Readers of Climate & Capitalism debate the causes of damaging economic expansion. Do “more consumers” mean “more pollution”?
by Ian Angus
One of the most contentious debates among green activists concerns the responsibility of individual consumers for promoting greenhouse gas emissions and thus climate change.
In addition to the obvious question of whether changing individual behavior is an effective way to fight climate change, this issue is also a key factor in the debate on the relationship between climate change and population growth.
The claim that consumer behavior causes emissions growth is frequently made by advocates of population restriction: in essence, they argue that more people cause more emissions, so reducing the population will reduce emissions. A very similar argument is used to argue for limiting immigration to rich counties: immigrants, it is said, will adopt high-emission lifestyles, and so accelerate global warming.
Most ecosocialists would reply that individual consumers have very little control over greenhouse gas emissions, that consumption patterns are driven by an irrational system of production, not vice versa.
These issues have been discussed in several recent Climate and Capitalism articles:
- Women’s Rights, Population and Climate Change: A Debate
- ‘Population Justice’ — The Wrong Way to Go
- Should Climate Activists Support Limits on Immigration?
- Barry Commoner: The Illusion of Consumer Sovereignty
C&C readers who are interested in this important issue should check out the Comments following those articles. While the quality of individual contributions varies, the discussion as a whole provides valuable insight into the thinking on both sides of the “individual consumer responsibility” debate.
I found the following exchange particularly interesting, so I’m reproducing excerpts here, to make it easier to find and follow. The Comments appear in full after “Women’s Rights, Population and Climate Change,” in which Betsy Hartmann and Laurie Mazur debated the population issue.
“Very revealing is Mazur’s observation that it would be ‘easier to provide a good life – at less environmental cost – for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people.’ Implicit in this is a faulty assumption that poverty and environmental degradation are a function of population levels. Back in 1975, when world population was only 4 billion people, was it ‘easier’ to provide a good life, at less environmental cost, to the majority of the world’s people than it is today, when we have nearly 7 billion? Obviously not.
“The reason is that poverty and climate change are socio-political, not biological problems. Under a system of globalized capitalism, it doesn’t matter how many people there are on the planet; reduce the world to a billion inhabitants and there would still be unsustainable ecological destruction and enormous economic, racial, and gender inequality.”
“I do argue that that it would be ‘easier to provide a good life – at less environmental cost – for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people.’ But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of this is easy. Nor do I assume that that poverty and environmental degradation are a function of population levels. See, for example, my recent blog on Haiti: http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2010/01/20/is-haiti-overpopulated
“I certainly do not believe that a smaller world population is a panacea; it would not by itself usher in a new era of sustainability and equity. Nor am I naive enough to believe that slowing population growth is ALL we must do. Challenging the petro-military-corporate-industrial complex is the first order of business if we hope to survive as a species. This challenge is every bit as daunting as it was in 1975, the year Jeff White references.
“But other things have changed since 1975. The atmosphere is now full. We have surpassed the atmospheric concentration of CO2 that would preserve a habitable planet for current and future generations.
“Against that backdrop, consider the challenge of raising the standard of living of the half of humanity that now lives on less than $2 a day. We can hope that developing countries will steer a different course than the one we’ve followed, and ‘leapfrog’ over the most environmentally destructive technologies. But almost any scenario that accounts for economic growth in the developing countries means a vast increase in carbon emissions.
“China, for example, has per capita emissions that are much lower than those of the US or UK, but it has a lot more capitas. That’s one reason why China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.
“Indeed, the only scenario in which population size doesn’t matter for CO2 emissions is one in which the current inequitable divide between rich and poor countries remains fixed for all time. At best, that scenario is unrealistic. At worst, it is cruel beyond imagining.”
“Laurie Mazur commits the fallacy, common among the population fetishists, of presenting per capita emissions statistics as the primary driver of climate change. She says:
‘China, for example, has per capita emissions that are much lower than those of the US or UK, but it has a lot more capitas. That’s one reason why China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.’
“It starts with mathematical sleight-of-hand. Representing a country’s total emissions as simply the sum of all the per capita emissions helps to create the false impression that total emissions are a direct function of population.
“The fallacy lies in the fact that the total emissions must be known before you can calculate the per capita emissions. First you take the total emissions and divide by total population to get a per capita figure; to then multiply that figure by the total population is merely to reverse the calculation back to the original number you started with – total national emissions! It’s these total emissions that are the primary data; per capita figures are derived from the total, not the other way around.
