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Blog item: Population, Consumption And Our Ecological Footprint

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4 comments, last: Dec-12-2009   Add a comment   Author:  chefurka (Dec-3-2009)
Categories: Population Growth and Control, Sustainable Living

This is yet another run at the perennial question of the relative importance of overpopulation versus overconsumption.

I recently wondered how much each nation in the world would contribute to the eventual ecological degradation of the planet given their current ecological footprint and their projected population growth between now and 2050.

To explore this I decided to use a variation on the familiar ecological "equation" I=PAT. In the original formulation, I is the impact we have on the planet, P is population, A is the per-capita activity level and T is the level of technology.

For this exploration, I used the populations of countries around the world today and in 2050, and their current calculated per-capita Ecological Footprint (EF) expressed in in global hectares (Gha) per person. For background on the concept of the Ecological Footprint, go here.


  • I used  a spreadsheet list of countries with their per-capita ecological footprints from the Global Footprint Network.
  • I matched each country with its current population from Wikipedia and its projected population in 2050 based on the US Census Bureau's International Database.
  • The final list consisted of 150 countries with populations over 1 million.
  • You can find the spreadsheet with my original data and the calculations here (XLS).
  1. I first multiplied the per-capita EF for each country by the its population to get the total number of global hectares needed by that country today and in 2050.
  2. I summed each set of national numbers to get two total global values for the Gha needed today and in 2050.
  3. I took the difference between the two national values to get the increase (or decrease) in total EF for that country over the next 40 years.
  4. I took the difference between the two global values to determine the increase in total EF for the world over the next 40 years.
  5. Dividing the national increase by the world increase gave the proportion of the total increase contributed by that country.

While the world's population went up 38% between now and 2050 in my little simulation, the global Ecological Footprint went up by only 27%. That confirms the fact that much of the world's population growth over the next 40 years will happen in lower-impact countries.  However, that won't offset the increasing ecological damage we will continue to inflict on the planet as our footprint expands.

If the human race is already in a 40% overshoot situation today, then by 2050 we could be into a 70% overshoot. 

It was not surprising that the United States contributed the lion's share of that 27% increase - 27% of the increase was from the USA.

What did surprise me was that Ethiopia and Nigeria finished in the top 5 thanks to their overwhelming projected population increases.

Another thing that was surprising was that only 35 countries showed a net negative contribution to the global increase, and that only 4 countries - Italy, Spain, Russia and Japan - helped slow the increase by more than 1%

The best showings were from Japan and Russia, whose precipitous population declines gave them a 3% net benefit.

Here are the top ten contributors to the increase in planetary ecological damage over the next 40 years:

Top 10 contributors to global Ecological Footprint increase 2008-2050

Ecological Footprint and GDP

It's intuitive that a country's Ecological Footprint should correlate with its GDP, because raising GDP generally involves placing more stress on biocapacity for both resource extraction and waste disposal.

I can't recall ever seeing a plot of Ecological Footprint against GDP, so I decided to create  one.  I used per capita Ecological Footprint data from the Global Footprint Network and per capita GDP from Wikipedia, and did an Excel scatter plot of the values:

Graph of Ecological Footprint vs GDP

The correlation is about what I'd expect.  The trend is obvious, but there are lots of outliers (countries with high GDP and relatively low EF, and vice versa).

What this implies to me is that if a country's GDP goes up or down its Ecological Footprint will tend to follow. It also implies that reducing a country's footprint while maintaining or increasing its GDP is going to be quite difficult.

While we all want to decrease our impact on the planet, this is yet another warning that such efforts are not cost-free.

