Healing Our World Commentary: Too many people?

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Too many people?

May we recognize the Spirit
in each of us, and the Spirit
in all of us.

-- Ram Dass

Since the dawn of modern environmentalism in the 1970s, population issues have often been blamed for environmental problems. Many organizations exist that tell us we cannot change our downward spiral of environmental degradation until population growth decreases.

With the recent birth of my son, I am reminded that this analysis is much too simplistic. The way people choose to live their lives and their consumption patterns may be a much more important factor than the sheer number of people on Earth.


Justin Forrest Giuliano on his birthday, May 14, 2001 (Photo Jackie Giuliano)
Paul Ehrlich, author of the groundbreaking 1990 book "The Population Explosion," was among the first to draw the connection between population and environmental degradation. He focused on the concept of carrying capacity as the primary factor that should be used in determining whether or not an area is overpopulated. Carrying capacity means that if a population exceeds the ability of the land to sustain it, then there are too many people.

A few years after the publication of his book, at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt, Ehrlich refined the analysis in a talk entitled, "Too Many Rich People." Ehrlich said, "The impact of humanity on Earth's life support systems is not just determined by the number of people alive on the planet. It also depends on how those people behave. When this is considered, an entirely different picture emerges: the main population problem is in wealthy countries. There are, in fact, too many rich people."

This analysis adds a critical dimension to the population discussion. The amount of resources an individual consumes may be much more important than the number of people in a region.


Luxurious home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles
In any major city in the world, there will be areas where affluent people settle and places where people of dramatically lesser means reside. In Los Angeles, where I lived for many years, I knew some of the people who occupied 10,000 square foot homes. Two people living in such a home in Beverly Hills were consuming resources - energy, fuel, and food - many, many times that consumed by people living in ten square blocks in a poorer part of town.

Yet by the simplistic form of population analysis still practiced by many, the poorer part of town would be considered to be overpopulated while the block in Beverly Hills would not.

The analysis used by Ehrlich in his 1994 talk is still relevant today. In the early 1990s, each person in the United States, on average, uses twice as much as energy as the average Japanese person, and more than three times as much as the average Spaniard. Those figures are much higher today, but the proportions are similar.

Compared to the average citizen of India, a citizen in the United States uses 50 times more steel, 56 times more energy, 170 times more synthetic rubber and newsprint, 250 times more motor fuel, and 300 times more plastic.

The United States, with less than five percent of the world's population, uses over a fourth of the world's resources and generates over a fourth of the world's waste. The relatively small number of rich people in the world create over two-thirds of the global environmental destruction.

Looking at a population map, one instantly sees that our Earth's surface is not used wisely for living space. Huge populations of people flock to the coasts, the mountain passes, and to areas of year round mild climate. In Southern California, 15 million people live in a desert that must supported by resources from thousands of miles away. Yet Montana, the fourth largest state in the nation, has less than a million people.


Lights of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East from space. (Photo courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration)
If the Earth's 6.2 billion people spread out over the globe, occupying regions according to their carrying capacity and living within the means of the ecosystem, our environmental discussions today would be very different. There is already sufficient wealth on our planet to feed, clothe, house, and care for every last woman, man, and child in the world. What is lacking is the heart to do so.

Populations of any size will never be sustainable if they are living above their means according to the economic rules of a greed based system that insists we consume vast quantities of resources in order to keep a tiny percentage of the population very rich.

We must be careful in placing blame on any population, no matter what its size. What is at issue is the way in which people live, not whether or not they should live.

My newborn son will be brought up to understand the deep connections that exist between us all and the natural world. He will be taught to understand that for one person to be rich, someone else does not have to suffer.

He will be taught to minimize his footprint on our precious Earth and consider the resources of the Earth to be sacred gifts. He will view animals as his neighbors and friends, not his slaves or his food.

And besides, as a dear friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Gloria Orenstein, one of the framers of the field of ecofeminism, told me when she heard of Justin's birth, the Earth can always use another eco-warrier.


1. Read Ehrlich's analysis at: http://dieoff.org/page27.htm

2. Visit Population Index on the web at: http://popindex.princeton.edu

3. Visit the U.S. Census Bureau at: http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/BasicFactsServlet

4. See a report on population, development and the environment by the Union of Concerned Scientists at: http://www.ucsusa.org/balance/pop.science.html

5. Visit the World Game Institute for help with these issues at: http://www.worldgame.org

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle. He can be found rearranging all his priorities with his wife and new son. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his web site at http://www.healingourworld.com}