Over-Population, Over-Consumption and Environmental problems Alan Rudy iss 310

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Over-Consumption and Environmental problems

Alan Rudy

ISS 310

Spring 2002

Thursday, February 21

The general argument goes a little like this:

  1. “Too many people means too much consumption, depletion and/or pollution and this threatens the carrying capacity of a naturally resource-limited collection of global ecologies.”

  1. What did we learn from Cronon that might modify this?

Classic Graph

Population: What’s the Problem?

  1. More people – no real problem perspective – Julian Simon

  2. People-versus-resources perspective – Ehrlich, Hardin, Brown

  3. The social perspective – social relations and institutions are key

  4. The power-structures perspective

A Power-Structures Perspective

  1. Our thesis is that antidemocratic power structures create and perpetuate conditions keeping fertility high.” (Lappe and Schurmann 18)

  2. Power becomes the crucial variable… [w]ithout it, it is possible to describe conditions like poverty associated with high fertility, but not to understand them or to arrive at workable solutions.” (20)

Usual Approach, prev. Table, is Usually Tied to Graph like this one:

Explanation of Graph

  1. The Industrial North has made the demographic transition

  2. Population/Environment equilibrium + modern Technology/Medicine Economic/Population growth New Population/Environment equilibrium.

  3. The underdeveloped South is still dealing with the early stages of the process… and, if modernization works properly, they’ll get were we are eventually


  1. Consumption continues to rise in the North and technological and economic growth in the south lags far behind population growth rates.

  2. This leads to, or so the claim goes,

  3. pollution in the north and

  4. depletion in the south.

  5. Therefore:

  6. we” are consuming too much and

  7. they” are having too many children.

Solution to the problem is then…

  1. The North must consume less while

  2. transferring modern contraceptive technologies to the South so as to slow population growth and

  3. develop/transfer to the South

  4. new, appropriate, and efficient technologies to

  5. decrease energy use,

  6. increase recycling,

  7. increase agricultural productivity and

  8. stimulate sustainable (sometimes labor-intensive) development.

Let’s look at this model:

  1. We have a simple model wherein population increase leads to increased consumption, depletion, and pollution.

  2. What do we now know?

  3. We know some “facts” and maybe correlations.

  4. What do we not know?

  5. Causation.

  6. What remains unexplained?

We don’t know about:

  1. Southern womens’ means of population control or the state of their ecological relations

  2. The social forces behind population growth, or technological development

  3. Why it is/how it came to be that Northern consumers consume as much as they do

  4. Why it is/how it came to be that Southern folks reproduce so much

Summarizing the Power-Structures Perspective – understanding is key

  1. If one’s financial security depends entirely or largely on one’s surviving children

  2. And many births are necessary to ensure that even several children live to maturity

  3. And health services, including birth control are generally unavailable to the poor

  4. And women have no choices other than marriage and no power w/o children/sons

  5. And few educational or employment opportunities exist for women outside the home

  6. Population and poverty will increase

With the Demographic Transition model there is no need to study:

  1. Comparative history:

  2. Are there Northern countries/regions w/ low consumption?

  3. Are there Southern countries/regions w/ low pop growth?

  4. Social relations:

  5. is population growth socially/ecologically irrational? for whom?

  6. what about distribution?

No Need to Study II:

  1. Political Economy:

  2. where does contemporary sci/tech/med come from?

  3. what interest does who have in consumption/population growth?

  4. Cultural History:

  5. whose normative interests are being served by this debate?

  6. what institutions foster these trajectories, where’d they come from?

In this sort of scientific model:


  2. These positions assume that population, or technology, can be treated as an independent/causal variable, as a “thing” independent of its history and particular social relations or context.


  1. The initial equilibrium state between population and environment is assumed when it, and its disruption (if it is real), needs to be theoretically and historically explained.

Lets compare El Salvador and Indonesia.

  1. Both are poor and have high population growth.

  2. The expectation would then be that environmental degradation would be about equivalent in each country.

  3. It hasn’t been.

El Salvador has serious food/ecological problems.

  1. Integrated raw material supplier to Northern industries.

  2. Has major class polarization, land concentration, and a highly monetized rural and urban economy.

  3. UK/US colony, import/export driven economic development.

Indonesia has far fewer food-ecological problems.

  1. Integrated raw material supplier to Northern merchant/trade businesses.

  2. Far less class/land polarization, and low monetization of the rural economy

  3. It was a Dutch colony that sought to keep US/UK indsutrial goods out, and organized internal development grounded around subsistence.

My point:

  1. The key to determining the likelihood of environmental degradation/starvation, as we saw with Cronon, is the organization of society as much as it is the relatively high or low population in a certain area.

  2. Clearly, this is what makes it possible for New Jersey to be so densely settled w/ comparatively little hunger and ecodestruction (unless you’ve been there).

