Why we must become fewer people and consume less – and suggestions to improve the situation

The mainstream media rarely report about the role of population growth in environmental and climate disruptions, but the Op-Ed below was actually published in the high-circulating Swedish Social Democratic newspaper Aftonbladet a week ago. The original Swedish text is available here. The article gives a broad overview, ending with an unusual suggestion. There were 250 on-line comments, and the author expands on his idea after the translated text below.

By Anders Sirén

If we continue to become more and more people, each consuming more and more energy and raw materials, environmental crises will follow one after another. The only long-term solution is for us to reduce our consumption and become fewer people on Earth.

The so-called Kaya identity shows that total CO2 emissions are the product of multiplying four factors: 1) the number of people, 2) GDP per capita, 3) energy consumption per unit of GDP, and 4) CO2 emissions per unit of energy. Nevertheless, current climate policy measures focus exclusively on the third and fourth factors, i.e. technological solutions for improving energy efficiency and switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The effects of such progress may, however, be cancelled out by continued growth in population and consumption levels.

Whereas the Kaya identity focuses on carbon emissions from energy production, one should not forget that these are only part of the problem. Significant carbon dioxide emissions also result, for example, in the chemical process of turning limestone into cement, and when natural ecosystems such as forests or wetlands are transformed into production landscapes. The climate crisis, moreover, is not only caused by carbon dioxide, but also by methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, which are formed in agriculture and livestock farming, landfills, and industrial processes. Finally, the climate crisis is only one symptom of a larger environmental crisis that also includes, for example, the spread of toxic chemicals and the loss of biodiversity.

Switching to wind power and electric cars, for instance, leads to increased mining and waste problems and are not in themselves long-term solutions. A much more radical transition is required, comparable to when man invented agriculture or with the industrial revolution.

Agriculture and animal husbandry drastically increased food production so that the population jumped to a higher level. This did not give people better lives, however, but rather led to more boring lives and poorer health. Many farming societies became grotesquely unequal as small elites appropriated basically all surplus produce while the masses barely survived. Vast natural areas were cleared to make way for fields and pastures. The industrial revolution, on the other hand, for the first time in history, brought a sustained increase in both population and human consumption, as well as greater equality and democracy. The downside was that environmental degradation accelerated even further.

The next transition must involve limiting our own reproduction and protecting nature. This transition has to some extent already begun, as over 40% of the world’s population live in countries where women on average give birth to fewer than two children in their lifetime, and the area of protected nature is growing. We need to accelerate this process, however, as the world population is still growing by 80 million people a year and natural ecosystems continue being replaced by artificial production landscapes at an alarming rate. Measures to reduce births must be based on voluntary action and financial incentives. The international community should simply pay money to women who give birth to no children or at most one child – a global reverse child benefit.

In terms of reducing consumption levels, the greatest potential lies with the world’s rich. A further reduction in the level of consumption is unthinkable for the world’s poorest, who barely have what it takes to survive. Human civilization will only survive if we succeed in a historically unique levelling of the gap between rich and poor.


The author responds to some criticism and comments:

“Critics of the article have concentrated specifically on the proposal of a “reverse child benefit”. Some have argued, somewhat contradictorily, that this for one part would be ineffectual because people’s choices about how many children they have are guided by other considerations than the purely economic, and, for another part, that it would be coercive and unethical.

There is, however, no doubt that economic considerations are important when people decide how many children they have. One important reason why Total Fertility Rates have fallen drastically in many countries in recent decades is exactly that people find it too expensive to raise many children. On the other hand, one explicit reason why governments in many countries pay child benefits to families with children is precisely that they want to encourage childbearing. Paying people money for not having children is of course no more coercive or unethical than paying them for having children.

One person commented on the potential unfair impacts of such a system on women who give birth after rape. This is an important concern, which highlights the importance of that any measures to reduce childbirths must be accompanied with investments in improving not only women’s access to reproductive health services but also their overall rights and living conditions.

The exact design of a “reverse child benefit” system remains to discuss. In general terms I suggest that the system should be world-wide in coverage but financed by rich countries only, thus also contributing to overall global equity. From a relatively young age, women could receive a monthly amount until they give birth to their first child, and then a smaller amount until they get their second child. This would of course not rule out that some who receive the benefits until 25 or 30 years of age then, nevertheless, end up having several children after that. Postponing first childbirth, however, in any case tends to lead to fewer children and slows population growth.”

What do you think? – Continue the discussion on TOP!

Anders Sirén is a biologist, geographer and PhD in rural development studies, based in Finland and Ecuador. His research has focused particularly on people and renewable natural resources in the Amazon basin.


