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All-Consuming Question: Is Population or Behavior the Problem?

Talking to reporters and others about More: Population, Nature, and What Women, I’m sometimes asked where consumption fits into the population picture. A book review in the intriguingly named magazine Bitch, for example, criticized the book for “failing to adequately distinguish between the individuals who are overpopulating the world and the individuals who are responsible for the type of overconsumption that causes environmental deterioration.”

Well, the book actually doesn’t identify any individuals who are “overpopulating the world.” I explain on the book’s second page why I don’t like the word overpopulation. And for many years I chaired the board of the Center for a New American Dream, which works to make North American consumption a sustainable model for the world. I see More as is one sense all about consumption, because it is through what they use, consume and discard that human beings affect the environment.

Unfortunately for open discussions, consumption is often placed in opposition to population, as the Bitch review does—as if one part of the world has no population and only consumes, while another has no consumption and only populates. That’s not how the world works. Population and consumption multiply each other everywhere, in rich countries and poor, even though the dynamics and magnitude of each force vary widely across and within countries.

One obvious connection between the two is that if populations had never grown large, the consumption levels of individuals wouldn’t have much impact on the environment. We worry about consumption precisely because there are so many of us affecting nature and natural resources. A second point, which I explore in More (p. 230), is that population growth itself has historically driven people to innovate in ways that often boost individual consumption. The exhaustion of forests as European populations kept growing drove people in the 16th century to use coal, long considered a dirty fuel inferior to wood. Improvements in coal mining made possible the Industrial Revolution, which in turn facilitated the hazardous alteration of the earth’s atmosphere today. In modern industrialized nations, sprawl and the great distances many people drive have a lot to do with high population densities.

As More makes clear, we’re not going to solve human-induced climate change or most other serious environmental problems through any one policy change, technological breakthrough or change in individual behavior. It’s going to take action on every level, and even then we’ll be adapting to a rapidly changing environment for generations to come. A world of 6.7 billion people can’t easily change its behavior to leave no imprint on the earth. What’s attractive about addressing population is that it will stop growing, for the best of reasons, if we can satisfy the wants of women everywhere for reproductive choice. A stable or gradually declining world population offers the best demographic platform for a sustainable future, one in which consumption is environmentally safe and meets the needs and reasonable wants of people everywhere.