The Population Conundrum

Is the real environmental problem population growth or overconsumption? The answer is Yes.

Jonathan Foley

Jonathan Foley is the director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of the Minnesota, where he is a professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. He also leads the IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative.

I can’t seem to give a public presentation on environmental issues without someone in the audience standing up and ask ing, “But isn’t the real problem overpopulation?” Nine times out of 10, these people are white, older, of at least middle-class income and well educated. And, most of the time, they have several children of their own, and often many grandchildren.

At these moments, my irony detector is usually going off the scale.

But maybe they’re right? Isn’t population a huge problem? Surely the vast number of human beings now on the planet is an issue? Or are they looking for a convenient scapegoat, ignoring the possibility that our own patterns of consumption are the central issue instead?

Unfortunately, as with most important questions, there isn’t a simple, single answer.

To start, let’s be clear about one thing: global environmental problems are not caused solely by population growth. The number of people on the planet per se doesn’t affect our climate, our ecosys tems or our natural resources. It’s how we collectively consume and pollute that impacts the environment.

Plus, a relatively small number of us are responsible for the vast majority of the globe’s consumption, pollution, land and water degradation, and biodiversity loss. In the United States alone, our 4 percent of the global population accounts for roughly 25 percent of the world’s fossil fuel use—about six times our share of the planetary pie.

And, for the most part, the richest nations of the world are not growing their population (except through immigration). Instead, we are increasing our use of resources as we desperately try to keep our consumer-based economies afloat.

So, are things that simple? Is the problem overconsumption by the rich, and not population?

No. Population growth is definitely contributing to our global problems too, but in a different way.

The world’s poorest nations are not only home to some of the fastest growing populations, but also often the most vulnerable to environmental, political and economic disruptions. While the people who inhabit them contribute relatively little to global environmental degradation, they will be the first to feel the impacts.

It’s a one-two punch: The rich are rapidly increasing consumption and causing the lion’s share of our planetary environmental problems, while the number of poor is growing, putting more people in harm’s way and increasing human vulnerability to environmental disruption.

Yes, population is an issue. But so is overconsumption. The two are working in parallel, at opposite ends of the economic scale. It’s a perfect storm.

As if that weren’t enough, the world is adding a difficult twist: Sizable numbers of poor people are moving into the global middle class, dramatically increasing their consumption along the way. And here in the United States we can hardly complain: None of us has the right to deny poorer nations the right to develop, especially when their per capita consumption is still so much lower than our own.

So, in all of this doom and gloom, is there any good news?

Yes: Not too long ago, demographers were forecasting that global population by 2050 would reach 10 to 12 billion, instead of the 9 billion we expect today. And when I was a kid, people were talking about 15 to 18 billion. As population forecasts have been revised over the years, they have generally been revised downward.

Fortunately, population growth on a global scale appears to be slowing faster than anyone predicted as human welfare improves. The demographic transition appears to be working. People all across the world are choosing to have smaller families.

The bad news is that consumption appears to be still increasing rapidly, with no end in sight. So far there hasn’t been negative feedback on consumption, telling us to slow down. The rich want to be richer. Big consumers want to consume even more. It’s an endless treadmill, and no one knows how to get off. Instead of the “Population Bomb” of the 1960s, we now have an even larger “Consumption Bomb,” and we don’t know how to defuse it. This bomb may well define our relationship to the environment for the 21st century and beyond.

Going back to the people in the audience, how should I answer their question about population being the real problem in the global environment?

I will continue to give them the best answer I have: Yes. And no.

Jonathan Foley
Director, Institute on the Environment


Used with permission from SEED Magazine, which published an earlier version of this essay.