A couple of years ago, I wrote about the rebound effect in relation to green living and the threat it posed.
The term originally referred to a theory posed in 1865 that improving the efficiency at which energy was produced would reduce energy costs and as a result increase rather than decrease energy use. The theory as we know proved right; with disastrous consequences for the environment.
We’re seeing a similar thing in moving to what we think is a more eco-friendly life. For example, while residents of the Australian city of Sydney might be saving more water, becoming more energy efficient and recycling more, it seems their environmental footprints could actually be larger according to this article from the Sydney Morning Herald.
While fossil fuel use has dropped, it still makes up 94 per cent of all the state’s energy use, partly because car ownership has gone up says the article.
… and this comes back to a very thorny point. What else has also increased?
The population of Sydney – and the population of many cities.
This is one of the major problems facing our species – are gains we are making in tackling environmental problems simply going to be gobbled up by the fact there are more people on the planet? I’ve been kicking around since the late 60’s. At that point there were 12 million in this country – we’re now nudging 23 million.
While it’s all well and good to have reduced consumption of X by 25% during my lifetime, if the population has doubled then no real progress has been made; in fact we’ve gone backwards at a fair rate of knots. Of course, things could be a lot worse; but the point is what we have done won’t be enough if we don’t get a handle on the population issue.
As standards of living improve around the world and more people have access to more goods and services in part due to a reduction in costs; the problem will only worsen.
For example, again harking back to the SMH article, the average Australian consumes about 45 tonnes of resources per year; compared with an average across Asia of 8.6 tonnes. The sad fact is that the Asian average is more to do with poverty than that region being particularly eco-conscious.
We’ve created a system where we actually need billions of people to stay impoverished to sustain our lifestyles, but even that arrangement wouldn’t work forever.
There are two clear choices – manage population more effectively, or manage our own expectations of life in terms of resource use a lot better. Actually, we need to do both given the state we now find ourselves in.