Calculus of Consumption: Shifting Blame to the North
By Mark Hertsgaard
An estimated 40,000 children die every day in the Third
World, from malnutrition and disease. Meanwhile, disparities of income
between the privileged and the poor are also growing wider.
After a year of travel, much of it in Africa and Asia, my return to
my hometown of San Francisco was more than a little disorienting; I
felt like a stranger in a familiar land. The sheer wealth of the place
was staggering. With their leather jackets, designer eyeglasses, and
stylish haircuts, many San Franciscans were wearing more money than
African and Chinese peasants would earn in a lifetime.
At dinner with friends one night I tried to explain why traveling among
impoverished peoples had touched me so deeply, why the existence of
such misery on a planet of plenty seemed a moral rebuke to outsiders
comforts and complacency. Embarrassed perhaps, most of my friends hardly
bothered to reply, while one vaguely left-of-center journalist almost
seemed to take offense. "God, Mark, its not our fault theyre
hungry," he complained. "Why dont they stop having
so many kids?"
It was a simple question that nevertheless went to the core of the
population issue and its complicated relationship with global poverty
degradation. I wondered how to answer my friend. With the flippant
observation that Third World villagers couldnt simply pop around to the corner
pharmacy to pick up contraceptive gel or condomsand even if they
could, the price would probably be beyond their means? With the paradoxical
fact that, despite such logistical obstacles, Third World birth rates
had indeed been fallingdramatically, in some countries? Or with
what doubtless would have been the reply of many Third World people
I had met: that my friends question was not merely simple-minded
but arrogantwhat right did people in wealthy countries have to
blame the poor for their poverty, much less for humanitys environmental
dilemma, when it was the rich countries consumption patterns that
were responsible for the vast majority of the worlds resource
depletion and ecosystem destruction?
Industrial countries have about 25 percent of the world population but
use about 80 percent of its energy. An American consumes about 53 times
more goods and services than a Chinese person. A baby born in the U.S.
creates 13 times as much environmental damage over the course of its
lifetime as a baby born in Brazil, and 35 times as much as an Indian
baby. My San Francisco friend had one child in diapers and a second
on the way, thus giving him the Brazilian equivalent of 26 children.
Needless to say, however, he did not feel that he and his family were
part of the global population problem.
For the wealthy countries of the North to pressure the poorer nations
of the South to limit their population growth strikes many in the South
as a hypocritical attempt to evade moral responsibility and maintain
the global status quo. Indeed, it was this perception that had fueled
the Souths resistance to making population part of the 1992 Earth
Summit agenda. In the diplomatic phrasing of one briefing paper, "The
fear has been that such discussion would shift the focus of debate to
population growth in the Southand away from the Norths contribution
to global environmental degradation and its obligation to provide correctives." It
is not the planet or some other noble-sounding abstraction that pays
the greatest price for excessive population growth; it is the supposedly
overpopulated people themselves.
Just as population growth makes it harder for a given nation to climb
out of poverty, so does poverty make it harder to limit population growth.
Poor and hungry people have so many children precisely because they
are poor and hungry. The poor tend to lack access both to the contraceptives
that could prevent pregnancies and to the decent health care and nutrition
that could prevent high infant mortality rates. The high infant mortality
rates cause parents to conceive more children than they actually desire,
if only to compensate for expected losses. But the extra children then
make it harder for the family to escape poverty, and the poverty in
turn keeps infant mortality and birth rates high. Thus the cycle perpetuates
itself, even as it encourages environmental degradation.
Part of what makes population such a contentious issue is its many layers
of complexity. There is no denying that the consumption patterns of
wealthy countries cause much more environmental damage than the population
size of poor countries. However, this does not make concern about the
rapid population growth an imperialist plot. Given the realities of
skyrocketing mortality rates, increasing unemployment and rapid environmental
degradation, to escape the vicious cycle of poverty, poor countries
have their own self-interested reasons to limit their population growth.
Mark Hertsgaard is an independent journalist and author. This
piece is excerpted from his recent book Earth Odyssey: Around the World
in Search of Our Environmental Future (New York: Broadway Books, 1999).
Reprinted with kind permission from the author and publisher.