This story was originally published by High Country News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

This is an instalment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the western United States.

Is overpopulation the environmental elephant in the room?

Last month, the United Nations announced that the Earth’s population had reached eight billion. The organization’s leaders don’t see all those humans as something to fear, but rather as, in the words of Secretary General António Guterres, “an occasion to celebrate diversity and advancements while considering humanity’s shared responsibility for the planet.”

But judging from the letters I get after almost every environment-related piece I write, I suspect that some readers would disagree.

“I am an avid ‘environmentalist,’” a reader recently wrote. “Simple, plain truth fact: Whether it is climate change, wildlife habitat, immigration, and yes, even gun violence. We will NEVER make much progress … until we make significant gains in stabilizing and ultimately reducing the cancer of human population growth.”

This note echoes hundreds of other responses I’ve received over the last couple decades. The basic idea is that all aspects of environmental degradation — along with traffic congestion and the housing crisis — are rooted in overpopulation. And, the argument goes, not mentioning this in environmental stories is irresponsible, verging on dishonest. “Population growth is the environmentalists’ ‘elephant in the room,’” another reader wrote. “We ignore the issue at our peril.”

We at Landline would like to use the eight-billion benchmark as an opportunity to stop ignoring population. But, fair warning: You might not like what we have to say.

No, I’m not going to tell you to stop worrying about population growth. Even as the UN celebrates the advances in medicine and nutrition that make it possible for billions of people to exist on Earth, it acknowledges the challenges presented by rapidly growing numbers in places like Nigeria. And no, I’m not going to deride every overpopulationist as a racist or eco-fascist or eugenicist. While it’s true that fear of overpopulation is often used to justify racism or eco-fascist views or xenophobia, there are plenty of folks who are genuinely concerned about the planet’s ability to sustain eight billion people, no matter where or who or what colour those people may be.

Should we worry about eight billion people? #ClimateChange #WaterCrisis #WealthInequality #HousingCrisis #Overpopulation

But I will suggest that you’re barking up the wrong tree.

Most folks would agree that the real worry here is not the sheer numbers, but their collective impact on the environment. We — the planet’s human inhabitants — are clearing land, levelling forests and mountains, mining and drilling minerals and burning fossil fuels in order to sustain ourselves and our lifestyles. That, in turn, is diminishing biodiversity, driving species to extinction and stretching the planet’s carrying capacity to a snapping point, thereby imperilling our own species’ survival. The problems are exacerbated as planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions soar, further diminishing freshwater stores and hurting food production.

And the environmental impacts, put simply, are the product of population multiplied by per capita consumption. It would stand to reason that with every added unit of humanity comes a corresponding and proportional increase in environmental impact. The thing is, per capita consumption varies widely across the globe and the demographic spectrum, vastly outweighing simple population numbers in our impact equation.

Per cent by which total global energy consumption has increased over the last decade.

Per cent by which total global population increased during that same period.

Per cent by which total global carbon emissions from energy use increased over the decade.

That is to say, the affluent consume far more than everyone else and therefore have a much greater environmental impact, throwing the aforementioned equation into disarray. The richest 10 per cent of the globe’s population are responsible for nearly half of all “lifestyle consumption emissions,” according to Oxfam, while the poorest half is responsible for just 10 per cent of those emissions. Another way to look at this is that each person at the top of the global wealth ladder emits about 31.25 metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent each year, while each of the globe’s poorest 50 per cent emits about 1.25 tons of CO2. That’s because folks in the so-called “developed” world burn through a heck of a lot more fossil fuels, food, water, minerals, Big Macs — you name it — than those in less-affluent, rapidly growing regions.

Increases in population still result in increases in overall environmental impact. But per capita consumption plays a far bigger role. It’s runaway consumption, not unhindered population growth, that is most responsible for the habitat loss, land-use changes and resource exploitation that most threaten biodiversity and cause the runaway greenhouse gas emissions that are altering the climate.

4.7 billion
Metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted from energy use in the United States in 2021.

3.8 billion
Metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by Europe's energy use in 2021.

1.3 billion
Metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by Africa from energy use in 2021.

This equation — combined with the disproportional influence of consumption over sheer population numbers — holds true even at a regional level.

