It's the population, stupid?

  • Jonathan Thompson


On my desk sits a stack of manila folders. Each one contains an essay that argues, essentially, that all of our problems -- especially the environmental ones -- are caused by one thing: overpopulation. We get a lot of this sort of thing. Most of it comes from a guy named Frosty Wooldridge, who has beaten the population drum for years. But we also get letters from other folks, usually after a story about water or sprawl or immigration, emphatically demanding that we wake up and address the root of all evils: There are just too many people.

In this issue's powerful cover essay, Chuck Bowden finally does it for us. It's only a sentence or two, but it feels like a punch in the gut. Not that you populistas out there should get too excited: We're not about to become the Overpopulated Country News.

On one level, of course, the populistas are correct. An increased number of people will generally increase the strain on the environment. In one of the essays on my desk, Bromwell Ault of the Center for Public Conscience writes: "Population is a process of silent and powerful geometric increase," which entails "that for every added unit of population we lose one acre of land to the various development projects such growth requires." In other words: For every person added to a place, there is a directly proportional impact to the environment.

The appeal of this equation lies in its simplicity. As Wooldridge dramatically writes: "It is possessed of that same beautiful, and sometimes deadly, precision that we find in E=mc2 and a2+b2=c2." Yet that same simplicity is the equation's underlying flaw, for it leaves out the most important variable: consumption. Indeed, a more pertinent equation would be this: The more we consume, the greater the environmental impact.

And, contrary to what some might believe, consumption is not directly proportional to population. An average family of four in Mexico City, for example, lives on a much smaller piece of land and consumes considerably less than a similar family in a McMansion on the exurban fringe of Phoenix, complete with green lawn, three cars, big-screen television and a high-calorie fast-food diet. Each "population unit's" consumption level is determined by its own set of variables -- societal and individual values, culture, land-use regulations, wealth, economic systems, etc.

We will not curtail our consumption by stopping the flow of people from Mexico to the United States. In an age when Colorado shoppers buy apples from New Zealand and a single hamburger patty is amalgamated from cow parts grown and processed in several different countries, it should be obvious that keeping people on one side of a political boundary does not confine their impacts to that side of the line. Not that we've ever been able to keep people on one side of a border -- as Bowden points out, neither a border wall nor a police state can stifle the migratory urge.

It is indeed frightening to watch the national and global population clock race forward. But that is not the only or even the most important issue at hand. More important than how many of us there are is how we choose to live, both as individuals and collectively. And that requires acts of conscience and human innovation and will, none of which can be contained by a simple equation.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

The conjunction of the complex and the simple
Joseph J. Bish
Joseph J. Bish
Mar 02, 2010 02:28 PM
Having just had the privilege of coordinating the month-long 2010 Global Population Speak Out, which combined the efforts of individuals from 37 different nations, many of them highly credentialed ecologists, scholars and activists, I can appreciate -- and support -- the nuance Jonathan Thompson is trying to bring to the table here.

Too often human nature results in single-issue advocacy, a polarized focus on some single part of a complex problem. When it comes to achieving sustainable living scenarios with our only habitable planet, however, its not particularly sensationalist to say that we are looking at a most complex challenge. I think Mr. Thompson would agree.

No one of good will in this struggle can afford to fall into single-issue advocacy that demeans or belittles the efforts of others to address aspects of this wildly complex challenge. Most important, I believe, it is in no ones best interest to keep flinging around iterations pronouncing that "this" issue is most important, or "that" issue is most important.

For instance, the GPSO website states that:

"The size and growth of the human population are fundamental drivers of the ecological crisis we face – no less crucial, for instance, than over-production and over-consumption in developed nations. In fact, almost all habitat & biodiversity loss, atmospheric emissions and toxic pollutants can be traced back to the interplay of ALL these factors. If we hope to slow down and mitigate this worldwide tragedy, many experts agree, we’ll need to continue working strenuously on adopting eco-friendly, sustainable economic behavior, but also conduct a massive shift of attention and resources toward humane, progressive measures designed to stabilize and ultimately reduce world population to a sustainable level."

Notice that there is no move to suggest that population completely trumps other issues like wasteful production and mindless consumption: which all combine to form a powerful triumvirate of un-sustainability. Rather, what the GPSO community members are contributing to the discourse of sustainability is the reminder that population, as this article states, is incontrovertibly a part of the sustainability equation. Unfortunately, this recognition remains elusive to far too many other wise well-informed people -- mostly due to an ongoing, though quickly diminishing taboo against public and media discussion of population in the context of long term planetary sustainability.

Let's dispense with our human frailties that cause us to wish we weren't in such a challenging situation and then veer us towards creating simplistic platitudes as the basis of our denial. A few examples of GPSO participants are listed below. Their credentials and willingness to Speak Out on the problems the size and growth of human population creates for achieving sustainable living scenarios are, in fact, simple examples of the complexity we face.

Martin Dieterich, Ph. D., President, Society for Conservation Biology, European Section

John Burton, Author; CEO, World Land Trust

Arend de Haas, Director of Conservation, African Conservation Foundation, Kenya

Steven Beissinger, Ph.D., A. Starker Leopold Chair in Wildlife Biology and Professor of Conservation Biology, Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, Division of Ecosystem Sciences, University of California Berkeley

Frank Fisher, Professor Faculty of Design & Convenor, Graduate Programs, National Centre for Sustainability Australia, Inaugural Australian Environmental Educator of the Year (2007-8)

Jane Roberts, Cofounder, 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund (; Author, 34 MILLION FRIENDS of the Women of the World

Helena Frietas, Ph.D., President of the Portuguese Ecological Society (SPECO); Vice-President of the Board of the European Ecological Federation

Brian Czech, Ph.D., President, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Over Population
Mar 02, 2010 06:10 PM
Over Population

I agree the future shows a Major Population Probelm.

Can you really trust Congress, State legislatures
 or Bureaucratic agencies to solve the Problem?

Congress and State Legislatures and Bureaucratic agencies
 will Abolish our Liberty.

US Senator Evan Bayh said

Congress needs a Shock.
The Voters need to Vote Out EnMass All of Congress.

He is Correct.

Your Liberty is at Risk.

the US is 6% of the worlds population.

Even if our population were to shrink by Half,

97% of the problem will not be solved.

The Problem is Not in America,
Contrary to what the "Bash America First" = Communists
would have you believe.

population growth
Tim Murray
Tim Murray
Mar 02, 2010 08:35 PM
"Populistas" are not one-trick ponies. They have only being trying to put the "P" back into the "IPAT" equation, which the environmental organizations formerly accepted but thanks to political corrections and corporate donations have dropped. FYI, IPAT means environmental impact (I)= population level (P)X per capita consumption rate (A)X technology (T). Mother Nature does not care about per capita consumption. She only worries about Total consumption, which is a function of the aforementioned variables.
Think of a teeter-totter with the population level on one end and the consumption level on the other. To achieve sustainability, if the population level goes down, per capita consumption can go up, and visa versa. We have a choice. We can play the soft green game and manage the environment to accomodate a growing population, or we can manage population levels to accomodate the environment. What sense does it make to cut our per capita consumption in half and then permit the doubling of our population? In a nutshell, our problem is Too Many People Consuming too much. Ignore one variable and you deny them both. You are in denial.

Tim Murray
Environmental Impact = Population X Per Capita Consumption
Brishen Hoff
Brishen Hoff
Mar 03, 2010 05:45 AM
Since all people must consume resources in order to survive, a growing population necessarily increases total resource consumption eventually.

Either scarcity of resources will stop our growth via starvation, or we will stop it via laws against reproduction. Currently our society's stupidity suggests it will be the former. The author reinforces our society's stupidity by ignorantly saying "only consumption matters" as our population continues to grow by about 80 million annually.
Peter Salonius
Peter Salonius
Mar 03, 2010 11:24 AM
For those readers who truly believe thr statement in the article that: "More important than how many of us there are is how we choose to live, both as individuals and collectively." ---- I offer the following essay, posted on THEOILDRUM 28/12/09 entitled:

'Long term agricultural overshoot' at:
If the estimate for sustainable human numbers in the 100s of millions, is correct, then this suggests that the present global population has so far overshot the carrying capacity of its supporting ecosystems that most analyses of the relationship of excessive human numbers to SPECIFIC ASPECTS of environmental damage are simply indulgent academic exercises.

