Limits, Tradeoffs, and Balance

Many environmental analyses and actions today are yielding results that are ethically flawed and undermine stated intent because of faulty reasoning that ignores factors of limits and scale.

Key contributors to these errors are:

  • Insistence that the basic laws of ecology do not apply to humans because we aren’t animals:
    Many uncritically assume our ability to effect technological change means we are no longer tied to the laws of ecology in which animals can exact a toll on a habitat and competitively displace other species. Biocapacity data and current extinction rates show this perspective to be gravely mistaken. 1
  • Failure to notice the ethical status of a practice can be dependent on the scale and context of that practice:
    For example, burning coal isn’t intrinsically bad. Rather, it’s bad for the environment given the scale of human use of fossil fuels and the impact that has had on the environment and global climate.

Once we acknowledge technology is not a magic wand that can erase our environmental impact and that scale and environmental context often determine the ethical status of a practice, we can begin to think clearly about tradeoffs in environmental ethics. Grappling with these factors is essential to thinking clearly about the full range of environmental tradeoffs we must consider in a democratic, pluralistic society.

The most basic (yet often ignored) equation that determines overall environmental impact is (population size) x (per capita consumption). This means the most basic tradeoff in environmental ethics is the tradeoff between these two factors. If some kind of environmental limit is acknowledged (e.g., total carbon emissions), a larger population size will require a lower per capita level of consumption in order to achieve a sustainable ecological footprint. Conversely, a smaller population will have the option of enjoying a relatively higher per capita consumption level while still achieving ecological sustainability. To illustrate, consider two real world examples: Norway and Japan. Norway’s per capita ecological footprint is about 25% higher than Japan’s, but Japan has 23x more people than Norway. The result is that Japan’s total ecological footprint is 22x larger than Norway’s (figures based on 2019 data).

What is the upshot of this? Do Norwegians consume too much? Is Japan overpopulated? Do the Japanese consume too much? There isn’t necessarily one right answer to these questions. The answer depends on how each respective nation collectively decides to balance these tradeoffs. One nation may decide to maximize its population, another its consumption, still another may pursue a balance. However, no nation can ethically decide to maximize both factors. High consumption paired with a large human population size will make it impossible to right-size a nation’s ecological footprint, achieve a nation’s Paris Climate commitment, or achieve any other enlightened environmental goal.

It is important for these considerations to make contact with the real world as much as possible. Crucially, we must remember our current context for making ethical environmental decisions is not a blank slate or a happy equilibrium – it is a crisis state. Consequently, every nation needs to deploy every ethical means to shrink its total ecological footprint. This entails addressing both human population growth and consumption. This means the countries with the highest total ecological footprint (e.g., the United States) have an ethical obligation to both reduce per capita consumption and slow or reverse population growth in order to right-size their impact as quickly and as ethically as possible. These considerations further suggest the countries with the highest per capita consumption (e.g., the United States) are by definition the most overpopulated.

1 Open Data Platform (footprintnetwork.org)