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By Jim Bell



Population Numbers Vs. Negative Impact Per Capita

Doing Our Part In The Developed World






Up to the present, the issue of population growth has primarily focused on the developing world. From the perspective of global sustainability, however, the smaller developed world population causes far more damage. At 1970 per capita pollution levels, "an increase of 75 million Americans (U.S.) would be the equivalent to adding 3.7 billion Indians to the world population." (57) This is not to say we should slow our efforts to stabilize and eventually reduce our global population. (Even if we do everything right ecologically, our planet can only support so many people sustainably, at a given average standard of living.) But considering the ecological damage that the developed nations are causing, reducing the environmental impact per capita in these nations is perhaps the more immediate issue at hand.

The challenge for the developed world then is to demonstrate how people can live comfortably on our planet in ways that are ecologically sustainable. As this is accomplished, the technological know-how proven in this effort can be transferred to the developing world. With such technologies, people living in the developing world can raise their own standard of living in ecologically benign ways. Historically, as standards of living have risen, the rate of population growth has tended to fall.






Population Numbers Vs. Negative Impact Per Capita








The connection between increasing world population and its impact on ecological security is another area of public misunderstanding. By now most people are aware that increasing human population is causing ecological problems. Currently, the most dramatic increases in world populations are occurring in the developing nations. Given this fact, people in the "developed world" tend to focus their concerns on the impact of increasing population in those areas. The prevalent view in the developed world goes something like this, "I wish that people in the developing world would quit having so many children because they're messing up the environment."

If we look at population from the perspective of ecological damage per-capita, however, we see a different picture. This is because most of our planet's ecological problems result from "how" we procure, process, and transport our planet's resources and "how" we use and dispose of the things we make from them. Since people in the developed world use far more resources per capita than do their less affluent developing world neighbors, their negative ecological impact is far greater. The operative word in the previous discussion is "how".


  • Ecologically sustainable methods are used to procure and process raw materials, and
  • The products made from them can be used in environmentally benign ways, and
  • They are designed to be easily reused or recycled,


  • An ecologically sustainable, materially secure standard of living can be maintained by a large number of people.

It should be noted that even if we develop ways to extract, process, use, and "recycle" (replaces "dispose") the material wealth that our planet offers, in ways that maximize eco-nomic sustainability, population will still be a limiting factor. Even if we do everything correctly, we still can only support a given number of people at an average given material standard of living, sustainably. As population grows, the average standard of living has to go down if eco-nomic sustainability is to be maintained on a finite planet.

Based on contemporary levels of consumption and waste, the average person in the U.S. has 20 to 100 times more negative impact on the world's ecology than the average person living in a developing country. The "average U.S. citizen consumes 50 times more steel, 56 times more energy, 170 times more synthetic rubber and newsprint, 250 times more motor fuel, and 300 times more plastic than the average citizen of India." (58)

In spite of their considerably smaller populations, people living in the developed world have a far greater negative impact on our planet's ecology than do people living in developing nations.

The per capita contribution to pollution in the developed world is also greater than the per capita pollution generated in the developing world. At 1970 pollution levels, "an increase of 75 million Americans (U.S.) would be equivalent to adding 3.7 billion Indians to the world population." (59) This puts the pollution contribution of the average U.S. citizen at almost 50 times greater than that contributed by the average Indian. (60)

In terms of mineral and fuel consumption, "75 million Americans (U.S.) are the equivalent of 2 billion Colombians, 10 billion Nigerians, or 22 billion Indonesians." (61) Even if we assume that the negative ecological impact of the average U.S. citizen is only 20 times the per capita impact of the average third world resident, the U.S. population alone has almost twice the negative ecological impact as all the people living in the developing world combined. If we assume the ratio of 100 to one, the ecological damage caused by 250 million U.S. citizens is almost 10 times greater than the combined impact of all the people living in the developing world. (62)

Even though the average U.S. citizen consumes more resources than the average citizen elsewhere, the rest of the developed world comes in a close second. "The world's wealthiest nations, which have 25% of the world's population, consume 70% of its resources." (63) "The industrial world accounts for up to 90% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) (mainly from fossil fuel burning) that has so far accumulated in the earth's atmosphere." (64)

Additionally, many of the negative impacts that occur in developing nations can be directly attributed to the consumption patterns of people living in the United States, Europe, and Japan. (65) For example, the consumption of beef imported from developing nations hastens rain forest destruction by providing ranching interests in rain forest countries the economic incentive to clear forests and convert them into grazing land.

This is not to say that overpopulation is not a problem. Slowing population growth and eventually reducing the number of people that live on our planet at any given time is something we should all work toward. Even if we do everything else perfectly from an ecological perspective, our planet's ecology can only support a finite number of people sustainably -- even at a very low level of consumption per-capita.






Doing Our Part In The Developed World








Considering our impact on eco-nomic sustainability, the most immediate thing we can do, in the developed world, is to reduce our per capita impact. Doing this will reduce and eventually eliminate the damage our current ways of doing things are causing while demonstrating that the developed world's commitment to eco-nomic sustainability is legitimate. Our present focus on raw population numbers instead of negative ecological impacts per-capita gives people living in developing countries cause to question our concern for the preservation of "their" environments. As numerous people from developing countries have observed, the developed countries use most of the world's resources in ways that are not ecologically sustainable, then admonish developing countries when they try to emulate us.

Additionally, by focusing on reducing our own negative impacts, we will be developing the strategies and technologies needed to live and make livings in ways that are eco-nomically sustainable -- the very strategies and technologies that developing nations need to improve their own living standards in ways that avoid the ecological damage that the developed world has caused, up to now, in the same pursuit.

This in itself can be a powerful tool in curbing population growth in the developing world. Historically, a rise in living standards has tended to reduce the rate of population growth.

Indeed, the development and transfer of ecologically sustainable strategies and technologies, coupled with promotion of equal rights for women may prove to be the best way the developed world can contribute to the stabilization of our species' global population.