We consider two aspects of the human enterprise that profoundly affect the global environment: population and consumption. We show that fertility and consumption behavior harbor a class of externalities that have not been much noted in the literature. Both are driven in part by attitudes and preferences that are not egoistic but socially embedded; that is, each household’s decisions are influenced by the decisions made by others. In a famous paper, Garrett Hardin [G. Hardin, Science 162, 1243–1248 (1968)] drew attention to overpopulation and concluded that the solution lay in people “abandoning the freedom to breed.” That human attitudes and practices are socially embedded suggests that it is possible for people to reduce their fertility rates and consumption demands without experiencing a loss in wellbeing. We focus on fertility in sub-Saharan Africa and consumption in the rich world and argue that bottom-up social mechanisms rather than top-down government interventions are better placed to bring about those ecologically desirable changes.

Barrett S, Dasgupta A, Dasgupta P, Adger WN, Anderies J, van den Bergh J, Bledsoe C, Bongaarts J, Carpenter S, Chapin FS, et al (2020). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117, 6300-6307.

Social dimensions of fertility behavior and consumption patterns in the Anthropocene