Overconsumption Is the Problem, Not Overpopulation
You should care more about consuming consciously than not having kids or scorning others who do.
Does the name ‘Malthus’ ring a bell?
In 1798, Thomas Malthus warned of an impending ecological trap driven by overpopulation. As he saw it, exponential population growth would override arithmetic growth in agricultural yields. He foresaw too many mouths to feed and not enough food to feed them. This became known as the Malthusian trap, and the Malthus philosophy has been the subject of vigorous debate ever since.
Six years after Malthus introduced his theory, the world population reached one billion. And 216 years after that milestone, we’re now hurtling toward a population of eight billion.
The overpopulation Malthus expected has indeed come to bear.
But the bigger ecological problem is one the Englishman couldn’t have seen coming: an explosion in consumption fueled largely by the same technological advancements that have led to exponential growth in agricultural yields.
Malthus’s premise — that a dichotomy between human population growth and resource availability would spell trouble — was dead on.
His conclusion, however, was misplaced. Overpopulation is not the biggest ‘over’ environmental problem we face.
Indefinite Overconsumption Is Impossible and Wrong:
All people are born equal. But they are born with very different levels of expected consumption.
The expected carbon footprint of a child born in a higher income country is far higher than that of a child born in a lower income country. The difference is staggering. When you consider longer life expectancies in countries with higher emissions per capita, you can expect a child born in an industrialized economy to generate tens of times as much emissions as another child.
In essence, the worldwide distribution of critical resources like food is highly unequal. Consider this basic conundrum: we live in a world where both hunger and obesity are widespread.
And as you’ve probably heard, a handful of wealthy people control as much money as half the world.
Although we live in a finite world, there’s plenty of resources to go around. But a few privileged people are hoarding them at everyone’s expense — themselves, their less privileged fellow human beings, and the planet.
Is that the kind of world you want to live in? One defined by inequality and suffering?
As David Suzuki wrote in 2011, when the world population surpassed seven billion, “we are using up our basic biological capital rather than living on the interest, and this has been going on since the 1980s.”
In non-financial terms, we’re taking from the planet more than we’re regenerating. We can’t do that indefinitely.
But even if you live in a wealthy country, you can choose to live consciously, and you can teach your children how to minimize their footprint and instead live in harmony with nature.
“There is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” Mahatma Gandhi
Overconsumption Is a Choice:
“[It’s] a particular strand of overconsumption, where we purchase things, not to fulfil our basic needs, but to fill some voids about our lives and make social statements about ourselves.” — Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff
Our consumption behavior is up to our discretion. No one will force you to buy 20 new articles of clothing every year or buy a McMansion you don’t need that requires an excessive amount of resources.
Governments and corporations have incentives to encourage overconsumption. Consumer spending drives a healthy proportion of economic activity (~70% in the U.S.), especially in advanced service-based economies like the United States. It sustains GDP and companies’ bottom lines.
But despite what others might tell you, overconsumption is not your sacred ticket to happiness or fulfillment. More often than not, it’s your ticket to a misguided pursuit of the three ‘Ss’: stuff, status, and superiority.
Things like ornate jewelry, lavish meals, and fancy cars are examples of ‘stuff’ that elevate your social status and help you feel superior to others.
They do not, however, elevate your true self-worth or contentment. Like a piece of candy, they give you a sugar high that makes you feel like you’re on top of the world.
The sugar high dissipates quickly. You’re soon filled with a sense of emptiness and regret. Whereas you expected the purchase of that shiny thing to unlock some new level in the game of life, you begin to realize that once the sugar high ends, you’re left at best at the same level.
Plus, you’ve probably lost a lot of money and likely some time.
And your pursuit of that sugar high may have affected your relationships with friends and family. It may have even made you more anxious and jittery, affecting your physical and mental health.
No promotion or title is worth ruined relationships and poorer health.
Greg Foyster put this aptly in The Guardian:
“Desires for material things have limits — most people really only want or need one dishwasher, or one or two cars — but desire for emotional needs like status, love, acceptance and autonomy are bottomless. Tying material goods to nonmaterial desires ensures people are never satisfied with what they have. It’s how we’ve convinced some of the most materially rich citizens in history that they don’t have enough.”
Get off the hamster wheel, folks!
Overconsumption Doesn’t Align With Maslow:
You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Whether you agree with his specific rankings, his premise is hard to deny.
We think consumption (or at least the modern conception of it) enables the fulfillment of things in parts three and four. We think consumption will make people love us more and help us belong. We think consumption will boost our esteem. We think people will respect us based on the stuff we buy.
None of those is true. Consumption might temporarily bump you up on the hierarchy, but once the sugar high fades, you’re back to the second tier on the hierarchy.
Look at the elements of the fifth tier: self-actualization. Not one of those things has a price tag.
Think about that when you consider using money to try and level up on your hierarchy of needs.
Glimmers of Hope:
“True happiness flows from the possession of wisdom and virtue and not from the possession of external goods.” — Aristotle
Luckily, my generation is starting to pick up on the illusion of overconsumption. Millennials like me care more about experiences than things.
Why? I suspect it’s because we’ve seen the consequences and false promises of overconsumption. Two economic crises — the Great Recession and now the global economic downturn caused by COVID-19 — highlight the fragility of our finances and the downsides of the rat race. Escalating environmental harm highlights the physical consequences of overconsumption; a pillaged planet, a warmer atmosphere, and a fear of what might come down the pike.
We’re also becoming more aware of the dangers of social media, the singular force that promotes overconsumption more than any other. We’re learning that in a world full of division and hate, it’s better to find happiness and meaning internally rather than attaching our self-worth to external forces. And when we’re healthy on the inside, we present our best selves when we walk out the door (or log on to the digital world).
We Need a Big Fundamental Shift:
Earth Overshoot Day measures the date on which humanity’s cumulative use of resources each given year surpasses the planet’s natural capacity (or biological capital). Over the decades, Earth Overshoot Day has crept up earlier and earlier on the calendar.
This year, thanks to COVID-19, it moved back almost a month. It fell on August 22 as opposed to July 29 (2019’s Earth Overshoot Day).
But just as we shouldn’t rely on a global pandemic to cause the emissions declines needed to keep global warming in check, we shouldn’t rely on a global pandemic to curb the overconsumption habit endemic to privileged countries.
We need fundamental shifts in how we produce and consume goods and services — essential and otherwise.
The world can handle 10 billion humans. It can’t handle billions of humans who consume as recklessly as many of us do.
And if you’re one of those humans, you can’t handle your overconsumption habit either.