There are more people on the planet (and have been for millennia) than it can sustainably support.

Many of us have concluded that even TWO CHILD FAMILIES -- that would only slowly stabilize the human population -- are not an adequate response to this problem; we require the VOLUNTARY adoption of NO or ONE CHILD PER FAMILY behavior to orchestrate the Rapid Population DECLINE that is necessary now.

Peter Salonius
Hardly anyone says the problem is "one thing: overpopulation."
John Feeney
John Feeney
Mar 03, 2010 11:28 AM
As Tim mentions above, those who promote greater awareness and discussion of the population issues are merely trying to point out that environmental groups have typically discussed per capita consumption and other factors in recent years while conspicuously avoiding overpopulation. I've almost never seen a population activist who says population is the *only* problem. They all point to its multiplication with per capita consumption to determine total consumption.

So it's nice to see you point out the problem of either/or thinking by saying, "Yet that same simplicity is the equation's underlying flaw, for it leaves out the most important variable: consumption.".

Unfortunately, you then go on to engage in it yourself when you say, "Indeed, a more pertinent equation would be this: The more we consume, the greater the environmental impact."

No, per capita consumption is not *more* pertinent. You might think of it as described recently by Robert Engelman of Worldwatch: Per capita consumption did not become a global problem until the number of consumers grew large enough to make it so.

So while we must absolutely address both population and per person consumption, we must acknowledge the truth, that the human population has grown so large that no reduction in per person consumption would be enough, in the absence of a decline in population, to get us out of overshoot:


Perhaps that is why the faculty of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry lists overpopulation as the number one environmental problem:[…]/090418075752.htm

It's a shame to see this semi-dismissal coming from HCN. I grew up in Arizona and saw an amazing and beloved desert landscape turned into strip malls and golf courses. This all comes at the expense of ecosystems and biodiversity. Avoiding half the consumption equation will not begin to stop it. OTOH, following the lead of the Center for Biological Diversity and beginning to speak out loudly on the truth just might help.
Mar 09, 2010 10:28 AM
We need a nuclear war to thin out the world's population.
Complexity or discomfort?
Mar 09, 2010 04:22 PM
I agree with a number of posters above that you cannot so lightly dismiss the absolute number of humans and instead blame the problem primarily on consumption. Far too often this problem gets ignored or dismissed by people who either wish to, or already have procreated and hence, added to to the problem. It thus becomes very uncomfortable to them to have a discussion about reducing population growth (or indeed the population as a whole).

Plus there's the underlying liberal discomfort with the idea that it might well need to be disadvantaged peoples (developing countries) who need to most severely curtail reproduction combined with the conservative discomfort (particularly religious conservatives) that see all procreation as a right, if not a duty. And that's not including the libertarian discomfort with potential of some government organization dictating the numbers and kinds of procreation as form of reward or control.

It is a simple problem with an almost inconceivable complexity in solution. We (humans) already usurp some 40% of global Net Primary Productivity (NPP) and that's 40% that cannot be used by any other organism. That number will continue to rise as population rises until a catastrophic crash occurs (or emigration to other worlds if you are a REALLY optimistic type).

The above argument isn't intended to dismiss the importance of consumption on the impact but even that is a complex argument as the global economy is arguably based entirely on an ever-increasing rate of consumption on both a per capita and total basis.
Capitalist discomfort
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson
Mar 09, 2010 04:49 PM
Doc, you make some great points here and a well-reasoned argument. Much more so than the folks I was pegging as populistas. I don't, however, think that your argument wipes out my original point, which I'll try to clarify. We should worry about collective consumption above all else, because over-consumption (not, say, overcrowding) causes the impacts. There are two factors that feed into collective consumption: 1. population; 2. per-capita-consumption.

