Wealth Never Sleeps

Wishing away overconsumption without reducing population or affluence is a denial of math.

By Brad Meiklejohn

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

–  Mark Fisher

I am congenitally cheap. There is Scottish blood in my veins, which may explain why our family crest reads: “Fix it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

I never pass a penny on the sidewalk, I’ve used the same skis for 30 years, I drive my vehicles into the ground, and duct tape is an essential ingredient in my life. I’ve lived in Buddhist monasteries for long periods and even considered ordaining as a monk. The pinched pennies have piled up, allowing me to work less, support charities, and conserve land.

Image by Brad Meiklejohn

Yet, as hard as I try to reduce my consumption, I cannot. It’s not because I lack self-control. It’s because wealth never sleeps.

Earlier this year I wrote an article about the root problem of human overpopulation. Though the article was well-received, predictably I received pushback. Some of my math-challenged critics contend that overconsumption is the problem, not overpopulation. Even well-intentioned friends maintain that overconsumption is the evil twin of overpopulation.

Are there too many of us or do we consume too much? Most people answer “yes,” though it is fashionable among progressives to blame fat rich white Westerners, not skinny poor brown Global Southerners. Even those who understand that overpopulation is the root cause of our planetary problems espouse moderation of our appetites. As legendary American conservationist Dave Foreman said, we can reduce overconsumption by “hacking fat and sloppiness.”

Consume is what people with money do. Overconsumption is an output of the I=PAT equation (Impact=Population x Affluence x Technology), not an input. Overconsumption results from too many people with too much money. Wishing away overconsumption without reducing population or affluence is a denial of math, hoping that 2 x 3 will equal 4 this time.

Consumption is driven by wealth. Call it wealth, call it capital, call it money – no matter where you park it, so long as your wealth is in circulation, it is driving consumption. Even if you decrease your personal consumption, your money is always quietly chewing away at the world. Your personal restraint in one area only shifts the money elsewhere. Your bank and your retirement accounts will use your money to finance development, your donations to charity will be deposited in another bank, and even tying your wealth up in conserved land keeps your money churning away in someone else’s pocket.

The only way to take your money out of circulation is to burn or mulch it. Who is going to burn their money? Not even Buddhist monks burn their money. They give it away.

Image Courtesy of Jp Valery, Unsplash.com

For 8 billion humans to live within our planetary budget each of us would have to get by on $5,500 per year.[1] That means living in a 12’x12’ single-room apartment with minimal plumbing, few appliances, no central heat or air con, a local plant-based diet, and no car or plane travel. The 3.5 billion people currently above that standard have no intention of giving it up; the 4 billion below that standard want better lives.

Those who drastically self-restrain have something in common with those who burn their money – there aren’t many of them. Recycling glass, skipping meat, or riding the bus to work don’t count as drastic self-restraint. If you take overconsumption seriously, reduce your income, settle your debts, seek a lower rate of return in the markets, keep all your money as cash under the mattress, join the barter economy, and live on less than $5,500 per year. Still with me?

Perhaps we could rein in overconsumption by government fiat. Let’s imagine the efficacy of government policy that advocates for the destruction of wealth and for lower standards of living. Are you picturing the ensuing chaos, too? Inflation is another wealth-destroyer yet the gears of the modern world work to ward off inflation, not invite it. Not many countries deliberately aim to lower their Gross Domestic Product (GDP), though Bhutan espouses Gross National Happiness. Curtailment of the work week, wealth redistribution through progressive taxation, and intentional degrowth are but fair maidens on the rails of runaway global gluttony.

Some contend that the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland) are paragons of virtue because they consume less than they produce. Yet the Scandinavian countries are among the top nations in “spillover impacts” that extend beyond their borders. It doesn’t matter how frugal the Nordic people are: so long as they are rich their money is eating away at the world. Iceland has the highest per capita ecological footprint in the world because they import nearly everything. No one lives on an island anymore: our money travels the globe with an ax, shovel, hammer, and a hungry mouth.

