Procreation and Consumption in the Real World

The cause of global environmental decline is clear: an immense and rapidly growing human economy. In response, environmentalists should advocate policies leading to fewer people and lower per capita consumption, not one instead of the other. Addressing both provides our best hope of creating sustainable societies and preserving Earth’s remaining biodiversity.

by Philip Cafaro

There are numerous threats to global ecological sustainability; one well-known approach speaks of nine planetary boundaries for safe human use of the biosphere. These include the two defining environmental challenges of our time: global warming and biodiversity loss. The first threatens a much less hospitable world for our descendants, the second a world where millions of other species leave no descendants. We are well on the way to creating such a dangerous and depauperate world. Most of the fossil fuels ever used and most of the anthropogenic warming ever caused have been in the last 40 years—and we are burning more fossil fuels and heating the world faster than ever. The number of wild vertebrates declined 69% in just the past 50 years, extinction rates across all major taxa are hundreds to thousands of times above background rates—and these rates are increasing.

The cause of global environmental decline is clear: an immense and rapidly growing human economy, which was twenty-five times larger at the end of the twentieth century than it was at the beginning. Our carbon emissions are a function of feeding, clothing, housing, warming, cooling, transporting, and amusing unprecedented numbers of people in unprecedented luxury with unprecedently powerful technologies. So are the habitat loss and degradation driving biodiversity loss. Ocean acidification, excessive freshwater withdrawals, toxins poisoning soils and waters; in every case, immense human economic demands are driving the rush past boundaries for biospheric health.

The obvious solution is to decrease the size of the human economy. Under the “if you find yourself in a hole, quit digging” principle, we might at least pause our ceaseless scaling it up. Unfortunately, humanity has built a powerful global economy around the primary goal of rapid, continuous growth. People want their economic demands met, not questioned, and there are more of us than ever—billions more. Furthermore, a dominant economic ideology espouses the possibility, necessity, and goodness of endless growth. Yet realistically, without limiting growth, global environmental decline will continue.

Imagine a doctor examining a new patient suffering from hypertension, high cholesterol, hyperglycemia, joint pains, chest pains, and shortness of breath—and weighing 360 lbs. Whatever else she suggested, it is hard to imagine a conscientious physician not prescribing diet changes with a goal of significant weight loss. She would warn the patient of his elevated risk of stroke, heart attack, and diabetes. She might talk up other common benefits of lower weight, such as higher energy levels and positive mood. What she would not do is encourage him to eat three desserts instead of two, while simultaneously scheduling him for bariatric surgery. Yet that is what contemporary environmentalism has become, cheering on economic growth, while advocating expensive and dangerous technological fixes to ameliorate its worst environmental impacts. With this approach, we cannot consider using fewer resources or less energy. In fact, we need to use much more—but we can make this use “green.” We can “decarbonize” our economies, even “decouple” our economic activity from its material impacts altogether.

We indulge these fantasies to distract ourselves from unappealing realities. The obvious solution to our global environmental problems is also the only feasible solution. As a matter of interspecies justice and intergenerational prudence, the global economy needs to shrink, not grow.


This is the overarching context in which we should discuss procreation and consumption. In a recent essay in the journal Environmental Ethics titled “Procreation vs. Consumption,” Swedish philosopher Kalle Grill notes that procreation and consumption both have costs and benefits. Therefore, he argues, we should consider these comprehensively when making personal procreation and consumption decisions, or advocating demographic and economic policies for our societies. In particular, we can choose more procreation and less consumption, or vice versa. The implication is that we can use this understanding of costs and benefits to maximize personal or societal wellbeing, however we define these.

All this sounds reasonable. Yet as I note in a response to his paper, Grill’s discussion of these harms and benefits is marred by several dubious empirical assumptions. He assumes most procreation will have little environmental impact, suggesting four-fifths of the world is so poor and consumes at such a subsistence level that increasing their numbers will not contribute much to total environmental impacts. This view is seriously outmoded, ignoring the rise in recent decades of an immense global consuming class numbering in the billions. For a sense of its importance to global environmental impacts, see the figures for carbon emissions by country income groups in Table 1 below, showing nearly two-thirds of current global carbon emissions now come from middle income countries.

Table 1. Carbon emissions in 2019 by national income group. Source: Tamburino et al. (2023). World Bank’s division of countries into four income-based groups in 2019: low income (< US $1035 average GNI/capita), lower middle income ($1036–4045), higher middle income ($4046–12,535) and high income (> $12,535).

Consumption by a growing global middle-class also has helped empty many African forests of “bushmeat” species and fill large swaths of the Pacific Ocean with plastic. Its future numbers matter.

So, of course, do future human numbers in wealthy countries, where many populations continue to grow, and where they instead should be encouraged to decline to sustainable levels. Here, too, Grill is somewhat dismissive, speculating that increasing populations and consumption in wealthy societies could so speed up “social and technological innovation” that these societies could become super-efficient and actually decrease their global environmental impacts.

The actual history of industrial capitalist societies illustrates precisely the opposite. Social and technological innovations are plugged into a system whose goals are increased profits and wealth, thus vastly increasing consumption, production, and overall ecological impacts. Without a change in the fundamental goals of this economic system, it is safe to assume efficiency improvements and increased human numbers will primarily serve to ramp up human economic utilization of the world, not to decrease our environmental impacts.

The very framing of “procreation vs. consumption” is empirically misleading. It assumes a flexibility and ease in decreasing consumption that is implausible. Most wealthy and middle-class people do not want to consume less. Getting them to do so for the common good is hard, and often impossible. Grill’s approach also downplays the fact that any act of procreation necessitates more consumption in the decades to come, barring the untimely death of children. “Procreation vs. consumption” actually means procreation then consumption—in the case of most children born today, a lot more consumption.

