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Do fewer people guarantee a greener planet?

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Human activity is a key driver of environmental degradation, but is the solution as easy as Thanos's finger snap?


India is synonymous with crowds. Every Hollywood montage of an Indian city invariably features trains and lanes teeming with people. As someone born and brought up in India, specifically the crowded metropolis of Mumbai, I often wondered if the sheer number of people - in India & the world in general - is the prime cause of the climate crisis.


Where are All These People Coming From?

A popular notion is that a large number of children born in low-income countries are fueling overpopulation. However, the world is estimated to have hit ‘peak child’ in the year 2000 itself. This means from 2000 to 2100, the number of children in the world is largely projected to remain constant.


A simplified portrayal of world population growth is as follows:

The cause of ‘Population 10 billion’ is higher populations in the 45 to 60 and the above 60 age groups. Hence, it is not an abundance of children but a prolonged lifespan which adds to the population.


What if There Were Fewer People?

The seemingly positive impact of Covid-19 on air & water quality reinforced the belief that what is bad for humans is good for the environment. The impact of so many people on the planet has resulted in scientists describing our time as the Anthropocene epoch. Unlike previous epochs, where various geological and climate processes determined the environmental impact, the Anthropocene period is marked by the dominant influence of humans and their activities on the environment. Hence, we tend to believe that with fewer people, nature can regain control & replenish itself.



But does everyone impact the environment equally? and how do we measure impact?


The IPAT Model:

Based on a formula proposed by Ehrlich & Holdren in 1974, the IPAT model calculates our impact on the environment-

I= P X A X T

Where total Impact (I) varies directly in relation to Population (P), Affluence (A) and Technology (T).


Technology: The model advocates that an improvement in technology can reduce environmental impact. However, the large-scale implementation of clean technology has been moving at too slow a pace to offset environmental damage. Moreover, technology comes with a conventional cost-benefit analysis which might not always favour the environment.



Population: While a lower population might lead to less of an environmental impact, a deliberate reduction in population results from wars, pandemics or forced population control. Government-mandated population control may also result in skewed sex ratios & unsafe medical practices. Education is the most effective contraceptive as it urges the youth, especially women to prioritize their physical and financial health before starting a family.


Affluence: Affluence is the most significant factor in the IPAT model. The environmental impact of humans depends not only on the number of people but also on their ecological footprint. Ecological footprints are measured using global hectares- a hectare of land and water with average global productivity. Individuals from affluent societies have considerably larger ecological footprints than those in the developing world. In fact, the global hectares used by one American is the same as 6.5 Indians or 10 Congolese. This philosophy is equally applicable to high-income vs low-income households.



a large crowd of people make their way through and move around cars
A crowd of people make their way through a busy street. Photo by Joseph Chan

The Impact of Over-Consumption

Water, food, and energy are our most basic needs. While large populations are partly responsible for the lack of access to basic resources, in an inequitable world, overconsumption by one party leads to the deprivation of others.


For example, a child born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times as much water as one born in the developing world. On average, people in industrialized countries consume an average 28.7 kg per year of fish versus 16.1 kg per year consumed by those in developing countries. At present, per capita, CO2 emissions are 10 to 50 times higher in high-income than in low-income countries. These statistics indicate that the burden on our natural resources is primarily due to more demand from a select group of nations.


Even goods exported from one country to another carry with them “embodied” material consumption, which is necessary for their manufacture. Thus, the water use and CO2 emissions of More Developed Countries appear lower than they would under full accounting because they are partially outsourced to Less Developed Countries.


When an individual consumes more than their fair share, they do this by either instantly depriving another person or by depriving future generations. But when we discuss overpopulation, we tend to change the subject from unsustainable overconsumption by the rich to the reproductive habits of the poor.


A landfill with multiple single-use plastic items on brown soil near the blue ocean.
A landfill with multiple single-use plastic items. Photo by Antoine Giret.

Conclusion

It is collective social change & a simpler lifestyle that is most beneficial to the environment. We may be alarmed by the threat of more people but we should be even more alarmed by the threat of the current population continuing to live a consumer-centric lifestyle.

A world with fewer people may not guarantee a greener planet, but a world with less consumption certainly does.



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