Image by Brad Meiklejohn

The handy thing about scapegoating overconsumption for our worldly woes is that we get to blame someone else. It’s that greedy, lazy, selfish, fat, and sloppy guy with the Hummer, the McMansion, and the beer gut who is the problem. Gloat about your hairshirt sacrifice and self-flagellate over the extra pint of Ben and Jerry’s all you want. Your performative blaming and shaming isn’t going to do the job when the job calls for reducing total global economic activity by 50%. We are not going to jawbone our way out of overconsumption.

By all means, reduce your consumption if it makes you feel good. But don’t delude yourself that it will make a real difference. Choices do matter, and some choices are clearly better than others – it’s just that we can never escape the economic consequences of our choices. I prefer walking over driving, yet the money I save squirts out somewhere else. Investing in land conservation is commendable because it takes land out of the global economy, but my money doesn’t stay in the ground – it keeps cycling away long after I close the deal.

Consumption levels keep rising worldwide. The world’s current material footprint of 100 billion tons per year is projected to rise to 160 billion tons per year by 2060. Certainly we are on the verge of kissing fossil fuels goodbye, right? Actually, no. Despite our concerted efforts to move away from fossil fuels we keep using more of them. We are trapped by Jevons Paradox wherein increased energy efficiency leads to increased energy consumption.

Overconsumption is indeed a problem – there just isn’t much we can do about it. Here is the conundrum:

  1. rich people consume more than poor people;
  2. poor people want to be rich;
  3. rich people want to stay rich;
  4. no one deliberately destroys their wealth; and
  5. intentional wealth destruction is not a viable public policy.

It is more likely that catastrophic world events will destroy our wealth before we do it ourselves. Every day it gets easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

Once we dispel the fantasy that overconsumption can be constrained in any meaningful way, we are in a better position to talk honestly about overpopulation. We can simply say that overconsumption is one of the many woes caused by too many people, along with climate chaos, habitat destruction, cutting, burning, shooting, and otherwise trashing the planet. Even if we could wave a magic wand to reduce consumption, there would still be 8 billion people hacking away at the world.

My ace in the hole is that I never had kids. Not having kids is a single decision; dialing back consumption is a daily grind. By not having children you head the problem off at the pass. You don’t have to concern yourself with the choices of your children and their children and their children ad infinitum. Once you have a kid, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no telling how many kids they might have. Having two kids in the United States will swamp your voluntary carbon reduction by a factor of 40x. The data are in: our climate is going haywire. Choosing to be childless is the single best move you can make to address climate chaos.

Don’t mistake the focus on overpopulation as another form of racial hegemony. If you have followed the plot, you understand the urgency of driving down the population of the profligate wealthy nations. I don’t only mean the United States: among the leading fat cats are Qatar, Luxembourg, Bahrain, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates. The developing world doesn’t get off the hook either, since it is here that rapid population growth is fueling economic growth as poor nations strive to become wealthy ones. Who wants to tell poor people they can’t be rich like us?

Reducing the number of people is the only viable way out of our predicament. Some have argued that population declines can’t happen fast enough to save the planet. We could achieve rapid reductions in population and consumption if, beginning today, each family had no more than two children, with many choosing only one or none. If the total fertility rate[2] fell to 1.5 by 2030 (it’s currently ~2.3) we could halve the planetary burden within a century.

The good news is that more people are choosing smaller families and total fertility rates are in decline. The bad news is that there is still a powerful demographic momentum that adds 70 million people to the planet each year. The ugly news is that certain influential people are sowing “birth dearth” panic to stave off the decline of human numbers sometime in the distant future.

The birds and bees I know can’t wait that long.



BRAD MEIKLEJOHN is an Alaska conservationist and writer who has received numerous awards. His most recent book is The Wild Trails.


[1] The same math shows that the world could support ~800 million people at the American standard of living of $55,000 year.

[2] Total fertility rate refers to the average number of children a woman would have over her lifetime.

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21 thoughts on “Wealth Never Sleeps

    Nov 17, 2022, Population Media Center
    Population growth affects many aspects of society, including the overall quality of life. One of the key ways it does this is by causing prices of important goods and services to rise, thus causing hardship for the poorest sections of the population. This occurs even in highly developed and wealthy countries like Japan.

