Consumption Durango Herald

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         I have been criticized because I don’t write much about consumption. It is true that almost all of my essays are about is population, although consumption is as big a factor for impact as population.

            You probably remember the formula: I=PAT. It means that the human impact on our environment of a group of people is determined by the group’s Population, their average Affluence (or consumption) and by Technology. Technology seems to be a small player in this formula. As soon as we get a technology to save energy (and thus decrease our impact) we find other ways to spend our money.

We in the USA consume much more than people in most other countries. Does that make us happier? I don’t think so. The average annual income in the 5 happiest countries is about $57,000. Although our income is higher at $70,000, we’re only rated #15 for happiness.

            Why focus on population? Globally, according to the UN, there are 121 million unintended pregnancies. This is because there are millions of women who don’t have access to effective contraception, or because their partners won’t allow them to use contraception, or because their birth control failed.  My hope is that this number of unplanned pregnancies can be decreased by making highly effective contraception more available, and by shifting societies away from pronatalism and away from male domination.

There is another reason I do not focus on consumption. We are surrounded by media urging us to spend, buy and consume. We know that our consumption increases our impact, climate change for example. Although it is difficult to ignore advertisements, it is possible. One really doesn’t need so much stuff! You can learn to keep your eyes on what you are reading and forget the ads; think of them as injurious.

            In March the UN wrote a warning that we need to decrease consumption. I did a quick survey of 8 major US online newspapers, looking for examples of ads that contrast with our need to decrease consumption, On the same pages where the UN warning appeared, each newspaper had advertisements accompanying the stories urging us to consume more! The average number of ads was more than 8, and the maximum was 11. To make things worse, in many cases it was difficult to distinguish what is an ad and what is the news. I am glad the Durango Herald online has few ads! 

            Although the media depend on advertising to bring us the news and to pay their bills, the number of advertisements one is exposed to is as appalling as it is distracting. Fortunately, you can learn to ignore most of the forces that want you to spend your money. One way is to pay extra on many websites to get ad-free service. Another is to just ask yourself if you really need all that stuff.

            When I was in elementary school, I read an ad for an intriguing gadget to broadcast my voice over the radio. I was excited that I could have my own radio station, but didn’t have enough money to purchase the device—my allowance was just 35 cents a week. I begged my mother for enough money to buy one of those transmitters.

            “Do you really need it, or is it just a passing fancy?” was her reply—prescient of the saying “is it need or greed” that would become popular years later. What she said then is even more important than 70 years ago; we need to consume less. Ignoring advertisements is a step in the correct direction.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2023

Global Conflict Greenhouse gases Population

Question the “People and Planet” Report

Graph from the Club of Rome, People and Planet report, showing the result of business as usual.

            Over 50 years ago the Club of Rome (CoR) made big news with the report “The Limits to Growth”. Last month another report came out that seems more optimistic than “Limits”.

            The CoR is an international think-tank of high-level people who tackle the world’s problems, including poverty, environmental deterioration and human population. “Limits” was based on an early computer simulation that looked at 5 variables: population, food production, industrialization, pollution and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources. The first of these were assumed to be increasing exponentially, while production was thought to be linear. Two of 3 scenarios in the program predicted “overshoot and collapse” of civilization before 2100. This is about as pessimistic as you can get!

            In contradistinction to “Limits”, the CoR has published another report which I fear is overly optimistic. “People and Planet” predicts that global population will stop its growth around 2050, with a maximum of 8.8 billion people. This is very different for the United Nations prediction, which projects continued growth until the end of this century, with a population over 11 billion.

            I first read about this report in The Guardian. The title of that article is: “World ‘population bomb’ may never go off….” This title did what a title is supposed to do—it grabbed my attention. However, it is wrong! The population bomb has already exploded. We are facing problems caused by overpopulation: climate chaos, and the extinction crisis both clearly have as their root cause our high population density. The increase in global aggression may also be related to overpopulation.

            People and Planet has a different way of predicting population. It is based on an observation that increased education (especially of girls and women) is associated with decreased family size. This has been observed many times in many different societies. It makes sense! Girls who are in school are better able to access and use family planning. Women who are in school or college are less likely to get married and start their families. Later, when they join the workforce, they are more likely to want to put more energy into their careers and less into childcare. Perhaps most important, educated women are less likely to be bossed by pronatalist, misogynistic men.

            The hope is that increased attention to education, especially in African countries, will speed up fertility decline. My observations, however, suggest that is difficult to achieve.

People and Planet gives two projections for the future; one of them is hopeful. The current scenario is called “Too Little Too Late” (TLTL), but the CoR advocates for “Giant Leap”. This would entail 5 steps: ending poverty, addressing gross inequality, empowering women, making our food system healthy for people and ecosystems, and transitioning to clean energy.

            “Giant Leap” would not be perfect, although it would get us closer to sustainability. It is also projected to reach peak global population a decade earlier than TLTL. I can see us transitioning to clean energy (it’s cheaper!), and women are already doing a great job of empowering themselves. Unfortunately, the current legal system and capitalism are designed to maintain the status quo; they make it problematic to address gross inequality and to end poverty. Furthermore, it is difficult for me to imagine what it would take to revolutionize the global food production system; again, there are too many vested interests in maintaining the status quo.  I fear that there is too much greed in our species for us to take the giant leap that is needed for us to live sustainably.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2023