by Tao Oliveto, Carrboro, NC
As they say, numbers don’t lie. The population crisis is real and determined not simply by increasing numbers of people, but by consumption levels of those people. Science uses the number 32 to measure the difference in lifestyles between people in the first world and those in the developing world, who have a rate of around 1. Simply stated, people in N. America (and other developed nations) consume resources and create waste (like plastics and greenhouse gases) at 32 times the rate of those in other countries. Adding a person to the U.S. population is equivalent (in terms of consumption and waste) to adding 32 people to the developing world. If this still doesn’t resonate fully, consider that the average cost of raising a child in the U.S. is estimated at $13,430 – and that’s just until age two – much of it having to do with consumption.
Jared Diamond, professor of geography @ Univerity of CA, LA and author of “Collapse”, outlines this disparity in his recent NY Times Op Ed piece, “What’s Your Consumption Factor?” Although high birth rates are an issue in developing countries, they consume and waste less. With a consumption level higher than any other country, the U.S. and others must consider population growth as critical in regards to reaching preventing a collapse in resources and moving towards sustainability.
“[B]y avoiding a fraction of the projected population increase, the emissions savings could be significant and would be at a cost, based on UN experience of reproductive health programmes, that would be as little as one-thousandth of the technological fixes. The reality is that while the footprint of each individual cannot be reduced to zero, the absence of an individual does do so.” states Chris Rapley, well-known expert in climate change science and director of the historic Science Museum in South Kensington, London.
Fortunately, standard of living does not have to be directly related to our current rate of consumption in the U.S. since much of what we consume is wasted and/or does not contribute to our standard of life. New and improved energy technology can help us use resources more efficiently but it’s up to each of us to reconsider our excessive lifestyles and habits as something that can be sacrificed – without much actual sacrifice. We’ve unwittingly set a precedent for an unsustainable and wasteful standard of living, encouraging the rest of the world to “catch up” – with obvious and dire consequences if they do.
When it comes to population growth, we have to keep all the numbers in mind. Because when it comes to consumption, the fact is, our standard of living is possible only because the rest of the world lives with much less.