And, yes, some people are uncomfortable with population control. But the most powerful -- the capitalists -- are similarly uncomfortable with consumption control. That's because capitalism's very being relies on constant growth in consumption. If we don't all want a bigger television next year, the system collapses.

For all of you who are interested in all of this, here's another article from the Prospect, UK, on the same subject. Out just today:

Thanks for all the great comments.
no, the capitalists aren't worried
Doug Meyer
Doug Meyer
Mar 14, 2010 08:44 PM
“capitalism's very being relies on constant growth in consumption. If we don't all want a bigger television next year, the system collapses.”

Now we’re getting somewhere Jonathan. The human animal’s easily released desire to consume, the necessary condition of capitalism, is our species’ fatal flaw. [subliminal message: the capitalists fund the environmental groups] Those same capitalists know all about global declining fertility rates, which, in the absence of other factors, would be the end of human-value centered economics (even if consumption was non-material based.)

Why aren’t they worried? Because, as Naomi Klein showed us, capitalism thrives on disaster. Regardless of the fertility decline, global warming, water wars, famine, rising seas, lots more wars, and lots less people only means the capitalists will get to start over with no rules (sure, lost capital investments, but they love Darwin, remember?)

My point is to attack the “environmentalists” who ally themselves with capitalism with dreams of “a better future for humanity”, in some fantasy world of global stable population and reduced consumption. It’s either capitalist boom and bust forever or a global progressive gulag of 9 billion people forever. Obviously, Plan B ain’t gonna happen.

And the population/consumption reductions brought on by global warming won’t save the planet or humanity once the furnace gets re-ignited. It doesn’t really matter if humanity burns all the carbon in a few hundred or even a thousand years. That’s still several orders of magnitude faster than Earth’s natural carbon cycle has allowed in its history. It’s over for both the environment and civilization, regardless of any progressive World War II-style effort.

So the notion of conservation of the environment is nothing more than greenwashing, brought to you by your corporate sponsor. If only “environmental journalism” would stop pretending otherwise, we might get some honest understanding of the causes of our nightmare of reality.
still in denial, it would appear
Dave Gardner
Dave Gardner
Mar 16, 2010 09:34 AM
Jonathan Thompson commented: "my original point, which I'll try to clarify. We should worry about collective consumption above all else, because over-consumption (not, say, overcrowding) causes the impacts."

This strikes me as evidence Mr. Thompson still misses, or disagrees with, the point of the commenters here. First, WHO is talking about "overcrowding"? Use of that term suggests the editor of this magazine is very misinformed about the population issue. This is not about overcrowding. It is about resource allocation.

From this comment it appears he is desperate still to shift focus away from addressing both population levels and levels of consumption, and focus primarily on consumption. Yes, consumption causes the impacts, but...

allow me to suggest Thompson calculate his family's ecological footprint, and then calculate how many people with that footprint can be sustained by the Earth's biocapacity. Next he might try calculating the sustainable family footprint in a world with 12 billion people (not 9, because if he has his way and we ignore overpopulation, we will surely zip right past it). Is he willing to put his family on that diet? And if more nations implement baby bonuses, and more environmentalists ignore overpopulation, perhaps the global population will continue to rise toward 20 billion. Is he willing to put his family on THAT diet, necessary to sustainably share Earth's resources among 20 billion?

You see, Mr. Thompson, you cannot get away from the number of people doing the consuming.

I can't help but think that "populista" is intended as a perjorative term. Perhaps Mr. Thompson will clarify his intention with that, too.

I apologize for the rant, but I still find his position disturbing and disappointing.

Dave Gardner
Producing the documentary
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity
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Doyle McClure
Doyle McClure
Mar 16, 2010 10:10 AM
Jonathan Thompson deserves credit in “It’s the population, stupid” for highlighting the elephant-in-the-room, namely, excessive consumption, the devil twin to excessive population growth. However, the discussion might be better described quantitatively by use of an equation expressing the environmental load, or gross resource extraction, (EL), in terms of population (Pop) and per capita consumption (AvCon) as

(EL) = (Pop) x (AvCon).

