Jason Weston

Human Beings Consume More than Their Share of Global Energy

As we near the close of the 20th Century, the state of health of the Planet Earth and its people is deteriorating. Health indicators of the world’s poor (the majority of humanity) have stagnated or, in many cases, declined. Meanwhile, environmentalists and economists have debated the role of the global economy in the deterioration of the world’s natural systems. To protect the health of both people and the environment, it is important to understand how the health of populations, the health of the ecosystem, and the forces of the global economy are interrelated. We need to recognize how the individual economic choices of the world’s wealthy class drive the global economy and, directly or indirectly, affect the health of all.

Net primary productivity (NPP) is defined by ecologists as the amount of energy captured from sunlight by green plants and transformed into living tissue. The NPP is the base of all food chains and is the energy that powers all of nature. Donella Meadows of Dartmouth College points out that human beings, one species of millions on this earth, consume about 40% of the land-based NPP. What we take from the ecosystem deprives other life forms in a competition that most species are losing.

Overgrazing the Global Commons

Some of the best documented examples of the colossal environmental impact of this “human overgrazing” include global warming, the hole in the ozone layer, topsoil degradation, species extinction, loss of tropical rainforest, and depleted fisheries. By consuming a vast 40% of the world’s NPP, humans are leaving too little for the natural world to maintain conditions for the long-term well-being of the ecosystem.

Tragically, most of our enormous consumption is not used to meet people’s basic needs, which for millions remain unmet. A disproportionate amount is used to feed our top-heavy economic system which is increasing poverty and undermining the ecosystem at an alarming rate. In time, even the winners at the global casino will become losers. Wealthy people are as dependent on a viable ecosystem as is every other life form. If humans and nature are to have a future of any quality (or any future at all), our species must find ways to consume considerably less of the NPP.

However, there are 3 significant barriers to reducing the human share of the NPP, each of which contributes to a vicious cycle of human overgrazing and poverty. These are 1) an economic model that demands continual growth, 2) maldistribution of resources and Third World debt, and 3) over-population.

1) Economic Model that Demands Continual Growth

If economics were unrelated to the extraction of materials from the environment, continuous economic growth might be feasible. However, economic activity is closely tied to the environment. Joe Dominguez, a former Wall-Street analyst and environmentalist, pointed out that money is a lien on the earth’s resources. In other words, each dollar a person has gives them the right to consume planetary resources in the future. Thus economic growth, as commonly pursued, implies increasing the human share of NPP. Ecological indicators show that this adversely affects the health of the ecosystem.

2) Maldistribution of Resources and Third World Debt

The second barrier to reducing the disproportionate and unsustainable human usage of the NPP is the maldistribution of resources, and the Third World debt. It is important to consider where the 40% of NPP that humans consume is going. The “champagne glass” diagram on this page shows the skewed distribution of global income. Twenty percent of the world’s people are consuming more than 82% of the resources, leaving the vast majority of people with far too little. The big losers are the world’s poor, especially children. As the world’s wealthy continue to demand economic growth and an ever-higher standard of living, shortages become more severe for the over-stressed ecosystem, and for the large sector of humanity that already does not have enough.

Inequity is Increasing Both Within Countries and Between Them

In 1979, there was a net flow of $40 billion (much of it in the form of loans) from the rich countries to the poor. In the 1990s more than $50 billion per year flows from poor countries to rich. Meanwhile, the debt in underdeveloped countries has continued to grow. The effect on children’s health has been catastrophic.

UNICEF stated that:

It is children who have paid the heaviest price for the developing world’s debts. Fragmentary evidence … has shown a picture of rising malnutrition, and in some cases rising child deaths, in some of the most heavily indebted countries of Africa and Latin America.

On the average, a person living in the US uses more than 500 times the energy used by a person living in Ethiopia.

