New Report Ignores Leading Cause of Environmental Degradation in U.S. – Population Growth

Published on February 2nd, 2016

The Huffington Post reports that the 2016 Environmental Performance Index (EPI), compiled by distinguished experts at two ivory tower Ivy League institutions – Columbia and Yale – ranks the United States a lackluster 26th out of 180 countries. The 62-page report rates countries according to various indices of how well they conserve “ecosystem vitality” and nurture “environmental health.”

Unsurprisingly, America’s environmental performance falls far behind Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark. These enlightened social democracies virtually always finish atop the heap in every comparative international survey measuring “progressive” values and achievements. At least we ranked ahead of Azerbaijan (31st), Cuba (45th) and Somalia (180th).

What is even more disappointing than the USA’s undistinguished rank, however, is that these distinguished experts from atop their prestigious perches in two top-rated universities somehow completely overlooked the oversized elephant in the environmental room. You know, that little thing called overpopulation – a.k.a. bloated population size and/or rapid population growth – which just so happens to be the main driver of unsustainable environmental exploitation and degradation in the United States and around the world.

It’s not that the EPI doesn’t even mention “population,” because it does, by my count, some 67 times. But here’s a sampling of the context in which it is mentioned:

  • The burning of solid fuels is far more prevalent in developing countries and in rural areas where the population lacks access to modern cooking technology.

  • More than 3.5 billion people – half of the world’s population – live in nations with unsafe air quality.

  • More than 50 percent of the global population lives in cities, with another 2.5 billion projected to live in cities by 2050.

  • Good wastewater management is critical for nations facing the worst of climate change impacts along with rapid population growth.

  • Feeding the growing world population while minimizing nutrient loss and associated environmental damage will require a NUE [nitrogen use efficiency] of at least 70 percent.

Inverse relationship between wild animal and
human and domesticated animal populations.
Diagram by Paul Chefurka based on data by Vaclav Smil

The status of fish, wildlife and even tree populations is reviewed in the 2016 EPI, but nowhere does the report emphasize that it is large and growing human populations that are intensifying anthropogenic pressures on the populations of other organisms that share the finite Earth with us. At the risk of oversimplifying, only slightly, the bigger the human population, the smaller the populations of almost every other extant wild plant and animal on Earth.

The exceptions that prove the rule are what we term “weedy species,” which have hitched themselves to us and our settlements and include such notable success stories as house mice, Norway rats, cockroaches, crows, starlings, pigs and even the urban Aedes mosquito carrying the dreaded Zika virus that appears to cause microcephaly (undersized brains, skulls and heads) in the babies of pregnant mothers it infects.

In other words, the EPI may be a reasonable measure of how well countries that are rich and educated perform in protecting their environments, but this should by no means be interpreted as an indication of the relative magnitude of the “ecological load” each of these countries places on the biosphere. Neither is the EPI an adequate measure of ecological sustainability.

Ecological Footprint of Finland
Source: Global Footprint Network

For that, the Ecological Footprint is a more accurate indication of reality. According to the Global Footprint Network, in Finland, Iceland and Sweden – the top three countries in the 2016 EPI – the “biocapacity” exceeds the “ecological footprint,” meaning that each of these countries is living within its ecological means, or living sustainably in other words. This is in good part because each of these three Scandinavian countries has a relatively low population density, 41 people per square mile for Finland, 8 for Iceland, and 54 for Sweden.

However, the country in fourth place in the 2016 EPI, Denmark, has a much higher population density at 332 people per square mile. Look at the differences in the graphs depicting the ecological footprint and biocapacity of Finland and Denmark. The upshot is that in contrast to Finland, Denmark has not been living sustainably, at least not until very recently, because of its massive investment in renewable wind energy.

Ecological Footprint of Denmark
Source: Global Footprint Network

There is even a greater mismatch between the EPI and Ecological Footprint for Spain. The 2016 EPI rates Spain in sixth place, 20 places higher than the U.S., supposedly doing the sixth best job of all countries in the world at protecting ecosystem vitality and nurturing environmental health.

Ecological Footprint of Spain
Source: Global Footprint Network

Yet the most recent ecological footprint vs. biocapacity comparison for Spain paints a completely different picture. Spain’s ecological footprint is more than twice as large as its biocapacity, meaning that it is drawing down natural capital and living way beyond its environmental carrying capacity. Spain’s population density is 236 people per square mile, simply too high for its land and natural resources to support in a sustainable, ecologically sound manner.

Ecological Footprint of the United States
Source: Global Footprint Network

The U.S., with a large land area and abundant resources, but also a very high aggregate population and variable but relatively high overall population density (85 per square mile), coupled with very high per capita consumption of natural resources, is also living in a state of ecological deficit and debt, way beyond our ecological means, and way above our ecological carrying capacity, according to the Global Footprint Network.

Also of note, the worst performing of the 180 countries on the 2016 EPI are not only very poor but are also characterized by high population growth rates and/or density – and the social unrest and political chaos these often entail.

The lowest 10 countries are Democratic Republic of the Congo (171), Mozambique (172), Bangladesh (173), Mali (174), Chad (175), Afghanistan (176), Niger (177), Madagascar (178), Eritrea (179) and Somalia (180).

But one would never know these things if one relied only upon the 2016 EPI or The Huffington Post’s ecologically uninformed story on the EPI.

The lesson? Neither environmental scientists nor environmental reporters have a clue anymore when it comes to understanding the fundamental role of population size and growth in undermining ecosystem vitality and environmental health.

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