wasted capital that employs this labor is looked at over an 800-year period. This includes historical economic and political events (including wars, trade wars, imperialism, mercantilism, belief system to support these things and other policies of the amassing of wealth that belongs to others) as root causes of poverty, hunger, environmental degradation today.

As mentioned earlier, there is sometimes support for a simplified but somewhat flawed Malthusian view that population issues will cause hunger and poverty. However, other factors and assumptions are missing, such as:

  • Why populations grow and decline
  • How land gets used and what the impact of concentrated ownership is
  • How the politics of economics affect societies and the environment
  • What the effects of an economic system geared toward the use of resources for the purpose of accumulation of capital (which is a cyclic pattern seen throughout history) rather than to use resources efficiently to meet societies needs. (See Giovanni Arrgihi's The Long Twentieth Century (Verso Press, 1994, reprinted 2000), as well as J.W. Smith's World's Wasted Wealth II, (Institute for Economic Democracy 2000) for more on these historical patterns)
  • And so on.
  • These are all important variables that require more attention.

And what should be considered, as mentioned above, is the U.N statistic that 86% of the world's resources are consumed by the world's richest fifth of humanity, while the world's poorest fifth consume a miniscule 1.3% of the world's resources. This reflects the political/economic policies by the world's more powerful nations (and hence more wealthy) and the imbalance it causes. As mentioned by J.W. Smith, when people like Malthus were concluding that it was poor people and over population as causes of environmental degradation, it was the intellectual elite of the time doing the rationalizing and invariably would find the causes of problems in places other than their own policies!

Resource usage, whether to meet basic human consumption needs, or materialistic consumption needs etc affect the environment. The phrase over population is a qualifying, or measuring, phrase due to the word over. That qualification has to be in relation to the environment and how we use its resources (as people live by using resources around them, which come from their environment). Hence, looking at how resources are consumed and who consumes what, how efficiently and so on would indicate the major causes of environmental degradations. We must look at these areas because it is not a given that resources are consumed to meet basic needs for everyone. When looking deeper then, the world's majority is not the major cause for the world's environmental destruction and stress on the planet. As a result, while we might be over something, is it population or consumption? The above suggests it would be consumption. And more deeper than being over, it is wasteful and has a gross imbalance.

(The above really only touches the surface of so many complex inter-related issues, which is the essence of this web site, and yet there is still far more that can be said than what I feel is mentioned on this site.)

Back to top

So yes, humans do affect and put stress on the environment. However, the way they do is not necessarily a simple result of over population. Population related burdens on cities and resources are an issue, nonetheless, especially how they are consumed. It is only one of many other causes and some of those issues such as over-consumption based unsustainable development may have a larger impact on the environment. Because this latter process largely lies in the domain of industrialized countries, it is easier instead to blame the others who apparently cannot control their population growths. It allows current ideologies of neoliberalism to continue without discourse of the ideology itself, just the symptoms.

As these neoliberal policies are also introduced in poorer nations, the wealthy in those countries have seen their wealth increase even more, while the poor have become poorer (as detailed throughout the Trade, Economy, & Related Issues section on this web site). Material consumption has also increased as a result, so there are also more resources being used to in the demands to produce/purchase these goods than in meeting the needs of the majority poor. This has further led to blaming the victims for their poverty, by some (not all, of course) of the wealthier classes of their own nation. This almost class-based bias is similar those those underlying perspectives in Malthusian theories, discussed earlier in the Numbers page of the population section on this web site:

[An] incredible thread that often runs through the thoughts of the comfortable is the notion of blaming the victim. The poor are miserable because they have too many children, the reasoning goes. Once they start family planning and control their procreational urges, they'll be on their way to upward mobility. The better off have always had this attitude toward the poor, [Dilip] D'Souza says. But now it is respectable to say this.

Amitabh Pal, The Great Divide; India Confronts Globalization, In These Times, September 3, 2001

However, taking this back to the population debates, this gives a hint as to how much of a factor population numbers are compared to the enormity of the multitude of other issues. It is, admittedly, naive to think that these root issues are somehow easy to address and change. It is equally naive though, to think therefore, that instead of dealing with those, it is better to address problems by looking at population growths in poor countries, rather than not doing anything, as some have suggested to me on debates on this issue! That would further leave the causes of environmental destruction (and the other problems) firmly in place. (And, in terms of wasted wealth, labor and capital mentioned above, this diversion of resources this way would also use up such resources!)

And, going back to the U.N. statistic, above, if 86% of the world's resources are consumed by only the wealthiest one fifth of humanity, then that is where the imbalance needs to be addressed. Environmental degradation may be occuring in poor countries, but it is to meet these consumption patterns. Hence the demands are not necessarily in the poor countries. Just as we can see how imperialism and colonialism in the past was about plundering resources of the poor and bringing them to the wealthy to be consumed or to manufacture products there, so too, intentionally or unintentionally, today's forms of globalization are resulting in similar disparities and problems.

Of course, if the currently developing countries are trying to imitate the already developed nations, then the above quote about needing more than one planet for resources and waste absorption starts to sound more real and urgent and hence, so to does the importance of directing and focusing energies in the right areas.

Some northern environmentalists further infuriated those from developing countries [at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil] by suggesting that rapid population growth among the world's poor was the primary driving force behind rainforest destruction, degradation of agricultural lands, and other threats to the future health of the global environment. Vocal advocates for developing countries resented being portrayed as environmental villains. Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and the Environment in New Delhi, India, observed, It is ironic that those who have exploited global resources the most are now preaching to those who have been largely frugal and sparing. The editors of Third World Resurgence added, The poor are victims and not culprits in environmental degradation. Much of the depletion and contamination of resources have been done to meet the consumption demands of the affluent. Changing consumption habits of the affluent is thus the priority in curbing the rate of depletion or pollution of resources. After all, even though the population was growing rapidly in countries like Bangladesh, each additional American consumed many times more than each additional Bangladeshi.

Michael Brower and Warren Leon, The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, (The Union of Concerned Scientists, 1999)

(Since writing this page, an entire section looking at the deeper issues behind consumption and consumerism has been added. It is also attempts to look at the the waste within the system which has only been hinted to here. The sheer amount of waste structured into the system is revealing, and lends more weight to the impact of consumption patterns on environmental degradation than population sizes alone. That is, if that wastage were to be addressed, not only would current population numbers be sustainable, but living standards could increase for the majority of the world that today do not get to consume much at all. Furthermore there would be less environmental degradation, and the economic rights that should accompany the elimination of the waste would lead to better economic circumstances for most people, and hence, as mentioned at the beginning of the population section when looking at the numbers, population growth could decline in a more natural way as well. Of course, elimination of the wastage is no easy task, but it would be the more just and appropriate place to address inequalities, environmental destruction and so on.)

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

Back to top

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.