The per capita fallacy

Are many tiny ecological footprints more virtuous than fewer, larger ones? Will they be better for the Earth, or easier to accomplish? These hard questions need to be asked as humanity hurtles past 8 billion people and deeper into ecological overshoot.

By Gaia Baracetti

You’ve all heard the argument: high birth rates in poor countries are not a problem because of the very low levels of average per capita consumption, or CO2 emissions, among their populations. In other words, it is unfair – or a waste of time – to ask the poor to have fewer children while the rich get to keep their extravagant lifestyles and pop out fewer but more spoilt children. But is it really?

Some counter-arguments are fairly obvious. The poor do not intend to stay poor forever – as high-fertility countries also grow their economies, both their overall and their per-capita consumption increase. And if they fail at improving their conditions through economic growth, at least some of their citizens will migrate to wealthier countries, thus expanding their previously low footprints. Already, most rich countries would be shrinking their populations – and possibly their overall ecological impacts – if it wasn’t for immigration. When looking at population projections, there’s always an unstated assumption that a person born in Nigeria, China or Turkey is “just” that, a Nigerian, Chinese or Turk and not, as is often the case, a future citizen of Canada, Australia or Germany.

Many people migrate to improve their living conditions. Here, migrants’ tents form a queue in Mexico along the border.

At the same time, things can change fast and a person born in a wealthy country today might see their standard of living decline in the future; we can never be sure that an American child will really eat more meat and drive a bigger car than his Indian peer. It is an accident of history that the “West” is now mostly richer than the rest: for most of the time humans have been on Earth this was not the case at all. (It’s also a gross oversimplification to think that it’s only “Western” countries that are rich: the inhabitants of most oil-rich Arab states plus Israel, Japan and the “Asian Tigers” are very wealthy compared to world averages; Australia and New Zealand are often counted as “West” but geographically they aren’t.)

Moreover, environmental impact has many components and is context-dependent. While, overall, being rich is the worst thing one can do in terms of the environment, even someone who is barely surviving could – precisely for that reason – personally contribute to irreversible environmental damage, with desperate actions like cutting down the last tree for firewood or hunting threatened species for food.


A critical argument

These objections to the “per capita footprint” argument are fairly common; there is another one that is crucial but less straighforward and never seems to come up. It could be summarised thus: like consumption, population density too is a matter of choice, both at the individual and the collective levels. In other words societies can choose to lower their populations in order to enjoy more resources per capita and, as long as they do so in a way that protects the environment, do not deserve to be criticised for this.

We could think of two middle-class siblings who have the same salaries, but whereas one has five children, the other chose to stop at two. Inevitably, under similar conditions two children will enjoy more material well-being than their cousins would, yet it would seem unfair to suggest their parents should sacrifice this to support their more numerous nephews and nieces instead.

When it comes to countries, the situation is never this neat, but the analogy is still valid. Collective choice is a complicated matter, but this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Through a sum of individual choices, shared values and government policies, countries can decide what population they want to have. Some want to push this number up as much as possible, for several reasons including military might and economic growth. Other countries wake up to the dangers of never-ending population growth and try to limit their numbers. If carried out properly and thoroughly, the result of this course of action could be both higher per capita consumption and lower overall consumption than if they had a bigger, more crowded and poorer population. Countries with high population densities that are also wealthy are invariably exceeding their carrying capacity; but this is often also true of high-density countries where the majority of the population does not enjoy adequate living standards. These countries shouldn’t boast that their per capita consumption is low as if poverty was a good thing, or as if it absolved them of any responsibilities to their citizens or to the environment.



One might object that not all countries are blessed with the same resources – but that’s exactly the point. Every country should take stock of what it has and plan accordingly. The Global Footprint Network offers estimates of the biocapacity per person for each country, so that we know which populations are living beyond their means (ecological deficit: most) and which aren’t (ecological reserve: hardly any). But even this measure misses a key point. The availability of resources doesn’t entail an obligation, or even a right, to use them all for humans. That’s one of the main problems with per-capita thinking: any population that hasn’t maxed out yet is encouraged to do so in order to rescue those that have. There is a pressure on wealthy countries to “share” their abundance with the poor of the world – as if it was immoral to share it with wildlife instead. Sustainability or justice toward other species will never be possible as long as we think this way – and a lot of well-meaning environmentalists do.

