Beyond the headlines from the UN population report lies a clear message: consumption is still a far bigger threat to the planet
Choice Quotes: "It seems to be a reliable rule of environmental politics that the richer you are, the more likely you are to place population growth close to the top of the list of crimes against the planet."
"What this means is that even if all the measures I've mentioned here – education, contraception, rights, redistribution – were widely deployed today, there will still be a population bulge, as a result of the momentum generated 60 years ago. So what do they propose? Compulsory sterilisation? Mass killing? If not, they had better explain their programme."
We have offshored the problem of escalating consumption, and our perceptions of it, by considering only territorial emissions
"At a reception in London recently I met an extremely rich woman, who lives, as most people with similar levels of wealth do, in an almost comically unsustainable fashion: jetting between various homes and resorts in one long turbo-charged holiday. When I told her what I did, she responded: "Oh I agree, the environment is so important. I'm crazy about recycling." But the real problem, she explained, was "people breeding too much".
I agreed that population is an element of the problem, but argued that consumption is rising much faster and – unlike the growth in the number of people – is showing no signs of levelling off. She found this notion deeply offensive: I mean the notion that human population growth is slowing. When I told her that birth rates are dropping almost everywhere, and that the world is undergoing a slow demographic transition, she disagreed violently: she has seen, on her endless travels, how many children "all those people have".
As so many in her position do, she was using population as a means of disavowing her own impacts. The issue allowed her to transfer responsibility to others: people at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. It allowed her to pretend that her shopping and flying and endless refurbishments of multiple homes are not a problem. Recycling and population: these are the amulets people clasp in order not to see the clash between protecting the environment and rising consumption.
In a similar way, we have managed, with the help of a misleading global accounting system, to overlook one of the gravest impacts of our consumption. This too has allowed us to blame foreigners – particularly poorer foreigners – for the problem."
How I wish he had written about how that conversation with the rich lady ended!
Another choice quote:
"Unsurprisingly, hardly anyone wants to talk about this, as the only meaningful response is a reduction in the volume of stuff we consume. And this is where even the most progressive governments' climate policies collide with everything else they represent. As Mustapha Mond points out in Brave New World, "industrial civilisation is only possible when there's no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning".