Wednesday, August 19, 2009



It is typically asserted by self-loathing Western environmentalists that our global ecological predicament is not one of overpopulation but over-consumption by the affluent fraction of humanity, mainly in Europe and North America. The recipe for sustainability therefore lies in a cultural revolution that would cure ‘affluenza’ by moral suasion and the injunction to live “simply” in order that others may simply live. This project, I would submit, is largely delusional. Nature does not care about personal consumption. It cares about total consumption----which is a function of per capita consumption and the population level. It does not award prizes for Spartan living or self-sacrifice, or award greenie points for applicants to sainthood. It couldn’t care less about personal virtue. It only cares about the impact of all people. Whether Canada is populated by 33 million hyper-consumers of median income or whether it is exclusively populated by 1 million profligate millionaires is a matter of complete indifference to it. It is the total impact of all of us collectively that matters. Live like Ghandi or live like Gates, our total footprint is what is germane.

The question then is, can we merrily continue to ignore population growth in this country or elsewhere as long as each of us behaves as responsible “green” consumers? Can we move over and make room for more and more people by consuming less and less? Are their limits to green masochism? Is there a point where, even if we all lived in caves and wore loin clothes, reductions in personal consumption would not balance off the number of extra consumers, whatever their port of entry? The Amish, who have become the poster child of simplicity and the object of romance and nostalgia, offer a case in point.

A diverse religious sect of about two dozen settlements scattered across 22 American states and the province of Ontario, they present a baffling blend of modernity and traditional living. As Donald Kraybill explained,

“Telephones, taboo in homes, stand at the end of farm lanes. Powerful tractors used at Amish barns rarely venture into fields. Horses pull modern hay balers and corn pickers on Amish farms. State of the art calculators are permissible, but not computers. Forbidden to own or operate motor vehicles, the Amish freely hire cars and vans for transportation. Electricity from public power lines is off limits, but 12-volt current from batteries is widely used. Clothing, styled in traditional patterns, is made from synthetic materials.”

Nevertheless, it can be argued that various patchwork concessions to modern technology are not substantial enough to void the observation that the Amish have a lower ecological footprint that the average North American. Their superior physical and mental health, as evidenced by much lower rates of obesity, longer lifespans and a very low suicide rate, allied with a manifestly frugal lifestyle, seems to many to offer mainstream society a template for sustainable living that we must soon adopt. The Amish offer us an assurance that it is possible to live simply and be happy doing so.

One problem. Amish women between 15 and 49 typically have 7 children each. Their fertility rate of 6.8 compares with the Canadian average of 1.57 or the American average of 2.1. As a result, the Amish population doubles every 16 years. Imagine if North America’s population doubled during that same period. Presently ecologists, but not the somnolent environmentalists, are morbidly apprehensive of a United States that will see over 440 million people by the year 2050, with all of the attendant consequences of drained aquifers, lost farmland, vanishing species, traffic gridlock and pollution, to name but a few problems. Population growth of this magnitude erases reductions in per capita consumption. To illustrate this point, let’s examine the compromises that the allegedly self-reliant and self-sacrificing Amish make. Remember, their mothers have three to four times as many children as do other mothers in North America. Or more precisely, 3.23 times as many children in the United States as do other Americans. For every 1000 people in America, 14 children are born, but Amish women have about 45 children for each thousand of their congregations. So what does that kind of fertility and birth rate mean for the Amish footprint? It means that although a smaller percentage of Amish employ fossil fuel driven technology, they inflict a proportionately higher amount of ecological damage than does the rest of the less aesthetic American population

A survey of some 19 Amish communities was made to determine how many of them used various technologies. While the percentages of use were lower than corresponding use among other Americans, that use must be multiplied by 3.23 to measure the use that the general population of the United States would make if their families were of equivalent size.

So rather than 97%, Amish washing machine use translates into 313%. And 70% for flush toilets, bathtubs with running water, tractors for belt power and pneumatic tools would translate into 226%. The 75% of Amish who use chain saws translates into 240%. The 30% who use propane if pro-rated for the average American family would mean that more than 90% consume propane gas. Get the point? It means that although a smaller percentage of Amish employ fossil fuel driven machinery, their mere numbers offset the gains of productivity. Even more alarming is the realization that, allowing for a defection rate of 15% of youth to mainstream society, most of the 5-7 children born to an Amish couple will themselves spawn 5-7 children, given the resilience of the culture to change. A four percent annual growth rate would see the 230,000 Amish double every approximate 17 years to reach 1,840,000 in fifty years. As analyst Rick Shea noted, “So, even if the Amish footprint is only 25 percent of the average North American, within 50 years their footprint will be 8 times what it is now, or the equivalent of 200 percent of the average North American. Yep, all we need to do is reduce our consumption. Sure....” If other Americans kept to the Amish pace, there would be over 2.4 billion people in the United States by that time. The Amish are hardly green role models, are they?

Too many frugal consumers do not add up to sustainability. Folks must not only control their consumption, but their sexuality. In writer Brishen Hoff’s words, “Not even the most quaint, humble, fossil-fuel-free lifestyle is environmentally sustainable when reproduction results in a population doubling every 16 years!” It is people who consume, not ghosts. Our predicament is not all down to over-consumption. It is also about the number of people consuming. We must focus on the number of “capitas” rather than the holier-than-thou quest for per capita consumption reductions. And the ones who live in North America warrant a disproportionate level of concern. Population reduction here is more imperative than anywhere else on the globe.

Tim Murray

No comments: