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Fewer people, or less consumption?

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It’s one of the great ironies of 2020 that in a year spent trying to save so many people, we’ve come to the conclusion we have too many on the planet.

That was the gist of a large number of emails (our inbox was certainly overpopulated) that Upside readers sent in on the subject of global population. It’s a controversial subject but that didn’t stop scores of you weighing in, suggesting everything from fiscal tweaks and the repudiation of growth to an outright no-child policy.

Guardian writers have latched on to the population issue (Sian Cain on the child-free debate is particularly good). But Upside readers have been more prolific still. Here’s a flavour of what you said when asked about the impact of a levelling off of global population.

Sju Thorup in Gentofte, Denmark, wants to be far from the madding crowd

Nobody benefits from a world of 8 billion or 11 billion people, except for large capital interests that need cheap labour and mindless consumers. Children in smaller families receive more of their parents’ time, efforts, money, living space. Parents in smaller families enjoy more time to themselves and better opportunities for each child.

No individual person enjoys being surrounded by other people at all times, competing for space and resources. Personally, I think that ideally the Earth could carry about 1 billion people who could all enjoy sufficient space, sufficient contact with nature, sufficient work and sufficient leisure, sufficient food and clean water. Such number of humans would enable us to leave enough room for ecosystems to recover and to remain fertile and robust, and to provide “ecosystem services” for a content humanity. But I know I am dreaming, for now. Such a scenario would require our decision-makers to think long-term and holistically, to decide restrictions on our activities, and enforce those restrictions all around. Too few people in power feel this need yet.

Stella Dixon in Chester, England, says the debate should be about consumption, not absolute numbers of people

I don’t understand what is so terrifying about the population reaching 11 billion people. There is nothing inherently threatening about more people existing, it is the conditions of their existence that count. I think it is more useful to focus on preventing the terror of human suffering, not caused by population but other factors. The world’s population is immense and almost impossible to change, while these other factors are much more actionable without signalling to eugenics.

If the concern is overconsumption causing climate change, then people with the means to do so can make a difference by reducing the impact of their consumption – buying less, buying locally, and buying items sustainable both in environmental and human rights terms.

Duncan Orr in Edinburgh worries about what population decline would mean for 200 years of steadily growing prosperity

The problems of a decreasing population are much more extreme than most people realise. While everyone talks about the cost of caring for an ageing population, the economic effects go far beyond that… growth becomes not simply more difficult but impossible at the global level. For years the environmental movement has talked about the need for a zero-growth world and logically they are right: infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet. But all of the economics and ideologies of the last two centuries… have been built on the idea that economic growth is what leads to the prosperity and wellbeing of a country.

Policymakers around the globe are going to have to come to terms with the fact that a zero-growth world is being thrust upon them, and a whole new way of operating is going to have to be devised if we are to maintain living standards into the next century.

Clint Koble in the US said fiscal policy should encourage people to have fewer children

Fewer people on the planet would put less stress on wildlife and the environment. It would stop the growth of large urban areas and hopefully, stop the burning of the Amazon forest. Fewer people would ensure that in the future, people would have a job. We wouldn’t have to fear automization, robotics etc.

Instead of offering tax deductions for additional family members, we should penalize additional family members above 2 children as a possible way to control the population. The biggest step would be to make birth control available to every woman in the world.

Robert Negut in Bucharest advocates even more drastic measures

A drastic population reduction is the main necessary condition to even have a chance to solve the world’s major environmental and social problems. So it’d be great if it would fall, but what this estimate presents would be far too little, far too late. The only way to offer everyone a decent standard of living and a large amount of freedom in all other aspects of life, … and also, eventually, have a healthy ecosystem, is to not only fully embrace and encourage far fewer births but, considering how bad things are, even find ways to completely stop births for a time.

Nils Wetterlind sent a postcard from the future – a rapidly depopulating province in Japan

I reckon that 15-20% of the houses in this town are empty. We will leave soon, too. Although a perfectly nice town with a nice beach and a well-functioning social system, there is no getting around that it’s a dying town, and (believe me), you don’t want to live in a dying town. In my work, I travel extensively through rural Honshu especially in the central western parts, the Gifu, Nagano and Niigata prefectures, and I have seen hundreds and hundreds of villages and hamlets that are virtually abandoned. One or two old ladies pottering around, perhaps, maybe one in 10 houses inhabited. Like so often in these cases, it is the rural areas that are being abandoned first. It is here that it is startling, overpowering.

