Improve Understanding of the Relationship Between Population and Consumption as a Means to Reducing the Environmental Impacts of Population Growth
The current and potential threats to environmental quality, of which there are many, are the results of the character and magnitude of today's economic activity and in combination with human population growth. As the experience of the United States, other industrialized nations, and developing countries indicates, birth rates and economic development are closely linked.
The world's population was 2.5 billion in 1950, it is 5.6 billion today, and it is estimated that it will be 8 million by 2020. Current population growth worldwide is 1.7% per year.
Over the next 50 years, within the lifetimes of many of us, economic activity worldwide is projected to quadruple, and global population is expected to double to about 11 billion before leveling off. If population growth of this magnitude occurs with current industrial processes, agricultural methods, and consumer practices, the results could be both environmentally and economically disastrous.
According to the assessments of many environmental experts, the most critical need facing the world is the slowing of human population growth (National Commission on the Environment 1992; NRC 1994c). Continued global population growth of the current magnitude—1 billion more people every decade—has the potential not only to negate efforts to protect the environment, but also ultimately to overwhelm economic and social progress.
The reasons for giving the highest priority to reducing population growth are ethical, practical, and scientific. Many of the countries that are experiencing rapid economic growth and increasing consumption of goods aspire to a pattern of consumption like that of the United States and have government policies that encourage economic growth. But as economic growth and thus consumption increase, so do the environmental impacts of a population as it works and lives.
The nation's environmental goals should be, first, stabilization of the nation's, if not the world's, human population. Second, no net loss of water or air quality. Third, stabilization of our food supply, to include quantity and quality. Fourth, stabilization of plant and animal biodiversity. Fifth, no net loss of wetlands; watersheds; national forests, parks, wildlife preserves, and wilderness areas; or lake, stream, or ocean commercial and recreational fisheries stocks. Sixth, continued monitoring of global climate change, such as global warming, acid rain, and loss of the ozone layer.
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Thus stabilization of population growth is necessary if a country is to reach both its economic and its environmental goals. However, large-scale worldwide demographic and health surveys have demonstrated a large unmet need for family-planning in nearly every country of the world. These needs are for low-cost, accessible, and safe means of contraception.
In developing countries, we cannot and should not deter economic development; but by recognizing the unmet need for contraception, we can influence the rate of population growth by helping people to manage their own fertility. People in developing countries want both economic development and smaller families. Many countries are already experiencing marked fertility declines; given additional resources and assistance, they can increase these declines.
Combining rapid economic development and increased resource consumption with rapid population growth will result in a compounding of the effects of economic development, which might overwhelm the capacity of a country to address them. As countries become more affluent, they are better able to address some aspects of industrial activity, such as air and water pollution, more effectively. If the resources of a country are needed to address the consequences of a rapidly growing population—such as depletion of potable water supplies, epidemics of infectious diseases related to increased population density, and increased need for fuel and nutrients—the environmental consequences of this growth cannot be adequately addressed.
The United States and all other countries have much to gain from efforts to stabilize global population and to improve living standards in developing countries, where 90% of the projected population growth will occur. The stress placed on the environment is a function of population and consumption. Therefore, the burden should not be placed entirely on developing countries. Priorities for developed countries, such as the United States,
What would be necessary to conclude that an environmental goal was achieved?
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should be to switch to sustainable technologies to reduce waste in consumption and to assist the developing countries in their efforts to develop their economic sustainability and stabilize their population growth.
Population growth as an environmental concern, even in the United States, was recognized as an important issue before 1970. According to a 1970 public-opinion poll, 40% of respondents said that U.S. population growth was a major problem, and 46% considered population growth in the United States as "not a problem [now] but likely to be a problem by the year 2000" (see paper by Bowman in Part II).
The combination of global population growth with better communications, improved interregional transportation, and new political and economic freedom in Asia, the former Soviet Union, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America has resulted in the development of a world consumer society that uses an increasing fraction of the world's natural resources.
The National Commission on the Environment (1992) advocated a new direction for U.S. environmental policy and asserted that U.S. leadership should be based on the concept of sustainable development. Sustainable development is predicated on the recognition that economic and environmental goals are inextricably intertwined and mutually reinforcing. Therefore, these goals must be pursued simultaneously if sustainability is to be achieved (National Commission on the Environment 1992). The commission argued that by the close of the 20th century economic development and environmental protection must come together in a new synthesis: broad-based economic progress accomplished in a manner that protects and restores the quality of the natural environment, improves the quality of life of people, and broadens the prospects for future generations.
Economic growth cannot be sustained if it continues to undermine environmental quality and exhaust the earth's natural resources. Similarly, only healthy economies can generate the wealth and capacity to invest in environmental protection, to improve population health, and to enhance the overall quality of life. As observed globally in many impoverished nations, environmental protection is
Cheap, ubiquitous, low-technology birth control is needed, but there are, of course, enormous social, cultural, and political problems associated with widespread implementation of birth control.
