Population and consumption trends are worrying with respect to the environment. If I had to pick between the two, I would say that consumption represents the bigger challenge. At the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994) there emerged a consensus on win-win strategies that address women’s empowerment, poverty alleviation, reproductive health and family planning. There is very little controversy about this strategy, and with relatively modest investments population programs can reach couples who would like to limit fertility.
The challenge of consumption, on the other hand, is far more difficult.
There is no consensus on desirable levels of consumption, or even what “sustainable consumption” looks like. In fact, corporations and politicians have every incentive to promote the consumption of environmentally damaging products such as cars and other consumer durables, and in developing countries tastes are changing with rising income such that diets are increasingly rich in meats and reliant on industrial agriculture. Furthermore, since the greatest increases in consumption are occurring in rapidly developing countries that have hitherto been deprived of the benefits of being part of the global consumer society, it makes developed country advocates look hypocritical when they lament such trends. Indeed, it seems to me few environmentalists make many concessions in their personal consumption patterns, be they patterns of personal (or professional) mobility, diet, or housing. Thus, I would say “consumption” and how to deal with it is at the heart of the current sustainability debate, and many of its core concerns strike dangerously close to home.
Alex de Sherbinin is a Senior Staff Associate for Research at the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), an environmental data and analysis center within The Earth Institute at Columbia University specializing in the human aspects of global environmental change. He serves as deputy manager of the NASA-funded Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), and also serves as co-Coordinator of the Population-Environment Research Network (PERN), a global network of 2,000 social and natural scientists researching population-environment relationships that is sponsored by the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP). He is also chair of the CODATA Global Roads Data Development Task Group, and a co-author of the Environmental Performance Index (EPI).