The sober view of all this is of course that Japan’s population more than doubled in the last 100 years, so it shouldn’t be a disaster if it shrank back to 50-60 million living souls. That is still a huge amount of people compared to my own homeland, Sweden, which is more or less exactly the same size as Japan, and of a very similar shape, but only has 10 million inhabitants.

And of course it would have a gigantic positive impact on the planet if these islands had half, or a quarter, of the people they have today.

There are only benefits to having a smaller, more technologically reliant society. Apart from the fact that it is soul-crushing to live in a dying nation.

Andrew Somogyi says we need a change in human nature

IF people continue to be SO self-absorbed as to CONSUME as currently, no matter if there’s a population reduction, the perceived needs still rise per capita

So, we gonna need artificial reduction in human DESIRE … HOW will that happen is the BIG question.

The Guardian



11 Comments on "Fewer people, or less consumption?"

  1. Chrome Mags on Fri, 31st Jul 2020 1:54 pm 

    “It’s one of the great ironies of 2020 that in a year spent trying to save so many people…”

    What people forget is healthcare facilities can only handle so many people, so if the number of Covid-19 patients exceeds capacity they have to go a different hospital that may also be filled up and at some threshold the infected just fend for themselves.

    No one is in authority to make a big picture decision that anyone with Covid-19 is on their own without medical attention due to over-population of the world.

    No amount of conjecture about other alternatives is going to work. We have a system such as it is, intended to help people, and in the US that is if they can afford it.

    At some point there will be a widely available vaccine.

  2. Duncan Idaho on Fri, 31st Jul 2020 2:13 pm 

    Economy plummets historic 33%, Covid Deaths at 1500/ day, and 40 mn could lose Homes–

    The Fat Boy has accomplished something

  3. Alucard on Fri, 31st Jul 2020 3:00 pm 

    Overconsumption and misuse of resources is the problem.

  4. Alucard on Fri, 31st Jul 2020 3:05 pm 

    Fluff me Juan

  5. makati1 on Fri, 31st Jul 2020 5:57 pm 

    Well, according to the financial articles I read, something like 50% of Amerikan consumption is by the top 20% of the US population. So, to cut consumption by 50%, just get rid of those 66,000,000 over consumers. Or take their wealth away so they cannot consumer more than the rest of us. Then cut down the other 270,000,000 to the level of the rest of the world and you save another 30-40%.

    Amerikans consume 15+ times that of the average Filipino yet are far less happy than Filipinos. Time for the Great Leveling. Oh, that’s right! It IS in progress. LOCK-DOWN! ^_^

  6. Ema Whilme on Sat, 1st Aug 2020 7:24 am 

    The numbers are shocking.
    People do consume a lot and furthermore, 20% of consumption is just unnecessary things that people can refuse.
    I’m thinking about if we install genericmonitoring applications on our phone, can this help?

  7. kervennic on Sat, 1st Aug 2020 8:10 am 

    Ted Kaczinsky understood that the domesticated branch of human race was the problem. The one that obey by nature and lead to industrializatin and standardization of the natural world, and finallly to its entire destuction.
    The whole fight of Kaczinsky was in vain because he used the wrong tools; It is impossible to defeat industrial civilisatino with bombs and weapons, because that’s what it is good at.
    Biology is the key. Unfortunately, Kaczinsky a fine product of the industrial academic system was icompetent in that matter.
    But covid shows us that virus and bacteria, for human, domesticated animals or plants, can destroy industrial society faster than anything else. And that is how it is gonna end.

  8. print baby print on Sat, 1st Aug 2020 3:22 pm 

    No 9 billions of rampant T -rexes are the problem. They will never stop wasting and throwing away. The name of our doom is GREED

  9. peakyeast on Wed, 5th Aug 2020 8:22 pm 

    The reason why caring for an elderly population is such a big problem is because we are far too many and the system is already stretched far beyond what any sane leader would accept and plan for.

  10. makati1 on Thu, 6th Aug 2020 12:12 am 

    A map of where the “fat” can be cut in food consumption (pun intended):

    http://chartsbin.com/view/1150

    It indirectly also shows the mst obese countries. lol

  11. makati1 on Thu, 6th Aug 2020 12:13 am 

    BTW: It also shows the countries that waste the most resources along with obesity.

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