Sustainable Population: A Necessary Element in Achieving the Sustainable “Good Life” in the U.S. and Beyond

Sustainable population

By Mike Hanauer

We Have So Many Choices

In science, there is a rule of thumb called the 20-80 rule which says that 20 percent of the underlying problems often cause 80 percent of the significant effects. To be successful in the longer term, we must choose carefully.

Because the United States severely aggravates so many of the world’s environmental problems, because of our responsibility to set an example for the world, and because this is my home, I believe we should place a significant emphasis on our domestic impacts. “Think Globally, Act Locally, Set the Example” may be the only strategy that can work in today’s world.

Reducing both our overconsumption and our overpopulation are vital to our ride toward sustainability. Where should we place our emphasis?

How Do We Choose From the Causal Two?

In many environmental and population circles, the traditional thinking dictates that the problem in developing countries is overpopulation, while in the developed world the problem is overconsumption. This oversimplification, that the U.S. has mainly a consumption problem, purveys easy, feel-good answers to many environmentally conscious individuals and organizations. Such feel-good answers are dangerous because they mask the enduring impacts of population growth. Let’s explore further.

In the developed world, per capita consumption levels are all within the same order of magnitude. Yes, in sections of Western Europe and Japan, levels are somewhat lower than ours, but not vastly different. On the other hand, most developing world consumption levels are between 0.5 and 5 percent of ours. This vast difference is not because these people recycle, use little plastic or don’t own an SUV – it is because they have no car, no central heat, no refrigerator, and maybe no house at all!

It is this lack of the most basic items, items which most of us believe every human should be able to have, which make up most of the consumption difference between the haves and the have-nots. In the developed world, even if every effort were made to cut frills and inefficiency, these basics still have us out-consuming a third world citizen by a factor of five to fifty.

Reasonable levels of consumption are not morally wrong - in fact most of us believe that they are desirable. We need to allow all the world’s citizens a reasonable lifestyle while at the same time heading toward sustainability. This will require more consumption for developing countries, a practical and therefore smaller reduction in consumption for developed countries, and population reduction over time for all. Population levels are critical and are too often overlooked.

Isn’t Technology Our Ace in the Hole?

Frequently, we believe that technology can solve any problem. The truth is that the greatest cause of new problems is techno-fix solutions to old problems. Even our present population growth was brought on by technology which prevented or cured disease and allowed large gains in food productivity (often by increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, and cruel treatment of farm animals). But, the most important fact here is that technology rarely produces lasting solutions, only additional difficult choices and tradeoffs.

An example is the solar or electric automobile. The batteries are polluting in production and disposal. The solar panels are polluting to produce, the power generated to charge the vehicle usually requires power plants - and we still keep gaining more cars.Technology usually provides many options, each of which has different side effects. Making a choice often requires selecting the lesser of a number of evils. Today, because of higher population levels, the NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) syndrome makes it nearly impossible to rationally choose – often none are really acceptable. Almost every choice involves leaving something behind in somebody’s or some critter’s backyard.

Population Size Matters Most to the Big Picture and Over the Longer Term

Even where new technology or reduced consumption might help, consider the following:

1. Population growth directly drives increasing overall consumption, but not vice versa. The existence of a person necessarily consumes resources, takes up space, and disposes of waste products. By accepting that “reasonable” levels of consumption are OK, we must bring population into the formula since each additional person has a much more significant impact on the ecosystem. When considering Earth’s most intractable problems, overpopulation actually occurs at a lower point with a higher standard of living.

2. Population growth creates problems beyond the impacts of excess consumption. Will just decreasing consumption have an appreciable impact on reducing the crowds at our national parks or our loss of open space? Can it alone halt the loss of direct political representation, the inability to find solitude or the reduction of stress or crime? How about our traffic or the lines at the mall? Can just reducing consumption stop urban sprawl, or keep our communities from raising taxes to continually provide more infrastructure, more services, and more schools?

3. Overpopulation has many additional social impacts as well. Wilderness, quiet, privacy and the need for occasional solitude are important to individuals in a civilized society. More than simply concern for an excessive “ecological footprint,” we need wild spaces and living space to nurture our spirit.

4. Pushing people together also perpetuates a loss of personal freedom. Just because we can live in a small cluster home, survive with more traffic, cope with more regulations or tolerate a government with a more diluted political representation, does not mean that we should. Don’t we want a quality of life for ourselves and our children that is much better than just tolerable?

5. Conflict and stresses are much more likely when people are pushed closer together. When we are in a denser environment, our neighbor’s actions have a more adverse impact upon us. We are forced to limit our actions with respect to the rights of others, to put up with losing some rights, or having additional regulations to enforce our rights. The balance becomes impossible to find.

6. Just reducing consumption will do relatively little over the long term to save the thousands of plant and animal species we are driving to extinction. Habitat loss, probably the biggest direct problem, is impacted by our individual ecological footprints. While reducing consumption will reduce the size of that footprint, the total habitat loss will only grow if population continues to increase. Much of the world’s habitat loss is greatly aggravated by U.S. population growth.

7. The symptoms of overpopulation are everywhere. Each will need to be confronted with analysis, committees, bureaucratic agencies, standards, regulations and funding. Relieving overpopulation will alleviate many other underlying problems and is actually easier and less expensive to accomplish if we just acknowledge its impact and make the effort to do so.

Overpopulation is not getting the attention it should. There are many organizations with programs aimed at reducing some aspect of consumption. Because many people choose to believe that dealing with consumption is the answer – they often don’t acknowledge that stopping population growth is a necessary component of the solution. Many of the most intractable global environmental problems, such as climate change and ocean pollution, are largely caused by the U.S. and the developed world. With per capita consumption levels likely to grow significantly worldwide, and likely to shrink only marginally here, the multiplier effect of each U.S. resident continually becomes ever more critical. One less person is more effective than virtually all of the frugality techniques combined.

Population Matters Most to a Practical Solution

Meat, fish, low-yield vegetables, shrink wrap, paper, autos, and personal computers are not morally wrong. The higher the population, the more personal choices we must lose and the lower the resulting quality of life. Just reducing consumption without bringing it down to third-world levels will do little to save our nation or our planet if we continue to downplay the impact of our overpopulation.

U.S. population is now at 330 million, growing by some 2.3 million per year mostly due to immigration. Census Bureau projections indicate that our population is likely to reach 400 million by 2060 if we don’t change course. Analysis from the Global Footprint Network notes that U.S. population is now over double a sustainable level. Attainable reductions in consumption will not do the job if we don’t also stop population growth.

We all want a truly sustainable world that can support a reasonable standard of living with reasonable levels of consumption for all. Overpopulation is important in itself. In the long term, stopping population growth is a necessary part of the sustainability equation. All environmental organizations need to incorporate the population connection into their programs or all will ultimately fail.

Visit for more perspective on the impact of US overpopulation. Visit for a sample letter you can customize to send to environmental groups. A short reply to fundraising emails noting your disappointment with their “we don’t talk population” stance can gain attention as well.

If environmental organizations and activists won’t keep the population issue front and center, who will?


Mike Hanauer has been a sustainability, climate change and population activist for over 30 years. He has served as coordinator of a local climate action organization, and has been co-chair of the New England Coalition for Sustainable Population, and chair of Zero Population Growth (ZPG) of Greater Boston. He previously served as Board Chair of He has also served as a Director on the National Board of ZPG.

[This article uses updated information from the Negative Population Growth Forum Paper, “Overpopulation and Overconsumption: Where Should We Focus”]