Environmental Challenge: Overpopulation vs Overconsumption

Overpopulation has long been seen as one of the more significant problems that face this planet. While population growth without resources to sustain those people is an obvious problem, it’s a view that tends to miss the real concern. An even greater concern than overpopulation may be overconsumption. It is overconsumption that places an unsustainable strain on the environment.

Humanity has seen remarkable growth through the course of our development. Let’s pause for a moment to examine how much our species has grown in numbers.

Global human populations were 1 billion in 1804. Over the next 120-plus years, the population doubled to 2 billion residents. Roughly 30-years later, we added a billion more. Another billion were added just about every 12-15 years thereafter.

The current global population as of April 2016 is 7.4-billion people. While it took countless eons to hit that first billion mark, we have been able to expand seven-fold in the 200-years that followed.

Countless factors have influenced population grown over the decades. Some of the more significant variables that take place include:

  • Medical advances are leading to longer lives.
  • Improved diets and nutrition lead to healthier populations that can live longer.
  • Advances in agricultural practices have enabled more produce to be harvested from the same amount of land.
  • Economic development and growth enables a population the capital to improve their standards of living.
  • Disease or famine still have a way of slowing population growth in areas where quality medical care is not available.
  • War continues to ravage oppressed people around the globe; especially in areas of weak or unstable governments.

Many of these variables are easy to follow and recognize how they influence global population. We are going to focus specifically on where overpopulation takes its toll on the environment: the intersection of economic development.

How Economic Development Impacts the Environment

Economic development in this conversation will be in comparison to the United States – this will allow context for each of the points.

It’s not a stretch to say the living conditions of the world’s poor are deplorable. Many of the poorest nations have limited access to basic resources like fresh water.

Further, as we examine these nations, we see that they have limited economies that rely heavily on tourism and the export of their limited resources. This sadly describes the operating model for most third world nations.

A long-standing push has been to raise the conditions of third world nations. Success stories have been seen over the decades in places such as India. Robust economies have developed, allowing the people to raise their standard of living. While it’s nowhere near what Americans experience, it’s been an economic revolution nonetheless.

This is where the perception that overpopulation is the primary problem becomes a little muddy. Developing nations that work to pull their citizens out of third world living conditions find themselves confronted with new challenges. As a nation’s people become better capable of making a living, they also begin to find themselves in a position to raise their standard of living.

Access to basic staples such as food or medical care become more reliable which is a tremendous benefit; but there remains a dark side to development – consumerism.

Citizens of nations rising in status look to role model nations such as those in Europe or the U.S. for how life should be lived. This is where our problem comes to a head. The United States only represents 5% of the world population; however, we consume an incredible 24% of planet’s energy alone.

Any product manufactured requires resources. Your iPhone or latest tablet requires precious metals to be mined. Those raw materials have to be refined and processed. And with each step in the process, comes untold environmental impact. We won’t get into a deep discussion on sustainable manufacturing or carbon footprints here; but understand that it is this consumption that drives the environmental problems.

If China and India were to consume resources at the rate that the United States does, the results would be an environmental disaster.

Effects of Overconsumption

The environmental and social impacts created as a result of overconsumption are far reaching. Some of the greatest causes for concern include the following:

Exhaustion of Natural Resources: Our little blue marble can only replenish itself at certain rate. Right now it takes 1.5 years to replenish what we take from it in a single year. As a result, ocean fish populations continue to drop, tropical rainforests continue to be cleared to support large scale farming, strip mining continues to haul unthinkable volumes of material from the earth, and coal-burning power plants continue to be the dominant source of energy on the planet.

Again, while many people point to high population levels as the problem, the reality is that superficially high consumption levels are causing us to drain the earth of its resources at ever increasing rates.

Environmental Damage: Fossil fuels still represent the largest source for global energy. So long as these dirty sources of energy are used, we will continue to pump climate change inducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A greater demand (consumption) means we need to produce even more energy to make the products being consumed.

Climate change is already putting many ecosystems in jeopardy. Some areas of the Earth are seeing historic temperature increases causing sea level rise, while others are experiencing unprecedented drought. Many fresh water aquifers are at all-time lows as a direct result of consumption. Think about that the next time you see a sprinkler watering a lawn while it’s raining outside.

Overconsumption continues to drive massive deforestation efforts. The result of this action is an unspeakable and permanent loss of biodiversity.

Epic Levels of Waste: Walk around your neighborhood on trash day and the amount of waste we produce becomes quickly evident. The cans lining the streets acting as sentinels guarding their posts. Additional bags piled around the cans because there just isn’t enough room for all our trash in the can.

We live in a disposable society – sure some recycling is done; but not nearly enough. The bulk of what we purchase is destined for landfill at some point in the future. Too many things are in fact designed for a single use and then discarded. It’s a philosophy of consumerism that is not sustainable.

How Overconsumption is Being Battled

The changes to consumer spending habits have started with individuals. The start of the “green movement” has been a grassroots solution driven by individuals that have said enough is enough. People are seeking more sustainable solutions to home construction and are following building programs such as LEED. Other people are using any of the various sustainable certifications such as USDA Organic, Energy Star, or others to help make the purchasing decisions.

Businesses around the globe are looking at their own internal practices and in many cases Sustainability Officers have been put in place to drive corporate strategy.

Additionally, alternative forms of energy are constantly being developed to push for cleaner and renewable energy.

Finally, many nations have opted to tackle overconsumption by taking on population. Nations such as China have put in aggressive restrictions on the size of families and the effects of those regulations are starting to take hold. Nations that had seen tremendous population growth are starting to level off with an expectation that those populations will actually contract in future decades.

Final Thoughts

Still don’t see overconsumption as the problem – still think overpopulation is the driver we need to focus on? Then consider this… the American population tripled over the last hundred years; but our insatiable lust for consumption increased almost 20-fold. We love to shop so much that we found innovative ways to do it from home. As if home shopping channels were not enough, online shopping became the rage.

Wealthy nations deflect their overconsumption to the topic of overpopulation as a mechanism to ensure that their consumption pattern can continue. It’s an effective tactic in many cases; but the reality is that population control may end up as the medicine we need to take until we can cure ourselves from our insatiable need for consumption.

The American lifestyle is simply unsustainable and exporting that lifestyle through overconsumption to developing nations is a surefire way to expedite environmental crises across the globe. We need to make more sustainable lifestyle decisions. The next time you are putting your “To Do List” together, think about how you can make it more sustainable.