Population and Resources

The state of the earth’s resources and population has been a hot topic for a while now. The most common refrain is that we simply need fewer people. How that goal is accomplished can range from mild like family planning to inhuman like a one-child policy. Yet the unchallenged premise remains that reducing the amount of people is the main way to achieve this goal. I reject this premise. I contend that the main cause of resource crises on earth is how much people use, not how many people there are.

On this note, the BBC ran an article recently on the topic. The most relevant parts in my mind:

The picture is complicated by the fact that while the overall figures have been growing, the world’s per-capita fertility has been declining for several decades.

The impact on the environment has increased substantially, however, because of rising affluence and consumption rates.


As a result of this long-term impact, the world should focus on curbing consumption and designing ways to conserve species and ecosystems.

“Society’s efforts towards sustainability would be directed more productively towards reducing our impact as much as possible through technological and social innovation,” says Prof Bradshaw.

The BBC repeats the idea that less people forms part of the equation, and in light of my argument, people will often ask, “Can’t we do both?’ In theory, I agree that responsible resource usage goes hand-in-hand with family planning, but so long as people keep before their minds that they can just prevent people from existing, they develop very little desire to conserve resources. So by compromising we end up right back where we started, staking our future on the dangerous premise that we need to prevent people from existing in order to live life comfortably.

Furthermore, as the BBC mentions, even a catastrophic decline in population will do very little to arrest any resource problems so long as resource consumption remains the same as now or increases, without even considering the effect of extreme population decline on other areas such as economics and culture. Overall, I see a picture of resource management centered around population control that will at best be ineffective, at worst outright immoral, and very likely detrimental to society in the long run.

I also believe we are meant to be fruitful and multiply. I believe human life is inherently good. We can live with an increasing number of people on earth. What we cannot live with is a world where people use vastly more than they need. People will often point out how the development of China and India is putting strain on the world’s resources and how they need to use less, but if Americans continue to live well in excess of what we need, on what grounds can we possibly tell the rest of the world to use less? We must be the change we want to see, especially when we’re 4% of the world population and use 20% of the world’s resources.

I realize my vision is a bit pie-in-sky. However, I think more evidence is mounting that all the family planning in the world and even outright authoritarian population control will do nothing if we do not reduce our desire for objects. Then on the flip side, I believe if we do learn to desire less, more people will not create crises. A family of four wanting to live a luxurious American lifestyle will place more demand on resources than a family of eight living modestly.

Therefore, I believe we have two choices set before us. We can sacrifice objects, or we can sacrifice people. Which do we choose?

3 thoughts on “Population and Resources”

  1. Bryan-

    I think you’re right to point out that emphasizing limited population can create problems of its own. For example, one serious consequence of restricted family size in places like China and India is that it creates a huge, artificial gender imbalance. There are far too many boys and not nearly enough girls. The long-term consequences of this can be disastrous, as it will create an entire generation of young men who have no investment in society because they have no marriage prospects. That’s just one example of the unintended consequences that can arise from trying to artificially reduce population growth.

    On the other hand, the key question for Americans becomes how we restrict our consumption. Even if everyone agrees that there’s a moral imperative to do so, there’s the tremendous practical question: how do we connect the moral imperative with practical, every-day decisions?

  2. “On the other hand, the key question for Americans becomes how we restrict our consumption. Even if everyone agrees that there’s a moral imperative to do so, there’s the tremendous practical question: how do we connect the moral imperative with practical, every-day decisions?”

    That’s a really great question for which I don’t have a large scale answer. Right now I’m at the personal level with things like ‘don’t shower so dang long’ and ‘don’t feel the need to stuff your face.’

    I think some cultural changes are already taking place, though, like Americans acting seriously about resource sustainability, cutting down on waste, and recycling what we do end up using. Then again, I live in the hippy state of Oregon, so I would guess these kinds of conversations and ideas aren’t as uniformly common and popular across the US.

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