Lets look at the equilibrium assumption:

  1. In the context of the slave-mercantile-industrial triangle between Africa-The Americas-Europe

  2. The population of Africa was decimated (90 to 9 million 1500-1650)

  3. As was that of the Americas (50 to 0.5 million 1500-1999)

  4. That’s a loss of 126 million people in Africa and the Americas from disease and war alone.

Equilibrium assumption II

  1. At the same time that the European peasantries, just then recovering their population numbers after The Plague, or Black Death, were kicked off the land and turned into the European working class.

  2. Where’s the nature, population equilibrium of that past now? What of 1 Billion in 1800?

  3. “Recovering” Europe decimated everyone else and now population scholars start after the recovery-decimation

Reproduction insecurity Population Growth

  1. Early Capitalist Growth + Enclosure of the Commons + Landlessness

  2. inability of peasants to reproduce themselves and their family w/o wages to buy commodities they used to make

  3. population growth to bring in more wages-money – esp. when business preferentially hires more pliable/cheaper women and children


  1. Urbanization coincides with the displacement of rural people and the displacement of rural people coincides with population growth.

  2. So, as people are no longer able to produce to satisfy their own needs, they congregate in cities (where the jobs are).

  3. What does this seem to indicate about Third World urbanization recently?

But what about consumption?

  1. How many folks in the North determine their needs, much less the available means of need satisfaction…

  2. Or even the range of options within one’s available means?

  3. Would you prefer more efficient appliances, homes, better food, entertainment, longer lasting goods?

  4. What about the urban or rural poor, what are their options?

Overconsumption II

  1. If we overconsume, what is it that we overconsume and why?

  2. If our cars/homes/lifestyles are less efficient/pollute more than we’d like, why?

  3. Because we are wastrels?

  4. Could poverty be inefficient?

  5. If poverty is inefficient is it economically so? fiscally so? ecologically so?

  6. If these things are different, how so?

Lets consume less –
Julia Butterfly Hill

  1. What would the first thing that would happen were there to be a radical decrease in consumption in the U.S?

  2. What does business do under conditions of declining consumption?

  3. What happens to the coffers of the state under conditions of declining economy?

  4. What happens then?


  1. Note that ALL the traditional responses to over-population/consumption fail to address North-South, rich-poor, male-female hierarchies.

  2. In fact they usually blame those with less power and less power to productively affect change.

Historical Remedies

  1. U.S. and International Population Policy

  2. Population concerns w/in broader development policies – 40s-50s

  3. Security/cold war, development, famine and population – 60s-70s

  4. Development, anti-abortion, domestic politics and population – 80s

  5. Population, development and women’s empowerment – 90s/21st C?

But aren’t people hungry?

  1. If it isn’t over-population or over-consumption that cause hunger and/or environmental degradation, what is the problem?

  2. Let’s look at hunger…

Myth One: There is not enough food and not enough land.

  1. Untrue: Measured globally, there is enough to feed everyone. For example there is enough grain being produced today to provide everybody in the world with enough protein and about 3000 calories a day, which is what the average American consumes. But the world's food supply is not evenly distributed.

Myth Two: There are too many people to feed.

  1. It's usually the other way around: hunger is one of the real causes of overpopulation. The more children a poor family has the more likely some will survive to work in the fields or in the city to add to the family's small income and, later, to care for the parents in their old age.

  2. All this points to the disease that is at the root of both hunger and overpopulation: High birth rates are symptoms of the failures of a social system - inadequate family income, inadequate nutrition and health care and old-age security.

Myth Three: Growing more food will mean less hunger.

  1. But it doesn't seem to work that way. "More food" is what the last 30 years' War on Hunger has been about. Farming methods have been "modernized", ambitious irrigation plans carried out, "miracle" seeds, new pesticides, fertilizers and machinery have become available.

  2. But who has come out better off? Farmers who already have land. money and the ability to buy on credit - not the desperately poor and hungry.

Myth Four: Hunger is contest between rich and poor countries.

  1. Rich or poor we are all part of the same global food system which is gradually coming under the control of a few huge corporations.

  2. Poor people in the Third World market pay food prices that are determined by what people in rich countries are willing to pay. This is direct cause of hunger in many poor countries.

Myth Five: Hunger can be solved by redistributing food to the hungry.

  1. Neither "one less hamburger a week“ nor massive food aid programs will eventually solve widespread starvation and poverty in the poorest nation.

  2. People will only cease to be poor when they control the means of providing and /or producing food for themselves.

Myth Six: A strong military defense helps provides food security.

  1. The security of countries both great and small, depends first of all in a population that has enough food, enough jobs, adequate energy and safe, comfortable housing. When a society cannot provide these basics, all the guns and bombs in the world cannot maintain peace.

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