For Swedes/Scandinavians: more debate in Aftonbladet, a response, and reply by Anders

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22 thoughts on “Why we must become fewer people and consume less – and suggestions to improve the situation

  1. Trying to avoid logical contrivances, ideological idiocy and cultural bias so as to convey a compelling, objective understanding of what could be at least one root cause of the Global Predicament that continues to unfold without a sensible collective response from the human community. https://countercurrents.org/2021/06/human-population-activity-the-primary-factor-that-has-precipitated-a-climate-emergency-biodiversity-loss-and-environmental-pollution-on-our-watch/ “People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.”
    –Ralph Waldo Emerson

    1. If Homo sapiens is to survive or emerge from an ecological bottle-neck looming on the horizon in a scaled down and better form, the kind and extent its food production/distribution capabilities must respect the biophysical limits of earth (i.e. human limits, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16393640 and earth’s limitations, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15579401). This requires a different and better system for producing, distributing and controlling the total food supply for human consumption. It is something that will have to be done sooner or later if there is to be a future of life as we know it within a planetary home fit for habitation by large and small creatures of the evolving ‘web of life of earth’.

  2. Thank you for a useful and well-crafted article. You write about some comments about it, including the thought that the proposal of financial penalties for having multiple children “would be coercive and unethical”.

    I think it’s time to talk frankly about ethics. An excellent case can be made that not acting in response to irresponsible individual behavior is, in itself, not ethical behavior, and bad behavior. We have an obligation to act, and to not have the human species run riot. Reproducing irresponsibility is dangerous. Most people that I know believe that this insane population growth is ruining the human species, but this belief can be contested. However it’s an empirical fact that the human population is now mangling the planet’s biosphere, and is killing off a very large number of the species on the planet. And effectively ruining nature’s laboratory of “life creation” on Earth.

    An example of ethics: Say that there is a small community of people, maybe 200, living in an isolated area. They have a town well, and they find that someone is poisoning their well’s water. And he won’t stop doing this. Is it unethical to take direct action (including humane coercion) to stop him from continuing to poison the well? I say taking action is proper. Good ethical behavior looks both ways.

  3. There is little mention here of ending the double standard in sexual and reproductive health between richer and poorer people. Yes, we should allocate more funds to this important issue, but they should go into the excellent family planning programmes being run by internationla and national bodies, including many non-governmental organisations. They are handicapped by low and irregular funding. Let’s start by doubling the money for the UN Fund for Population (UNFPA).
    Have a look at my book, “Children by Choice?” on Amazon. The ebook is reduced to just 99p/ 99c this week.

  4. Sharing money as proposed will lead to increased economic activity in poorer countries, and as more and more people escape from poverty, they will consume more. Nobody in the western world will be able or willing to deny this right to others. But let’s assume that people in the western world would consume less in order to make consumption growth elsewhere possible without further burdening the earth. Let the richest half billion world citizens halve their consumption from let’s say 100 units to 50 units an let the other 7 billion double their consumption from let’s say 10 units to 20 units in 2050, as their number has increased to 9 billion people. Then total consumption would increase from ½ x 100 + 7 x 10 = 120 billion units to ½ x 50 + 9 x 20 = 250 billion units. Consuming less in rich countries isn’t much effective on a world scale. A fairer distribution as illustrated by the calculation would lead to 70% increase of consumption in an already overburdened world. As long as emerging countries such as China and India are working towards the consumption pattern of rich countries this will exacerbate the global situation.

    1. Jan, you make an extremely important point. It’s only strengthened when we realize that there is no support in the developed world for cutting our consumption in half. I mean, none. Zero. Even self-identified environmentalists don’t want to do this.

      What I take from such calculations is that the truly sustainable population of the Earth is much lower than the current 8 billion, maybe 1 or 2 billion. With that size population, most of the world’s people might be able to live in the comfort of middle-class living standards current in the developed world.

      As long as we are dragging 8 billion people around, or anything close to it, things will just keep getting worse, environmentally speaking.

      1. Philip, I know people who are willing to cut their own consumption significantly. I am one of them. I know people who choose or prefer to work part-time and have less money and more time, or to stay at home while their partner works. I also sometimes get letters from people, strangers, who are very unhappy in their lives and wish they could live more like they think I do (nature, mountains, etc). Our social pressures are so strong that most never do, but there’s huge potential there. I wish you weren’t so dismissive.

        Recently, Greta has appeared on the cover of Vogue while at the same time saying she doesn’t buy new clothes. I think signals a pretty major shift – of course Vogue will still promote new clothes, but the alternative is suddenly cool. Look at the tiny homes movement for another example. Some people don’t want to be slaves to a big house.

        At certain points in history, moderation becomes desirable, aspirational (look at Christianity – mixed record on that, but it was definitely a recurring part of the deal). Also, it doesn’t need to be entirely voluntary – the same way we can nudge people towards having less children, we can nudge them towards less consumption. We could tax the rich, for example.

        You keep insisting that there is ZERO interest in reducing consumption. That’s like telling all the people who are working towards that and living that way that they are irrelevant. At this point I wonder: maybe you don’t want to cut your own consumption, and project that onto others?