An ecological deficit occurs when the Ecological Footprint of a population exceeds the biocapacity of the area available to that population. A national ecological deficit means that the nation is importing biocapacity through trade, liquidating national ecological assets or emitting carbon dioxide waste into the atmosphere. An ecological reserve exists when the biocapacity of a region exceeds its population’s Ecological Footprint. Source: Global Footprint Network.

Of course, in a globalised world, it would be misleading, bordering on absurd, to suggest that some countries are wealthy just because they make prudent use of their own resources. International exploitation, level of industrialisation and quality of governance are major factors, and an abundance of natural resources in a mismanaged country is often a curse rather than a blessing. At the same time, in well-managed countries such as Norway or Canada, Costa Rica or Botswana, the population does profit from its plentiful resources.


Some useful comparisons

But there’s more to it. If we compare like with like and consider a broader definition of wealth that includes quality of life, countries with lower population densities are often doing much better overall than crowded countries that are similarly wealthy.

Finland, for example, is apparently the happiest country in the world. It has 18 people per km2. When asked what makes their life so good, its citizens cite the proximity of nature as a major factor. Other explanations, such as solidarity and trust, arguably could also be linked to the fact that people live in smaller communities where they know each other, and that they do not have to deal with the stress and competitiveness of extreme crowding.

Compare this with rich but crammed Japan (338 ppl/Km2) and South Korea (527 ppl/Km2), which its young citizens have dubbed Hell Joseon – that is, not a great place to live in at the moment. That will certainly be subjective to a significant extent, but there’s no denying that some of South Korea’s well-known woes – from unbearable competitiveness in the work place, a problem shared with most other East Asian countries, to young people being crushed to death in a recent crowd surge, or being forced to live in underground apartments where they can drown during floods – are almost too literal an illustration of what extreme overcrowding looks like.

A crowded street in Seoul

Another like-with-like comparison, this time between poor countries, is Haiti vs the Dominican Republic – an easy one given that they share the same island. 414 people per km2 in the former, 225 in the latter. Anyone following current events knows that Haiti is, unfortunately, not doing so well, due to widespread poverty, gang violence and frequent epidemics, while the Dominican Republic is actually considered, overall, a good place to live.

Why? There are many reasons; in his book Collapse, Jared Diamond concluded that one of the main ones was a vast difference in population density.

These are not cheap shots at places that are struggling for a variety of reasons. It would be impossible in a short article to go into detail about what is and is not good about the aforementioned places, and why; moreover, one could argue that it is precisely the extreme human population density of places like South Korea and Japan that has incentivised and inspired their famous, widely popular cultural products. This is true: suffering inspires art – and yet people still strive for happiness. They want to walk in the forest, not play the Squid Game to the death. Hell might have interesting company or make for better stories, but it’s still punishment.

If we accept that high population density results automatically in less per capita resource availability, and potentially in greater stress and unhappiness, it follows that it is misguided to hold up countries with vast populations and low levels of per capita consumption as examples for others to emulate. We must discard what I call the “per capita fallacy”.


Questions and consequences

Interesting and difficult questions follow. What is the truest dimension of the human experience? Where do freedom, meaning and responsibility most naturally reside: at the individual, communal, societal, or global level? Clearly, all of these matter.

What is less obvious is that extreme globalisation leads to extreme individualism. If all that counts is that every individual in the world is entitled to the same quantity of resources, then a Chinese person, upon realising that a Canadian enjoys more of them than he does, could move to Canada and claim his fair share, followed by his countrymen until Canada too has at least half a dozen cities with tens of millions of people in them. Only that would be “fair”. This would, however, nullify not just the idea of being Chinese or Canadian, but also that of the self-determination of the Chinese and Canadians as people: the meaning of their culture and their ability to make collective choices about how they want to live. Canada has some of the last remaining vast wildernesses of the world; huge open spaces, endless forests, and vibrant but green and confortable cities. “Well”, say the proponents of per-capita thinking, “it shouldn’t.”

