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Ethical Consumerism, Part 6: Population Growth

In an early GSP post, Sociopathy and Kindness, Part 2, I somehow got onto the topic of population growth. It’s a topic that’s worth revisiting because the key questions of how to control population growth and how to sustain future populations are both closely tied to ethical consumerism. I believe that these issues have also been distorted and exploited in the past and that some corporations continue to do so. First, a little history:

Over the last two centuries, population growth has played a central role in influencing how we live.

In 1798, as the [French] revolution moved towards its close, the political economist Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population, one of the most influential texts of Western modernity. Malthus was determined to show that any society governed by benevolist principles was doomed to poverty and misery. Human beings procreate as fast as their income permits, he argued. Therefore, any attempt to improve the general condition of society was demographically doomed. – from the book, On Kindness (covered in this post)

Malthus influenced a move away from “benevolence” towards developing countries with the horribly mistaken idea that increasing standards of living will fuel population growth. He actually could not have been more wrong. If society’s progress over the last two centuries hadn’t been largely based on imperialist and corporate exploitation of the developing world (or “Third” world as it was called until recently) then we wouldn’t have the planet-threatening population problem that we face now.

How to reduce population growth in developing countries

Besides the absolute essentials of schools and family planning resources, many agree that the best way to curb population growth is to improve life-quality in developing nations (which is where the population is most rapidly expanding). The positive correlation between a higher standard of living and smaller family size is well known; for example take a look at this 2015 UN report on world fertility rates, or this older UNESCO report.

The black line on the chart above, from the 2015 UN report, is the average global fertility rate (2.5 children per woman). A rate of 2 children per woman (i.e., 1 girl born per woman, on average) would keep the world’s population about constant. So our population is growing overall, but shrinking in Europe and expanding fastest in Africa and parts of Oceania and Asia.

An increase in living standard can curb population growth but it can also lead to a large footprint per capita. A child born in the Western world currently has a much larger carbon footprint than one born in India or Nigeria – and the same applies to land and water. To avoid everyone having Western-sized footprints, development in the rest of the world needs to be as sustainable as possible.

One example of how a Western footprint is larger. From this post on how to calculate the carbon footprint of appliances.

Ethical consumerism can curb population growth

What can we do? Since the two issues (Quality of Life and Sustainable Growth) are connected, the best way of contributing while you go about your everyday life is this:

Support sustainable products and companies that are helping to raise the standard of living in developing countries.

Naturally, this is where ethical consumerism comes in. No matter where you live on this lovely planet, you’re going to be buying products that come from developing countries. You need to look at two factors:

  1. How are workers treated? This can range from the extremes of slavery to positive community development.
  2. How sustainable is the item? This has impacts on both local and global scales.

In other words, you’re looking at the social impact and environmental impact, which form the basis of Green Stars ratings. I’ve discussed some of these impacts in previous posts: for example, coffee, chocolate, electronics, and palm oil.

To take a simple example, you could buy soap from a company like Alaffia (5/5 Green Stars) that supports schools and maternal care in West Africa, instead of Unilever’s Dove soap (1/5 Green Stars).

So, that’s how I look at the interplay between population growth, quality of life, sustainability, and ethical consumerism.

In Part 2, I’m going to take a look at how the fear of population growth is currently being exploited by certain corporations, who would like to take a course of action as short-sighted as the direction we took after Malthus.

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