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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Dec-12-2009)   Web site
Although a tax component could be based indiscriminately on all consumption without considering its environmental cost, I believe that targeting the taxes (fees) to the causes, namely runaway use of carbon-based fuels, will be a far more efficient and effective measure to achieve improved environmental and social results. Without oil and to some degree the other fossil fuels, most or all of what we are discussing would not be an issue today.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Dec-12-2009)   

" Since it would be quite difficult to accurately calculate and agree on these costs for every piece of paper, paper clip, and toothbrush sold,"
I guess you miss the point. ALL consumption in general causes the same problem when it doesn't show all the costs of consumption. These things don't have to be calculated individually, and neither does carbon. Just put one simple sales tax on every transaction. If the economy is still causing damage, then increase the tax. If the earth seems underpopulated and underutilized (LOL), then decrease the tax. The only thing to 'compromise' on is the rate of tax, and that can easily be tied to something like the CO2 level or water contamination (or a simple combination of 5 or 6 environmental factors). It doesn't matter WHAT you buy, because someone somewhere is using resources to get that thing to you (or to get the money to get that thing to you). Local, self-produced things would be out of sight and accordingly, untaxed. All transactions involving centralized currency have basically the same general effect on our future: they consume it. The tax is the portion that would be used for the commons. We have to decide how much of our purchase price is for the good of everyone and how much is only selfish desire.
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Dec-12-2009)   Web site

I do like the idea of environmental and societal costs showing up at the point of purchase, including in business-to-business transactions. Since it would be quite difficult to accurately calculate and agree on these costs for every piece of paper, paper clip, and toothbrush sold, I would say a practical way to achieve this goal is to stop incentivizing fossil fuels, and certainly to not allow nuclear power, which requires government subsidies. Instead, we need to heavily tax the fossil fuel industry, which will spread in its effect to all societal activities.

Denmark began such a process, with approval of its people, in 1975, and today enjoys a high level of measurable happiness, a high level of energy independence, and a good economy.

Fossil fuels and the way we use them as quick-fixes for burning our way through each day, are responsible for many of the worst effects on the planet, and foster the planet-ignorant way of living that consumes developed countries today. Rather than tax individual purchases, the entire bias of the economic system needs to be shifted in favor of renewable sources of energy. It is the equivalent of a crack addict making a firm decision to regain his/her health and break the addiction.

And as you say, if the health of society and the GDP were not being constantly confused in the mass media and in the common thinking, we would all realize that happiness can once again approach and surpass its high point in the USA that occurred in the 1950s, if we live in a less materialistic manner that is in balance with each other and with Earth's capacities.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Dec-4-2009)   

What the last chart says to me is that if we want to have a planet, we have to stop making decisions based on growth of GDP.

Pretty simple, actually.

You can choose to have a whole planet or a large economy, but you cannot choose both based only on economics.

It also says that the most appropriate place to put feedback is negatively on the economic side rather than positively on the consumption side (green incentives), because any positive feedback mechanism (tax breaks for building green houses) simply adds on to the already consumptive system, rather than taking away from it.

ALL externalized costs need to be placed directly at the decision point of consumers, which is at the checkout. This means consumption taxes for everything that is currently buried behind closed doors or embedded in other paperwork (income taxes, corporate breaks, wars, police, fire, roads, libraries, schools, property taxes, etc.). People don't choose to create CO2 when they buy a car; they simply compare prices and buy whatever color and options they want if they can afford it. We need the actual information at that point if we are to deter overconsumption of resources.

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About author/contributor Member: chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka) chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka)
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Member: chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka) I am a Canadian ecologist with a passionate interest in outside the box responses to the converging crisis of industrial civilization.

The crisis of civilization is not simply a convergence of technical, environmental and organizational problems.  These are symptoms that are themselves being driven by a philosophical and perceptual disconnection so deep that it is best understood as a spiritual breakdown.  The disconnection goes by the name of Separation.

Our sense of separation is what allows us to see ourselves as different from and superior to the rest of the apparently non-rational universe we live in.  In this worldview the complex mutual interdependence of all the elements of the universe is replaced by a simple dualistic categorization:  there are human beings, and everything else in the universe—without exception—is a resource for us to use.

The only way to keep this planet, our one and only home in the universe, from being ultimately ravaged and devastated is to change our worldview and heal our sense of separateness.  Unless we can manage that breathtaking feat all the careful application of technology, all the well-intentioned regulations, all the unbridled cleverness of which we are so proud will do little to delay the final outcome, and nothing whatever to prevent it.

My desire is to find ways to heal that sense of separation, with the goal of helping us prepare for ecological adulthood.

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