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Does Population Growth Cause Environmental Degradation?

In Favour

In Favour

People in affluent countries most readily think of population growth as the cause of environmental degradation. In fact the need to limit population growth in low-income countries was one of the main points of disagreement between low-income and high-income countries at the recent Earth Summit. The Brundtland Report argues that rapid population growth in some parts of the world could not be sustained by available environmental resources, and was jeopardising the chances that everyone could be provided with housing, food, health care and energy supplies (p. 11).

Population is seen as a third-world issue because that is where populations are growing fastest. The Brundtland Report estimated that the overall population growth rate in industrialised nations was less than 1 per cent and declining, and that the population in those countries would only grow from 1.2 billion to 1.4 billion by the year 2025. In contrast, the population in low-income countries was estimated to increase from 3.7 billion in 1985 to 6.8 billion in 2025. It therefore argued that the 'challenge now is to quickly lower population growth rates, especially in regions such as Africa, where these rates are increasing' (p. 100).

However, the view that population growth in low-income countries is a major cause of unsustainable development is controversial. Although most people agree that environ- mental degradation results from a combination of numbers of people, resource use per person and environmental impact per unit of resource used (or population, consumption and technology), there is a tendency for some people to stress population over the other two factors. For example, an academic writing in the Australian Conservation Foundation's magazine Habitat Australia said, 'There can be no doubt that the unrelenting increase in human numbers is the greatest single threat to the stability of our environment' (Short 1991, p. 12). Another, writing in the well-respected US magazine Technology Review, said, 'The continuing surge of human expansion throws dangerously out of kilter the intricate ecological balance that sustains life' (Fornos 1992, p. 14). The Prince of Wales told world leaders at the Earth Summit that there would be a global catastrophe unless they tackled population growth and poverty which, he said, were causing environmental destruction (Erlichman 1992, p. 22).

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The idea that population growth causes environmental degradation has been criticised strongly. Holmberg, Bass and Timberlake say that: "Representatives from the North tend to stress population growth as a cause of environmental degradation and unsustainable development in the South. Population growth, they say, is the underlying cause. Most of them are comfortable with such an analysis, because population growth is one problem which apparently cannot be blamed on industrialized countries." (1991, p. 32)

An editorial in New Scientist said: "It will be a travesty of both justice and truth if the rich nations use population growth in the poor world as a smoke screen for their own overconsumption and industrial pollution."('Too many people' 1992, p. 3)

Vandana Shiva, an Indian writer and activist, argues that there are four main reasons why population growth in low-income countries is not a primary cause of environmental degradation:

  • The increasing numbers of poor in low-income countries cannot afford to buy and use most of the products that cause environmental problems, such as CFCs that cause depletion of the ozone layer.
  • The large numbers of poor people in these countries use only a small proportion of the resources used by most people in affluent countries and the wealthy people in their own countries. [New Scientist reports that the world's wealthiest nations now have incomes per person 65 times those of the world's poorest nations, and that this inequality has doubled in the last 30 years ('Too many people' 1992, p. 3). Each child born in an affluent society will consume 10 to 100 times as many resources and contribute as much pollution. 'A three-child American family is, in logic, many more times as dangerous to the planet than an eight- (or even an eighty-) child African family' (Pearce, F. 1992c, p. 47) ].
  • Production processes and technologies developed in the North have been 'inherently destructive of the environment'.
  • Population growth is caused by poverty and resource alienation. It arises from the same causes as environmental degradation--colonialism followed by the imposition of development models by high-income nations. (Shiva 1991)

To support this argument, Shiva points out that population levels were stable in India prior to British rule, 'when resources and rights and livelihoods were taken away from people' (p. 33).

Source: Sharon Beder, The Nature of Sustainable Development, 2nd ed. Scribe, Newham, 1996, pp. 171-2.

A Czech language translation of this page by Barbora Lebedova can be found at http://www.bildelarexpert.se/blogg/2017/01/26/dela-rust-populace-pricinou-degradace-zivotniho-prostredi/

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© 2001 Sharon Beder