I continue to hear concerns from some in the environmental community that world population will overtake us and cause ecological collapse. On the other side I hear concerns that environmentalists will force population control upon us. The pity of this back and forth is that population isn’t really the problem. Cartograms of world population and world consumption suggest that total consumption has little relationship to population particularly in the areas with the youngest, fastest growing populations like Africa and South America.
What the cartograms make clear is that one “solution” to the ecological problem is poverty. Of course that’s not a solution that most would find desirable. So the real challenge moving forward is not how we control population, but how we can bring billions out of poverty sustainably. The good news is that some of this is self-correcting. Wealthier, more educated families tend to have fewer children. As millions in the third world “urbanize,” Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog, touts the idea that “cities diffuse the population bomb,” i.e. that city dwellers have slower birth rates. Cities also happen to be where people in the developed world have the lowest energy footprint. (Note: The United Nations definition of “urban” also includes suburbs.)
China may be one of the most challenging places because they are a huge population with a quickly growing middle class. They are unfortunately copying some of North America’s worst habits such as sprawling suburban residential areas and mass car dependency. This the real challenge.
Alongside skyrocketing population China, India, and other developing countries have been intentionally or by neglect giving more of their street space to the least efficient form of urban transportation, the single passenger automobile. This has happened in cities with a strong history of urban cycling like Beijing and Shanghai. This serves both to endanger those continuing to use the more efficient forms of transportation (walking, cycling, and public transit) and encourage anyone with the means to get a private car as soon as they are able. Fortunately this seems to be turning around in Beijing perhaps as China turns to more modern examples of U.S. planning such as the Bloomberg administration’s transportation policy in New York City.
Of course there is more to consumption and sustainable living than transportation. In the area of food there is also clearly room for improvement before we start worrying about population growth as a fundamental problem. Nonetheless transportation is a great example demonstrating that how we live is as important as how many of us live on the planet.