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Resource Intensity, Consumption, & Population

The 3 factors that determine total resource use and environmental disruption.

Human existence necessarily causes some disruption to the natural environment through the extraction of resources and the emission of waste streams. If you disagree, please state your argument in the comments.

In this article, we're going to look at the three factors that determine how much human lifestyles and economic activity degrade the environment. Our central thesis is:

environmental disruption = [resource intensity of producing goods] x [consumption of goods per person] x [population]

Resource Intensity of Producing Goods

A "good" is a tangible item that satisfies human wants or needs and provides utility. Goods are articles of trade that humans want, either for end consumption or to produce more goods.

Goods are produced through a miraculous process involving many steps that have been refined through knowledge accumulated for decades or even hundreds or thousands of years.

The process of producing a good starts with extracting raw materials from the environment through mining, drilling, logging, farming, or other means. The raw materials are then processed or refined before being transported to factories to be manufactured into useful things — goods. Finally, those goods are distributed, sold, and delivered to people who want them — consumers. Consumers then use the goods for a time before eventually disposing of them. The discarded goods (now called waste) then go back into the environment as a form of pollution, whether landfilled, burned, littered, or otherwise.

Every step of this journey, from raw material extraction to consumption of goods to eventual disposal, involves the input of still more raw materials. Think of the trucks to transport materials, the machines to fabricate them, the petroleum and electricity that power everything, the water used in manufacturing, and the servers required to host the inventory management systems and websites for selling the goods. All of these raw material and energy inputs and their waste streams are what we will call the "resource intensity" of producing goods.

All else equal, the greater the resource intensity of producing goods, the greater the total resource use and environmental disruption.

Consumption of Goods per Person

Consumption is people's use of goods and services to satisfy their needs and wants. Consumption encompasses everything from necessities like food and shelter to luxury items such as smartphones, houseboats, and robot vacuums.

Over the years and centuries, people tend to consume more goods. This is due to a phenomenon called "the hedonic ratchet." Once we reach a certain level of consumption and prosperity, it's as if a ratchet mechanism clicks into place, preventing us from sliding back to our previous states of lower consumption. The goods we once considered luxuries quickly become necessities, creating a perpetual cycle where the baseline of what we consider essential keeps rising.

In 1890, a simple lightbulb was considered a luxury; almost nobody had lightbulbs or electricity. In 1910, a car was considered a luxury, and very few people owned them. In the early 2000s, very few people owned even a crude precursor to a smartphone. Now, in 2024, lightbulbs, cars, and smartphones are orders of magnitude better in terms of quality and functionality and are considered basic necessities that almost everyone has.

All else equal, the greater the consumption of goods per person, the greater the total resource use and environmental disruption.


The total number of people living on all of Earth in 1,000 BCE was about 110 million. In 1800, that number increased to 1 billion. The world population reached 4 billion in 1974, then doubled to 8 billion less than 50 years later. The world population is currently increasing by about 80 million people per year.

Each human requires a certain number of resources to live and thrive.

All else equal, the greater the population, the greater the total resource use and environmental damage.

Where We Are Trending

Resource use and environmental damage are proportional to the resource intensity of producing goods, the consumption of goods per person, and the population.

In the previous charts, we've seen that the population is increasing rapidly. As the world "develops" and living standards improve and we can afford more stuff, consumption of goods per person is increasing, too. These two factors are causing a dramatic rise in overall resource use and environmental damage.

On the other hand, technological advancements are improving the efficiency of most of the processes that take raw material resources and turn them into consumer goods. In other words, the resource intensity of producing a given good is declining. However, this is a double-edged sword since falling resource intensity makes goods more affordable, which causes more people to buy them, leading to an overall increase in resource use — Jevons Paradox.

While total world resource use and environmental damage cannot be calculated in absolute terms, the charts below give an overall impression of how they have changed over time.

The Future

While the population is still increasing, the rate of population increase is declining. The world population is predicted to peak sometime in the 2080s at around 10.5 billion people.

We can look at the world's average GDP (gross domestic product) per capita for the consumption of goods per person. GDP is the monetary value of final goods and services bought by the final user. In other words, GDP is consumption.

And finally, the resource intensity of producing goods has fallen and is continuing to fall. However, that trend cannot continue forever. It will eventually reach a plateau and asymptote when each step in the process of turning raw materials into goods approaches the maximum thermodynamic efficiency. Banking on resource intensity declining forever is foolish.

A common argument is that the resource intensity of the economy will decrease over time as people run out of products to buy and instead buy services that are lower in resource use. Perhaps. However, many services require physical goods and materials to perform. A house cleaning service still requires chemical cleaning agents, mops, vacuums, paper towels, and gasoline to get to the house being cleaned. Even digital products are not an escape from resource use since every bit of information stored "in the cloud" really is stored on many physical servers elsewhere, each requiring energy to operate. The servers themselves are some of the most resource-intensive things humans make. And a brief glance at the number of storage businesses cropping up indicates that people are still buying enough physical goods to overflow a large modern house.

While the data indicates some decoupling of resource use and GDP, this is not enough to offset the increase in goods per person and the increase in the number of people. Hence, total resource use and environmental damage are at an all-time high and continuing to increase.

Questions for you:
  • Do you think we can reduce total resource use and environmental damage? If so, how? What gives you hope in this situation?

  • Do you think consumption of goods per person (on average) will ever decrease? If so, when, and what factors would make that occur?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments. I'd love to hear your insights.

TL;DR: Although technology is improving the efficiency at which we use resources to produce things, the consumption of goods and the total population are increasing much faster.


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