With regard to environmental degradation, the main culprit is often considered to be overpopulation. And overpopulation is a serious issue, as the past century has witnessed an explosion unparalleled in any other point in human history. According to the Population Media Center, approximately 200,000 people per day and 78 million people per year are added to the human population. The trend of rural to urban migration means a more concentrated population, leading to issues such as air pollution, water pollution, elevated energy and resource consumption, and waste disposal issues. An increase in population also requires an increase in food production, and deforestation for the sake of more agricultural land causes a succession of environmental issues such as desertification, soil erosion, degradation of ground water, and depletion of soil nutrients. With the global population approaching nearly 7 billion people, we cannot afford to ignore the effects of overpopulation. However, a large portion of the environmental degradation in third world countries can also be attributed to patterns of overconsumption in the developed world and the pressures this world puts on poorer countries to provide the resources to fuel this overconsumption.

Environmental degradation in third world countries is partially escalated by developed countries, whether directly through international dumping of hazardous wastes or indirectly through disproportionate consumption of resources. More Developed Countries (MDC’s) operate and thrive under what is known as the Materials Economy System, which involves the mass production of products intended to sell to consumers for a profit. This system is made of several components including extraction (the taking of natural resources from the earth), production (energy used to add toxins to natural resources to create a product), distribution (the transportation and selling of products), consumption (buying and using products), and disposal (removal of waste generated by extraction, production, distribution, and consumption). In each of these steps, the majority of environmental and health impacts are placed upon the poorest people, who often reside in Less Developed Countries (LDC’s).

The Materials Economy System is perpetuated by the concept of planned obsolescence, when products are intentionally designed for having a limited life. According to The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard, only 1% of products purchased in the United States are still in use six months later, and the average citizen now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago. In order to sustain this rate of consumption, more products must be transported and more people hired to sell them, more pollutants must be added to the environment and more people must be exposed to harmful chemicals, and more resources must be harvested. It also means that more waste is produced in each of these cycles. Leonard’s research shows that each person in the United States generates 4.5 lbs of garbage per day.

So where are all of the resources extracted from, where are they produced, and where is the waste disposed of? While these resources are mostly extracted from, produced in, and disposed of in LDC’s, the majority of the products created are distributed and consumed in MDC’s. Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” states that while the United States contains nearly 5% of the global population it consumes nearly 30% of the global resources. Similarly, William and Marry Cunningham in their 2008 textbook “Environmental Science: A Global Concern” show that the United States consumes 25% of all oil and produces 25% of all CO2 emissions and 50% of all toxic wastes in the world.

Environmental degradation is a complex issue, with neither the causes attributable to a single source nor the effects concentrated in a single area. Poverty, overpopulation, lack of education, and poor economic development are some of the forces behind dilemmas such as pollution, resource depletion, soil erosion, depletion of soil nutrients, contaminated drinking water, and disposal of hazardous wastes. Minorities, poor communities, and indigenous populations bear the majority of this burden, and the contribution of MDC’s and the Materials Economy System to the disproportionate level of environmental degradation in LDC’s cannot be ignored.