“Overconsumption and overpopulation underlie every environmental problem we face today.”~ Jacques-Yves Cousteau
It has been stated many times that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is at best a poor indicator of humanity’s and the planet’s wellbeing. The Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy (CASSE) [www.steadystate.org] has always rejected the argument put forward by capitalism-driven economists, industrialists and most governments that growth is the key to better lives across the planet. In fact, perpetual growth is a recipe for runaway profits, ultimately promotes ecocide, and at its most aggressive, as it is currently, leads to the genocide of Indigenous groups and the poorest people. Sound like an unstoppable disease?
Though it is true that countless millions have been able to pursue healthier and fulfilling lives when pulled from extreme poverty, the way to get there is not through unlimited economic growth, which in turn is just smoke and mirrors and relies on an ever-increasing human population. Yes, contrary to the pronouncements of people like Elon Musk who believe that an ever-expanding human population is necessary if only to inhabit an utterly inhospitable planet like Mars, unlimited growth is the undisputed hallmark and madness of modern-day extractive colonialism. w
The people at CASSE show that GDP is always linked to the ecological footprint of a country: the higher the GDP, the more land is consumed to facilitate that growth, and the less room there is left for biodiversity to flourish. And of course humans are part of the planet’s biodiversity. So, on a local level, if Sherbrooke’s Plan Nature will truly protect 45% of its land and thus limit growth, developers will tend to hate that plan because for them development, as part of an outdated economic paradigm of endless growth, is always a good venture and brings “wealth” to more people. Preserving and increasing habitat is fundamental for the survival of wildlife.
All of this brings me to reflect on UN World Population Day, held on July 11th every year since 1990. This year we contemplate the milestone of a human population of 8 billion. The focus in 2023 is on safeguarding the health and rights of women and girls, and on putting the brakes on Covid-19. With almost half of all pregnancies unintended, women and girls frequently find themselves in an untenable situation. Through the years, the UN has tried to foster open discussion regarding the rights of women and girls, always stressing the right to an education because this in turn lowers the pregnancy rate. It is equally important that men be educated too, as in many countries they are the ones who impede girls’ education.
With the number of humans likely to exceed 10 billion before decreasing, the strong case to advocate for and celebrate the need to make people aware of the relationship between an increasing human population and ever-creeping consumption levels has not gone unnoticed by those who demand that our besieged ecosystems be protected. It has been calculated that the super-rich top 1%’s destructive ecological footprint is responsible for 15% of carbon emissions, but our jet-setting neighbours in the west, who by and large form the next 10% of the world’s population, are culpable for a massive 48% of emissions.
This May, ‘Population Decline Will Change the World for the Better’, an article by Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the Center for Biological Diversity, appeared in Scientific American. tinyurl.com/fewer-people-better-world
Feldstein writes: “Where our current model of endless growth and short-term profits sacrifices vulnerable people and the planet’s future, population decline could help create a future with more opportunity and a healthy, biologically rich world… We can maintain the economic status quo and continue to pursue infinite growth on a finite planet. Or we can heed the warning signs of a planet pushed to its limits, put the brakes on environmental catastrophe, and choose a different way to define prosperity that’s grounded in equity and a thriving natural world.”
China’s per capita ecological footprint might be far lower than that of the US, but owing to its much larger population and its import of western industrial companies, its total footprint is twice as large as that of the US and thus its carbon emissions represent a third of global emissions and its impact on deforestation is huge. Feldstein goes on to say: “Reducing consumption in high-income countries is necessary, but insufficient on its own if global population continues to rise.”
If we look at the excellent graphs and data from Toronto’s York University tinyurl.com/Ecological-footprints we can easily see that no country surpasses Canada’s damning ecological footprint – not even the US. Does this mean, in part, that Canada’s population is too large? Although its biocapacity (the area of biologically productive land and ocean area providing food, fibre and timber, accommodating urban infrastructure, and absorbing excess CO2) per individual is “healthier” than that of our southern neighbours, a steady decline of biodiversity is indicated over several decades. Our rapacious consumption history shows that our population of 38 million people extracts the equivalent of five Earths to sustain this pattern, while a country like Democratic Republic of the Congo is still within its one world of sustainability, though it too is in a steep decline of biocapacity.
Clearly Canada has to do better if it is to stop a precipitous abyss in its ecological integrity, but until it does so, should it strive to also lower its population? Cleaning up our house first seems to be a logical place to start. For where is Canada extracting its four extra worlds of biodiversity and climate destructive industries if not from other countries? We do live on a finite planet, after all. North Americans forget this at the world’s ultimate peril. This is why the UN’s recent climate and biodiversity conferences had the global south ready to mutiny if the biodiversity and climate-warming losses and damages indebted to it by the global north were not addressed.
A good example to show the discrepancy between rich and poor can be seen in the spiralling use of air conditioners. As more people can afford to buy an air conditioner to combat deadly heatwaves, those same air conditioners have become one of the fastest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and they heat even further the air outside. At the same time, a billion people don’t have access to electricity at all and are not responsible for the escalating climate crisis. There is nothing equitable about cooling with air conditioning, which further divides society between the haves and the have-nots. Closer to home, Toronto has become a world success story with its deep Ontario lake water cooling of over 100 large buildings, which lowers the city’s emissions, but there are many simpler ways to cool our cities without air conditioning. See, for example, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windcatcher
Overconsumption threatens all life on the planet. A lower population level will help reduce consumption levels and enable women to participate more fully in their own future.