Q and A: Does the relationship between population and the environment vary by region?

Yes. When most people link population growth and environmental degradation, they are usually referring to less developed countries, where most of the world's people live and population growth is high. But environmental problems exist in all countries regardless of the level of development. Most of the environmental degradation in industrialized countries, where only 20 percent of the world's people live, is attributable to high consumption patterns; each individual in an industrialized country exerts more pressure on the environment than perhaps 20 to 30 people in the less developed world. For example, consumption patterns in the United States are indicative of the industrialized world's disproportionate use of global resources. The United States has 5 percent of the world's population but uses an estimated 24 percent of the world's resources. According to Paul Ehrlich in his book The Population Bomb, the average American uses as much energy as two Japanese, six Mexicans, 13 Chinese, 31 Indians, 128 Bangladeshis, 307 Tanzanians, and 370 Ethiopians.

Experts are attempting to find quantitative ways to consider both consumption patterns and population size when determining the link between people and the environment. Environmentalists have been using an equation known as I=PAT, which attempts to factor both causes into determining environmental impacts.

The causes of tropical deforestation lay both in population growth in less developed countries and consumption levels in more developed countries. However, for some other environmental problems such as ozone depletion, most of the damage is due to the use of refrigerators and air conditioning systems in industrialized countries, not to population growth.

The adverse environmental impact of consumption patterns in more developed countries is likely to increase as less developed countries further industrialize and adopt consumption patterns similar to those of their more financially wealthy neighbors. Already, elites in the less developed countries mimic the prolific consumption of rich Americans or Europeans. Consumption has surged in China and India since the 1980s and, with the fall of the USSR, Eastern Europeans have increased their appetites for consumer goods. The most rapid growth in energy consumption now occurs in less developed countries because of rising affluence, consumption, and population.


Less developed countries: Less developed countries include all countries in Africa, Asia (excluding Japan), and Latin America and the Caribbean, and the regions of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

More developed countries: More developed countries include all countries in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.