The quintessential point that population is the “one subject too taboo” or “the elephant in the room everyone is ignoring” or “the fundamental issue we need to deal with” with respect to climate change, biodiversity, food security, environment, etc. seems to raise its hoary head less often than it did, but I still see it skitter around the room somewhat on the regular.

So I thought I’d just post a couple of “oldies” today that address this rather ossified talking point, to remind us of what a “science/evidence-based” look at the issues really says. (Spoilers/tl;dr: it says pointing to population is too simplistic, and if thought of in isolation of other factors, is positively incorrect and unproductive):

De Sherbinin et al. are masterful on this:

“Thus, it would appear that population growth is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for either declines or improvements in agricultural productivity to occur. Population growth can either operate as a negative factor, increasing pressure on limited arable land, or a positive factor, helping to induce intensification through adoption of improved technologies and higher labor inputs. Where it does which depends on factors in the economic and institutional realms. This conclusion is supported by two ambitious meta-analyses of studies that looked at dryland degradation (or desertification) and agricultural intensification (76, 77). The authors reject both single-factor causation and irreducible complexity but propose instead that a limited number of underlying driving forces, including population, and proximate causes are at work to produce either degradation or intensification…

In summary, as in other areas, the relationship between population dynamics and water resources is complex. At the aggregate level, other things being equal, population growth most assuredly does reduce per capita water availability. It is in this light that the Global International Waters Assessment listed population growth first in a series of root causes of the “global water crisis” (89). Yet there is more to population change than growth alone, and rarely are other factors equal, so the specific impacts of population dynamics on water often come down to a complex array of place-specific factors that relate to economic and climatic changes, agricultural and industrial technologies, sewage treatment, and institutional mechanisms, to name but a few.”

With specific reference to Africa, Homewood et al. is a classic:

“Correlation and causal analyses demonstrate that major changes in land cover and wildebeest numbers are driven primarily by markets and national land tenure policies, rather than agropastoral population growth. Spread of mechanized agriculture, but not agropastoral land use, is associated with the critical spatial location of changes underlying wildebeest decline.”

And a final piece — many people (including the noted ecologist Paul Ehrlich) seem to continue to believe/say that cutting consumption is impractical, so even though population and consumption (and technology) affect total “impact” or footprint, population [control] is where we have the most potential leverage. In response, I’d like you, dear reader, to keep the following points in mind:

  1. Wait, what?
  2. Umm….

Ok, perhaps I should be more specific. Starting again with tl;dr/spoilers, Macalaster geographer William Moseley is very straightforward and trenchant on the topic in an “oldie” from 2007 I twittered out yesterday:

…Americans consume, on average, 6.8 times as much energy as the Chinese, 7.3 times as much as Brazilians and 28 times as much as Ethiopians.

In other words, in terms of environmental impact, our already high and exponentially growing per capita energy consumption far outweighs any population growth in the developing world.

So why focus on controlling population numbers when environmental impact is the result of three factors, not one?

As a college professor, I have watched students debate this issue for years. While students recognize the importance of all three factors, they invariably argue that it just isn’t practical to try to control overconsumption. They suggest that the pragmatist must focus on what can be done – for instance, developing energy-efficient technology worldwide and supporting education and distribution of family planning methods in the developing world.

I am perplexed by the assumption that encouraging families in the developing world to have fewer children is more doable than reducing U.S. consumption. Having fewer or no children may be easy for a middle-class person in the United States, where raising children is expensive and most of us expect no economic return from children as they grow older. In fact, one could argue that having children in the American context is economically irrational.

It’s true that millions of families in the developing world desire access to modern contraceptives, and filling this unmet need is important. However, for millions of others, children are crucial sources of farm labor or important wage earners who help sustain the family. Children often act as the old-age social security system for their parents. For these families, having fewer children is not an easy decision…

It’s time population control came off the top of the environmental agenda. While we should help those who want access to better family planning abroad, the real focus should be on controlling wasteful consumption at home.

Said in a more rambling, wordy way:

  1. Why is consumption not possible to control, but population is? If you ask an economist, damaging consumption (should they deign to acknowledge such a thing exists) can be curbed through proper pricing, taxes, or other similar approaches. In a way, consumption is (based on the unrealistic equations/expectations of Econ 101) practically the easiest thing in the world to “control” — or at least, incentives & disincentives (in price) should moderate consumption of many products. (The details, including elasticity, get a bit complex, but that doesn’t typically stop economists from emphasizing simplistic underlying mechanisms.)
  2. Ah, one might say–that’s (arguably) true! Consumption can be moderated easily through the pricing and tax mechanisms. BUT–c’mon, those things are politically unrealistic. Ok, if I grant you that (which I don’t)–what makes population control, particularly for overconsumers in the Global North, MORE realistic? I realize many countries are seeing their population growth slow down or reverse, but us mega-consumers in the US: not so much. And many countries are trying to FIGHT their population growth slow-down. Not to mention the deeply personal choices–and survival choices, in the case of most places with rapid population growth rates–these personal choices would seem to be if anything even harder to “control” than consumption, no?

I’d like us to be able to follow Prof. Moseley’s advice, and see population essentialism–Malthusianism and its step-child, neo-Malthusianism–slink ever farther into the corners, making way for much more nuanced–science-based, you might even say–conversations. ‘Tis a dream I have.

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