Focusing on a single global world population statistic is misleading

By | October 21, 2022

In their letter to The Guardian of 19 October 2022 to mark world population growing to 8 billion people, Robin Maynard (Population Matters) and John Seager (Population Connection) focus on the risks to planetary sustainability arising from human population growth. However, their focus on population growth is simplistic and fails to grasp the imbalance of destructiveness that comes with high consumption in industrialised and industrialising societies.

While there is no denying that humanity has proved to be the greatest threat to a stable climate, broader ecological sustainability and maintenance of biodiversity of the planet, and that the route to reducing human population growth rates is through empowerment of women through education, access to health and the socio-cultural, economic and political ability to take decisions about their own lives, it is however interesting how Maynard and Seager stay completely silent on where the balance on the ecological destructiveness of humanity lies: it is the industrialised countries’ consumption habits and levels, which extend to emerging wealthy and middle classes and their practices in other geographical spheres too, which drive the global destruction at a far higher pace than people in places where arguably population levels are still growing faster (or at all, given the low population growth rates in most industrialised and ageing societies) but where per capita consumption levels are significantly lower.

The ZSL and WWF Living Planet Reports of 2020 and 2022 show very clearly that habitat destruction and overexploitation of species, such as fish, are the key drivers for biodiversity loss globally and across all world regions. Yet what drives the particularly high rates of biodiversity loss in Latin America, Africa, South East Asia and the Pacific is in the main not local consumption in places where population growth rates are high. It is, as increasing numbers of studies show (such as Kastner et. al. 2021) the expansion and extraction of agricultural products such as soy, palm oil and beef for the global and mainly industrialised country driven consumption market, alongside the continued destruction of habitats for mining and fossil fuel extraction. Similar patterns, including links to global inequality, are evidenced for the global wildlife trade from in very broad terms the global south to the global north as a key driver for global species loss (Liew et. al. 2021).

A stable and maybe even globally reducing human population will be beneficial for humanity, social justice, and the planet, but the first elephant in the room is not a general world population statistic: it is the exploitative economics of growth measured in private financial gains for individuals with the flipside of socialisation of its destructive consequences, social and environmental alike, pushed to what for many in industrialised countries remains the social and geographical periphery of the world.

The second elephant in the room is that the same exploitative economics of growth and global commodity pricing, including the corollary of well-intentioned philanthropic initiatives seem to invariably entrench gender inequality and denial of rights to women especially in settings where their starting position is weak (e.g. Moeller 2018, and Botreau / Cohen 2020). Staying silent on this connection of global growth economics, trade flows and gender inequality leads to lazy simplification and convenient finger pointing on the population issue. It also absolves those most responsible for the descent of our planet into some inhospitable environment of the responsibility that we have in high consumption societies to address the underlying causes of climate crisis and biodiversity loss which are overconsumption, global inequality and injustice.

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