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Consuming Passions


new internationalist
issue 235 - September 1992

Illustration by KORKY PAUL
Our investigator is stopped in her tracks by a group of experts who insist:
'It's quite simple. The Earth is our resource bank. So more people must mean
more consumption.' At which point a pungent rat suddenly crosses her path.

The more people there are, the more resources they will consume. This seems obvious - at first glance. But when I stopped to think about it, it was equally obvious that 15 people might not make any more impact than 10, if the 15 lived frugally and the 10 were big spenders. In fact, the ten might consume far more.

Paradoxically, fewer people could make more environmental damage than many people. The key lay not in numbers but in choice: how much each person chose to consume - and how much the world at large chose to enable that person to consume.

But surely, although hundreds of millions of people in the South are very poor, the sheer weight of their numbers would make their consumption catch up with the consumption of us few in the North?

Looking up a back issue of NI showed me that the North consumes five-sixths of the resources that are used and the South makes do with the remaining one sixth.1 And hold on - this doesn't mean that a person in the North consumes five times as much as a person in the South. 'The North' refers to a little over one billion people, and 'the South' to nearly four-and-a-half billion people. So each of the one billion people in the North must be consuming around 20 times as much per person as the South.2

This is really a remarkable ratio, now I come to stop and take it in instead of just reeling off the statistic. It means that 80 average Southerners are managing to live their lives consuming no more than my husband, my two children and I consume. So if how much we choose to consume of the earth's resources is what really matters, why all the fuss about population growth? The answer I have to face is that it is much less painful to tell someone else to stop having what they want (even if what they want is children, and that's all they have) than to face giving up some of the material goods we want. Especially when 'we' includes all of us in the North, not just the ostentatiously wealthy. We are not talking about giving up a mink-coat-and-Ferrari way of life. In terms of the global economy, almost everyone in the North is rich. As theologian Don Cupitt has pointed out, all of us live as, in the past, people imagined only gods could live, with the energy equivalent of hundreds of slaves available to us at the touch of an electric switch. All of us who consume so much will have to reduce our consumption levels dramatically - if we are sincere about preventing global environmental collapse.

Nonetheless anti-populationists prefer to frighten us with constant reminders of how many millions of people keep being born. For example, 97 million more people this year, 90 per cent of them in low-income countries; a billion more in the decade of the 1990s. 'A whole extra China'3 is how this expansion is described - and I hope this description isn't intended to trigger old racist fears in the North about 'the Yellow Peril'.

These huge numbers may tempt us to assume that the South will, in the near future, be consuming far more than the North and that population growth will therefore become the decisive factor in creating environmental damage, letting the North off the hook. We need to look at the population projections to check if the assumption holds firm.

By the year 2050, the UN reckons the population in the South may double to nine billion people, while the North is expected to grow very little. This large population will have a powerful impact on the local environment, intensifying problems like water shortages, so population growth is an issue that should not be ignored. Meanwhile the Northern population is expected to grow very little. If we stick to the 20:1 consumption ratio, this means that the North would still be consuming twice as much as the South.

The South's population would have to more than quadruple to reach 20 billion people before they consumed as much as a single billion people in the North. The key question must be: when does the UN expect that quadrupling of Southern population to happen?

The surprising answer is: probably never. The UN's projections suggest that the South's population will double or, pessimistically, may triple; but it is unlikely to quadruple. The size of the global population is expected to stabilize at anything from 11 to 14 billion people. Only one very gloomy forecast suggests that 20 billion might be a possibility.

I need to stop and drink this in: it is so different from what I had been expecting after listening to all the anti-populationist hype. If consumption rates stay constant, the South's consumption as a whole - despite a doubling or tripling of its population - will never catch up with the North's, much less overtake it.

And to this thought we should add another: this is despite the fact that the North consists of just 33 countries, while the South has 127.

So population size will probably never be as decisive as consumption. I wonder why I've never seen this calculated before, in all the mass of anti-population documentation that arrives. On second thoughts, I suppose that's like asking why conjurors want us to see only the cards they've laid out on the baize table and not the card they've slipped under their cuffs.

But of course it is not only the rich who want to go on consuming more of the fruits of the Earth. Poorer people would like to join in. What if the poor became richer, and were able to consume more?

The reality is that the poor are becoming poorer. Agro-economist MS Swaminathan calculated that in 1889 the ratio of real income per person in Europe, compared with a person in China or India, was just 2:1. But a century later, in 1991, the ratio has become 70:1, he reckons.4 And the 1992 Human Development Report says: 'The absolute differences in per capita income between the top 20 per cent and bottom 20 per cent of world population, expressed in 1989 US dollars, increased between 1960 and 1989 from $1,864 to $15,149. These disparities are reflected in real consumption levels.'

So the question 'what if the poor became richer' will remain academic, while the present world order dominates. The fiercer the flame lit by Northern industrialization, the starker the shadow it casts on Southern economies. For what fuels that Northern flame but human energies and planetary resources extracted from the South? To this process we must add debt repayments and boomerang aid. The injustices inherent in a deliberately skewed global economic system (known risibly as a 'free' market ) are well-known to NI readers, so I will restrict myself here to one memorable Latin American comment, courtesy of writer-diplomat Carlos Fuentes: 'Every Mexican baby is born owing $1,000 to a Northern bank.'

1 Environment and Development: Towards a Common Strategy for the South in the UNCED Negotiations and Beyond, South Centre - the Follow-up Office of the South Commission, (Geneva, 1991).
2 Experts will endlessly argue about the exact ratios - I've heard them vary from 7:1 to as many as 30:1. It also depends on different definitions of 'North' and 'South'. But 20:1 will do for the general principle we're pursuing here.
3 UNFPA State of World Population Report, 1990.
4 Environment and Development, (Tyler Prize Speech, 1991).

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New Internationalist issue 235 magazine cover This article is from the September 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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