Research Article

Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus

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Science  19 Apr 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6130, pp. 324-328
DOI: 10.1126/science.1224664

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A textbook example of an unaccounted-for consequence (externality) of commercial or industrial activity is the production of pollutants where neither the producer nor the buyer bears the cost of using common environmental resources. Dasgupta and Ehrlich (p. 324) offer a theoretical analysis of externalities in two other areas of modern life—human fertility and material consumption. For example, when fertility decline lags mortality decline, the consequence could be environmental crash, the likelihood of which is greater if the environmental effects of consumption or population growth are external to the market.


Growing concerns that contemporary patterns of economic development are unsustainable have given rise to an extensive empirical literature on population growth, consumption increases, and our growing use of nature’s products and services. However, far less has been done to reach a theoretical understanding of the socio-ecological processes at work at the population-consumption-environment nexus. In this Research Article, we highlight the ubiquity of externalities (which are the unaccounted for consequences for others, including future people) of decisions made by each of us on reproduction, consumption, and the use of our natural environment. Externalities, of which the “tragedy of the commons” remains the most widely discussed illustration, are a cause of inefficiency in the allocation of resources across space, time, and contingencies; in many situations, externalities accentuate inequity as well. Here, we identify and classify externalities in consumption and reproductive decisions and use of the natural environment so as to construct a unified theoretical framework for the study of data drawn from the nexus. We show that externalities at the nexus are not self-correcting in the marketplace. We also show that fundamental nonlinearities, built into several categories of externalities, amplify the socio-ecological processes operating at the nexus. Eliminating the externalities would, therefore, require urgent collective action at both local and global levels.

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