    The more people there are, the more demand there is for just about everything, but especially for vital goods and services. At first glance, it might seem that more people would lead to more production and thus the supply would rise to meet demand, but this is not so. One trend that has gone hand in hand with population growth is urbanization. As more people are born and grow up in rural areas, they reach a point where they cannot make a living if they stay put. This pushes them to migrate to the cities to look for better work opportunities.

    The cities cannot absorb the influx of people from rural areas and become overpopulated. This trend can be observed in many places around the world, but especially in the developing world. For example, Dhaka, the capital of the nation of Bangladesh, has grown so large over the decades that it now has a population density of over 110,000 people per square mile. About a third of that population lives in poverty, with many lacking access to clean water and even shelter. There is simply not enough land to house these people. The demand for housing becomes so great that housing prices and rents skyrocket, leaving basic shelter beyond the means of the most vulnerable portion of the population.

    The exodus of people from rural areas also reduces the amount of food produced. Farming is an exceedingly difficult profession, and in many developing countries the techniques are centuries old and less than efficient. Lacking modern methods and technologies, farmers are unable to produce enough food for themselves and for sale, forcing nations to import increasingly larger percentages of their food product needs. Imported food raises costs, particularly in situations like the post-COVID-19 pandemic, where supply chains have become backed up and demand for shipping and transportation is so great.

    The rapid growth in population has been driven, in part, by the advances in medical technology that are allowing people to live longer. Life expectancy has risen all over the globe, and the infant death rate has fallen. Some deadly diseases, like smallpox, have been all but eradicated, saving untold lives across the planet.

    The bulk of the working classes around the world live in the ever-growing urban areas. As the cities absorb more people, the demand for housing, food, and water grows. Public services need to be expanded to meet rising demand, which leads to a higher tax burden being placed on working people. The alternative is a lack of safe water, unsanitary living conditions, and malnutrition. Unfortunately, this is the case in many cities in the developing world.

    Without adequate savings, many people are a single major expense away from serious financial difficulties. Major medical expenses or a series of needed repairs can quickly drive people into poverty. A major problem like the recent pandemic can put so much pressure on people living on the edge that a general economic collapse is possible.

    Overpopulation adversely impacts the economy. Rising prices cause less savings and make the working and middle classes more vulnerable to economic distress. In developing countries, people are forced to go without clean water or adequate food and live in squalid conditions.


  2. If environmentalists all refuse to have kids to save the world, then the world will be inherited by the pro-growth folks who have kids and don’t care about nature. Not a solution either. My thinking comes to “two is enough” or “no more than two” as the norm. Getting to that norm requires use of contraceptives and abortion as backup because contraceptives fail (half of abortions pregnancies came when women were using contraceptives). But once people have control of fertility, even if the norm is two, the reality comes out more like 1.5 plus or minus. Busy women don’t get around to two, or decide to stop at one, or never even manage one. So a norm of two maintains humanity’s maximum genetic and cultural diversity (good) while achieving fairly rapid population reduction. Affordable, non-coercive, doesn’t require major changes in human biology. 111 countries with 68% of world population are below 2.1 TFR so don’t say it can’t be done. In 1960 there were 5 countries below 2.1 TFR. (World Bank WDI)
    As for consumption, if there is a climate emergency (there is) the “cut consumption” buttons should be pushed too. Get to norm of two for immediate improvement and long run solution. Enact policies like higher interest rates, 3 day work week, carbon tax (a form of consumption tax since energy is in every product and service), and other macroeconomic slowdown recommendations from the late Herman Daly, founder of Ecological Economics. A policy induced recession can cut emissions almost overnight. The only reductions in the last half century came during recessions. Everybody should talk about a global carbon tax as a way to slow the economy and reduce emissions.

  3. Brad provides the clearest argument I’ve read for why we need to focus on population reduction more than consumption reduction, in creating sustainable societies. That said, I remain unsure of the proper balance between these efforts.

    I find what he says in this article convincing. And I think arguments for voluntary consumption restraint are largely worthless, because likely ineffective. But we also know that increases in per capita consumption and production will do us in just as surely as increases in (or too high) population.

    Perhaps the answe is along the lines suggested by Max. Population reduction must be combined with a new approach to economics, based on sufficiency rather than growth. Not a voluntary effort for people to consume less; instead, a restructuring of the institutions and laws governing whole economies, a la Herman Daly’s ecological economics.

