Consuming the Future

Chantal Lyons is currently taking an MSc in Environment, Science and Society at University College London, having previously earned a degree in Politics from the University of Nottingham. She follows and writes on a variety of environmental issues, including poaching, overfishing, deforestation and climate change.

In September, Matt Ridley writing in The Times said:

‘There is almost a perfect correlation between the severity of conservation problems and poverty, because the richer people get, the less they try to live off the land and compete with nature — the less they seek bushmeat and charcoal from the forest’(1)

There are so many things wrong with this statement that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m presuming that Ridley hasn’t noticed any of the environmental crises that have reared their heads over the last century or so, including but not limited to anthropogenic climate change, overfishing, and the trade in endangered animal parts. Many of these may be fuelled by poverty but ultimately they are driven by wealth. Elephants and rhinos wouldn’t be massacred with such wild abandon if there weren’t countless consumers in Asia with the money to pay for their ivory and keratin. Overfishing is aided by destructive subsistence practices but the brunt of the blame belongs to the over-efficiency of industrialised fleets. Instead of charcoal from the forest we use oil from the ground, and pretend that our insatiable appetite for it has had no effect on the changing climate.

Ridley’s larger message in his article is one of ‘rational optimism’ (a term he coined for his book of the same name published 2011). He tells us that we needn’t be so worried about the future, because growing affluence combined with technology will sort out the problems of both people in poverty and the planet. Ridley isn’t alone in flogging the happily-embraced message that development is the answer to all our human crises, ecological destruction among them.  But what ‘development’ does he and other proponents mean exactly? Western-style development? If that’s the case, then we can look forward to a future where we’ll need somewhere between 2.5 to 4.1 planet Earths to sustain the requisite lifestyle for every human being alive (and even if we all lived like Costa Ricans we’d still need more than the one planet we have)(2).Alternatively, perhaps it is sustainable development that Ridley envisions, which “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’(3). Governments are paying lip service to this idea at least, but for all their rhetoric, sustainable development doesn’t mean much more to them than ensuring the status quo. And that means ignoring the incompatibility of our planetary limits with the ever-growing, ever-hungry monster of overconsumption.

Some argue that people (or at least, people in the developed world) are already at the point of or nearing peak consumption, as Danny Dorling does in his book Population 10 Billion published earlier this year. Dorling points to achievements such as the UK population reducing its water usage by 5% between 2003 and 2010(4). No matter that net demand for water is increasing globally(5) and that climate change might dramatically affect its availability(6). And if it’s increasing affluence that eventually brings about peak consumption(7), then that means we’ll have to wait for the developing world to catch up before we can be assured that the entire world has reached its peak. Will there be time for this before scarcity of resources like water and fish kicks in? In any case, one can argue that increasing affluence doesn’t lead to ‘peak consumption’; rather, it merely enables us to out-source the damage from our consumption to other parts of the world. Forests in some parts of Europe may be resurging, as Ridley points out, but the rainforests of the world are being steadily eaten away to keep up with demand for resources such as palm oil(8).

This isn’t to say the development trajectories of Third World countries will mirror those of our own. But it seems unlikely that they will veer away much from the standard pattern of intensive resource use, even in light of all the knowledge we have about the planet’s life systems now. Only in August the president of Ecuador announced that oil-drilling would be going ahead in Yasuni National Park(9), a vital piece of the Amazon rainforest and one of the frontiers in the battle against climate change. To be fair, it’s the developed world that provides much of the market for Ecuador’s oil. If we radically changed how we use resources and what we use, it would radically reduce ecological destruction in developing countries. But would these countries instead simply consume what resources we in the developed world had chosen to forgo? And will we ever even find viable substitutes for things like oil, the most energy-rich substance we have ever managed to harness?