I should have perhaps chosen a more absurd example, because Canada – like other countries such as the United States, Australia and Brazil – has indeed been and still is being used this way. Native populations who had found a balance with their nature (“resources”), by keeping very low human densities and much room for non-human species, were subjected to all forms of persecution and ethnic cleansing so that the abundance they enjoyed could be shared with the hungry masses of Europe, Asia and Africa. A common European objection to the Native Americans’ protestations was (and still is!): surely you do not want to keep all of this for yourself?

One could object that consumption and availability are different things, a valid point. However, the distinction is once again context-dependent: for example, eating meat often or burning wood have a bad reputation precisely because there are so many of us doing it, but can be perfectly sustainable with low human population densities in healthy environments. That’s how many indigenous tribes used to live in what is now the United States, and yet the place was full of such abundance of life that the first Europeans who saw it described it as nothing short of a paradise.

Villagers opposing plans to for a new coal mine in the Mahan forest, India. Picture: Avik Roy

If all that matters is per capita allocation, why should humanity let a small tribe roam untroubled across an area the size of a European country, a vastness that could be farmed, or that holds some precious resource – oil, rare earths – that could give energy, food, electricity to millions in some other part of the world, millions that currently have a need for those things? We hide behind the corporate blame game, but we know that it’s not just corporations that plunder the Amazon forest – it’s poor Brasilians and Colombian farmers, too. Even when the problem is rich corporations, whatever they dig up or grow will end up being used by anyone who can afford it. That’s why they are rich: because people buy what they are selling. It’s not only millionaires who drive cars or own smartphones.

So why do we side instead with tribes protecting precious ecosystems from exploitation? Partly it is because we are in denial about where our stuff comes from. Partly because we hope to go there on holiday, after having trashed everywhere else. But we also instinctively recognise that all wealth comes from nature, that wealth is nature, and that letting a small group of people keep all that true wealth for themselves actually amounts to saving it.

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20 thoughts on “The per capita fallacy

  1. Good analysis. The win win for immigration policies is to offer aid to cut population growth in source countries (high fertility countries are usually poor and sources of immigrants). Rich countries could cut consumption and choose more leisure and less debt, getting more “utility” from relationships and culture and less from consumption. And perhaps be better off overall. That is our challenge. The challenge for poor countries is to cut birthrates. You didn’t mention the 15% of carbon emissions comes from tropical forest clearing. High fertility countries will suffer greatly if they don’t reverse population growth.

    1. Thanks. I completely agree about offering family planning aid, as has already been suggested on this blog (and in many other places). For some reason it seems to be a hard sell among donor countries, while recipient countries are suspicious of the motives – which is why we should be open about the them: “we honestly think it’d bee good for you, and yes, we don’t want millions of you to come here.”

      I think the cut in consumption should start from the very richest. Again, this is a hard sell, even though it would not harm, and would actually benefit, the majority of the people. But the rich own the media or are our beloved celebrities, so we’ve been brainwashed into thinking they deserve so much money, because they worked so hard (even when they’ve inherited it or the system’s rigged), because otherwise they won’t be motivated to write songs or play football…

      As for tropical forest cleaning, this post isn’t about what’s causing climate change specifically, so it wasn’t necessary to mention it. Interestingly, some wealthier countries, from Italy to Japan, have seen in the last decades both planned and spontaneous re-forestation. Unfortunately, this has come at the expenses of forests elsewhere.

  2. This article is based on the fundamentally flawed conventional wisdom of our population scientists. The real per capita fallacy is that per capita is totally useless on this topic. If we average 3 babies, 1/3rd of our children will die and the per capita wealth can be anything from poor to great.

    At the maximum population size, such that not one more can be kept alive at the same time, if we average 3 babies, then 1/3rd of the children must die before becoming an adult and contributing to the number of babies. This can be generalized such that (x-2)/x children must die when we average x babies. Of course it is possible to increase the capacity, and humans have been doing that for the past many hundreds of years. When the capacity is increasing, children do not have to die at that rate. But notice that during the past few hundred most remarkable years in human existence, we have always had groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality. That proves that we are, and generally always have been, at the population limit. The population grows because the limit has grown.

