January 11, 2016

Best Ways To Reduce Consumption Also Most Controversial

Although they are good things, the planet needs more than changing to efficient light bulbs and
lowering the thermostat in the winter.

According to the UN, "today’s consumption is undermining the environmental resource base. It is exacerbating inequalities. And the dynamics of the consumption-poverty-inequality-environment nexus are accelerating." That sounds dire indeed. But wait, there is more.

"If the trends continue without change — not redistributing from high-income to low-income consumers, not shifting from polluting to cleaner goods and production technologies, not shifting priority from consumption for conspicuous display to meeting basic needs — today’s problems of consumption and human development will worsen."

Can individual action alone reverse the trend of increasing consumption? The answer to that question seems to be "no", although we can have great effect by voluntarily adopting simpler ways of living.

The idea of changing our lifestyles to sustainable levels of consumption is considered unthinkable right across the political spectrum. A most inconvenient situation that presently is best met by taking individual action. There are other important areas that need to be addressed as well.

One is the notion of infinite economic growth. As long as that is a societal goal, consumption will continue to increase regardless of how simply some may choose to live.

Another problem that has been lurking quietly in the shadows for decades, is population growth. As long as our population continues to grow, overall consumption will increase.

Over the weekend I visited a site that dealt specifically with consumption growth, notably, exponential growth. It is a concept that is impacting our world right now, and it must be addressed to avert disaster down the road.

Consumption Growth 101 recommends the following as actions that individuals can take that "will have a real impact":

1. Find and support a charity dedicated to preventing unwanted pregnancies throughout the world.

2. If you are young, decide to have one less child than you would otherwise like. Encourage others concerned about consumption to do the same.

"It's that simple," the site says, "and the impact on consumption reduction will literally be immeasurable."

We have been ignoring population growth partly because it is such a controversial topic. It is not the only one.

We will also need a radical restructuring of the global economy in order to operate without the expectation that growth can be infinite in a finite system. It is unlikely to resemble anything currently in existence, although early free market thinkers predicted it would have to happen eventually.

Unfortunately, none of these problems is going to be addressed any time in the near future. It probably won't happen in time to avert major global hardship. Such hardship, if you look around you, has already begun. And it is getting worse.

If all we can do right now is take individual actions to reduce our own consumption, then by all means we should be doing so. Yet another illustration of how any movement worth the change it asks for, has always formed from the bottom up. It is up to those of us at the bottom. We can be the leaders.

We can be the change. Live the change. Share the change. That is the only immediately doable solution to reducing consumption to a sustainable level starting right now. And since that will not be enough, we can work on attaining the other necessary parts as soon as possible.


  1. You always make me think more...

  2. If only the sollution to reducing "overpopulation" was that simple! It is far more complex and deeply rooted in cultural and economical issues. Rich westerners deciding to be childless or have one less child, will solve little to nothing. Pam in Norway

    1. Not just rich westerners - everybody needs to have fewer children. Actually, developed countries tend to have the lowest birth rate already.

    2. Anonymous1/11/2016

      Over population is at the root of ALL our problems. People with children seem too emotional about the subject to even discuss it rationally or logically. There are too many people on this planet...here in the west and all over there are just too many...period.
      I politley disagree with Pam...us rich westeners would do the planet a big favor if we were to have one less child.
      Awake in Amerika

  3. Anonymous1/11/2016

    I live in the US, in a very religious area. Based on what I've seen, those who are religious seem to have more children. I know many people (neighbors and relatives) that have 3 to 5 children. Each of these families is very religious. I realize this is just my observation and I mean no disrespect again religious people, but I wonder if churches are pressuring people to have large families and if so, why?

    I think there are a lot of tv shows and books that make large families seem fun. Think of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The large family was exciting and close and the one child family was cold and awkward. I think our culture in many ways encourages large families.

    My husband I have one child. We debated a second for quite some time. While there are many reasons we stopped at one, finances and a simpler lifestyle were definitely part of the decision. Contrary to what many people think, having one child is wonderful and lots of fun.

    1. We should consider the impact of having children before having them. The more children we have, the more difficult their lives will be. At some point people will have to consider that while doing their family planning.

      I like your endorsement of single-child families. I imagine even one keeps you busy.

  4. Thanks for this post! I don't know how I wasn't subscribed to this blog yet, looking forward to reading what I've missed.