    That appears to be the best hope we have to create sustainable societies. A slim one, I’ll admit, but at least theoretically possible.

    1. Every species has natural enemies that keep its numbers in check.
      The Laws of Nature supersede and overrule Human Laws!

  4. Growth-based economies are a very recent phenomenon. I don’t understand why they are treated as inevitable. Studying history would show how recent all our economic theories and practice are.
    As for “governments will never limit consumption”, like I’ve said in a comment to a similar argument here, they already do, they are called taxes, and people usually pay them without overthrowing governments (there are protests when the burden is excessive or the prices are too high, but no one objects to the idea of paying some form of taxation).
    At a time when we have groups of millionaires and billionaires lobbying government to be taxed *more* (not less) I think it’s absurd to be arguing that this will never happen. It’s such a low hanging fruit, why aren’t we picking it?

    1. Taxes do work to lower consumption of specific items, such as cigarettes. But what happens to the money the government collects in taxes? Do they compost it? As the article says, it’s like squeezing a balloon.

      Wish in one hand, pee in the other and see which one fills up faster.

      1. Bea, taxes can also serve the purpose of discouraging wasteful behaviour, and if you redistribute wealth through taxes you reduce the overall need to generate wealth to make sure people at the economic bottom have a decent lifestyle.
        Anyways my point about taxes isn’t that they lower GDP overall, but that people will and do accept limitations to how much money they have, which the article argued against. Some people would accept even greater limitations gladly.
        Governments of course also limit economic growth in other indirect ways, by passing regulations, protecting natural areas, deciding not to go ahead with some projects. They should certainly do more, but let’s not pretend they don’t do anything.

      2. Bea and Gaia, this is why I think we should advocate for an economy built around sufficiency, rather than for “less consumption.” Less consumption must be part of this. But advocating less consumption within the current system will not get us what we need. As Brad says, it just frees up money and resources for growth elsewhere.

  5. I too am of Scottish ancestry, plus I was raised by a maternal grandmother (a McDaniel) who ever went on about “waste not, want not,” and could squeeze a penny until it screamed for mercy. She was frugal but not mean frugal. If she needed something, of course, but buying for the sake of buying was offensive to her.

    Some in the environmental community–population deniers, as I call them–have screamed “just consume less” for 50 or 60 years. And just look what it’s gotten us: Substantively NOTHING!

    Even the most avowed “environmentalist” lives in a couple of thousand square feet of air-conditioned comfort, and if he or she really wants something, the carbon footprint is rarely considered. Few have any concept of the changes in lifestyle we must enter into to save the planet.

    But I remain firm that our real problem is that the “millionaires and billionaires” referred in posts herein are NOW ALLOWED (for the first time) to OWN AND CONTROL MEDIA, especially the broadcast media once (via regulation) kept in diverse, decentralized ownership.

    How can we expect anything but, well, EXACTLY WHERE WE ARE, when we have a media that TALKS climate change but then cheers the next high-carbon event, endlessly markets products to us that we don’t need or CAN’T AFFORD, and that refuses to HONESTLY REPORT ON POPULATION, especially population in ours (1.) now one of the WORLD’S FASTEST GROWING NATIONS, (2.) the 3rd most populated nation behind only China and India and (3.) the HIGHEST PER-CAPITA CARBON NATION, roughly 2x that of China!?

    The kind of changes we need to build a new approach to living on this poor over-consumed planet can only come through OBJECTIVE information, HONEST DEFINITIONS of solutions and FULL REPORTING. Without an honest news media, we will not save the environment! We need the REGULATIONS BACK that Ronald Reagan got rid of!

    A last example: Every T.V. station in Albuquerque is currently cheering 32,000 new proposed housing starts! NOT a single station–NOT ONE, is reporting on the FACT that New Mexico is fundamentally out of water, including no longer receiving Colorado River water into our San Juan-Chama diversion. Why? The water, in drought, DOES NOT EXIST!

    How is that anything but media working to continue a status quo that cannot be sustained?