"Efficient resource production and use" can benefit from many science and technology contributions to agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, etc. Of course, massive technology transfer to developing countries is the key.
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The nation's environmental goal should be a sustainable biosphere, meaning one that maintains the products and services on which we depend. This goal involves stabilization of human population and our domesticated plants and animals at a level compatible with maintenance of ecosystem services (water, air, and natural resources) and minimization of the loss of unique biodiversity resources. As David Orr has said, our goal should be to learn to walk more lightly on the planet.
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not possible where poverty is pervasive and the quality of life degraded. In some African countries, population increases have outstripped not only local food supplies, but also the capacity of the environment to sustain that growth.
Economies of most developing countries are based on natural resources, which constitute their primary economic capital. Their long-term economic development depends on maintaining, if not increasing, such activities as agriculture, forestry, fishing, and mining—for both domestic use and export—as well as ecotourism. In doing this, primary attention must be given to protecting the environment.
There are varied relationships between population growth and density and environmental quality. Stabilizing the growth of human populations is necessary for future sustainable development, but not sufficient. Here one needs to consider the "ecological footprint" both of megacities like New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, or Mexico City and of resource-intensive small countries like the Netherlands and Japan. These cities and countries use resources from the land and sea that are multiples of their land mass (i.e., their "ecological footprint"). For example, the ecological footprint of the Netherlands is 14 times its land mass (Rees and Wackernagel 1994), and the number and size of such footprints will grow with continued population growth. Scientific and technological advances in energy and food technology have had both positive and negative effects on the environment in that, on the one hand, such advances have made energy production and distribution and food production and distribution more efficient, and on the other hand, advanced technologies have accelerated the depletion of some resources, such as the world's fisheries.
FINDINGS, CONCLUSION, AND RECOMMENDATIONS
As indicated at the International Conference on Populations and Development, the United States and other countries made a major commitment to cooperate with the world community to stabilize global population, recognizing the linkages between birth rates, child survival, economic development, education, and
the economic and social status of women. To achieve a stable global population, universal access to effective family-planning information, contraceptives, and health care is essential. U.S. policies, both domestic and foreign, need to reflect a greater awareness of this interdependence and provide stronger support for international population programs and programs of economic assistance to developing countries.
The current and potential future threats to environmental quality, of which there are many, are the results of the character and magnitude of today's economic activity and human population growth. As the experience of the United States, other industrialized nations, and developing countries indicates, birth rates and economic development are closely linked. Although the extent to which threats to environmental quality and ecological resources will be intensified by future population growth is debated, there is agreement that continued population growth has the effect of narrowing the options available for meeting these threats. The predicted addition of billions of people to the global population in the next few decades could overwhelm programs aimed at enhancing energy efficiency, global monitoring, and industrial ecology. Many elements of social science, such as demography and sociology, and of medical research address issues that affect population growth. Environmental engineering develops strategies and devices that can be used to decrease the impact of population growth on the needs of developing countries.
The political milieu makes it difficult for U.S. federal agencies to recognize publicly the interdependence of environmental quality and global population growth. The federal budget often omits support for studies related to population growth—studies of demography, ecology of population growth, and contraception—even in the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Health and Human Services. This omission reflects a serious constriction in the horizons of current U.S. environmental policy. As noted in The Sustainable Biosphere Initiative (Lubchenco et al. 1991),
The issues associated with population growth are broad, involving such factors as changes in per capita income and resource distribution; increasing pollution and environmental degradation; problems of health and poverty; the effects of urban, industrial, and agricultural expansion; and especially the integration of ecologic and socioeconomic considerations. Even those factors that are primarily economic will have substantial environmental effects.
The United States, in its efforts to cooperate with the world community, should recognize the linkages between birth rates, child survival, economic development,
education, and the economic and social status of women in its environmental research efforts.
To cope with global population pressures, researchers should focus on ways to improve the potential for universal access to effective family-planning information, contraceptives, and health care.
U.S. policies, both domestic and foreign, need to provide support, through partnerships with developing countries, for the scientific and technological research needed by international population programs.
Interdisciplinary research should be conducted on the future environmental consequences of population growth, especially in vulnerable environments. This research should incorporate human biology, human behavior, epidemiology, and ecology to yield a better understanding of all aspects of the population-environment interface. Research should be conducted on the possible negative consequences of technology when introduced into a population, e.g., the possible adverse impacts of the use of artificial baby formula in developing countries.
For more information and guidance, the reader should refer to the following:
NRC (National Research Council), Population and Land Use in Developing Countries: Report of a Workshop (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993).
NRC (National Research Council), Population Summit of the World's Scientific Academies (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994).