“Per capita figures are statistical artifacts that tell us the ratio of a country’s total emissions to its population. But they don’t tell us about individual contributions to the country’s total emissions. For example, if I tell you that Canada’s annual per capita emissions are 23 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, it doesn’t tell you how much of that 23 tonnes I, as an average Canadian, am personally responsible for. It includes, for example, ‘my’ per capita shares of the emissions caused by the mining of the tar sands in Alberta, the manufacture of cement in Quebec, and the industrialized livestock production in Ontario – none of which I have any personal control over.
“If half the population of Canada suddenly disappeared, my per capita share of emissions, and that of every other remaining Canadian, would increase dramatically overnight, without any change being made in my – or anyone else’s – personal levels of carbon consumption. The population fetishists would realize their fondest wish (a dramatic reduction in population levels) while per capita emission levels would soar! What could demonstrate more clearly that per capita statistics tell us nothing about ‘overpopulation’?
“Canada’s per capita emissions are among the worst in the world. Does that mean Canada is suffering from overpopulation? On the contrary; Canada is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with about 3.3 people per square kilometre. Moreover, the current fertility rate of 1.66 babies per woman is far below the replacement rate of 2.1. Without immigration our population would decline. When it comes to carbon emissions and overconsumption, Canada’s problem is capitalism, not too many people.
“Mazur also makes the error of assuming that raising the standard of living of the half of humanity that now lives on less than $2 a day necessarily involves unsustainable forms of economic activity and growth. It doesn’t, unless you also assume that there is no alternative to profit-driven, capitalist modes of production.
“In fact, the whole population control movement is predicated on an inability to imagine a sustainable alternative to capitalist waste, greed, and exploitation. It seeks to find biological solutions to economic and political problems.”
“It is true that per-capita carbon emissions of each country are not a measure of personal responsibility for climate change. A measure that does attempt to represent that is a carbon ‘footprint.’ A person’s carbon footprint is the total carbon emissions caused by all of the goods and services they consume. Under this measure responsibility for Canada’s cement industry would not be heaped onto Jeff’s total, but rather the totals of the ultimate customers of that industry.
“The problem with this measure for Jeff’s repost to Laurie, is that while Canadians lose personal responsibility for their Cement industry, they gain personal responsibility for the carbon footprint of all the plastic tat that they buy that has been manufactured for them and shipped to them from overseas. If Canadian habits are anything like British ones (I am from the UK), then that is a hefty responsibility indeed.
“If half the population of Canada disappeared, then a lot less plastic tat would be made, and Canada’s carbon footprint would be dramatically reduced (not by half, to be sure, but a significant reduction nonetheless).
“My personal view is that we need to take responsibility for the consequences of our own actions. Carbon footprints help show us the environmental consequences of buying goods and services. They could also show us the environmental consequences of starting a family. Clearly there are many other extremely important things to consider, but they can be part of the decision. What is wrong with that?”
“Alex, it’s wrong to focus on the consumption rather than the production of goods. If I buy things made out of plastic or packaged in plastic, and consume those goods, my consumption does not create greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, the emissions associated with the goods have already been created by the manufacturer, before I ever get my hands on the product. They properly belong to the manufacturer’s carbon footprint, not mine.
“I do not personally have any control or influence over the manufacturing process or the packaging of goods. If manufacturers are profligate with fossil fuels and use carbon-intensive production methods, then the responsibility lies with them, not me.
“This is what the population-control ‘leftists’ fail to understand. By making environmental issues all about consumption rather than production, they simplistically jump to the conclusion that the environment can be saved by having fewer people around to consume manufactured goods. In other words, they completely let the manufacturers off the hook.
“They also swallow the fallacy of ‘consumer democracy’ – the idea that we as consumers can ‘vote with our wallets’ to force manufacturers into ecologically sustainable modes of production. It’s a fallacy born of a quasi-religious belief in the power of the marketplace to solve all problems, thereby avoiding the messy necessity to actually take political action to bring about the systemic, revolutionary social and economic change that will be required to allow humanity to live in harmony with nature.”
The discussion continues. Please feel free to add your comments below, and watch for more articles on this subject on Climate & Capitalism in the near future.