Population growth is only part of the problem

We need to slow growth in our overall consumption, especially in the high-income countries and populations where it is highest and most damaging

Dr. Trevor Hancock

11 April 2023

698 words

In last week’s column I discussed the findings of the recent report from Earth4All concerning population growth. Judging by several thoughtful and concerned responses from readers, I fear I did not do a great job, so I will re-visit the report’s ideas and, I hope, somewhat clarify what is a complex issue and argument.

It probably didn’t help that my original title – “Has the population bomb bombed?” – was changed to read “It’s not population growth but inequality that’s the problem”. The new title is not the same as the conclusion that I quoted at the end, which came from the Earth4All report: “population size is not the prime driver of exceeding planetary boundaries . . . Rather, it is extremely high material footprint levels among the world’s richest 10 percent that is destabilising the planet”.

The key point here is that the report was not saying population growth is not a problem, but that it is not the main driver of ecological overshoot, although it certainly still is an important factor. The Earth4All report projects the Earth’s population will stabilise within  the next couple of decades (around 8.5 or 8.6 billion by about 2040 or 2050, from 8 billion now) and then decline to 6 or 7 billion by 2100. (UN projections also see stabilisation and decline, although with larger projected populations and somewhat longer time lines.)

But according to Our World in Data, while population has grown 3.2-fold, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 8 billion in 2022, GDP per person (in constant dollars) grew 4.5 times between 1950 and 2018, meaning overall the economy grew more than 14-fold.

In other words, since 1950 growth in goods and services per person has had a greater impact than population growth. Of course it is the combination of both population growth and growth in wealth and consumption that matters, although recently the rate of population growth has been slowing down. But that will not help if our already high ecological footprint remains high or even increases.

So we need to slow and in fact reverse the growth in our overall consumption, and especially in the high-income countries and populations where it is highest and most damaging. Because there is a strong relationship between wealth and the ecological footprint; wealthy countries and wealthy people have larger footprints, making them the main threat to the natural systems that support us and all the other species with which we share the Earth.  

There are two main reasons to focus on high-income countries and people. First, quite reasonably, low-income people and countries look at places like Canada and in many (but not all) cases, want what we have. But if all the world lived the way we do, we would need another four planets. Clearly, that is not possible,  but we can’t simply say to middle and low-income countries and people – sorry, we got ours, you are out of luck!

Not only will that not be accepted, it would be counter-productive, since the evidence is clear – as the Earth4All report points out – that the way to limit family size is through social and economic development that educates and empowers women in particular, and society in general.

Second, high income people and countries already have a disproportionate impact on the Earth, and if we continue our current form of economic growth, we will have a far greater impact over the course of our lives than people in low and middle income countries.

So if we are to ensure everyone a decent life, we who live in high-income countries need to lead in figuring out how to reduce our impact  on the Earth to a sustainable level while maintaining a decent quality of life and good health for all. In doing so, incidentally, we can probably learn a lot from some of the low and middle-income countries that are closer to this state than we are.

The Earth4All report proposes several key transformations that will get us there, including major shifts in both food and energy systems and a significant redistribution of resources within and between all countries. There is, as Gandhi remarked, enough for each person’s need, but not for each person’s greed.

© Trevor Hancock, 2023


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


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