  6. Are the “fat cat countries” listed based on their per capita emissions? It would be great for a targeted VOLUNTARY family planning campaign focused on countries meeting that criteri PLUS high rates of unintended pregnancy. I know my own country (U.S.) would be near the top.

  7. Philip, what’s sufficiency? It does not mean the same thing to all people.
    What I think is missing from this debate is inequality. The world isn’t neatly divided in rich countries and poor countries. There’s very very rich and very very poor people everywhere. I think that’s where we should start. The popular support for a tax on the richest individuals and corporations could be almost unanimous, and it’s not a given that that money would necessarily go somewhere else. Governments could for example use it to pay debt, accumulate less debt in the future, and thus reduce the need for economic growth in the first place.
    I don’t think resources are necessarily always moved from one thing to the other and that’s it. If a local government doesn’t allow a factory to be built on green land, that land will stay green. If we put a tax on empty houses and there aren’t people to fill them, many will be abandoned and even demolished.
    For example, a new steel mill was proposed in my region. Many people opposed it, and so did the local municipalities and organizations. It was decided not to do it; the land and the lagoon is safe. If they do do it somewhere else, it will probably be an area that is already industrialised and will need to be cleaned up first; or they might not build it at all.

    1. I’m all for greater economic equality, and for taxing the rich to benefit the poor. Whether that contributes to environmental sustainability in particular cases is an open question.

      Sure, “sufficiency” is defined differently by different people. But so are any other ideals or overarching goals, including equality, justice, and sustainability. The point is that “enough” has to be an important and influential goal throughout the Economy: for individuals considering their own lives, for institutions that organize economic activity, for the politicians setting economic policy.

      It’s not as if there are no examples of this to point to. We all know people who are satisfied with their material wealth and aren’t trying to increase it. We have examples of non-profit organizations doing valuable work in health care, education, and other areas; economic cooperatives and employee-owned companies that prioritize other values besides increasing profits and shareholder dividends.

      1. I think that history moves in cycles. After the obscene excesses of the late Roman Empire, people were drawn to things like stoicism and Christianity.
        (The Barbarians were actually very materialistic, but at that point you could only acquire things by taking them from someone else, the economy was collapsing).
        My experience, confirmed by pretty much all my friends and peers, is that the boomer generation is way more materialistic than us. We are often shocked at how much our parents spend and consume compared to us. Sometimes they don’t seem to care about anything except buy stuff and going on holiday. Millenial are consumeristic, but at a much lower level, with more self-control and awareness.
        Among Gen Z and younger, I think it’s a very mixed bag.

  8. Well, lots of boomers talked a good anti-materialist line, as college students and young adults. But somehow most of them wound up living fairly resource intensive lives. We’ll see how the younger folks do.

    1. Yes, it’s fascinating to me how a few “hippies” (or whatever equivalent) stayed that way, many became radicalised on the other side (at least here in Italy), most just settled into a bourgeois lifestyle. Though I think that the counterculture movement was never a majority.
      But even this isn’t exactly right; the late 70s and 80s were actually very materialistic and those who were young at that time absorbed those models more than the previous ones.
      Millenials are old enough now to be judged on their behaviour; I think that most consume less than their parents because they have to, not necessarily because they want to. We’ll see with the new generations, to me they seem well-meaning but confused, but who isn’t at 18.

  9. Raise a toast to the allure of hope. When the “hopium” wears off the next morning, confront the reality of changing the economies of 198 countries to get all 8 billion of us to enjoy an annual budget of $5,500. That’s what sustainability looks like, folks. We can keep deluding ourselves that we can “clever” our way out of this mess. Or we can take the project of reducing population very seriously. I happen to think that those who argue for rearranging the world economy in service of sustainability or sufficiency are doing the greatest harms. It’s a mirage.

    1. I happen to think that people that insist on binary choices and “it’s either… or” are doing the greatest harm. Focus on what you think the solution is and let others do their own activism.

  10. Throughout these comments runs a stream of contempt for “those others” who consume too much. Save your breath. It’s not about restraint, will power or virtue. It’s about money.

  11. If you can’t get people to agree on the fundamental problem of overpopulation on a blog titled The Overpopulation Project, we’re screwed. Let’s not rule out the possibility that we are getting trolled here by Musk-ovite pro-growth global citizens.

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