Everywhere we turn, we see discussions of over-population: predominantly rich people with an ecological footprint of 10+ planets worrying about the birth of children in third world countries. It’s a little like a morbidly obese person worrying that the neighbor’s kids will eat all the available food. The fact remains that all of the neighbor’s kids combined probably couldn’t eat as much food as the one morbidly obese person does each day, yet that doesn’t end the fat man’s worry, but why?
The fat man’s worry, which is my metaphor for the concern of the rich and powerful about overpopulation, is based on a subconscious understanding that their way of life is completely unsustainable. The concern about the neighbor’s kids, or population growth in sub-saharan Africa, stems from a fear that these people will not only increase in number, but continue to reach towards an American way of life.
If every person on this planet had the ecological footprint of a person living in Mozambique, then there would be no population problem. As the landmark 2014 WWF/London Zoological Society report found: not only is the average first world citizen using more than double as many resources as the planet provides but we are exporting our biodiversity loss to the third world.
Let’s now look at a map of population growth rates, and compare it with the map displaying the ecological footprint.
If it wasn’t clear from the maps: the countries that are growing the least are using the most resources. So, if the biggest users aren’t growing, why is there so much worry about overpopulation? The answer is simple: the richest countries can only continue using so many planets worth of resources if the populations of the nations exporting these resources remain small and poor.
The fact is also that the standard of living, also known as level of resources and energy requires for a “normal” life, is increasing worldwide. China recently became the largest market for cars, and is building hundreds of coal power plants. If Chinese citizens really endeavor to live like Americans, then the world is really really big trouble.
As can be seen in the first map: the ecological footprint of a US citizen is over 6 planets. Americans consume far more meat, use more electricity, and buy more useless stuff, than pretty much anyone else. Strangely, public focus on water and energy savings seem to always ignore animal agriculture, which takes a huge environmental toll due to loss of energy/water moving up the food chain (roughly 10x per level). You can do a lot more to reduce your ecological footprint by reducing your meat consumption, your purchase of electronics, and riding public transporation than by taking shorter showers and buying a new electric car.
The fact is our long term survival on this planet is threatened by overconsumption. It is threatened by us ignoring how unsustainable our lifestyle is, and instead focusing on the number of people. When the question becomes the number, then it is easier to worry about the Congo than Australia. But, if we keep the question on actual consumption and ecological footprint, then our concern moves towards actually touching on the real issues.
We are currently in an ecological deficit, we cannot continue to pretend that everyone can have the same standard of living as those in the United States. In fact, those in the US need to also understand their lifestyle is not sustainable, and that time is running out for change. If the world looks to America as an example, then America has no choice but to start living closer to reality. If everyone, and the US, is determined to live so unsustainably: then we are certainly overpopulated.