    Imagine if we shoot every 3rd offspring, (obviously the better solution is to use birth control). There is no attempted population growth. Imagine if we don’t shoot them. Oh, yea, that’s the world we live in. Everyone will fight to keep their children alive. We will sacrifice some of our wealth to keep our child alive. We will burn trees, dig up oil, erect fences, and tribes, and governments to ensure our neighbor suffers the child mortality and not us. In short, the world we see is EXACTLY what one would expect to find if we average too many babies for too long. There are pockets of horrid poverty where people are suffering starvation related child mortality.

    If your descendants average more than 2, (x-2)/x of your descendant children will die even if everyone else on the planet has zero babies…. Notice what this dirt simple mathematic fact tells us. Of course the poor must not average more than 2 offspring. EVERYONE must ensure that their descendants do not average more than 2! If Catholics average more than 2, Catholic children will die as a consequence. If atheists average more than 2, atheists children will die as a consequence.

    If it’s possible for parents to influence how many grandchildren they have, then the beliefs or behaviors that average more than 2 will grow relative to those that average less than 2. You have to prove that parents cannot influence how many children their children have to assume that the low fertility found in developed countries will continue. Never mind the stupid assumption that it is OK to average 2 when we require the use of non-renewables to keep our numbers alive.

    In short, this article is not wrong, but it is completely pointless. We must all know that our descendants must not average more than 2. Articles like this prove that our population experts do not comprehend that most fundamental fact and are doing nothing to spread this required knowledge.

    1. John, I don’t qualify as a a “population expert”, but if all we ever said on the subject was: “you-must-not-have-more-than-2-children-period”, I’m sure we’d lose everyone’s attention fairly quickly.

  3. Niraj, thank you.

    Philip, yes, but also property. The rich often have huge properties, estates, multiple houses, etc. So do the upper- and upper-middle classes (and, in some unregulated countries such as Italy, even the lower-middle classes). This should be tackled. We take up so much space unnecessarily!

  4. The per capita fallacy is the same as the north-south fallacy is the same as the loss and damage fallacy. They’re all excuses for the United Nations to hide behind their doctored population forecasts and sit on their hands and do nothing.

    It seems paradoxical, but as late as 2022, there is a widening not a narrowing gulf, between the global population policy and the mountain of environmental evidence.

    1. Interestingly, it seems that high-fertility countries are quicker to realise and admit they have a problem than many international institutions worried about not blaming and offending. I say we’re all in this together, we should talk openly and offer each other help where necessary.

  5. Excellent article Gaia. I really like your point that the population that a country has is their choice, and they have to live with that, and not just a given.

  6. Where did the taboo on even talking about population come from? One possibility is that the “vast right wing conspiracy” that created an alternative reality bubble where climate change is a hoax and we need more fossil fuel profits has demonized ending population growth as collateral damage. In the U.S. a media environment of Fox News, talk radio, think tanks, right wing commentators, etc. has been so effective that their lies have bled out even into the wider society. In other words, the well intentioned people who oppose completing the world fertility transition have been duped. And we should say so.

    1. The taboo about (“educated”) people talking about population, or overpopulation, seemed to start after the Cairo conference that consciously shifted the conversation away from assistance needed for birth control in high birthrate countries, to help for women with children in these countries, and it became bad taste for high consumption countries to blame low consumption countries for not addressing “reproductive health”. “Birth control” was being associated with eugenics and forced sterilization of oppressed peoples, and no attention allowed to oppressed women in patriarchal societies.

      Another stumbling block is the economic “growth” faith, that there are no “limits to growth” and capitalism can’t subsist without it (same for empires and some religions), and that population growth is is to be encouraged and we now see media pleas to keeping up the pop growth (“to take care of the old people”!
      We must now be ashamed to speak of— humanity leaving no room for other species,— to mention impoverished families not being allowed to limit their births, —- to speak of population concerns when we learned (from”Food First”) that hunger was being caused by food trade and land grabs by the wealthy countries, and —that all we need is education of women (as thouogh we had all the time in the world, and everyone was going to turn urban middle class.)

      And we are not supposed to see that impoverished, (now drought stricken) high birthrate peoples cause forest destruction, over-fishing, desertification and the loss of their own futures.
      We cannot speak this now, because we are so guilty of over-consumption ourselves!

      All this when the populations who cannot limit their numbers are the very ones that will suffer most with climate change, and already are.
      Everyone should have the right to have a child, and not to have a child. This would help our numbers situation.

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