The population bomb or the consumption bomb?

Written by Emily Benson on .

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Last week, in the opulent setting of one of the Royal Society's lecture rooms, two prominent thinkers on the environment engaged one another in a fierce battle. The debate tackled an issue that is the core to sustainable development but one that often lurks rather ominously on the fringes of discussions - population growth.

Jonathan Porritt, Co-Founder of Forum for the Future and long term member of the Green Party, argued that population growth represents one of the most prominent threats to sustainable development. He stressed that, as the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population had underscored, the ability for women to access adequate health facilities was above all a question of human rights, and as such, it was critical that efforts continue to be made to ensure effective family planning programmes to ensure that women worldwide have the right to choose against unwanted births and pregnancies. He went on to highlight that the demands for the world's resources show no signs of slowing. Indeed, the latest TEEB report again confirms that as the demands of businesses and consumers increase one rather key stakeholder is being squeezed out of the equation – nature herself. Finally, he went on to describe the implications that population growth will have on our global carbon emissions, which represents a vast threat towards any hope of achieving more sustainable patterns of development.

Fred Pearce, the environment and development consultant for the New Scientist and regular contributor to the Guardian, countered that the population question is dealt with in hysterical tones and fails to take on board the statistical evidence of world fertility patterns. In the vast majority of the world women are having half as many children as their mothers did. He noted that in Bangladesh and India, areas of the world associated with high population growth and density, women are now having on average 2 – 3 children. Contrary to common portrayals, we do not face an ever increasing population problem and by all predictions population figures will stabilise at around 9 billion in the coming decades. Thus, according to Pearce, this so called 'population bomb' is one that is already being diffused through personal choice and thus does not need a prominent position on the international agenda. The consumption bomb, an altogether more dangerous weapon, is loudly ticking away.

There were some weaknesses to Pearce's dismissal of population growth as an issue. There are still parts of the world, particularly parts of Africa and the Middle East, where the average fertility rate hovers at around 6 – 7 births per female. In many cases the birth rates remain stubbornly high despite the hundreds and thousands of donor assistance poured into family planning programmes. Even more prominently, his logic under-estimates the future consumption patterns of the extra billion more people populating the globe. Even if that additional billion people are predominantly low consumers, each and every one of them represents an additional set of demands for food, energy, water and resources.

However, the strength of Pearce's argument was that it highlighted in stark terms the hypocrisy of the West's approach towards sustainable development. The world's richest half billion people are responsible for 50% of global carbon emissions whilst the world's poorest have only a tiny carbon footprint. Put another way, the average carbon footprint of an American represents the equivalent of 40 Nigerians or 250 Ethiopians. Furthermore, carbon is certainly not the only issue. People in industrial countries account for about 20% of world population, yet consume 86% of its aluminium, 81% of its paper, 80% of its iron and steel, and 76% of its timber. The average US citizen accounts for the use of 540 tons of construction materials, 18 tons of paper, 23 tons of wood, 16 tons of metals and 32 tons of organic chemicals in the course of his lifetime. We now know the rates at which we are munching through natural resources is not sustainable and yet in the West we have had almost no success and very limited commitment to reducing our own consumption patterns. We are seemingly impotent in the face of our own consumerist behaviour, which offers a far more worrying threat than population growth.

In order to reduce the flow of materials for consumption, we require a transition as profound as that from the Stone to the Bronze age brought about. We require a change of mentality on the part of industry and individuals alike, from consumption of virgin raw materials and discarding the waste, to taking into account the need for environmentally efficient materials use. The Earth Summit 2012 has identified the 'green economy' as one of its key agenda items. Whilst definitions of a greener economy are still very vague and open to a wider range of interpretations, its emergence on the international agenda poses an ideal opportunity to tackle the issue of consumption in honest and open terms.