Population and the Environment: Are We Doomed?

Amanda Cravens


The short answer is no, we're not doomed, since the verb implies inevitability. (1) Population is not growing everywhere, and the areas where growth rates are near zero or even negative (such as the United States and Western Europe) provide clues to addressing the problem in other regions. The longer answer to the doom question is that growing population is a problem that left unsolved could indeed have very harmful effects, both on the environment and our current life styles. However, controlling population growth rates is a relatively simple task compared to the even more critical problem of curbing seemingly insatiable desires for consumption. It is the quest for an ever-increasing standard of living that really holds our potential doom.

At this point in the debate, the doom scenario is very familiar. Pessimists from Malthus to Meadows (2) (and his Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits study teams) have despaired at humankind's inevitable collapse, brought on by exploding population, growing geometrically, that overwhelms a finite planet whose natural resources are fixed and whose food supply only grows arithmetically.

However, there are a number of factors not taken into account in pessimistic models' predictions of increasing resource scarcity. (3) Malthus' original predictions not only ignored the possibility of technological change, but also were created with the goal of persuading people to act morally and reduce the numbers of children they had. Meadows and his team built their systems dynamics model using dominantly positive feedback loops, (4) which may have biased their conclusions. More importantly, their approach assumed that consumption patterns continued unchanged as scarcity increased. This assumption, by ignoring the effects of substitution of one resource for another and technological developments, ignores the natural negative feedback systems inherent in a market system. If markets are working properly (which is a separate problem), the price of a resource will rise as that resource becomes scarcer. Rising prices encourage people to switch their consumption patterns away from the scarce resource towards a cheaper substitute resource. Price increases also stimulate research that may produce technologies that can allow people to do more with the same amount of resources. Although there is not always a "tech-fix," sometimes there is. More importantly, rising prices can make existing technologies relatively cheap enough to be viable. For instance, a rise in the price of oil may make hybrid cars relatively cheaper, allowing them to become more widespread.

The other failing of these pessimistic models is in their conclusion that continuing population growth is inevitable. A phenomenon called the demographic transition (5) has been observed to occur as nations develop and standards of living rise. Before a nation develops, birth and death rates are generally steady, with the birthrate slightly higher and a low rate of population growth. As development begins, death rates fall sharply (because of increased health care) but birthrates remain steady, causing increasing population growth rates. During the demographic transition, further development and rising standards of living accompany a declining birthrate, leading population growth rates to level off or even become negative (as in Spain).

Economists have developed a model called the microeconomic theory of fertility to explain how development causes declining population growth. (6) In this view, children are seen as consumer durables and parents make decisions about how many children to have by considering the costs and benefits of children. Development increases the costs of having children. (7) At the same time, development often decreases the benefits provided by children. (8)

Thus by identifying reasons parents choose to have more children, the microeconomic theory of fertility can suggest specific actions to be taken to shift the cost and benefit of children curves and thus speed up the demographic transition. Granted, this theory assumes that human decisions to have children are made rationally and that parents have the ability to control family size, which may not always be the case. But even if one does not accept the microeconomic theory of fertility as a causal explanation, the historical correlation between falling birthrates and population growth rates and development suggests that development will cause declining population growth rates in the developing world.

On the other side of the pessimism spectrum, though, optimistic models like Julian Simon's The Ultimate Resource are not totally right either. (9) Simon, looking both at economic negative feedback loops as well as the unlimited potential of human resourcefulness, concludes that resource scarcity will not be a problem, nor will population (since population growth rates will decline as standards of living rise). Although Simon's conclusion about population is probably correct, he assumes that the mechanism for rising living standards is automatic, as well as that increasing prosperity is shared equally (thus reducing population growth everywhere). As the world's current situation of low growth rates in the United States and western Europe and high growth rates elsewhere indicates, there is nothing to automatically insure that every society which is growing rapidly will be able to raise its standard of living. Instead, equitable worldwide development will require a concerted effort and assistance from developed nations. (10)

In regards to resource scarcity, Simon is probably correct in the short run, (11) but substitution and technological change can only increase the world's carrying capacity to a certain extent. At some point, limits must set in since human desire appears to be infinite. Also, Simon assumes that development happens faster than resources become scarce. Given the current gap between rich and poor countries in the world, this may not be the case. Finally, the biggest problem with Simon is not his conclusions as they appear to be plausible, if not guaranteed. It is that his conclusions assume that human resourcefulness actually addresses itself to raising standards of living (and thus decreasing population growth rates) and developing more efficient ways of using resources. But Simon's optimistic report has the potential to prevent its own conclusions from occurring by providing a political excuse not to address these issues. These problems probably can be solved by human resourcefulness but given current resistance to addressing them, any report that denies there is a problem can be used politically to justify inaction.

Thus it appears that while the limits on the world's resources are not fixed at any one level, they are almost certainly finite and not infinite. This suggests that ever-increasing consumption is not possible. The demographic transition and microeconomic theory of fertility, as well as the western world's example that they are based on, show that population growth ceases to be a problem when living standards reach a certain level. This suggests that the best way to moderate population growth (and probably the only way, short of draconian control measures) is equitable development and standard of living increases. However, stopping rampant population growth does not guarantee that our doom is averted. As the example of the United States and Western Europe also illustrates, escalating consumption levels can happen even in the absence of population growth.