With appropriate values of the factors, this equation can be applied variously to local regions or social groups, nations, or globally. By introducing an appropriate multiplier, the same equation can also represent the corresponding environmental-pollution load. Or, for those who are charmed by concepts of production and economic activity, appropriate definition of the monetary value of AvCon could transform the equation into a representation of the gross national product.

For comparing the environmental loads due to population growth rates and average consumption in different societies, it is useful to introduce a simple fact from first-year calculus: the change of a product Δ(ab) = (Δa) x (b) + (a) x (Δb), or in the case at hand,

Δ(EL) = (ΔPop) x (AvCon) +(Pop) x (ΔAvCon)

In the case that consumption within a given group is constant over time (ΔAvCon = 0), the change in the environmental load is proportional to both growth rate, (ΔPop,) and average consumption, (AvCon). Various sources indicate the average consumption in the US is ca 25 times higher than the global average, hence the excessively high per capita use of resources, even when growth rates are low.

Two factors make the environmental outlook even gloomier. The media in all forms is inundated with advertising to convince us that more, bigger, newer are essential (thus making ΔAvCon >> 0). Not to forget that the truly underprivileged of the world are also bombarded with evidence of the high consumption of others, i.e., incentives to emulate “the great American dream.”

Of course, it is easy for any of us to by hypocritical as regards consumption. For example, my Mother’s family home in NE New Mexico at the turn of the 20th century was not much larger than my kitchen today.

Doyle McClure

The Earth will take care of itself
Chris Carrier
Chris Carrier
Mar 16, 2010 04:37 PM
All this discussion is really just a lot of mental masturbation. Humans are never going to stop having too many babies and those that can consume will always continue to increase their consumption. We are not going to change. Not to worry however, because our ways will cause everything to go to hell for us humans and most -if not all - of us will die off along with a lot of other life on this planet. And the earth will go on spinning just fine without us. It won't even notice we are gone. New life will form and overpopulate and die off. Volcanoes will erupt, rivers will flood, the ground will split apart, the rains will come and then they won't, the atmosphere will warm up and then it will cool down, species will come and they will go. All without our help. And the earth will be just fine until the sun explodes and then it won't be at all - and that will be just fine.
That frankly sounds like an excuse...
Mar 16, 2010 07:23 PM
To not give a crap about any of the choices we have to make about how we live. While that's one way to think about it philosophically, it reeks of self-serving sophistry. It essentially frees you from considering any consequences from your actions -- if it won't matter then I don't have to do anything.

Personally, I think it's important that we willingly take individual responsibility for all of our choices, whether it's consumption or procreation, and recognize that there will be impacts beyond our immediate comfort or desire. While it is certainly a lot easier to ignore consequences in the short-term, the ramifications echo through the years.
no excuses..
Chris Carrier
Chris Carrier
Mar 17, 2010 11:24 AM
no excuses here. I chose not to have children in my 20's - 30 years ago - because I believed overpopulation was the major problem facing the world. I live a fairly simple non consuming lifestyle - by U.S. standards - and do the best I can to tread lightly. I just have never seen any evidence that humans will ever change their ways. We have been raping, killing, and pillaging from the start and continue to do so on a massive scale today. Just being realistic - recycling or installing bamboo floors isn't going to fix anything.
joe kamalay
joe kamalay
Sep 30, 2011 08:09 PM
Seems I'm late for this discussion but still cannot resist. The "negative population growth" movement has been around at least since the time of Thomas Malthus and several of its adherents are clearly readers of the HCN. For some reason they never take the most logical choice available to completely end their horrendous contributions to deadly consumption and jump from the nearest high building. They should also follow the Jonathan Swift "Modest Proposal" with any progeny before they make that last leap. Life on earth has been changing the planetary "nature" at least since the cyanobacteria started spitting out oxygen waste (billions of years). Maybe all of our plastic bags and concentrated plutonium is in "mother" earth's long term plan. I certainly trust that more than I do the central planners who want to design the next utopia.