Perhaps the most prominent example of a system in the West that has exceeded the carrying capacity is the Colorado River. The population has dramatically increased in the seven Colorado River Basin states over the last few decades. And, during that same time, demand for the river’s water has come to vastly exceed the supply.

At first glance, it would appear that a larger population has resulted in greater consumption, thereby draining the reservoirs. But the data doesn’t back this up. While Colorado River consumption climbed along with population for decades after the Colorado River Compact was signed a century ago, that demand levelled over the last couple of decades, even as the population exploded. Yes, consumptive use of the Colorado River’s waters held steady or even dropped as the population climbed, as counterintuitive as that may seem.

Amount by which the Las Vegas metro area population increased between 2002 and 2021.

26 billion gallons
Amount by which the Las Vegas metro area overall water use decreased during that same period.

500,000 acre-feet
Estimated amount of Colorado River water used to irrigate alfalfa fields in a single California irrigation district per year, or nearly twice the Las Vegas area’s total annual consumption.

Meanwhile, the West’s wealthiest guzzle more and more water and energy and resources with every new pile of cash (or cryptocurrency or stocks or yachts) they amass, from the Kardashians using hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per month to keep their Los Angeles-area estate verdant during the most severe drought in 1,200 years, to Drake burning through jet fuel to take a 14-minute trip in his custom 767, to an L.A. mansion with a $50,000 monthly electricity bill. Yes, $50k for electricity to keep the monstrosity’s 105,000 square feet, or 217 average-sized Hong Kong homes, cool during the increasingly hot California summers.

It’s not just the billionaires. Americans in general tend to favour relatively giant automobiles and lawns and houses — the average home size in Colorado Springs is almost 2,800 square feet. These, in turn, require more energy, wider roads, more water and lead to residential sprawl, which gobbles up farmland and open space and wildlife habitat. Bigger physical footprints almost always have bigger environmental footprints.

This isn’t the result of eight billion people on the planet or cross-border immigration. It’s the natural outcome of the dominant culture, which values affluence, economic growth and corporate profit above all else. It’s societal greed and an emptiness that always yearns for more, in part because corporate marketing schemes have convinced us that the more we accumulate, the happier we are. But Americans don’t have the highest quality of life, they just lead the most profligate lives, throwing away enough food each year, for example, to feed an entire nation.

161 to 335 billion tons
Estimated amount of food wasted in the U.S. supply chain each year, which amounts to as much as 1,032 pounds per person.

140 million
Acres of land required to grow food that is wasted each year in the U.S.

5.9 trillion
Gallons of water used to grow food that is wasted each year in the U.S.

Trying to control the population — whatever that might look like — isn’t going to solve those problems. Only a rejiggering of the system, a suppression of the collective capitalist appetite, a debunking of the belief that all growth is good and that more is more, will right the sinking ship we’re on.

As for the eight billion, most experts say the best way to stabilize the global population is to empower and educate women, increase access to birth control, ensure that women have reproductive freedom and tackle wealth inequality.

Meanwhile, policymakers and thinkers and environmentalists should focus more on reducing consumption and changing what is consumed, especially by the affluent. Because when it comes to the environment, that’s the real elephant weighing down the planet.

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Just because less affluent countries are currently using less and polluting less than more affluent does not support the argument that overpopulation is not the problem because all are pursuing the dream of better lives for their children. Many of these goals forge toward more consumption as they gain some wealth. The western countries are a bad example to other countries in the way of overconsumption. Family planning should become a world goal as smaller families have less need of resources and the western countries must drastically lessen their greed for more "stuff".

This assumes that the entire world operates on the same principles as the US, whether economic, sociological, agricultural, or "other."
They do not.
If you scratch the surface, you'll actually find that a disproportionate amount of the pollution and degradation of countries with a low carbon footprint are actually occasioned by the efforts of "western" industry, doing industry the American way.
As far as family planning goes, I'd urge everyone who thinks that universal "family planning" is the way to limiting population, to consider restricting their own reproduction to nil. And then get to work on their consumption patterns.
It might also be useful to consider the political underpinnings of concepts of "useless eaters," as well.