This is the downfall of arguments in favour of our version of development: the planet cannot sustain a predicted number of 10 billion people(10) if they all want to live as we in the developed world currently do. I don’t seek to argue that development shouldn’t happen, that poor people should stay poor. A cycle of human misery will not solve our various environmental crises let alone the exclusively human ones. Instead what must be found – and probably won’t be, given our reluctance to give up gains in luxury like air conditioning, throw-away fashion and meat every day – is a sustainable middle ground, where those in poverty are elevated by ecologically-informed development to increase their consumption somewhat, and the wealthier decrease their consumption significantly. It’s true that new technologies can create new efficiencies, but unless we take ground-breaking new steps like planetary geo-engineering or powering all our vehicles with hydrogen, this will only ever be window-dressing. It’s not only our methods that must change; it’s ourselves. If this is even possible.

Overconsumption and overpopulation are intertwined, a poison of two parts. The prospect of 10 billion people living as we in the developed nations do now is frightening but unrealistic, I think; ecological degradation will crush that aspiration before it can reach full term. Neither we nor the planet will win in that case. Nonetheless, lifting the masses out of poverty while continuing to champion contraception and empowerment for women are goals we must strive for – albeit in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the future, Ponzi-scheme style. Aside from our moral duty towards the rest of humanity, population density can damage the environment in the absence of resource demand from consumers. For example, mangrove forests, vital ecosystems for both nature and people, are now facing destruction across the world (11). Some of their loss is attributable to consumer-driven activities like clearance for prawn-farming. But often, local, poor populations depend on the mangroves for staples such as wood fuel and building material. A 2009 study in Cameroon found that even villagers dependent on the mangroves had noticed a link between population growth and the decline of environmental resources in their region, with much consumption going on locally(12). Thus if consumers were to cease buying commodities such as prawns, this would not address the ongoing loss of mangroves.

I would also be fascinated to know how optimists like Ridley and Dorling think we’ll solve the dire crisis of overfishing. In spite of the proliferation and mechanization of fishing fleets, global fish catches have been in decline since 1988 – because the absolute amount of fish in the world is declining too(13). Other human factors like pollution and destructive fishing practices have affected stocks too, but the reality of overfishing is a certainty. We simply cannot continue to take as many fish from the sea as we are currently doing so, and to believe or hope otherwise is a stupidity beyond reason. We have two choices for the future: rein back our catches to ensure a sustainable supply, or continue to plunder the oceans until there is nothing left. The former is the only sensible solution but either course will mean less fish available (at least in the short-term in the case of reining back catches). Yet even as the need to reduce our catches becomes ever more obvious and urgent, the need for fish protein grows as the human population does. This is a problem particularly in developing countries where fish is a vital source of protein, providing “at least 50% of animal protein intake for over 400 million in Asia and Africa”(14) alone.

Earlier, I mentioned the predicted number of 10 billion (10.6 to be precise), which would be reached by 2050(15). This is the UN’s higher estimate, the other two being 8.9 and 7.4 billion. Bearing in mind that the estimates were calculated according to observed trends of fertility (and excluded variables like water availability and climate change), the lowest estimate would see the human population peak and begin to decline before 2050, with the middle one reaching its peak in 2050 and the highest reaching its peak afterwards. Regardless of uncertainty over the future, human population growth does appear to be slowing at present. While it will continue to rise for some time, eventually it will reach stasis and indeed may decline. But consider here the analogy of a car that is on a collision course with a wall. Simply taking your foot off the accelerator will reduce your speed somewhat, but the collision will still happen. The inconvenient truth is simply that a ‘natural’ fertility slowdown, at any speed, will not come in time to avert global ecological catastrophe.  Solving either overconsumption or overpopulation exclusively is no solution. Yet the argument of many optimists seems to be: ‘development will sort out poverty and overpopulation. And then something will hopefully sort out overconsumption’.

We must make an active effort to reduce population growth in parts of the world where it is still excessively high, and an even greater effort to reduce consumption. Unless we confront these two incontrovertible necessities, we will not have a future.

