Do first worlders consume too much?


Mark Sagoff writes in a June 1997 Atlantic Monthly article that the rising tides of technology, efficiency and enlightened self-interest are collectively lifting humanity toward a truly sustainable economy.

The allegation that Americans and other first-world citizens consume “too great” a proportion of the world's resources fires the general imagination. Opinion, ranging from popular to the academic, maintains that Americans and citizens of other industrialized countries not only consume too great a percentage of the world's resources but, more important to the population control debate, threaten to exhaust the planet's allegedly nearly exhausted supplies of essential resources.

“Globally, each additional American has a disproportionate impact on the world's environment because of our unsustainable levels of resource use, pollution, and waste production,” [1] declares the self-appointed “U.S. Sustainable Population Project.”

Indeed, US population growth is “particularly troubling,” according to these anti-natalist prophets, in light of the allegation that “the US has already exceeded its long-term sustainable carrying capacity.” [2] But are such dire predictions well founded? Do Americans in fact, as a recent popular song typifies, consume too much of the world's already diminishing resources?

Resources not being diminished

No, says Mark Sagoff, a research associate with the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland and author of the book The Economy of the Earth. In fact, Sagoff states in a June 1997 Atlantic Monthly article [3] that the rising tides of technology, efficiency and enlightened self-interest are collectively lifting humanity away from the gross consumption of the world's resources and into a more targeted and, ultimately, truly sustainable economy.

Sagoff outlines “misconceptions” or myths about the relationships between first world consumption and the supply of three essential resources: raw materials, food, and timber, and energy and fossil fuels. He also makes a case for the industrialized nations, mostly located in the Northern Hemisphere, to participate more, not less, in the economies of the Southern Hemisphere as a way of influencing those societies to better husband their resources.

According to Sagoff, “[r]aw materials—including energy resources—are generally more abundant and less expensive than they were twenty years ago,” when Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford University, first predicted global doom from declining resources.

“When Ehrlich wrote,” Sagoff notes, “economically recoverable world reserves of petroleum stood at 640 million barrels. Since that time reserves have increased [emphasis added] by 50 percent.” Reserves have held steady, he also notes, despite rising consumption and falling prices, leading the World Energy Council to declare that the fears of 20 years ago about a global energy shortage have proven “unfounded.” Similar success stories can be found with other raw materials as well.

Technology a rising tide

Sagoff credits technology, efficiency and resource replacement with the shift toward using less of everything. Exploring for oil used to be more “hit or miss” until seismic wave technology allowed companies to pinpoint where oil reserves are before they spent money drilling. Likewise many other industries have taken the pressure off resource supplies by finding ways to substitute materials found in greater abundance for those more scarce.

These trends, Sagoff notes, have combined to make industrialized societies generally more efficient about how they use raw materials. These innovations promise to continue, he says, as markets demand technology that is lighter, faster and less expensive than that which proceeded it.

Similar tendencies have had a dramatic effect on world food supplies. Using the United Nation's medium range forecast of 10 billion people in the next century, Sagoff observes that the world already produces enough food to feed 10 billion people a vegetarian diet and already has the technology to supply them a so-called “first-world” menu. “Farmers worldwide could double the acreage in production,” Sagoff writes, “but this should not be necessary. Better seeds, more irrigation, multi-cropping and additional use of fertilizer could greatly increase agricultural yield in the developing world, which are generally only half those of the industrialized countries.”

Further, Sagoff asserts, technology in better water delivery systems and drought-resistant plant strains is steadily making the use of fresh water more efficient in parts of the world where a lack of fresh water limits agricultural progress.

Sagoff also points out, however, that improving technology and other industrial means will not address the root causes of hunger in today's world: poverty, trade barriers, corruption, mismanagement and social ills related more to political economy than to population pressures. “The amount of food in world trade is constrained less by the resource base than by the maldistribution of wealth,” Sagoff writes. In fact, Sagoff agrees with economist Amartya Sen, who has pointed out that focusing on population control as a means of eliminating hunger actually impedes work being done on real hunger eradication. Millions of people throughout history have gone hungry in the midst of plenty because they lacked the means of acquiring the food.

Similar developments have revolutionized the timber industry around the world and seem likely to continue to do so. Sagoff cites the work of Roger Sedjo, a forestry expert, who has said that “advances in tree farming, if implemented widely, would permit the world to meet its entire demand for industrial wood using just 200 million acres of plantations—an area equal to only five percent of current forest land.”

Further, Sagoff asserts, it is precisely the advancements in technology and efficiency which promise to help further stabilize the world's environment by continually reducing the levels of pollutants and enhancing natural means of addressing seemingly intractable environmental problems—without demanding that anyone participate in the global population control movement to do so. The key is in allowing the technology to move more easily between the industrialized Northern Hemisphere and the South.

Arguing against Paul Ehrlich and others' call for “a small economy for a small earth,” Sagoff quotes Jose Goldemburg, former Economics Minister for Brazil: “In developing countries . a no-growth economy `will deprive entire populations of access to better living conditions and lead to even more deforestation and land degradation.'”

First world responsibilities

However, Sagoff does not let the industrialized world completely off the hook either. He attacks in particular the protectionism and dumping in agricultural and other raw materials which simultaneously deprive developing nations of markets for their agricultural commodities and undercut their domestic markets for same, pointing out:

It might be better for the environment if the North exchanged the crops for which it is ecologically suited—wheat for example—for crops easily grown in the South such as coffee, cocoa, palm oil and tea. Contrary to common belief, these tropical export crops—which grow on trees and bushes, providing canopy and continuous root structures to protect the soil—are less damaging to the soil than are traditional staples such as cereals and root crops. Better markets for tropical crops could help developing nations to employ their rural population and to protect their natural resources.

Sagoff uses the sugar industry in the United States as an example of how US economic policies have a disastrous impact on some of the very nations where the US government is pushing population control. The US government has protected its sugar industry from competitive imports since 1796, resulting in an industry that Sagoff maintains makes “little sense” economically or environmentally.

When the US tightened its sugar import restrictions between 1977 and 1987 (from 6.2 to 1.5 million pounds annually), Sagoff maintains that the Dominican Republic and similar nations “experienced political turmoil and economic collapse” as one of its key export markets declined precipitously. Ironically, citing the estimate of a “sizeable emigration” of Dominicans to the United States, the US Agency for International Development's (USAID) fiscal 1998 budget request for the Dominican Republic sets aside 39.4 percent of the nearly $10 million budget for population control. [4] How much more efficient might it be to allow Dominicans to grow sugar for export to the United States and perhaps decide on their own to remain at home?

Bottom line optimism

At the bottom line, Sagoff provides ample evidence that, contrary to the population control fallacies, industrial and technological trends in the developed world will ensure that human resource needs remain well within available supplies from now into the foreseeable future. The challenge, Sagoff maintains, will be to allow the growth in political economies capable of harnessing these trends in both the developed and developing world.


  1. The US Sustainable Population Policy Project, “Project Rationale,” Back to text.
  2. Ibid. Back to text.
  3. Sagoff, “Do we consume too much,” The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 279, No. 6, June 1997 80-96. Back to text.
  4. US Agency for International Development, “Dominican Republic FY 1998 Program Summary.” Back to text.


Morrison, David. “Do first worlders consume too much?” PRI Review (Sept./Oct. 1997): 5.

Copyright © 1997 PRI

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