Human Population and Consumption

Originally published in the Encyclopedia Britanica Online October 2011
as “Thank you for not Breeding” when our population hit seven billion.

A human population of seven billion has a lot of zeros, but not any more than in 1804 when the first billion was reached. Besides, all those zeros could fit in Texas, leaving the rest of the world with only seven of us.

Seriously though, this reasoning is barely more absurd than other attempts to convince ourselves that we can keep on growing like there’s no day after tomorrow.

A popular dismissal of our population increase goes something like this: wealthy regions’ fertility rates are at or below replacement level, so our breeding is not a problem. In regions where fertility rates are high, poverty prevents them from generating much carbon, so their excessive breeding isn’t a problem either.

With population density out of the way, we can focus on reducing consumption in wealthy regions and promoting economic development in poor regions. Best of all, we can continue procreating—as long as we stop at two. The first two just replace ourselves and have zero environmental impact.

These convenient untruths don’t stand up to much scrutiny, which may be why they’re generally accepted without question.

True, excessive consumption and production of toxic waste by us wealthy folks has to be reduced: for everyone to live as we do would require three Earths. However, if everyone in the US did everything recommended in the movie "Inconvenient Truth," carbon emissions would be reduced by an insufficient 22%.[1]

To make a significant difference, we would have to radically simplify our lifestyles, something we’re not inclined to do voluntarily. Nearly all of humanity constantly strives for more—most with darn good reason. In over-exploited regions, where a billion are hungry, increasing consumption remains a constant struggle.

As we try to reduce our ecological impact while improving conditions for humanity, our best efforts at both are thwarted by our rampant breeding. A mental blind spot prevents us from seeing this sacred cow in our living room.

[Nina Paley’s graphic added later]

Instead, we imagine all kinds of inadequate solutions: carbon offsets, personal conservation of resources... even economic growth, paradoxically.

Really, at this point the intentional creation of one more of us by anyone anywhere can’t be justified—not economically, ecologically, nor ethically. Instead of stopping at two, we need to stop at once.

Choosing to avoid creating more offspring than we already have is our single greatest opportunity to benefit people and planet. In wealthy regions, each new person we don’t bring into our world preserves an average 6.1 hectares (15 acres) of potential wildlife habitat for a lifetime.[2] In poor regions, each person not created leaves more resources for existing people.

Social improvements are needed for this choice to be universal. Gender inequality denies hundreds of millions of women their right to determine when, with whom, and if they procreate. Couples often want to avoid pregnancy, but a lack of reproductive freedom denies them this basic human right. Coerced conceptions and mandatory motherhood harm the family, society, and the unwanted child.

Where we’re allowed the choice, we would do well to think before we breed. Do we really want to follow the default life? Why? Could those desires be satisfied in more ecological and humane ways? Amazingly, most people have never even considered not creating an offspring with their genetic material.

Every digit in that 7,000,000,000 represents a unique human being, equally worthy of the right to live and prosper. It would be a lot easier to care for everyone in our human family with fewer zeros.

Les U. Knight is a Volunteer in the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, for which he maintains a website.

[1] Derrick Jensen "Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change" Orion magazine July/August 2009
[2] Global Footprint Network

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