        We don’t need a Western-style middle-class lifestyle to be happy. Lots of people are very unhappy in their lives and being overworked and surrounded by meaningless stuff and entertainment is part of it.

    2. I can not quite understand the maths of your argument. Why would a re-distribution of income lead to a higher total consumption?

      1. It’s the P in the IPAT equation. If financial support by redistribution of money leads to a modest rise in affluence for a numerous P, this will seriously exacerbate I, i.e. the overall human impact on the earth.

  5. And the population will never be reduced to 1 or 2 billion in time to prevent the collapse of civilization by relying on voluntary population control. The only possibility ( and it is a very remote possibility) to reduce population in time to prevent the horrible deaths of billions due to wars with weapons of mass destruction caused by the lack of resources is coercive population control. At some point of time in the future the lack of resources will force humanity back to the Stone Age

    1. A realistic assessment. However, I think that ethically,we should be more concerned about the likely destruction of nature’s grand experiment with life in our planet biosphere. Poor nature … Back to the drawing board.

    2. Why would coercive meaures be more efficient than others? Is that just a feeling or is that judgement of yours based on any facts? In the latter case, please provide references.

  6. Stephen, coercion is counter-productive and bribery is not much better. Safe and effective family planning is the only approach that really works. Meanwhile we can all refrain from having our own children, and donate to programs to support others.

    1. Like it says in the article, people are already bribed into having children. Here in Italy, you get benefits, money, subsidised healthcare and schools (these two latter things I agree with).
      So we shouldn’t pretend we aren’t bribing people already. Stopping this bribery would be a good first step, perhaps sufficient, even.

      1. But raising children costs money and the benefits are to help with this and produce a healthy and educated generation for the future. If we seem completely anti-children I don’t think we are going to be very convincing. And I don’t think anyone makes a profit our of child benefits!

    2. “Safe and effective family planning” is of course necessary, but do you have any basis for concluding that it is sufficient? As far as I can see, the almost 8 billion people who live here are already more than enough to wreak havoc on Earth’s life-supporting systems. Providing economic incentives in order to make people act more in accordance with the common good of humanity is not a “bribe”.

  7. The reverse child benefit could also be in the form of additional pension for elderly support, although some may be against it for reasons including increasing retirement age, lack of trust in governments, and some may not even live to retirement age to see the funds. The problem with implementing this right now, whether it is distributed to the young or old, is that many governments don’t see the need to reduce population size.

    The article also raises an important point that the climate crisis is only a symptom of a larger environmental crisis that also includes loss of biodiversity, spread of toxic chemicals, and I would add, the spread of other types of pollution including plastic, noise and light. It seems to me that many governments (and ordinary citizens) overlook other environmental issues because of the tunnel vision that only the climate crisis is impacting humans. Which brings me to the point of the lack of empathy of humans for all living things on Earth. Why does everything have to benefit humans only for it to be of value? Perhaps this lack of empathy, selfishness and economic greed is why population growth is still not getting the attention it needs.

    As for consumerism, we now live in an age of social media “influencers” in which most of these influencers are essentially promoting consumerism products. Furthermore, once these influencers become big, they then release their own line of unnecessary products, exacerbating consumerism and the impacts it has on the environment. Those who are influenced by influencers don’t always know any better as many have not been formally educated about environmental problems, causes and their impacts.

    While reducing the population will reduce the impacts on the planet, consumer habits need to change as well and this should be introduced early on in life, such as in primary education (or even earlier) and continue throughout secondary education. Education syllabuses worldwide should incorporate environmental studies that give students an understanding of the different environments on Earth and how they work; environmental problems (including overpopulation); environmental solutions; sustainable living; planting; growing own food; and sustainable cooking. (Even just cooking – how many young people leave home not knowing how to cook!) It is important that the younger generation grow up with nature, not disconnected from nature.

    Perhaps if environmental studies was introduced early on in education, consumers can make better informed decisions on reduced and sustainable consumption. I do think consumer habits are changing with people more aware of the environmental impacts as well as mental health (less is more, and materials do not always equate to happiness), but I don’t think these habits are changing fast enough.

  8. Barbara, there are many options to choose from. For example, you could give benefits for the first child, nothing for the second, and tax from the third or fourth onward (unless the third is a twin with the second). You can provide services (healthcare, school) instead of money. As for profiting, some countries are very generous with families all things considered. I believe, though I am not sure, that even being in a couple is somehow subsidized compared to being single, through tax breaks and several non-governmental discounts and promotions, which add to the benefit of sharing a house and expenses.

    These measures could be temporary, designed to facilitate a population reduction and reviewed periodically.

    Also, you could choose to give no benefits for very wealthy families – having a large number of children seems to have become a status symbol in the West!

    1. Exactly, there are many ways that one could design economic incentives in order to make (some) people to choose to have fewer children. The most optimal one can be designed only based on a large research effort.

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