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It’s the Consumption, Stupid

J. Mijin Cha

Population levels will continue to increase, but consumption levels don't have to.

It’s getting crowded in here.

Last week, the world’s population officially crossed the seven billion mark, growing by one billion people in just twelve years. Yet another billion will be added by the late 2020s. The U.S.’s own population grew to over 313 million people and is projected to reach 400 million by 2039. Are there enough resources to provide for all these people? The answer is no, not by a long shot. But, the biggest strain on resources is not population growth. The biggest strain is consumption levels.

At the current rate of consumption, we would need the resources of two earths to meet our global demands. However, if global consumption was on par with American consumption, we would need the resources of five earths. Just last year, the U.S. consumed over 19 million barrels of oil per day. In contrast, India consumed just over 3.1 million barrels per day even though their population tops 1.1 billion people. (Still, India's oil consumption has grown by 50 percent in just the past decade.)

Yet, the high levels of consumption do not equate to higher standards of living. The U.S. consumes almost twice as much energy per capita as the richest countries in the European Union but lags behind in several quality of life indicators, including infant mortality, educational achievement, and longevity. Americans eat 815 billion calories of food per day, 200 billion more than needed. The result is a population where one-third of all adults are considered obese and substantially higher health care costs emerge to deal with the high levels of obesity.

The level of consumption in the U.S. is not just bad for our waistlines, it negatively impacts our economic potential and furthers our dependence on foreign oil. Surprisingly, the U.S. is one of the top energy producers in the world. We produced over 73 quadtrillion btu (units of energy) in 2008, three times the level of Saudi Arabia. Yet, because our consumption rates are so high -- over 100 quadtrillion btu in 2008 -- we end up importing energy at increasingly higher costs, which hurts taxpayers but benefits oil companies to the tune of over $32 billion in profits last quarter.

If Americans could decrease their energy consumption levels to that of Europeans, we would see a significant economic boom from being a net exporter of energy and our overall lifestyles would be more sustainable. Every household can decrease its energy use from small steps like lowering the thermostat in the winter and raising it in the summer, turning off lights in unoccupied rooms, and switching to energy efficient appliances to much bigger steps like downsizing to smaller, more compact housing and not buying gas-guzzling vehicles.We also need smart, long-term government policies that invest in large-scale public transportation projects and put a price on fossil fuel use that reflects its true cost.

Population levels will continue to increase but there is no reason consumption levels must follow. It’s time for us to go on a resource diet.