Why 7 billion isn't as scary as you think

 

On October 31, the human population officially hit 7 billion. Since humans have a thing for nice big round numbers, the occasion was marked with a great deal of fretting about overpopulation. And the UN’s choice of Halloween as the official date of 7 billion gave all kinds of alarmists the opportunity to declare that population growth was a lot scarier than ghouls and goblins.

Or not.

 

Sure, trying to wrap one’s mind around a number like 7 billion is pretty daunting. It evokes visions of people crowding every square inch of every continent, with the poor Earth sagging under the weight of all that humanity. The real numbers we should be worried about, however, are a lot smaller, and a lot more significant. They have to do not with how many people there are, but with how much we as a society consume. Because it’s consumption, not the number of people, which dictates how much of the earth is drilled or torn up for minerals or coal. It's how much energy we use and resources we put into our cars, appliances and gizmos that ultimately determines how much pollution we spew into the water and air and onto the land. So forget 7 billion, here are some really scary numbers:

  • 5.6 percent. Increase in global energy consumption in 2010*. 
  • 1.2 percent. The globalpopulation growth rateduring that same period.
  • 11.2 percent. Increase in China’s energy consumption in 2010.
  • .5 percent. China’s population growth rate during that same period.
  • 200 percent. Amount China’s overall oil consumption has shot up during the last decade.
  • 6 percent. The amount China’s population has increased during the last decade.
  • 400 percent. Amount China’s per capita income increased during the last decade.


Why are these numbers scary? Because they show that global consumption of resources is increasing rapidly (it’s not just energy, the same is true for copper, scrap metal, molybdenum, you name it). They are not inextricably linked to population, as those who are sounding the 7 billion alarm would imply, but to wealth and income and lifestyle. China’s strict policies have successfully curbed population growth. Yet the impacts that we normally attribute to rampant population growth continue to increase much faster than the population.

 

 I’m picking on China because when we think of population “bombs” and “monsters,” we tend to think of China and India. I’m also picking on China because their hunger for resources, both on a per capita and overall basis, is growing faster than anyone else’s. That’s increasing global demand for resources, which in turn raises global prices, which encourages corporations to drill, mine and grow more -- in many cases here in the Western US. It’s not that China is greedy, it’s just trying to raise its standard of living to one that, well, resembles ours. Which brings up some even more frightening numbers:

  • 19 million. Number of barrels of oil the United States consumes. Every single day. This is more than twice as much as China, despite the fact that we have less than one-third of the population.
  • 23. The number of barrels, on average, that each American uses annually.
  • 10. The number of barrels each German uses annually.
  • 2. The number of barrels each Chinese person uses annually.


Without even donning costumes, every American went as a glutton on Halloween and every other day of the year. We are shameless consumers. Proud of it, in fact. We have convinced ourselves that our very existence as a nation is dependent on how much we buy, that our collective quality of life increases in direct proportion to our collective spending. We can only hope that the so-called developing nations such as China and India emulate not us, but our affluent European counterparts:

  • 
7:4. Ratio of US per capita energy use to that of Germany.
  • 2:1. Ratio of US per capita CO2 emissions to those of Germany.
  • 4:1. Ratio of Germany’s per capita exportsof merchandise to those of the U.S.


Germany has emerged from the Great Recession as the world’s most powerful economy. It is vying with China and the US as the number one exporter of manufactured goods, but is far above both on a per capita basis. Yet its citizens -- who are at least as educated and with a quality of life that rivals the US -- use far less energy  and cause far less CO2 to be emitted into the atmosphere.

 

This is the good news, because it shows that Americans could consume a lot less and still be “wealthy.” We could trade in our gas-guzzlers for smaller, more efficient cars; airplanes for a high-speed rail system; we could live in smaller houses or apartments; we could adopt energy policies that value efficiency over consumption, and we could do all of this and still maintain a high quality of life. There’s really no reason to believe that reducing our individual footprints to that found in Germany (or France, or Japan, for that matter), would somehow diminish us as a society. And if we did so, we’d reduce our collective consumption footprint enough to offset a little bit of the breakneck consumption growth among the developing nations.

Given our dysfunctional political system, achieving such a vision is likely to be a monumental feat. Indeed, it may be China that ends up leading the way on this front. Still, changing our consumption habits by whatever means makes much more sense than going after population growth as a way to ease environmental pressures. After all, 7 billion is a scary number. But 7 billion times the current consumption rate of me, you and our neighbors? That’s downright terrifying.

*Energy statistics come from the Statistical Review of World Energy 2011. 

 Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and a 2011-2012 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.