Increasing consumption desires are a subtler, more serious, and more difficult to solve problem than population growth. Moderating consumption levels requires moderating human desires and human nature, as well as going against a capitalist cultural system that is based on the assumption that economic growth can increase forever. Some would argue then that although our doom is not inevitable from a material or physical standpoint, we are doomed by our culture and our nature. I believe that kind of fatalism underestimates the human potential for self-restraint, as well as dooming us by a lack of action. (12) However, changing human and societal values is a slow, incremental, and inexact science. (13) It requires millions of individuals not only deciding that acting a certain way (moderating consumption in this case) is right, but also deciding to share that standard with others and even hold others to it.

Basically, a global movement towards sustainability requires no less than a morality revolution that rejects excessive consumption and goals of permanent economic growth. History tells us this is possible, since the reverse shift happened in the early modern period in Europe when capitalism developed originally. However, historians have not yet figured out why that shift occurred. One major hypothesis relates it to the rise of Protestantism.(14) Whether this theory turns out to be correct or not, it suggests the potentially large role to be played by religion. In fact, this is a role religion is beginning to play, through movements like "What Would Jesus Drive?" (15) There is also a large role to be played by re-designing education curriculums to teach the next generation to value sustainable living.

In conclusion, therefore, our doom is not inevitable, certainly not because of dangerous levels of resource scarcity nor burgeoning population growth. The greatest danger lies in escalating consumption desires. The possibility of moderating these desires exists, but the process is far from easy or obvious.

Notes and Sources:

1. "Doom" in Merriam-Webster online dictionary: "to make certain the failure or destruction of" http://www.m-w.com/dictionary.htm

2. For a pessimistic description using Meadows' team's first report, see Chapter 15 from Charles H. Southwick. Global Ecology in Human Perspective. Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 159-182.

3. The discussion of pessimistic and optimistic models in this and following paragraphs comes from Tom Tietenberg. Environmental and Natural Resource Economics 6th Ed. Pearson Education, Inc. 2003. and class notes taken in Economic 76: Environmental Economics with Prof. Larry Westphal at Swarthmore College during the Spring 2003 semester.

4. Tietenberg 7

5. For economic discussions of population growth, see Tietenberg 112-113. and Chapter 5 from Edwin G. Dolan. TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis. 1974, pp. 55-72.

6. See Tietenberg 113-122

7. For example, development can increase the cost of having children by increasing the opportunity cost of the mother's time, increasing the cost of housing (since societies become increasingly urbanized), and by increasing the parent's expectations about how expensive of an education they desire for their children.

8. For example, development can decrease the benefit of having children because children are less useful in industrial economies than in agrarian, other old-age social security systems than having children may be developed, a woman's status may become more tied to earning potential than child-bearing success, increasingly sophisticated health care decreases infant mortality rates and thus the risk that a given child won't survive, and because equitable growth seems to reduce the uncertainty that leads to having more children.

9. See Tietenberg Chapter 1 and Southwick.

10. Developed nation giving aid to developing nations raises all kinds of issues of paternalism, but a good start, in this author's opinion, would be for developed nations to forgive crippling debts. For more information on the Jubilee Movement International's work for debt cancellation, see http://www.jubilee2000uk.org/ and http://www.jubileeusa.org/start.htm.

11. One piece of evidence for Simon's accuracy in the short run is a bet between Simon and Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb which Simon won. In 1980, Simon challenged Ehrlich to choose five natural materials. The two agreed that if the price of these five materials increased by 1990 (indicating increasing scarcity), Simon would pay Ehrlich and if the price decreased, Ehrlich would pay Simon. In 1990, Simon was proved right. For more information on this bet, see "Betting the Planet" by John Tierney in The Guardian (London), December 28, 1990.

12. I realize that some would see my hope for humankind as ridiculous. However, I feel that our current society is beginning to realize that consumption does not equal happiness. One indicator for this is the growing popularity of "simple living movements." For more information on people who are choosing quality of life over quantity of possessions, see The Simple Living Guide: A Sourcebook for Less Stressful, More Joyful Living by Janet Luhrs, published by Random House, NY.

13. For one scholar's view about how current values would have to change to achieve sustainability, see Timothy Weiskel, "Survival on a Small Planet." Audio recording of speech given at the Cambridge Forum lecture series on May 15, 1991.

14. See Max Weber's work on the spirit of capitalism, reprinted in Protestantism, capitalism, and social science; the Weber thesis controversy. (2nd ed.) Robert W. Green, ed. Lexington, MA: Heath. 1973. pp 1-31.

15. See "What Would Jesus Drive? : Religious Campaign Targets Transportation Choices" by Paul Hanley. In The Star Pheonix. Decemeber 27, 2002. Lifesyle section Pg C3.

Read the author's other essays:

Technology, Population, and the Impact of Ancient Humans on the Environment

The Dynamic Relationship Between Technology and Culture

Luck and 'backwardness': A new story of European contact with the Americas

Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Waste (Final Project)

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last updated 4/19/03