By Donella Meadows
–September 8, 1994–
There’s a general belief in this country that the global population problem exists Over There somewhere, or maybe Down South of our border. But certainly not here.
If we could see ourselves as the other 95.5 percent of the world sees us, we’d know that nothing could be farther from the truth.
U.S. family size is going up, from an average of 1.8 children a few years ago, to 2.1 now. That is the highest fertility in the industrial world. We are growing by 3 million people annually — the equivalent of a new Seattle, Atlanta, or Cleveland, every year.
Six million Americans become pregnant each year, one million of them teenagers. Half of all pregnancies are unintended. Half of those end in abortion. The U.S. has the highest adolescent pregnancy, abortion, and birth rates in the world.
We end up with 4.2 million births per year and.2.3 million deaths, making a natural increase of 1.9 million. Another million comes from legal immigration. Illegal immigration adds an unknown number that may approach yet another million.
Growing numbers, babies born to people who didn’t intend them and can’t care for them, out-of-control immigration — that’s one part of our population problem. The other part, as seen from the rest of the world, is our wildly wasteful consumption. It isn’t just the number of people that overloads social and environmental systems. It’s the number of people times the consumption per person. When it comes to consumption, America is a standout
We use twice as much energy and generate more than twice as much garbage as the average European — and 500 times as much as the average Ethiopian. We are 4.5 percent of the global population, but we burn 25 percent of the fossil fuels. In energy-consumption terms, our 2.1 kids per family have the environmental impact of 4.2 European kids, 6 Mexican kids, 13 Chinese, or 168 Bangladeshis. So who has the population problem?
The average new house built in the U.S. has nearly doubled in size since 1950, from 1100 to 2060 square feet. Two thirds of those houses have two-car garages. Only eight percent of the people on earth own a car.
Each American adult averages six hours a week shopping and 40 minutes playing with children. We have more shopping centers than high schools, and we spend more time in them by far than we spend in churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues.
We spend $20 billion on pets each year and $1.4 billion to impound, feed, house, and put to sleep unwanted pets. Ninety five percent of girls age 3 to 11 possess at least one Barbie doll. We can choose from 200 kinds of cereal. One-third of us are overweight. On average we each drink 186 quarts of soft drinks a year. An average teenager’s spending money is equal to the total annual income of the poorest families of the world.
In just 200 years, as our numbers and consumption have grown, we have wiped out half the wetlands of this huge nation, 90 percent of the old-growth forest, 99 percent of the tall-grass prairie and about 500 species of plants and animals (with 9000 more at risk). Every year we blacktop an area the size of Delaware (1.3 million acres) and lose a million acres of cropland to erosion. We pump water from the ground 25 percent faster than it is replaced.
From the point of view of the rest of the world, this frenzied consumption is not only deeply offensive and obviously unsustainable, but clearly insane, because it doesn’t make us happy. We own twice as many cars as we did in 1950, and drive them more than twice as far, but the fraction of us reporting that we are “very happy” has not changed. Sixty-nine percent of us say we would like to “slow down and live a more relaxed life.” Of Americans earning over $30,000 a year, 70 percent say they would give up a day’s pay each week for a day of free time. Of those earning under $20,000 a year, 48 percent would make that tradeoff. Three-fourths of American workers aged 25-49 say they would prefer a simpler society with less emphasis on material wealth.
What would you conclude, if you were the rest of the world, looking at a rich country whose high fertility comes primarily from pockets of poverty? A country whose accidental fertility comes primarily from a weird cultural combination of official puritanism (good people Don’t Do It and we don’t want to talk about it) and mass media hedonism (fashionable people Do It and Flaunt It, and if you don’t, there’s something wrong with you)? A country where people work harder and harder to buy more and more things they would never want, if billions of dollars weren’t spent on ads? At people who are draining the earth’s resources faster than anyone else, but who have no clue about how to turn their wealth into happiness?
It isn’t as though the rest of the world doesn’t have a population problem. It does. And so do we.
(Most of the consumption statistics in this column can be found, with sources, in a pamphlet called “All-Consuming Passion,” available for $2 postpaid from the New Road Map Foundation, Q.T.S., P.O. Box 15352, Seattle WA 98115. Phone 206-527-0437.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994