Friday, September 8, 2006

The Other overpopulation

It’s well known that overpopulation is one of the prime drivers of our environmental problems. Too many people are chasing too few resources, resulting in environmental degradation. We in the so-called highly-developed countries think that the solution to overpopulation is for those less-developed countries to practice population control.

Which is pretty self-serving, because it ignores the reality that sheer numbers of people is only half the story. The impact of a population on the environment is a function of both the number of people AND the amount they consume.

So its true that in many developing countries, the sheer number of people is overwhelming their own resource base, even though most of them are living in poverty.

But we highly developed nations are also contributing mightily to population/resource problem – it’s just that we’re working the other side of the equation: consumption. In fact, with 20% of the population, we consume more than half the resources. For example, according to the Worldwatch Institute highly developed nations account for:
  • 86% of the aluminum used
  • 76% of the timber harvested
  • 68% of the energy used
  • 61% of the meat eaten
  • 42% of the fresh water consumed
Another way to look at a population’s contribution to environmental sustainability or degradation is to consider its "ecological footprint".

Scientists consider that there are about 28 billion acres of productive land and water on the planet. So for Earth's 6.5 billion people, a sustainable ecological footprint is 4.3 acres per person. The current average: 5.7 acres, which means we’re using up the planet faster than it can replenish itself.

In the US, each person's ecological footprint is a whopping 23.7 acres. To put this in perspective, we'd need about four additional planet Earth's to extend our standard of living to the rest of the world.

I'm not advocating that we all start living in poverty to solve this imbalance. But lets keep it in mind when thinking about who’s to blame for overpopulation, and start working on ways to maintain a healthy standard of living on a much smaller environmental footprint.

Credit where credit is due: much of this info came from a textbook called Environment.

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