Imperiled Riches—Threatened Rainforests


July 11, 2012

Misdirected consumption in wealthier countries contributes to rainforest destruction in tropical countries. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s American demand for cheap beef triggered the clearing of vast stretches of rainforest in Central America and Brazil. Similarly, demand for certain forest products like tropical hardwoods, glossy paper, and inexpensive particle board gives impetus for companies to exploit forest stocks.

The top 20 percent of the wealthiest countries consume a disproportionate amount of of world resources. Excessive energy use and waste in the developed countries means that each person in the north has a much greater impact on the earth's environment than each person in developing countries. Each child in Britain produces as much carbon dioxide and pollution as 30 born in Bangladesh in a given year. Therefore, the 58 million people added to the Earth in developed countries during the 1990s polluted more than the 915 million people added in developing countries during the same period. In other words, with current consumption patterns, overpopulation in the United States (population growth rate 0.9 percent) is more of a threat to the Earth's environment than overpopulation in Uganda (population growth rate of 3.6 percent).

Global human population is expected to level off below 10 billion by 2050, but no one knows when humanity will pass through the global consumption bottleneck. It could well be another century or two before our consumption levels begin to recede, raising the question of whether the planet's ecosystems, and other species, will survive humanity's burgeoning footprint.

Urban sprawl in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Rhett A. Butler


The world's tropical rainforests are threatened by short-term economic exploitation of their resources and pressures from the rural poor. These short-term demands incur long-term costs, which are still largely unrealized and unknown. Because it is easier and appears more economical to clear the forest in the short run, our future quality of life is compromised. The consequences of our actions are the focus of the next section.

Oil palm on peatland. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • How does consumption in the United States affect rainforests on the other side of the world?

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Continued / Next: Why Are Rainforests Important?

  • The hamburger connection between cheap beef and rainforest clearing for pasture was popularized in activist campaigns and in Harris, M. ("The revolutionary hamburger," Psychology Today 17(10): 6-8, 1983), Myers, N., ("The cost of a "Big Mac"? Latin America's forests," World Environment Report 6(18): 1-2, 1980), and Nations, J. D. and D. I. Komer ("Rainforests and the hamburger society," Ecologist 17(4/5): 161-167). However this linkage between Amazonian deforestation and demand for fast-food is tenuous at best according to Nigel J.H. Smith, Emanuel Adilson S. Serro, Paulo T. Alvim, and Italo C. Falesi, Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and its People, The United Nations University, 1995.
  • Primack, R.B., Essentials of Conservation Biology (Sunderland, Mass.: Sinauer Associates 1993) mentions the cassava-animal feed connection to deforestation in Thailand.
  • Myers compares consumption between people in the developing world and the industrialized world calculating that the 58 million people added to the Earth in developed countries during the 1990s will pollute more than the 915 million people added in developing countries during the same period (Myers, N., "Population and Biodiversity," Ambio Vol. 24 No. 1, Feb. 1995).