"[A] key reason our consumption behavior, especially American consumption behavior, is so environmentally destructive is that there are enough of us (270 million in the United States) to matter. We matter not so much individually but collectively when we waste natural resources, when we shop till we drop, and when we vaporize petroleum cheaper than water to fuel our cars and drive our air conditioners. And if the rest of the world follows our behavioral example - and how could we argue they should not? - we will need another planet or two to avoid climatological, ecological and natural-resource collapse."
-- Bob Engelman, "Population, Consumption and the Path to Environmental Sustainability"

Overview & Connection to a New Dream

Wonder why population and consumption are so often mentioned together? Maybe its because they’re two sides of the same coin. Perhaps you’ve heard of the formula I=PCT or "ecological Impact equals Population x Consumption x Technological efficiency." Oversimplified? Yes. But it does demonstrate that, if we really want to see a sustainable world, we must at once work to 1) reduce our overall consumption of natural resources, 2) shift our consumption toward green goods produced by sustainable businesses using clean, efficient technology and 3) promote efforts to stabilize global population so that everyone on earth can have access to adequate resources.

Why do we need to stabilize population? As it stands now, the earth cannot support 6 billion people living like the average American. Imagine what will happen if we continue on our present course which the UN estimates will be 8.5 billion by 2025 and 10 billion by 2050. If consumption levels continue to increase at their present rate, we will run out of natural resources and overrun earth’s absorptive capacities faster than we can come up with solutions. Already we are losing topsoil and depleting water tables in many regions, a scary concept when we must feed nearly 100 million additional mouths every year. We also need to think about scale -- eating lunch at McDonald’s doesn’t seem to produce an enormous amount of waste but we have to remember to multiply by the "millions and millions served" EACH DAY!

Even judging strictly by numbers, a popular misconception is that population growth is only an issue for the global South. The President’s Council on Sustainable Development reported that "The United States is the only major industrialized country in the world experiencing population growth on a significant scale… [adding] another Connecticut in population each year, and another California each decade."(1) Some of the U.S.’s growth is due to immigration, but we also have one of the highest birth rates in the industrialized world – only tiny Iceland and Ireland have birth rates as high as the United States. This is a discouraging fact since the U.S. is the world’s third most populous nation and many developing countries look to us as a model. UNDP points out that one child born in the industrial world consumes more in his or her lifetime than do 30-50 children born in developing countries. (2)

Still there is reason for hope. Population growth is irrevocably connected to health, education, and women’s rights issues and, as these issues improve, international organizations are reporting slower growth. Also more people desire fewer children and more parents are obtaining family planning resources. In 1994, nations at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo recognized the links between population and consumption while reaching broad agreement that development and family planning must be pursued simultaneously. We can realize this international goal by asking local politicians to push for legislation that promotes education and human rights. Now "all" we have to do is balance our consumption and share a few resources with the world’s materially-deprived as well as those who have yet to arrive.


  1. President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Population and Consumption Task Force Report, 1996.
  2. United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 1998

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