We in the developed world being that 10 %, have no intention of consuming less, reducing our emissions or asking Big Business, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agriculture to reduce their impacts. We want more an more and use more energy to satisfy our wants, not our needs. As drought now affects about a billion , we in the west have wake up to simple fact that much of the land between the tropics of capricorn and cancer will be uninhabitable this century and those 6 billion people living there will be coming north.

Look no further than the article on Bali below. Trouble in Paradise?

So we can keep on increasing the population a lot more, as long we make sure all the new people are really poor. Um, good to know?

Really, I've seen this point made time and again, but I don't think the people who make it think through the implications. For instance, one takeaway could be that if you want to save the environment, it is absolutely necessary to keep the third world in as deep poverty as possible while stopping immigration from the third world to affluent countries, as such immigration transforms low-resource-using third world people into high-resource-using affluent-country people. That doesn't seem very nice, and it's certainly not the outcome I want to see, but if you frame things as "The problem isn't the number of people, it's the number of well off people" then the obvious implication is that you need to maintain poverty.

I'd rather see a small enough world population that everyone could be fairly affluent, if in a more sane way than current consumption patterns, while still not killing the world.

I think you've missed the point he was making.

Check Jason Hickel's work if you're still unconvinced that radical overconsumption and inequality are the problem. We can have an economy that works for all, but not one that supports extreme wealth or completely unnecessary consumption:

Axeworthy Lecture:
Degrowth /Green Growth debate:
Inequality Talk:

Women in the US is now have so few children that its population cannot be maintained without immigration. I've noted stats in this forum before.

As a kid, I used to "count" Olympics medal performance of Canada compared to the US, on a per capita basis: the population of the US was roughly 10 times that of Canada. It's now less than 8.5 times that of Canada, not because women have a lot more children than in the US, but because we have higher immigration rates.

National carbon footprints aren't even a function of industrialization, as the US has only 44% the population of Europe, and a radically greater carbon footprint.

But the bottom line in this discussion belongs to the late Hans Rosling,

For the numbers, how they got that way over time, and what they mean for future growth (about 15 min):

For the reasons, and contextual analysis (about 20 min):

You will see that non-fact-based assumptions lead to false conclusions, and that (as with everything) the devil is in the details. All societies aren't the same, and all segments of populations in any given country are not the same.

Ultimately, pursuing the data leads to the only rational conclusion, which is that reached by the writer of the article.

The difficult part is getting politicians to look at facts other than who contributes to their election campaigns, and what they expect in return. There is appalling ignorance amongst politicians about factual realities, and unfortunately that extends to a lot of the public service corps. I could go on to describe some of what I've witnesssed firsthand, but it's quite beyond the subject matter of the article above.

Thanks to both NO and the author of the article.

Great response with important links. THX.

This article is very insightful. The most recent demographic analysis indicates a decline in the rate of world population growth and an increase in aging societies. The planet will top out at about 10-11 billion humans this century, and will likely enter a century of slow decline, and probably even achieve stability next century.

It is estimated that China, until recently the most populous nation on Earth (India is reaching par), will lose half its population within -- if memory serves -- three generations. That will have great economic and social implications.

The author's pinning per capita consumption as the main culprit is spot on. If all eight billion people lived in a single city with the density, desirable efficient urbanism and much lower per capita ecological footprint of London's Chelsea-Kensington compared to Canada and the US, it would be less than half the size of BC. That's two billion solar roofs, tens of thousands of short haul electric passenger and freight rail lines, and a largely car-free society. Add the remaining prairie provinces for regenerative agriculture and forestry in areas where conservation isn't crucial, then one can envision the vast majority of the planet's surface being preserved.

That may be an illustrative oversimplification, but it does illuminate the problem with waste mainly in energy, natural resources, food and materials brought on by mass consumerism. The author chose some outrageous examples of personal overconsumption and greed, but these are not at all adequate to express the sheer scale of the waste perpetrated by a much larger middle class society saturated with car dependency, suburban sprawl, asphalt that consumes 40% of all urban land, urban golf courses for a few hundred club members that displace a valuable land asset better served by town planning initiatives for compact, diversely zoned, transit-rich communities for thousands, and so forth.