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Why 7 billion isn't as scary as you think

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Jonathan Thompson | Nov 01, 2011 09:15 AM

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.

Lynne Gonzales
Lynne Gonzales
Nov 01, 2011 12:53 PM
We all know that any and all problems are fomented by "them"...yup, the anonymous but guilty "they"...we are never the cause of any problems!! [yes, that's sarcasm, especially well-known by Americans, most of whom, I guess, would not recognize it as sarcasm, but as "truth"]
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Nov 01, 2011 01:11 PM
Jonathan makes a good point about the inequality of consumption around the world but that doesn't negate a simple truth -- you can either have a lot of people with a low quality of life (subsistence diet, reduced biodiversity, simplified ecosystems, more crowding, fewer personal freedoms, fewer wild places) or you can have fewer people with a higher quality of life (more available resources per person). So the issue becomes what kind of life do you want for humans in the future?

Certainly we can argue about quality of life issues (personally I don't equate consumption with quality although economists do) but the basic math stays the same. More of us means less of everything else.

Personally I find the graph of human population increase

http://www.npr.org/[…]/visualizing-how-a-population-grows-to-7-billion

a bit frightening because of the resemblance to a wildlife population with no downward mortality pressure that inevitably results in catastrophic ecosystem damage and a population crash.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Nov 01, 2011 03:01 PM
Tim: While I, too, find the population graphs frightening, I do think your "simple truth" is, well, too simple.

The fact is that the overall impact of 2 billion people, each of whom consumes X, is virtually the same as 1 billion people, each of whom consumes 2X. Population numbers, alone, mean very little unless they are connected to consumption rates.

When it comes to energy, Germans consume X, while Americans consume 2X. Yet Germans have an equally high quality of life, if not higher, than Americans. I lived in Germany for a year, and never felt like I was skimping in any way. Indeed, there exists a sense of abundance there -- trains and buses that will take you anywhere you want to go, a social safety net that will catch you if you fall on hard times and pay for your health insurance if you can't afford it, etc (Meanwhile, they have a negative population growth rate). What that tells me is that Americans could conceivably cut their consumption in half, back down to X, without sacrificing any quality of life. That would, in turn, reduce pressures to drill and mine, thereby reducing pressure on the environment, wild spaces and wildlife, resulting in a higher quality of life for all.

Reducing consumption in America is not easy -- our culture and capitalistic system depend on it. But it's certainly not any more difficult than trying to control global population growth, and it's probably a lot more effective (the China example shows that curbing population, alone, did not curb consumption and its impacts). The frightening population numbers are adding up elsewhere; the scary consumption numbers are right here at home. Why not start here?

I do appreciate your feedback and the opportunity for a dialogue on this issue.
Paul Larmer
Paul Larmer Subscriber
Nov 01, 2011 03:10 PM
Hi Jonathan: would Germany (or for that matter the US) have such a great economy if it didn't have a rapidly growing number of people to sell its products and services too? Even the most progressive economies rely on population growth to succeed.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Nov 01, 2011 03:21 PM
Paul: This is a good point. But again, it's not people in the fast-growing population countries that are buying Mercedes, Krupps and BMWs, it's the people in the fast-growing economies, which are two very different things. The economies of Germany, or for that matter China and the U.S., rely more on growing wealth than growing populations (and that, too, is a problem, because it means they rely on growing consumption rates). That's capitalism for you.
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Nov 01, 2011 03:46 PM
Thanks for your comments Jonathan. I would point out that simple energy use comparisons are complicated by Germany having 229 people per sq km vs 31 people per sq km in the U.S. -- which means we spend more on energy simply getting places and shipping things than Germans do. The same argument applies to Japan as well although more so (greater density). The buses and trains that make getting around large parts of Europe so easy are mostly impractical for the smaller towns and wide open spaces in the western U.S. And with greater numbers you have to get away from the idea of personal freedoms that we tend to take for granted (more people means more restrictions).

Don't get me wrong, I think we definitely could and should do a much better job with reducing consumption and waste of resources than we currently are. It's just that if we focus on that side of the equation and ignore the increasing numbers, we're not going to end up in a better place. And saying that we shouldn't be afraid of 7billion kind of leads in that direction.

Perhaps it'd be better to say we should be very aware of BOTH the absolute numbers and the individual rates of consumption of resources.

Jerry King
Jerry King Subscriber
Nov 04, 2011 11:46 AM
What's scary is this article. There is no environmental problem that isn't exacerbated by human population growth. We may not have yet reached the ultimate carrying capacity of the Earth, but whatever it is, it is not infinite. If we do not voluntarily stop human population growth, it will be stopped unvoluntarily by some combination of war, famine, and pestilence. I prefer the former.

Certainly we can and should reduce our per capita resource consumption someone through efficiency improvements. However, neither Americans or anyone in developed nations are voluntarily going to accept significant lifestyle changes to reduce consumption. More importantly, the rest of the world wants to emulate the lifestyles of the rich. You may not be scared by 7 billion people and counting, but I am.

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