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How Do Overpopulation and Overconsumption Damage the Environment? What You Need to Know

Cody Peluso Oct 07, 2022

Overpopulation of the earth is a major problem on its own, but it also leads directly to other serious environmental impacts. One of those issues is overconsumption, especially of single-use products that damage the environment, slow the ability of the earth to renew its resources, and contribute to climate change.

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What Is Overconsumption and Why Is It so Bad?

Overconsumption is, simply, individuals consuming more resources than they need and that the earth can provide. This extreme behavior also prevents the natural renewal of resources due to the speed of consumption. It is particularly a problem in the global North, where the populace tends to have more money available for leisure and convenience.

This is not to say that nonbiodegradable consumables aren’t a problem in the global South, but the major offenders tend to be in places like the United States.  Especially dangerous to the environment are single-use, disposable plastic items like bags, cups, etc. These items do not break down in the soil, and they can prevent the earth from naturally replenishing its valuable resources.

The United States alone uses over 1 trillion disposable items related to food each year. These items can end up in bodies of water and cause damage to sea creatures as well as pollute the water itself. Large cities in the global North are the main source of the problem. Many of these cities have huge populations, and the concentration of people and wealth in a relatively small area is disastrous to the environment, as it leads to overconsumption quickly. According to one report, “The United States contributes more to this deluge than any other nation, generating about 287 pounds of plastics per person. Overall, the United States produced 42 million metric tons of plastic waste — almost twice as much as China, and more than the entire European Union combined.”

China, currently the world’s most populous nation, is one of the worst polluters in the world, behind the United States. As China’s economy has grown, so has the trend toward overconsumption. China has not done much to curtail the profligate habits of its citizens, and the country has some of the highest carbon emissions of any nation in the world.

Other nations are guilty of indulgence, pollution and overconsumption too. The tiny Middle Eastern nation of Qatar ranks near the top in the world in terms of carbon emissions per capita. Its citizens consume so much that, if their consumption rate was replicated all over the world, five earths would be required to provide enough resources to cover the consumption.

We don’t have five earths, we only have one, with 8 Billion people who will call the earth home by the end of the year.

Overconsumption and Overpopulation Exacerbate One Another’s Impact

Overconsumption is partly caused by the increasing population in many areas around the world. Larger populations require more food, water, and energy, and consequently tax the earth’s ability to replace used resources. Overpopulation depletes wildlife to dangerously low levels. Overfishing has ruined many formerly fertile fishing grounds. Increased use of agriculture displaced many wild animal species, sometimes resulting in their extinction. According to National Geographic, “by 1989, when about 90 million tonnes (metric tons) of fish were taken from the ocean, the industry had hit its high point, and yields have declined or stagnated ever since. Fisheries for the most sought-after species, like orange roughly, Chilean sea bass, and bluefin tuna, have collapsed for lack of fish. In 2003, a scientific report estimated that industrial fishing had reduced the number of large ocean fish to just 10 percent of their pre-industrial population.” The destruction of wetlands is particularly impactful, as their biodiversity is very high.

On the other hand, humanity’s growing population has introduced invasive species into areas where they can do serious damage to the environment. Species introduced into areas through human migration and travel often have no natural predators, allowing them to expand their numbers quickly. This may cause the depletion in population of other species in the area. Invasive insects can damage native plants, while invasive plants can choke out other indigenous plant species. In places like New York, it is estimated invasive species, like the emerald ash borer, will kill off 1.4 million street trees by 2050. In fact according to the British Ecological Society , 90% of the 1.4 million trees deaths forecasted in the study are predicted to be caused by the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), which is expected to kill virtually all ash trees in more than 6000 urban areas. The ash borer can be tied directly to overconsumption and overabundant free-market policies, as the destroyer of trees arrived accidently on trade goods and cargo shipped from Asia to the United States.

A dead tree in a forest

Larger populations demand more resources of all kinds, and this includes the use of fossil fuels. Because fossil fuel technology is older and well-established, it tends to be cheaper than alternative sources. Some nations cannot afford the costs associated with cleaner, renewal energy sources.

Increased use of fossil fuels results in more carbon emissions and more environmental damage. This, combined with the inevitable process of deforestation that occurs in overpopulated areas, multiplies the effect of fossil fuel use, does additional harm to the environment, and prevents natural renewal of resources.

Overconsumption cannot be separated from overpopulation. If the world’s population became more sustainable—or our practices more environmentally-friendly—there could  be enough resources available for all humans to thrive.

But with an already-burgeoning population that will continue to grow for decades, the need to conserve resources is so great that even a small degree of overconsumption becomes a major problem. Reducing consumption across the world can help in the short term, but the long-term problem remains the rate of population growth. Let’s work on addressing these issues together, because no single problem is solvable if we go at them alone.