A room full of elephants? Population, consumption and sustainability

Consumption, not population, is the elephant in the room of the sustainable development agenda.

Shopping street.

The SDGs are are a good example of our inability or unwillingness to deal with consumption, writes the author. Photo: Arthur Kraft/Unsplash

The population question seems to be experiencing yet another resurgence in discussions on climate change and sustainable development. This is perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising is the extent to which population is presented as a ‘forgotten’ or ‘taboo’ topic, or as an ‘elephant in the room’ (just google population in combination with any of the terms).

Population has always been part of sustainability agendas and still is. As David Johnson from the Margaret Pyke Trust puts it in a recent blogpost, ‘the elephant left the room quite some time ago’. Furthermore, I would add, while addressing population growth is obviously important, and while we should continue placing reproductive rights at the core of development efforts, population growth is not our main sustainability challenge.

If we are to make development sustainable, we should rather be dealing with questions of distribution of resources and with the consumption patterns of the rich.


Why (not) population?

It is fairly obvious that population matters for sustainability. The more people we are, the more resources we use. The human population grew at an astounding pace in the 20th century, and even though the growth has slowed down considerably, the latest UN estimates suggest we are likely to reach 11,2 billion people by 2100. Most of the growth will take place in so-called developing countries. While fertility rates are steadily declining, more children survive and people live longer thanks to advances in medicine and improvements in living standards.

No matter what we do, the global population will continue increasing for decades. What is called the ‘population momentum’ means that due to higher survival rates and high fertility levels in the past, there will be more births in the decades to come. Fertility rates are lower, but there are more women giving birth. So, if we were to put population at the centre of the sustainable development agenda, how would we deal with population growth?

Population control has a dark history, and has tended to be strongly jolted against less privileged segments of societies, often also with racist twists. The sterilization programmes in, for example, India and Singapore come to mind, but history includes countless other examples. Another approach has been the strict population policies of authoritarian countries, such as China’s one-child policy and Vietnam’s ‘one or two children’ policy. They have surely been effective, although with a host of negative consequences.

What all examples of population control seem to have in common, is that they have either led to violence against marginalized groups or to significant demographic challenges (or both). China is now considering ways to encourage couples to have more children, something Singapore has been doing for a long time already through their baby bonus scheme. Such efforts are common around the world. Affluent countries are in general struggling with low fertility rates and hence fear an age boom unsustainable for state budgets and national welfare programmes. The UN Population Fund in its State of world population 2018 finds that 33% of governments in more developed countries consider fertility rates to be too low and are trying to increase them. In most rich countries, immigration is strictly necessary in order to keep the economy running.

Reproductive rights, including family planning and access to contraceptives should be public health priorities in every society. Limiting population growth also has positive impacts on living standards. And we know how to do it. The single most efficient way of dealing with population growth is to improve women’s rights and women’s access to secondary education. Although the relationship is often complex, in general, higher living standards are closely related to couples getting fewer children. No rich country has high fertility rates.

To put it crudely, when we consume more we have fewer children. But the few who consume a lot are worse for global sustainability than the many who consume little.


Consumption as key to sustainability

From a global sustainability point of view, what matters is how much resources we use. It seems many people in rich countries find booming populations in poor countries terrifying, but as long as these people consume only a fraction of the resources of an affluent consumer, they are not the main challenge for global sustainability.

The world’s richest 10 percent are responsible for half of all global carbon emissions. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson puts it, “the responsibility for global emissions is heavily skewed towards the lifestyles of a relatively few high emitters”. Although more people will consume more resources, it seems obvious that the most urgent issue is to deal with those who consume the most.

As part of the indicators for Sustainable Development Goal 12 on sustainable production and consumption, the material footprint has been introduced as a measure to capture “the total amount of raw materials extracted globally—across the entire supply chain—to meet that economy’s final consumption demand”. The latest SDG progress report finds that “for all types of materials, developed countries have at least double the per-capita footprint of developing countries” and that “the material footprint for fossil fuels is more than four times higher for developed than developing countries”. These are averages, the difference between the poorest and the richest countries is much larger, and that between the richest and the poorest people enormous.

Or take the ecological footprint, which also includes the land and water needed for dealing with our waste. The US has an ecological footprint per capita of 8,4, close to five times higher than the estimated available biocapacity  per person on earth (1,7). At the other end of the ranking, Eritrea’s per capita  ecological footprint is at 0,5. In other words, the poorest countries can add quite few people to the earth and still make a considerably smaller impact than the richest countries.


Elephants in the room

So the population elephant has left the room. Has the consumption elephant entered it? Yes, but that claim requires some clarification. Consumption is hardly ignored. Criticizing overconsumption is an everyday activity among environmentalists and critical scholars alike, and the issue tend to get quite some media coverage, particularly at times surrounding big consumption bonanzas, like Christmas or the most recent American export, Black Friday.

But it is an elephant in the sense that the high consumption society is simultaneously a benchmark for measuring development success and at the very core of unsustainable development. And governments do not do anything about overconsumption, apart from every now and then encouraging consumers to go green. In this way, responsibility is shifted towards consumers, although we know from research that this clearly is insufficient. The reasons are of course quite simple. Limiting consumption could prove highly unpopular among voters and could be very bad news for the economy.

The SDGs are another good example of our inability or unwillingness to deal with consumption. While sustainable production and consumption received its one SDG, there are no real targets on dealing with overconsumption beyond limiting food waste. Instead, focus is on reducing waste, encouraging sustainable practices and spreading information about more sustainable consumption patterns in the hope that consumers will make the right choice. Again, practically everything we know about the drivers of consumption suggests this will not be enough.

Consumption patterns are extremely uneven both within and between countries, and they are problematic in different ways. For example, while hunger is increasing and there are 821 million undernourished people in the world, for the first time in history there are more overweight than underweight people. And while the richest among us consume obscene amounts of energy, still 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity.

The poor are the ones who have many children. Blaming the underconsuming many for the failures of the sustainable development agenda means to avoid taking responsibility for our unsustainable consumption patterns.


Population matters

Of course population matters. And population issues need to be addressed, with particular focus on reproductive rights, gender equality and increasing the living standards of the world’s poorest people.

But the poor are still not to blame for the dire situation the earth is in. All the talk about population misses the most crucial part of the picture. Instead we should start really taking consumption seriously. Not mainly as a question of individual responsibility, but as questions of inequality, distribution and societal responsibility. As the global middle class is expanding rapidly (thanks to both increases in income and population), in turn considerably increasing the global demand for resources, these issues are more urgent than ever.

A wide range of consumption patterns need to come under closer scrutiny, but we know very well where we should start. The most harmful parts of household consumption all belong to typical affluent consumption patterns: too much meat, too many polluting cars, too many plane trips, too much electricity, too much stuff.

By Arve Hansen
Published Dec. 3, 2018 1:54 PM - Last modified Dec. 3, 2018 4:08 PM
Add comment

Log in to comment

Not UiO or Feide account?
Create a WebID account to comment


Oslo SDG blog

A blog by the Oslo SDG Initiative.