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October 2000
The 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, it’s not our fault they‘re hungry," he complained. "Why don’t 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 and environmental degradation. I wondered how to answer my friend. With the flippant observation that Third World villagers couldn’t simply pop around to the corner pharmacy to pick up contraceptive gel or condoms—and 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 falling—dramatically, in some countries? Or with what doubtless would have been the reply of many Third World people I had met: that my friend’s question was not merely simple-minded but arrogant—what right did people in wealthy countries have to blame the poor for their poverty, much less for humanity’s environmental dilemma, when it was the rich countries’ consumption patterns that were responsible for the vast majority of the world’s 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 South’s 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 South—and away from the North’s 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.


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