Vegan Rising | The Role of Population and Urbanisation on Humans and Other Species
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The Role of Population and Urbanisation on Humans and Other Species

The Role of Population and Urbanisation on Humans and Other Species

Veganism is perhaps the most positive single change we can make to our individual consumption patterns.  Going vegan profoundly reduces our individual carbon footprint – not only by mitigating the direct impact that animal agriculture has on the environment, but also the indirect impacts.  These include the demands on water, soil, refrigeration, transport etc., required to sustain both the industrialised factory farming industry and the smaller scale animal agriculture systems.

However, most of us agree that veganism is one crucially important step forward, among many MORE changes we must make given the magnitude and scale of human impact on the planet. Other necessary changes to our consumption patterns include less car and air transport, smaller homes, less refrigerators in the home (as a few examples).  Social inequalities that privilege more consumption opportunities for the few at the expense of the many must also be addressed.

What is less emphasised in the environmental sector is the impact of having smaller families.  Most research now affirms that, at least in the global north, one less child is the equivalent of saving towards 60 tonnes of carbon per year (see below graph).   This is considerably higher than many other individual changes we can make (including veganism) as it mitigates a whole addition lifetime’s worth of consumption choices. This just doesn’t apply for those who live in the global north.  According to Project Drawdown, the biggest thing we can do to address climate change is to slow population growth, through a combination of empowerment and education of women and girls, and access to family planning services.


Comparative to having one less child, veganism may look insignificant so it is important to remember, in best possible scenarios, a vegan diet reduces global emissions by 50%. Veganism is the single largest change that we can do ourselves, however being vegan AND having one less child has the greatest reduction in negative impact.

Although a controversial issue for many, it is essential that we all consider the impact of human population growth on the environment and for all other species.  Consider the fact that human population has increased from 2 billion in 1927 to 7.5 billion today.  Or that by 2100, our population is expected to reach 11 billion. If switching to a plant based diet reduces our per capita contribution  by 50% (at best case scenario) then even if the whole world becomes vegan, we’d be heading back to square one in terms of collective impact due to the fact there are 3.5 billion more vegans on the planet.  Every time the UN makes an estimate of the number in which our global population will peak, the number keeps going up.  What happens if this never stops?

Consider the fact that the world grows by at least 80 million people per year.  Or the fact that Australia grows by 360,000 per year, the size of a NEW Canberra, which will result in a doubling of the national population in under 35 years.  It is nearly impossible for behaviour change to keep up with this rapid population growth.  Although many environmentalists cite social inequality and consumption in the west as the primary culprits of ecological destruction, there is mounting evidence that the sheer volume of humans plays a substantial role.  Consider the fact that humans and domesticated animals now constitute 96% of vertebrate biomass on planet earth, with ALL other vertebrates sharing the remainder 4%.  Or that a study of 114 nations found that human population density predicted with 88-percent accuracy the number of endangered birds and mammals, regardless of differences in GDP.   This demonstrates that human numbers are a threat to all other animal species regardless of our lifestyles.

The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) website states “Species are critical for a healthy planet, but a growing human population is placing them under enormous pressure. Habitat destruction, invasive species, overexploitation, illegal wildlife trade, pollution and climate change are threatening the survival of species worldwide”.

Australia is very fragile continent, with low reliable rainfall, water supply and soil fertility and is very vulnerable to over-exploitation.  Most of the continent can’t support intensive agriculture or dense human populations.  However, it is within these small fertile pockets where we have built our capital cities and it is these precious, bio-diverse regions that continue to absorb the majority of our population growth through suburban sprawl and urban conurbations.

It is a fair criticism that Australia’s town planning policies are not managing our population growth well and the way we build is not geared towards co-existing with other species.  One only has to look towards the coastal emu and koala populations in NSW and south east Queensland, the Leadbeater possum in the Melbourne hinterland or the Carnaby Black Cockatoo in the Perth region.  These are all animals whose habitats fall within the very areas we are rapidly felling to make way for new suburbs. Most of these new suburbs are car dependent, so as traffic density escalates around coastal NSW and south-east Queensland, Koala fatalities on the road are the new norm and their populations are plummeting as a result of both this and the clearing of forests for animal agriculture. Entire Kangaroo populations are being shot in the ACT because they co-exist in the very areas in which we want to build new suburbs around Canberra – of course the mainstream discourse is that it is the KANGAROOS that are in the way of progress!

A recent study of the ecological impacts of land clearing in Queensland noted that: “While a substantially smaller area than that cleared for pasture, clearing in urban areas has implications for many threatened species, including the 97 threatened species occurring in Brisbane, and threatened species occurring in 17 other cities across Queensland (Ives et al. 2016). According to a Sydney University seminar held earlier this year, Australia is losing two million hectares of land to urban sprawl annually.

For more information on the impacts of population growth on other species in Australia, we recommend reading the submission from Sustainable Population Australia into the fauna extinction crisis.

Here’s the rub – it doesn’t matter whether we line our new houses with solar panels, drive low emission cars on the new roads, or buy plant based foods at the new local supermarket (that was once a home to a diversity of native species).  Once we have concreted and paved over an eco-system, that’s it.  That is another piece of land that was once called home by many different species that has now been invaded for the use for humans.

A useful infographic you can share can be found here.

Regardless of the individual changes that we make, our neo-liberal growth based society in which we live dictates that nothing is sacred in the pursuit of GDP growth.  In the long term this means that any individual change or cause we do is putting out the spot-fires of a much larger problem, which is that of endless growth of a finite planet.  If this paradigm never ends, then no green technology solution or change in diet will save us.

This is why it is important that veganism in one essential step towards a larger discussions that includes:

  • How can we live in communities that co-exist, rather than destroy or exploit, the other species of animals and plants who were here before us?
  • How can we transition to a post-growth society where individual changes to our consumption patterns can make a true difference?
  • Creating a culture in which all family types, including small or no child families, are seen as equal and valid in society, and that people are educated on the pros and cons of having children.
  • Creating partnerships with communities worldwide that empowers and educates women to determine the size of their own families, and who have access to family planning services.
  • Domestic population and town planning policies that are determined by the needs of local communities rather than short term narrow economic goals of big business, property developers and politicians.

If you are keen on being part of this larger discussion, you may be interested in the Facebook groups  Population Permaculture and Planning or Sustainable Vegan Communities.  If you wish to support an environmental group that directly tackles population sustainability with a holistic approach, check out PopCulture, courtesy of Sustainable Population Australia.

Co-Authored by
Michael Bayliss, Communications Manager, Sustainable Population Australia
Mark Allen, Founder, Population Peramculture and Planning

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