Again, the necessary context is a world in which average consumption in most countries, developed or developing, is much higher than in the past; where the overwhelming majority of citizens do not want to cut their personal consumption; and where the businesses and politicians that cater to them certainly do not want them to do so. Furthermore, the international community has committed to significantly raising the consumption of the one to two billion poorest people on the planet, through achievement of the UN’s sustainable development goals. Yet the size of the global economy apparently must decrease to avoid a ghastly future.

Any ethical framework that does not make a central place for discussing limits to human demands on the biosphere cannot guide us through this difficult situation. Most importantly, our societies are so deep into ecological overshoot that we no longer have a choice between reducing our numbers or reducing per capita consumption. Instead, serious environmentalists should advocate policies leading to fewer people and lower per capita consumption. Only thus can we hope to create sustainable societies and preserve what global biodiversity remains.

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9 thoughts on “Procreation and Consumption in the Real World

    1. Steven, yes I agree. Given that, it is probably more worthwhile to calculate the number of people Earth could support at high levels of materials and energy throughput, than at the “reasonable” levels that researchers typically use. Most people don’t want to use a reasonable amount. We want to use whatever we need to do whatever we want.

  1. Now, how to get this into the right hands/brains? That is the step generally overlooked . . . the crucial step.

  2. I don’t understand why you are so sure people cannot be convinced or made to consume less. You keep saying that, but I don’t think human beings are quite so simplistic. Greed is only one of many forces driving our aspirations or behaviour. And even in wanting more materially, often what matters is not consumption per se, but status – especially at extremely high levels of consumption. Take celebrities or sportspeople: when you make several millions a year, there’s no way you can enjoy or consume that much money. Even a tenth would be plenty for endless luxury. So why do they want more? Because that’s how this society tells them that they are worthy, respected, appreciated, and better than their peers. Or that women are not worth less than men, or that black people can also be rich (i.e. valued in a society that attributes worth based on money). If we found a way to reduce the competition to a lower range, they would compete at that level. If we gratified people socially with things other than money, they would also be happy because that’s what they really want. No one, ever, just wants money. Yes, we want material comfort and pleasure, but past that, what we want is love, a sense of belonging, power, company, respect, etc, and money and consumption are or appear to be a good way of getting those. But consumption per se isn’t, deep down, what we really want – it’s what we’re conditioned to want.
    You only want what other people have or what is feasible to have. If you lower the upper limit of what people consume, overall aspirations also lower. People in the past were perfectly happy and had meaningful lives even without huge mansions for each family and oversea vacations every year.
    And if people starting shaming the rich instead of admiring them, being rich wouldn’t be what a lot of people aspire to or work for. We are more afraid or losing socially than of losing materially (above subsistence, of course).
    Even now, there are groups of extremely wealthy people, such as the Patriotic Millionaires, who are campaigning for higher taxes on the rich, including them, of course. There’s lots of rich people who wouldn’t mind being less rich: the problem is that governments don’t listen to them, or to the more numerous poor asking for redistribution.
    You keep saying you cannot “make” people consume less, but of course you can. There’s no country in the world that doesn’t! That’s what taxes are, the government saying “I’m going to take this from you and use it for the common good.” As long as it doesn’t go too far, most people are happy to comply because we are a social species and we’ve always shared. Even when taxation is unfair, most people pay it. If governments want to lower consumption through public policy, they totally can. They can even make it acceptable by doing it in the fairest way possible.

    What we need is a change in culture, and I think it’s coming. At the end of the Roman Empire, after centuries of excesses, the new values (embodied by Christianity, but not only that) revolved around frugality, modesty, wisdom, communality, unwordliness… I think we’re getting there again. A lot of people are opting for a simpler lifestyle, some are even paying others to help them declutter their houses! Veganism, the tiny home movement, flygskam… these are all ways people today are veering or pushing others towards different or lower consumption.

    I think you are projecting the aspiration of your culture and generation, and, sure, many others, onto the whole of humanity. Thankfully, endless growth in consumption is not what we’re all about as a species.

    1. Well, philosophers have been singing this song for thousands of years. Even me! For example, in these two essays:

      “Reducing Consumption to Avert Catastrophic Global Climate Change: The Case of Aviation.”

      “The Virtue of Simplicity.”

      I think you are right that we need a culture change, and that there are stirrings of one away from materialism and overconsumption. But it is still quite rare for explicit limits on consumption to be successfully advocated for in the political realm.

      People are willing to be taxed, for the public good. But they do not define the public good as involving, as an essential element, less consumption. You can tax me and limit my consumption, if I am convinced that the money is spent for good public purposes. But we are a long way from saying, “some people having excessive amounts of wealth, or consuming in excessive ways, and that needs to be dealt with.” Not just in America, but throughout the world.

      1. Some people are saying this, even the billionaires and millionaires I mentioned in my comment. You’re right that it’s about redistribution more than overall consumption, but it’s a start.
        Some world leaders (José Mujica) have made a point of living very modestly, and are admired for that. We are capable of admiring wealth, but also sobriety, for different reasons.
        I agree that there’s no one, yet, campaigning on a program to reduce overall consumption and bring down excesses. But that doesn’t meant people have never accepted such options, or that they would not as values change and/or we realise the predicament we’re in.

        I think, however, that the best way to go about this would be not to say we’re capping consumption, but to do redistribution while at the same time consciously reducing the size of the economy. If you decide “no, we’re not building this factory here or anywhere else” enough times, the economy contracts. You then make sure no one is starving as a result.

  3. The agreed global program of “climate action”, “sustainable development”, and “net zero” emissions has given us 30 years of rising population/emissions/consumption/GDP.

    I see no reason why it won’t give us another 30. What’s going to stop it?

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