Personal Freedom, Consumerism, and the "Population Connection"

Written by Hannah Evans, Population, Health, and Environment Specialist | Published: May 18, 2018

This post is the first in a series exploring the role of population issues in international development. 

Personal freedom. Autonomy. The ability to choose your path in life, and to harness the power of self-expression. Some would argue that these principles are human rights – inherent to human existence. In fact, aspirations towards a ubiquitous ‘freedom’ make up the entire basis for some political parties, whose representatives outspokenly advocate for the right of the individual to make their own decisions – uninhibited by structural impositions of any kind. But, what does that all really mean? Undoubtedly, our interpretations of ‘freedom’ are socially constructed and culturally-embedded. That is, what we think of as being advantageous or desirable within the context of personal freedom is, in many ways, a reflection of our own culture’s values, ethics, and norms (think: consumerism, individualism, etc – like, since when did buying things make anyone happy?!). These normative standards have been set forth by our respective societies and heavily influence our identities and expressions in many ways.

While slightly abstract, these contemplations are important foundations for any conversation surrounding global development. That’s because societal norms and political identity, such as consumerism and free market capitalism, have influenced both cultural and structural development in many areas across the world. For example, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) grant state loans in exchange for very strict economic and political restructuring that favors internationalized trade, limited government spending, (often) a devaluation of domestic currency, privatization of industry, and so on (Easterly, 2003).

Of course there are many other examples, but the major point here is that “progress” and “development” are often defined pretty linearly, and that the standards for progress and benchmarks for growth expose a decidedly capitalist bias. (NOTE: This is not to say that these initiatives are all-encompassing or even ineffective; oftentimes the opposite is true. Many development strategies are actually pretty comprehensive. For example, the World Bank Development Goals even include a target for maternal health, which includes addressing an unmet need for contraceptives.)

So basically, economic indicators for growth are seen through the lens of production and consumption. The expansion of western norms such as consumerism have become so pervasive that they could arguably now be considered universal ideals: the economy depends on growth, which in turn is largely dependent upon individual consumption.

On the surface, this link doesn’t necessarily seem bad. As conventionally defined, development platforms are easily linked to broader goals of improving life for the world’s inhabitants, including increased access to clean water and power, healthcare, economic opportunity, and education.

However, when the obvious problems accompanying rapid population growth are considered, tensions begin to surface. Recent research has called into question the earth’s capacity to sustain growth amidst a rapidly increasing population, and exposes some potential contradictions regarding the combination of consumer-based development and environmental sustainability.

Currently, over 7 billion people inhabit this planet, and we know that the world’s population grows by around 83 million people per year. While future population projections are highly contingent upon many different factors, such as women’s empowerment, the UN’s medium variant, or the projection that researchers believe to be the most likely scenario, is that the world population will reach 11.2 billion people by the year 2100.  That’s up from the UN’s 2002 prediction, which was 9 billion.

This figure is really disconcerting, especially given the many known environmental implications of rapid population growth — like climate change, deforestation, pollution, wildlife/ habitat destruction, ocean acidification, species extinction, loss of arable land, overfishing, natural resource exploitation …. Need I go on?

The obvious link between human population growth and environmental degradation has become such a known issue that even public figures like Prince William have begun to speak out: in a speech at the Tusk gala in London last November, Prince William stated that:

“Africa’s rapidly growing human population is predicted to more than double by 2050 – a staggering increase of three and a half million people per month. There is no question that this increase puts wildlife and habitat under enormous pressure. Urbanization, infrastructure development, cultivation – all good things in themselves, but they will have a terrible impact unless we begin to plan to take measures now. On human populations alone, overgrazing and poor water supplies could have a catastrophic effect unless we start to think about how to mitigate these challenges.”

In short, as we “improve the human condition – building sanitation facilities and expanding farming to provide more food, for example – we necessarily damage the environment. We cut down trees, we put fertilizers in the soil that kill off aquatic life, we pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” So, as we all might have imagined, environmental damage is very directly linked to rapid population growth.

Now, this is a really complicated subject. The implication here is NOT that developing countries are to blame for environmental degradation associated with high fertility rates and rapid population growth. Indeed, per capita consumption patterns in developed countries like the US, contribute to climate change and environmental degradation at levels considered astronomical in comparison to those typical of even a large family in many developing regions of the world. Take industrialized agriculture for example: livestock and their byproducts account for at least 32,000 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51% of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, while high fertility is most pervasive in developing countries, consumption rates in more affluent countries create very significant environmental (arguably social and political as well) dangers to the planet.

However, one can argue that the goal of development programs is to raise the standard of living for ALL people. Theoretically at least, we can imagine that lifestyles of those living in the developed world are seen as aspirational to those in the developing world — consumption patterns included. And clearly, the ethics of denying large swaths of the global population access to say, modern transportation or a more nutrient-dense diet in the name of environmental sustainability are questionable at best.

Which leads us to one of the factors we can ethically (and relatively easily!) influence: fertility rates. Total Fertility Rates are highest in the poorest parts of the world because of lack of access to and education about reproductive health. In fact, there are over 214 million women in the developing world alone who want access to contraceptives but are not currently using them. Too often, the women most in need are also extremely young and ill-equipped financially to take care of multiple children. As part of our #Fight4HER campaign, activist Lisa Shannon has interviewed girls in parts of Africa, who, by the age of 15, are stuck in a cycle of poverty, compounded by a lack of both education and economic opportunity in part because they have become pregnant or already have children (oftentimes against their will).

Take a look at the maps below, which depict global fertility rates and women’s unmet need for contraception. What do you see?

As you might have imagined even before glancing at these maps, fertility rates are highest in places where the unmet need for contraceptives is also very high. These very same affected regions are often also struggling to compete successfully in a globalized economy.

We know that, given the choice, most women will choose to have smaller families over a longer period of time. Birth rates fall in direct correlation to access to modern contraceptive methods. And, as population growth slows and stabilizes, real economic growth and social and political development becomes easier. In this way, reproductive autonomy is of vital importance to our global future — as both an integral part of global development AND preserving the entire planet’s resources.

The main goal of Population Connection is to promote global population stabilization through the empowerment of people, in particular women, to make their own reproductive decisions. We recognize that, statistically speaking, when women have access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunity, fertility rates naturally drop. As such, we advocate for policies which will increase access to reproductive healthcare for women, and adamantly oppose those that inhibit such access, like the Global Gag Rule. Investment in sexual and reproductive healthcare is a very effective economic strategy, because helping women choose the number and timing of their pregnancies makes healthcare more affordable overall. It’s also, of course, a vital aspect of people becoming healthier. We see sustainability as predicated not only on environmental stewardship, but also access to healthcare, economic opportunity, and social justice.

Conceptual understandings of global development strategies are extremely complex and dynamic. There’s an obvious inherent tension between sustainable growth and western (or U.S.) style consumerism. However, there is one thing we as an organization know for sure: freedom, in the most basic and fundamental sense, is predicated on the ability to control your own body. For millions of women around the world, that basic freedom — to control their own current circumstances and future destinies — is still out of reach. Clearly making sure that their most basic needs are met will result in a more just and sustainable future for all of us.

What do you think? I hope you’ll share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

Hannah Evans is a Population Connection staff member, and a contributing writer for this blog. She has BA in Environmental Policy and Political Science and a MA in Political Ecology from San Diego State University. Her thesis research focused on sustainability labeling, commodity chains, and ethical consumption in the US and Nicaragua. Hannah also has experience as an adjunct professor in Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, where she taught classes on Gender, Science, and Technology. Her research interests include: sustainability; global development; social theory; feminism; population; social justice.