Bookmark and ShareRupert Crilly is a researcher in Environmental Economics at nef

The West’s most viral idea is that of material utility. Somehow everyday lives have become organised around a belief that happiness is really just an aggregation of price tags. We can’t be saturated; not even the sky’s the limit. In our Lego-lives we are always looking to buy the right piece – or, more often, pieces – to fill it. Flying to a holiday destination, buying fabulous clothes, driving luxury cars and having the latest gadgets all get piled up into one big happy life. Underneath it all, far below, lays our Earth: the plants and animals that are just dying to make us happy.

The rapid increase in people’s use of the productive capacity of the biosphere is shown here. The late 1980’s saw us consuming more than the world’s biocapacity could provide. In a mirror image, the populations of many supporting organisms are declining, making them less able to cope with or expanding footprint. According to the WWF Living Planet report, we are already 30% above the planet’s biological capacity- likely to be an underestimate considering their calculations excluded aspects of consumption that did not have regenerative capacity. But, as the nef report The Consumption Explosion puts it, the average per capita levels of consumption in developing countries have changed little over many decades. “In rich countries, however, we are each consuming vastly more, yet with little or nothing to show for it in terms of greater life satisfaction.”

Trends in populations of terrestrial, marine, and freshwater vertebrate species
(both graphs from the Living Planet Index)

So what is to be done?
Well, that depends on which camp you fall into really. The debate is extremely polarised. On the one hand there are the likes of the Optimum Population Trust saying that there are just too many people on this planet. On the other, you’ve got development activists– rightly frightened by the prospect of neo-colonial population control measures – saying it’s all about the over-consumption of those living in rich countries. As is often the case when debates are polarised, the evidence suggests that this framing – where it is either population or consumption – is a false dichotomy and actually unhelpful if our goal is about living well and within environmental limits. Let me take you through the numbers.

Starting with population…
The world population is currently around 6.7 billion. Some expect this to increase exponentially, like bacteria, until resource constraints kick in. When resources become a limiting factor and waste concentration rises, the bacterial growth phase plateaus, followed by collapse with the depletion of resources. Concerned that, like bacteria, human population might be headed for a similar demise some have started to ask what human population our world’s resources can sustain. While this question is legitimate, it is also misleading in our current circumstances (and we’re leaving aside for the moment the fact that we don’t really know the answer and that it could be completely unpalatable). It is misleading because, unlike bacteria, we are not in a fixed-capacity test tube but, rather, through our actions can impact on resource availability in quite dramatic ways  It is true that we do not have infinite resources, but we can make more or less of what we’ve got.

Consumption vs. Population
So we’ve established that human populations and bacterial populations are not quite the same thing, which is a bit of a relief. We have the ability to manage our resources, and our technology is ever-progressing. Our economic system is geared to manage scarcity, acting as the middle man. Natural resources are accessed ‘freely’, processed, and then sold to the consumer. The amount of money flowing from consumers dictates how much of a resource is taken.

So let’s look at the figures on population and consumption. The WWF Living Planet report graphed the ecological footprints and population sizes by region in 1961 and 2005. Quite clearly the main driving force for a large ecological footprint is not population (though it is a factor) but consumption.

In his forthcoming book Peoplequake Fred Pearce discusses the findings of Stephen Pacala, Director of the Princeton Environmental Institute. Pacala finds that the richest 500 million people (7% of the world’s population) are responsible for 50% of global emissions. This compares with the poorest 50% emitting just 7%.

With Power Comes Responsibility
The graphs dramatically show that developed countries are far more responsible for the global environmental impact than developing countries, both historically and currently. It is no coincidence that they also wield massive global power.

Here are a couple more stats that show just how culpable consumers in rich countries are for the environmental degradation that’s occurring. According to the Global Footprint Network, Denmark’s ecological footprint is 7.2 global hectares per person, or twelve times that of Malawi. A recent nef report found that, starting a New Year, “one person in the United States will, by 4am in the morning of 2 January, already have been responsible for the equivalent in climate change causing carbon emissions that a Tanzanian would take a whole year to generate. A UK citizen would reach the same point by 7pm on 4 January”.

These stats aren’t license to dismiss the role of population. But, as environmental activist George Monbiot says, the problem posed by population growth is many times over eclipsed by the consumption of the rich: “economic growth this century could be 32 times as big an environmental issue as population growth”. The most urgent challenge is to make the transition to an economically viable system that manages the world’s resources in a sustainable and equitable way. And so, in the famous words of The Tick, “Hey! You in the pumps! I say to you – stop being bad!”