It has long been assumed that poverty is a driving force in deforestation. Certainly environmental problems due at least partly to human population growth are aggravated by poverty, particularly in developing and tropical countries. Habitat destruction is occurring most rapidly in the tropics where there are the highest population growth rates, the greatest proportion of poverty, and the least economic opportunity. In poorer countries, people are searching for basic necessities. While people in tropical countries contribute heavily to deforestation in their search for food, fuel, and shelter, in developed countries it is the well-to-do who do so, with their insatiable demand for consumer goods. Here, prosperity is the driving force in deforestation. The global market for tropical hardwoods, for instance, continues unabated, and there is increasing interest in other rainforest products, such as rattan. In a less direct way, human demand for tropical products (coffee, rubber, meat etc.) leads to the destruction of rainforests for agricultural or ranch land. As Soulé (1991) put it, “Habitat destruction and extinction, however, will occur most rapidly in the tropics…, where lack of economic opportunity, demographic momentum, and restrictions on reproductive choice are the engines that power the destruction of life. It is probable that the price of raising human economic welfare to a standard similar to that in the wealthier countries will be biotic devastation in the tropics on a scale inconsistent with the persistence of wildlands…the loss of most tropical wildlands in the next 50 years or so, an epochal catastrophe for earthly life, appears a virtual inevitability.”
When, in approximately 35 years or so, the world population doubles, the consumption of food and fiber is expected to rise threefold, the demand for energy, fourfold, and economic activity, fivefold. If people being added to the world’s population (not to mention the current poor) should become more prosperous, few of the world’s ecosystems – particularly rainforests – would survive the onslaught of demand. At present there are great inequities in consumption. The average American uses twenty times as much energy as a person in Bangladesh or Ethiopia or Bolivia, and consumes very great quantities of tropical products – wood, coffee, tea, sugar, soy beans, palm oil. Even assuming no change in current patterns of living standards, most rainforest land is expected to be co-opted for agriculture, mining, housing, and pasture within the next half-century because of human population growth.