The widening gap between rich and poor has been accelerated by structural adjustment programs (SAPs) imposed on debt-burdened countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as the policies of the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Structural adjustment policies, imposed on poor countries to bail out the rich countries and their banks after they made irresponsible loans, have hurt the poor in a number of interrelated ways:

  • By lifting price controls while freezing wages, and by devaluing the local currency, SAPs have diminished purchasing power. This reduces the ability of poor families to buy food, health services, and other basic necessities.

  • The social programs that were introduced to protect the most vulnerable groups (such as feeding programs for underweight babies) have been sharply scaled back, at a time when falling wages and rising unemployment make the need for them greater.

  • Gearing agricultural production toward export rather than domestic consumption has created scarcity of local foods that drives prices up.

  • As with NAFTA and GATT, Structural Adjustment undermines the ability of poor people to take care of themselves. US economist John Kenneth Galbraith describes the debt crisis as an “astounding process of impoverishment of the poor for the sake of further enrichment of the rich.”

3) Overpopulation

One way to halt further increase in human (NPP) consumption would be to slow down growth in the number of human beings. But by what method? According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “Nearly all Northern countries that have achieved population stabilization have done so through promoting better quality of life rather than explicitly trying to reduce population growth.”

Poor people tend to have many children when their basic needs are not assured. For many socially disadvantaged families, having many children is an economic asset, providing the security that society does not deliver. In both rural and urban areas, children contribute to family income from an early age, and provide support and care in times of parental unemployment, sickness, and old age.

In countries with a commitment to social equity, in country after country, birth rates have fallen. Consider Cuba. With a per capita GNP of about 5% of that of the United States, Cuba maintains as good health standards as the United States, and lower birth rates, even with the US embargo undermining its economy. Meanwhile, in many countries wealthier than Cuba, but with enormous inequities and few social guarantees (such as universal health care, education, and basic nutrition, as provided by Cuba), birth rates remain high despite a strong government push for family planning.

Still, I often hear my First World friends say “the world’s poor simply must stop having so many babies.” It is true that poor people consume a portion of the NPP, depriving the rest of the Earth’s inhabitants of their fair share. However, on the average, a person living in the US uses more than 500 times the energy used by a person living in Ethiopia. We must therefore be hesitant to blame the poor for human over-consumption of energy.

Humanity must strive for balance between human need and the needs of the ecosystem upon which all rely. We must seek balance between those who have too much, and those who have far too little.

When considering stress on the environment, the effects of population size cannot be isolated from consumption rates. (Population size x per capita consumption rate = net impact on environment.) In view of this understanding, the organization, Zero Population Growth, says the United States of America is the most overpopulated country in the world. (It is interesting to consider that, while the world’s majority poor are dying of diseases of poverty, such as dehydration secondary to diarrhea, the world’s rich are dying of diseases of affluence, such as obesity and heart disease from eating, smoking, and drinking too much.)

To protect the future of humanity and the planet, the questions that must be asked are not how to expand the economy, or how to force or coerce poor people into having fewer children, but how to find balance. Humanity must strive for balance between human need and the needs of the ecosystem upon which all rely. Likewise, within the human species, we must seek balance between those who have too much, and those who have far too little. To achieve this, we must learn to distinguish between “standard of living” and “quality of life.” Contrary to the gospel of the advertising industry, once a certain threshold of basic needs has been met, owning more things does not necessarily improve the quality of life. Many of the things in life we value most—a walk in the park, a conversation with a friend, or love for another—use few resources and have no price-tag: None of the most valued aspects in life are enhanced by having more. Quality of life can be enhanced by choosing a “low-consumption, high-fulfillment” lifestyle, thereby leaving more for those who need it most and contributing to a healthier humanity, and a healthier environment.

Martin Luther King said that “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Yet it is clear that this is exactly what needs to occur. Humanity must design and implement a balanced economic model that addresses the needs of the ecosystem and sustains the well-being of all people. If, after these obvious imperatives are met, there is enough to indulge some human luxury, let’s share it. As a first step, we must personally try to live sustainable lifestyles, and encourage othersto do likewise.