Friends’ Witness on Population and Overconsumption

Many Friends today are expanding their witness for equality and justice by focusing on rapid population growth and over-consumption as factors in the widening gap between haves and have-nots.

During the late 1950s, as world population approached the three-billion mark, many analysts were still giving a positive spin to the unprecedented proliferation of the human species. They painted rosy pictures of more sales, more jobs, and a vigorous economy, all driven by a regular large surplus of births over deaths.

Lately the outlook hasn’t been so rosy. The number of humans sharing the planet has more than doubled in only 50 years. Growing demand for public services is draining public coffers. Development pressures are accelerating the loss of agricultural lands and overtaxing freshwater supplies. It’s not just that some people are getting more than a fair share. With resources being depleted and more people (9.2 billion projected by 2050) making claims on those resources, what constitutes a fair share will keep getting smaller.

Until recently, global production of food, energy, and other key resources had been keeping up with population growth. Now per-capita consumption of grains, energy, and other basic resources is falling as poverty, hunger, and disease are becoming endemic in some areas. Alarming downward trends are being plotted for biodiversity and other planetary vital signs.

These developments seem to bear out the warnings of the catastrophic "overshoot" of Earth’s resources made by the Club of Rome, a team of ecosystem analysts, in the early 1970s. In their landmark book Limits to Growth they explained how unrestrained exploitation of finite resources can create the illusion of an endless bonanza—right up to the point where the system loses its ability to regenerate itself and crashes. That has already happened to ocean fisheries, as has been widely publicized.

Following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Friends Committee on Unity with Nature (now Quaker Earthcare Witness) formed a Population Concerns Committee to examine the interrelated issues of population and consumption through the lens of sustainability. They also sought to relate population issues to Quaker principles and teachings, particularly the testimonies of Simplicity and Integrity.

QEW’s focus on population and the environment began at a time when many secular environmental organizations had decided to limit their focus to technology, legislation, education, and institutional reforms. Sidestepping population has turned out to be a serious miscalculation, because no amount of conservation can reverse the pressure of the increasing number of people and resource-intensive technologies. For example, new laws and technology have reduced the pollution from car engines, but in many places air quality has worsened due to an increase in the number of cars.

The connection between population size and the environment is often expressed by the equation I=P x A x T, where the environmental impact (I) is the result of three factors: the size of its human population (P), the affluence or wealth (A) of that population, and the technology they use or the type of consumption they practice (T). This helps to explain why 300 million relatively affluent and technology-driven U.S. residents, representing only about 4 percent of the world total, are currently consuming about 25 percent of the world’s resources while generating about 25 percent of the global warming gases and other kinds of pollution.

Therefore, if we in the U.S. are to share the world’s resources more equitably while allowing other species and future generations to meet their needs, we have a dual obligation 1) to curb our excess material and energy consumption and 2) to limit our own population growth.

However, the "American dream" of unlimited personal opportunity and material progress echoes too loudly in our national consciousness for the imperative of walking more gently on the Earth to be framed solely as having to give up something for the greater good. We may be ready, however, for a better dream—a dream that invites us to slow down and rediscover simple pleasures; a dream that honors those who choose not to be parents and/or to adopt children; a dream that sees the paring down of possessions and living space requirements as progress; a dream that calls us to rebuild the bonds of family and community life and restore our connection to the natural world; a dream that gives us more time and energy for the life of the Spirit.

The bonus is that if we undergo such a shift in national consciousness, it will tend to moderate our consumption, and our overall environmental impact will go down. Our approach to life would look more like that of most Europeans today. Note that many European countries are concerned about the long-term effects of falling birth rates: increased immigration from high-birth-rate countries to augment shrinking labor pools, plus the financial strain of decreasing ratios of workers to retirees. This shows that population is a complex issue that calls for an informed and compassionate response.

QEW has published several pamphlets and a book about population and consumption issues. Its staff and supporters have led many workshops and interest groups on this topic at various yearly meetings and at the Friends General Conference Gathering. Now it is taking on something more concrete. A new project called the "Men for Men" (M-4-M) Fund" has been established to assist Quaker Men financially who want a vasectomy to limit their family size. To learn more about this program, contact the QEW office at (802) 658-0308,

Below are several queries about population that have been adapted from the QEW pamphlet, Friends’ Witness on Rapid Population Growth:

  • If relieved of the burden of feeding, clothing, and housing an ever-growing population, what higher goals of human fulfillment would society be able to pursue?
  • How would we limit population to what the Earth can support? Where is the line between (dis)incentives and coercion?
  • How is family size an economic issue?
  • Which is more important—to reduce excess consumption in richer countries or to limit population growth in the poorer countries? How are both concerns vital to the future?
  • What is the spiritual basis of our desire to reproduce? How do we relate this to responsibility for the fate of the Earth?