  1. M. Ridley, “Lighten up Sir David. Our wildlife is safe”, The Times [UK], 12 September 2013, viewed 5 October 2013, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/opinion/columnists/article3866667.ece
  2. T. de Chant, ‘If the world’s population lived like…’, Per Square Mile, viewed 5 October 2013, http://persquaremile.com/2012/08/08/if-the-worlds-population-lived-like/
  3. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) , p. 43
  4.  D. Dorling, Population 10 Billion (London: Constable & Robinson, 2011), p. 145
  5. D. Aitkenhead, “Dambisa Moyo: ‘The world will be drawn into a war for resources’”, The Guardian [UK], 24 June 2013, viewed 5 October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2012/jun/24/natural-resources-and-development-china
  6. J. Morrison et al, “Water Scarcity and Climate Change: Growing Risks for Businesses and Investors”, Ceres, 2009, p.1,  viewed 5 October 2013, http://www.pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/full_report30.pdf
  7. F. Pearce, “Peak planet: are we starting to consume less?” NewScientist, 20 June 2012, viewed 5 October 2013, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21886-peak-planet-are-we-starting-to-consume-less.html?full=true#.Unz0YPm-2So
  8.  ‘Facts about palm oil and rainforest’, Rainforest Rescue, viewed 5 October 2013, http://www.rainforest-rescue.org/topics/palm-oil
  9. A. Acosta, “Why Ecuador’s president has failed the country over Yasuni-ITT”, The Guardian [UK], 4 September 2013, viewed 5 October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/sep/04/ecuador-president-failed-country-yasuni-itt
  10. Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population to 2300”, United Nations (New York, 2004), p. 5, viewed 5 October 2013, http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf
  11.  ‘Mangrove forests’, Wetlands International, viewed 5 October 2013, http://www.wetlands.org/?TabId=2730
  12. A. N. Athuelle et al, “Commercial activities and subsistence utilization of mangrove forests around the Wouri estuary and the Douala-Edea reserve (Cameroon)”, Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 5 (35), November 2009, p. 9
  13. C. Roberts, Ocean of Life (London: Penguin Books, 2012), p. 219
  14. M. V. Gupta, “Meeting the needs for more fish”, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, p. 1, viewed 8 November 2013, http://www.rsis.edu.sg/nts/events/docs/ICAFS-Modadugu_Vijay_Gupta.pdf
  15. “World Population to 2300”, p. 5
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3 responses to “Consuming the Future

  1. When you say that you want us to make an active effort to reduce population growth, what do you have in mind? Giving out free condoms won’t make much of a difference; it just tends to delay having children. So are you talking about financial disincentives towards large families? So the rich can have kids but not the poor? Or forced sterilisation and abortion like they have in China? You talk about overpopulation so much, surely you have some ideas for concrete policies? Tell us.

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    • Providing contraception most certainly does make a difference, but of course it’s essential to focus on women as I said in the article – educated women delay having children and, as studies show, the later you have children the less children you have overall.

      It’s also been shown that improving quality of life in itself reduces fertility rates; one reason that families in developing countries get so big is because of high rates of child mortality. If you know your children have a much better chance of surviving to adulthood, you don’t need to have so many children as insurance. That’s why things like immunisation drives are essential.

      In terms of financial disincentives, I think there is a case to be made in the UK to provide child benefit for the first two children only. I don’t see why the state should pay for people to have more than two children (and I don’t think anyone in the developed world, rich or poor, needs more than two children anyway).

      Abortion is a sad result of the one-child policy in China, but then again, plenty of sex-selective abortion goes on in India which doesn’t have this policy. State impositions on number of children will inevitably lead to some abortions, but this can be mitigated through availability and responsible use of contraception; it may also be that as natural resources grow scarcer, state impositions will be the lesser of two evils, the alternative being population increases that the planet cannot provide for.

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