    "Find and support a charity dedicated to preventing unwanted pregnancies throughout the world."

    Do you have any suggestions for charities? The overpopulation question has been on my mind since I read 'The Sixth Extinction' a couple of months ago and I've also been meaning to look into it.

    @Anon - I come from a Catholic background (my mother is one of six children), so for years and years after getting married all my folks would be asking me when I was going to have kids. There are a lot of times when I feel I would fit in much better if I had kids and even though I enjoy having more time to enjoy the simle things, there are definitely also times when that pressure weighs on me tremendously. I don't think it's the church, though, it's just part of the culture.

    1. I do not have any charities that I would endorse knowing as little as I do at present. What I do know is that such charities, and the idea of population control generally, are seen by many as misdirected and highly coercive.

      There is a lot of social pressure to have children, that Linda and I resisted. I understand it though, kids are magical, wonderful and great. But there are other ways to experience the wonder. I cherish the years I spent teaching, for example. There are lots of kids that lack the attention they deserve, and are just waiting for an adult volunteer to help them out.

      But when all our friends and family started having children, and we didn't, it was a little weird. We got over it.

  5. Anonymous1/12/2016

    Hey I've been reading your blogs for about a year! Very enjoyable makes me think more about saving and to avoid over consuming.

    1. Thanks for letting us know. We are honoured that you share your time with us here. Good to hear from you.

  6. Anonymous1/13/2016

    This topic is so important and contentious. I do understand those who want children, but if we could just get them to think about limiting the size of their families. I am contentedly child free and understand it's not for everyone. We really need to stress the impact of overpopulation on our planet as we once did. There are those in the crunchy community who do everything else to help sustain the environment, but still have multiple children.

  7. Anonymous1/21/2016

    What about encouraging infertile couples to adopt instead of doing IVF?

  8. Chiming in here long after this was first written. I missed this one when it was first posted. Excellent article. We can always count on you Gregg to write about the important things regardless of controversy. You approached the subject softly and kindly. This is a subject I feel passionately about.

    In response to charities, I am not advocating because I do not know the nuts and bolts of this charity, but one of the missions of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is to provide birth control to every woman on the planet who wants it. Their focus is in overly populated countries. This mission is very personal to Melinda Gates. She's done a compelling TED Talk on it. She starts the talk with, "Today I want to talk to you about a subject that should be an uncontroversial topic, but unfortunately, it's become incredibly controversial." She treads a bit lightly during parts of it, but her message is bold. There is a Q & A after she speaks. I invite you to watch it.


    Another charity some might choose to support is Planned Parenthood, an intensely HOT topic in US politics and society. I won't touch the subject of abortion here in this comment because it is so controversial. But I will say that my life would have had a vastly different outcome if Planned Parenthood had not provided me with FREE birth control pills, no questions asked, when I was younger. No parental permission was required back then. They also provided me with free women's healthcare. I am forever grateful to them. Not having children at a young age was probably the best decision I ever made and was probably the best gift I could give the planet by reducing human impact. Some would say, I was wrong for the way I responded to strong hormonal instincts. Ha! Try getting a mother bird to not feed her young, another strong instinct! I don't make judgements on survival instincts.

    Later, I had one daughter. Planned it. She is 32 now. She and her husband have decided to not have children. At first, I was a bit hurt because of the way the news was delivered to me. It felt like I would be missing something not being a grandmother. And I am missing that experience. Now, I look at it as when we don't get to do one thing, we get to do something else. Now, I'm in full support of their decision.

    Another action we can take: Due to budget cuts and some legislators who seem adamant on keeping free and low cost birth control from those who want need it most, some of our clinics that used to provide free birth control and healthcare to low income families have been axed. I know of a number of people who are facing the consequences of those cuts. Married people who did not want any more children and had them after the programs got cut. So here in the US and perhaps other countries, we can elect and support lawmakers who know the importance of providing free and low cost birth control to those who want it and can not afford it.

    Abstinence might be possible in an ideal world, but animal instinct powered by strong hormones will often win out. I'd rather rely on science and birth control to curb population growth.

    I had a birthday recently. Someone sent me a card listing what things were like the year I was born. The population in the US in 1957 was 171.3 million. In 2016 it is 322.1. So in 59 years, the US population has increased by 144 million people and we're a lower growth rate country. Staggering.

    Thank you, Gregg. This one is very important.


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