Here’s an example of how public policy can go awry when the relationships between population density, per capita consumption and employment are not clearly understood. Click the above link to see a chart of energy consumption per capita for seven different countries. Recently, I’ve seen something similar posted on various blogs that deal with issues like energy policy and global warming, and in each case the conclusion of the author has been the same – that since Americans use far more energy per capita than other wealthy nations like Germany, Japan and the U.K., then Americans are wasteful and great oil savings (and reductions in carbon emissions) could be realized by becoming as efficient as those nations at the right hand side of the scale.
At first blush, it seems like a reasonable conclusion, doesn’t it? After all, the image that immediately comes to mind regarding the relatively higher energy consumption in America is gas-guzzling SUVs, right? And the image that comes to mind regarding Japan is fuel-efficient cars like the Toyota Prius. There is some smattering of truth there, although no one thinks about the fact that there are far more Priuses on the road in the U.S. than there are in Japan.
More importantly, the conclusion that America is wasteful and great energy savings could be realized is erroneous because population density and its relationship to per capita consumption, together with the economic consequences of that relationship, haven’t been taken into consideration. In the cases of Japan, Germany and the U.K., their per capita energy consumption is low not because they are more efficient than the U.S. but because their extreme population densities have driven down per capita consumption of nearly everything. (Japan is ten times as densely populated as the U.S. while Germany and the U.K. are about seven times more densely populated. Also, notice that, with the exception of the tiny city-state of Luxembourg, the left side of the scale includes the sparsely populated nations of Canada and Australia.)
For example, consider the effect upon the per capita consumption of dwelling space in Japan. It’s only 30% of that in the U.S., not because the Japanese like living in tiny homes, but because there is no room for anything larger. So the energy used to light, heat and air condition their homes, in per capita terms, is only 30% of that in the U.S. as well. Now, that may sound like a good thing from an environmental perspective until you consider the economic ramifications.
Not only is their per capita energy consumption in their homes reduced to 30% of the U.S., but so too is the per capita employment in all industries associated with building, furnishing and maintaining their homes. Making matters worse, their per capita consumption of nearly everything, along with their per capita employment in those industries, with the exception of food and clothing, is similarly affected to a greater or lesser extent by their extreme over-crowding. This leaves them with an enormous glut of labor that can only be gainfully employed by manufacturing products for export. In essence, this over-crowding and low per capita consumption transform them into a parasitic economy, feeding on the markets and manufacturing jobs of nations like the U.S.
So the only way to reduce per capita energy consumption in the U.S. to a Japan-like level is to cut our overall per capita consumption of everything to their level. The problem is that this would also cut per capita employment, just like in Japan, but without any other U.S. to turn to for employment of the resulting labor glut. This would drive unemployment through the roof and start a world-wide decline of living standards.
So let’s back up and consider the real problem, which is not the per capita consumption of energy but the total, world-wide consumption of energy. If we want to reduce it, the correct approach is not to drive it down in the U.S., a move that would send global unemployment soaring, along with poverty around the world, but to dramatically reduce the population in overpopulated nations like Japan, Germany, the U.K., China, Korea and so many other places. Yes, this would actually allow their per capita consumption of everything to rise, but the net effect would be a significant reduction in total consumption while allowing living standards to rise around the world.
It’s imperative that we understand the economic consequences of overpopulation if we want to avoid a move toward well-intentioned policies that make a complete mess of the global economy.