An ecologically sustainable future requires addressing both population and consumption

By Jenna Dodson | 5 September 2019
The Overpopulation Project

(Photo: Thomas Leuthard / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

In a new review article published in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability, Elias Ganivet reminds us that we need to address both excessive human consumption and population growth, to curb humanity’s environmental impact. Written from a very balanced perspective, Ganivet reviews the impacts of human population growth on global biodiversity and climate change, perceptions about population matters, and potential measures to limit continuing growth.  

In “Growth in human population and consumption both need to be addressed to reach an ecologically sustainable future,” biologist Elias Ganivet explores the interaction of population with both biodiversity and climate change to demonstrate how population growth can hinder the achievement of an ecologically sustainable future.

Human activities continue to have an increasing environmental impact on the planet, from declines in biodiversity that threaten the extinction of 1 million species to warming the planet 1.0°C above preindustrial mean temperatures. Despite international agreements to address these issues, such as the Aichi Targets and the Paris Agreement, declines in biodiversity and increases in climate-altering emissions continue to be the ‘status quo.’ Besides the intrinsic value of the natural world, nature is also essential for supporting human life. Recent reports warn that continued climate disruption and declines in biodiversity will endanger economies, food security and livelihoods. In other words, we must change the ‘status quo.’

Given increasing human population and consumption, as well as lack of political will, changing the ‘status quo’ to properly address these issues is a difficult challenge. It will require a variety of solutions that address all parts of the equation, both unsustainable population levels and excessive consumption. Ganivet sums it is nicely, saying: “Many innovative solutions and improvements in technologies are developed worldwide in order to address this excessive consumption and reduce humanity’s footprint. Unfortunately, with a world population increasing annually by about 82 million people, it is very difficult to keep up.”

Ganivet’s article reviews the impacts of continuing human population growth on global biodiversity and climate through the examples of food and energy production. He claims that most factors contributing to biodiversity loss can be directly connected to food production from modern agriculture. For example, the conversion of wild lands for agriculture is a well-known cause of habitat destruction, and the demand for cropland production increases by 3.4 million ha/year. That means that each year, due to the world’s growing population and consumption patterns, natural areas equivalent to the size of Belgium are converted to cropland. Recognizing that “no single measure is enough to keep environmental impacts of food production within all planetary boundaries simultaneously” and that current trends point inevitably towards increasing consumption of environmentally-intensive foods like meat and fish, Ganivet argues that limiting population growth offers another means to reduce the impacts of food production on habitat and biodiversity loss.

(Image by Ander Unibaso Villaverde from Pixabay)

Modern agriculture is also responsible for at least 20% of all global climate-altering emissions, along with fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes. Currently, 80% of energy consumption is delivered by fossil fuels, and energy consumption is set to continue to rise at least until 2100 in response to growing human populations and increasing per capita incomes. Renewable energy offers some relief, but many renewable energy scenarios rely on unrealistic forecasts of global energy demand. It is more likely that, as with food production, there is no single solution that will adequately address energy-related environmental impacts. Considering these trends that point towards continuously increasing energy consumption, Ganivet advocates limiting human population growth as another solution to slow the demand.

Growth in human population and consumption both need to be addressed to reach an ecologically sustainable future” nicely presents the arguments from environmental debates that deny or downplay population’s impacts, concluding, “it is now necessary to move beyond this prevailing binary approach to overcome obstacles to a productive discussion about these global problems.” He argues that human overpopulation and overconsumption are two complex and interconnected issues that need to be addressed at the same time, in both developing and developed countries. In response to those who think the population question will ‘take care of itself’ he resolves, “It is necessary to move beyond the belief that, as urbanization and economic development encourage smaller families, population growth problems will resolve themselves. Although this might be true, this process is likely to take more than a century, while, in the meantime, extending humanity’s impact will necessarily be done to the detriment of other species.”

The accompanying solutions Ganivet offers include worldwide access to modern contraception and family planning services, achieving full gender equality in education, and including age-appropriate sexual education in school curricula. Pro-natalist governments should eliminate financial rewards for the number of children, and instead reward parenthood itself through a fixed benefit for all parents. In countries with low fertility rates, governments should recognize ageing populations as a relatively short-term phenomenon requiring societal adjustment, and societies should ready themselves to take advantage of the benefits of smaller populations. These changes will likely require changing social worldviews from anthropocentric to ecocentric, acknowledging that nature has a right to exist for itself and not just for human use.

In an attempt to provide a platform for productive discussion, Elias Ganivet acknowledges throughout his review that overconsumption and overpopulation need to be considered everywhere, with no distinction between developed and developing countries. In line with many other scholars, he states that addressing excessive consumption is urgently required worldwide, including actions such as shifting away from fossil fuels, improving efficiency gains in materials and energy, and reducing the reach of extractive industries. Going a step further, he recognizes that population policies, implemented through a framework of human rights, constitute another way to lower humanity’s impact on the planet. His article is a well-balanced attempt to advance the discussion of both population and consumption that will hopefully raise scientific, political and public awareness about the substantial contributions limiting population growth can make in our efforts to change the ‘status quo.’

To download a copy of “Growth in human population and consumption both need to be addressed to reach an ecologically sustainable future” click here.

Reprinted with permission by Frank Götmark – Project leader of The Overpopulation Project (TORP); Professor, Animal ecology and Conservation Biology, University of Gothenburg.

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