Environmental Degradation: Population vs Overconsumption

Wealthy nations blame environmental degradation on the population growth in the world’s poorest countries.

A newsletter advocating for sustainable population growth made its way to my inbox. It’s not unusual for an environmentalist and economist to receive unsolicited emails from organizations focused on environmental issues, but controlling reproduction is not a campaign I support, and let’s be honest, this policy targets the world’s poorest countries.

The wealthiest 10% are responsible for over 50% of the world’s carbon emissions. Material production, overconsumption, purchasing luxury goods, exhausting natural resources, emitting waste and carbon, and the endless mission for economic growth accelerates climate change, yet wealthy nations have the audacity to point their manicured fingers at the economically underdeveloped nations.

Australia, the UK, the US, Italy, Spain, and most of Europe rely on immigration to maintain a large labor market to contribute to a steady rise in GDP. In fact, advertisement campaigns from the Australian government offered financial incentives for reproduction. Economically developed countries rely on a large labor market to uphold capitalism’s forever expanding growth model; no people, no economic activity, no profits for the corporate owners.

Again, wealthy white people blame the world’s problems on people of color in poorer nations. Rich countries’ excessive consumption rates and deforestation from the outsourcing of manufacturing plants couldn’t possibly be contributing to climate change. The people living in poverty who can barely afford to feed themselves are responsible for the exponential increase in carbon emissions and toxic waterways.

Rich people would never destroy their neighborhoods. Instead, they outsource it to other countries or poorer communities within their country. Wealth provides social power, political influence, government support, and healthy living conditions. The exclusive one percent of the population owning 44% of the world’s wealth consume the most resources and expel the largest share of emissions and waste.

A developer doesn’t stand a chance building a manufacturing plant in Beverly Hills because the wealthy have the power to demand environmental regulations, but promising economic development and jobs to the less affluent communities is an easy sell. In the US, lower-income communities are exceedingly exposed to air pollution, toxic drinking water, environmental degradation illnesses, food insecurities, and the first to feel the effects of climate change disasters.

The egregious claim overpopulation is the leading contributor to food and water shortages, deforestation, pollution, diminishing biodiversity, climate change, and environmental catastrophes is a deceptive disguise. Wealthier nations waste 222 million tons of food every year, but if the food was distributed equitably it would feed 1/8 of the undernourished population and reduce water waste as well as carbon emissions. Westerners professing sterilization, smaller families, and dictating reproduction rights to the people enduring the destruction they’ve caused to the environment, need to take a good look at their consumption habits first.

It’s not overpopulation we should be worried about; it’s the consumption habits of the rich.

Global Wealth and Carbon Inequality (Oxfam, 2020)

Reducing wealth disparities domestically and globally facilitates the power to demand environmental regulations. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all afford clean air?

Is this the world you would have created?

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