The ultimate cause of environmental degradation is consumption. Consumption of land, water, plants, animals, fossil fuels and precious metals all have direct and measurable impacts on the environment in far too many ways to even list. The two primary contributors to consumption are life style and population, i.e. how strong (life style) and how many (population) are consuming resources. Both life style and population should be considered proximate causes to environmental degradation.
The appropriate framing of the issue of human-driven degradation of the natural environment is consumption. Reducing human-driven degradation requires adjusting the life styles of those who consume at levels many times above the world’s average, i.e. you, me and another 1 billion people in developed countries. At the same time, reducing human-driven degradation requires efforts to reign in the exponential population growth occurring primarily in the developing world, in large part because those populations are aspiring to attain our consumption-based life styles.
For those of us in developed counties to promote the proximate cause of population to the headline issue is misdirected and smacks of a toxic mix of hypocrisy and imperialism, because doing so deflects attention away from the outsized environmental impacts produced by my below-average-sized family.
Alternatively, promoting consumption to the headline issue and discussing the proximate causes of life style and population on equal footing is both correct and honest. This approach makes it clear that we, as members of the not-growing developed world, are largely responsible for the current rate of human consumption and have to adjust our life styles accordingly if sustainable levels of consumption are to be obtained. From an ethical perspective, a framing that starts with consumption makes it clear that we are asking something of ourselves (the “haves”) and not just something from others (the “have nots”).
There many facets to consumption, and all are damning of the developed world. If we gave all 7.15 billion of us an equal share of the Earth’s land, we would all get about one acre — and that leaves nothing for the natural world we wish to protect and preserve. How many of us are responsible for the over consumption of land for our homes, the roads we use, the building we work in, and the agriculture needed to produce our food? It is even worse with carbon. The average person in Niger produces 0.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year; this is equivalent to burning 10 gallons of gasoline per year — stated another way, many of us will consume more carbon on a quick, weekend getaway than a person in Niger will in an entire year. That person in Niger will leave behind, on average, 3.5 descendants, many of whom aspire to make leisure weekend drives a part of their routine life.
Consumption is the two-sided problem of life style and population, each side must be addressed in an even, equal, and forthright manner.