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This regular column, produced by the National Office Public Interest team, investigates how psychology can contribute to addressing the growing environmental crisis facing our world.

The ‘birthquake’ of modern times

Unlike the plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases (which) we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution, but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of the billions who are its victims.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The simple fact is that growth in population and consumption cannot continue unabated on a finite planet. A human population in excess of 2 billion is generally considered unsustainable. Having hit the six billion mark in 1999, roughly double the 1960 population, we are already way over our limit. Population growth has now slowed but numbers will continue to grow exponentially, to around 9 billion by 2050.

Over 90 per cent of future population growth will be in the majority world, in regions least able to absorb large increments. Currently some 1.2 billion people (mostly women and children), live in extreme poverty, with appalling living conditions, malnutrition and illness (http://www.unfpa.org/pds/trends.htm). Unchecked population growth means depletion of water and other resources, and increases in land degradation, famine, migration, conflict over scarce resources, violence and war.

Of course, overpopulation is not just their problem. The worst population problem is arguably in developed countries, because of our extraordinarily high per capita resource consumption. The biocapacity needed for everyone to live at the current European
average level of consumption is estimated at 2.1 planet earths. If everyone consumed like Australians, we would need four planets (Australian Conservation Foundation, 2007).

So how do we slow, regulate, and in some cases, halt growth? Where are the most effective points of intervention, and what can we learn from the psychological literature?

Dealing with the double whammy – overpopulation and overconsumption

Population control has been controversial for decades, partly because many developing countries have seen it as a policy imposed by rich countries unwilling to control their own appetites for resources. Many countries, however, now see population control as in their own economic interests, with Western leaders talking about curtailing growth, and world scientific opinion favouring population stabilisation.

Psychologists contribute to family planning research, with programs enabling people to avoid unwanted pregnancies being disseminated widely in many nations. Such programs are not enough, however, to slow and stop population growth, and need to be supplemented by programs that decrease the number of children people want. Lack of government social security programs, high infant and child mortality, and poverty are critical aspects of social structure that make people want children as a source of support in older age (Gardner & Stern, 2002).

Some innovative programs use social learning theory to create TV serials aimed at slowing population growth, preventing unwanted pregnancies, promoting literacy, and empowering women. These programs feature attractive characters whose positive behaviours bring about good outcomes, unsavoury characters whose negative behaviours result in adverse effects, and transitional models who start out negatively but change into good role models over time. Positive actions and their consequences are subtly modelled, rather than explicitly stated. The programs also connect viewers with social networks and organisations to help improve their lives.

The non-profit group Populations Communications International (PCI) airs serial dramas in many countries, and uses controlled studies to monitor their success in changing audiences’ behaviours. In Mexico and Kenya, for example, serialised dramas that highlighted family planning heralded 32 per cent and 58 per cent increases respectively in new contraceptive users (Bandura, 2006).

Overconsumption is embedded in a cultural belief that perpetual economic growth is necessary for progress and for social and political stability and that consumption is a source of satisfaction. In fact, research shows that a high quality of life is as easy to achieve at very low levels of consumption, and that pursuing high consuming lifestyles undermines wellbeing (Mark etal., 2006). Consumerism has been found to breed dissatisfaction, anxiety, anger, isolation and alienation (Kasser, 2002).

Changes in understanding, attitudes and behaviour by consumers as well as producers are critical. People need to see the contradiction in being exhorted to save energy, but at the same time being encouraged to consume more. Change will only be achieved if people understand and take collective responsibility for their consumption. ‘Business as usual’ consumption and ‘not in my back yard’ in terms of future energy supplies are not sustainable responses (British Psychological Society, 2006).

Psychology has put forward many innovative, evidence-based approaches to affect the way people organise themselves and make decisions about energy consumption (e.g, reduced choice, social marketing, persuasion through social norms, peer pressure,
better feedback about energy consumption through smart metering infrastructure, incentives, better urban design etc.) (BPS, 2006). Many of these have been discussed in previous Saving the planet columns.

Psychology has been used extensively to encourage consumption in the absence of real need. Now is the time to apply the same knowledge and skills to encourage a reduction in consumption in the presence of urgent need. If we appreciate the gravity of the situation, we can get to work …

Take steps to reduce overpopulation and overconsumption 
  • Support the UN Development Goals for universal access to
    reproductive services and to education, especially for girls,
    and reduction in infant and maternal mortality
    • Lobby government to provide greater aid to support
      these goals
    • Give time or money to organisations that support access
      to health and education for girls, such as Oxfam, IWDA,
      and Students Partnership Worldwide
    • Advocate for social justice and promotion of human
      rights (e.g., support Amnesty International)
  • Help workers and producers in developing countries to
    achieve economic self-sufficiency, by supporting fair trade.
    Get your local council or town to become a ‘fair-trade
    town’ (http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/get_involved_fairtrade_
  • Become more informed about your own consumption
  • Lobby government and industry to:
    • Commit to greenhouse gas emission reductions (e.g.,
      cut greenhouse pollution by 30 per cent by 2020, 90
      per cent by 2050), and set targets for renewable energy
      quotas (e.g., 20 per cent by 2020)
    • Adopt the ecological footprint as an official measure,
      with a timetable, policies and resources for Australia to
      live within its fair, per capita share of available global
    • Use the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) as an index to
      measure success, rather than the GDP
    • Label the carbon costs of products 
  • Find ways your family can reduce consumption
    • Talk with your children about how consumerism impacts
      on the environment
    • Make Christmas presents and cards rather than buying
    • Buy recycled or second-hand products, or borrow from a
    • Purchase goods that will last
    • Eat less meat and dairy food
    • Spend on services rather than things (but remember
      that, in general, the more you spend, the more impact
      you have on the environment)
    • Buy local products to minimise ecologically wasteful
      trade (e.g., when identical goods and products are both
      imported and exported from the same country)
    • Seek out information on conscious consumption,
      and consider a life of voluntary simplicity:
    • Invest in socially responsible and ethical companies
    • Organise group activities to combat consumerist media
      messages (e.g., a sustainable Kris Kringle for your
    • Challenge beliefs like: ‘consumption will produce
      happiness’, ‘growth is good’, ‘free market capitalism is
      the best system’, ‘more, faster, bigger’
    • Adopt new slogans like ‘live green below your means’
      ‘be different, live different, buy different’, ‘there is no
      grace in gadgets’, ‘power of one, power of many’, ‘stuff
      happens; too much stuff sucks’ 

By modelling pro-environmental behaviour change, psychologists can lead the way for others. 


Any comments or ideas for this column can be forwarded to Dr Susie Burke MAPS, Senior Researcher, National Office Public Interest team at s.burke@psychology.org.au


Australian Conservation Foundation (2007). Retrieved October 16, 2007, from http://www.acfonline.com.au

Bandura, A. (2006). Going global with social cognitive theory: from prospect to paydirt. In S. Donaldson, D. Berger & K. Pezdek (Eds.), Applied Psychology: New Frontiers and Rewarding Careers. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

British Psychological Society (2006). EU Green Paper: A European strategy for sustainable, competitive and secure energy. Response from the British Psychological Society. Leicester, UK: BPS.

Gardner, G.T., & Stern, P.C. (2002) Environmental problems and human behaviour. (Second Edition). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.

Kasser, T. (2002). The high price of materialism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Mark, N., Simms, A., Thompson, S., & Abdallah, S. (2006). The (un)Happy Planet Index: an index of human well-being and environmental impact. London: National Economics Foundation.