Letter | Published:

Effects of household dynamics on resource consumption and biodiversity


Human population size and growth rate are often considered important drivers of biodiversity loss1,2,3,4,5,6, whereas household dynamics are usually neglected. Aggregate demographic statistics may mask substantial changes in the size and number of households, and their effects on biodiversity. Household dynamics influence per capita consumption7,8 and thus biodiversity through, for example, consumption of wood for fuel9, habitat alteration for home building and associated activities10,11,12, and greenhouse gas emissions13. Here we report that growth in household numbers globally, and particularly in countries with biodiversity hotspots (areas rich in endemic species and threatened by human activities14), was more rapid than aggregate population growth between 1985 and 2000. Even when population size declined, the number of households increased substantially. Had the average household size (that is, the number of occupants) remained static, there would have been 155 million fewer households in hotspot countries in 2000. Reduction in average household size alone will add a projected 233 million additional households to hotspot countries during the period 2000–15. Rapid increase in household numbers, often manifested as urban sprawl, and resultant higher per capita resource consumption in smaller households15,16,17,18,19 pose serious challenges to biodiversity conservation.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1

    Holdren, J. P. & Ehrlich, P. R. Human population and the global environment. Am. Sci. 62, 282–292 (1974)

  2. 2

    Wilson, E. O. Biodiversity (National Academy of Science, Washington DC, 1988)

  3. 3

    Pimm, S. L., Russell, G. J., Gittleman, H. L. & Brooks, T. M. The future of biodiversity. Science 269, 347–350 (1995)

  4. 4

    Thompson, K. & Jones, A. Human population density and prediction of local plant extinction in Britain. Conserv. Biol. 13, 185–189 (1999)

  5. 5

    Cincotta, R. P., Wisnewski, J. & Engelman, R. Human population in the biodiversity hotspots. Nature 404, 990–992 (2000)

  6. 6

    Dompka, V. Human Population, Biodiversity and Protected Areas: Science and Policy Issues (American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington DC, 1996)

  7. 7

    Kaul, S. & Liu, Q. Rural household energy use in China. Energy 17, 405–411 (1992)

  8. 8

    Sandiford, P., Gorter, A. C., Orozco, J. G. & Pauw, J. P. Determinants of domestic water-use in rural Nicaragua. J. Trop. Med. Hyg. 93, 383–389 (1990)

  9. 9

    Gardner-Outlaw, T. & Engelman, R. Forest Futures: Population, Consumption and Wood Resources (Population Action International, Washington DC, 1999)

  10. 10

    Friesen, L. E., Eagles, P. F. J. & MacKay, R. J. Effects of residential development on forest dwelling neotropical migrant songbirds. Conserv. Biol. 9, 1408–1414 (1995)

  11. 11

    Nilon, C. H., Long, C. N. & Zipperer, W. C. Effects of wildland development on forest bird communities. Landscape Urban Plan. 32, 81–92 (1995)

  12. 12

    Kluza, D. A., Griffin, C. R. & DeGraaf, R. M. Housing developments in rural New England: effects on forest birds. Anim. Conserv. 3, 15–26 (2000)

  13. 13

    MacKellar, F. L., Lutz, W., Prinz, C. & Goujon, A. Population, households, and CO2 emissions. Pop. Dev. Rev. 21, 849–865 (1995)

  14. 14

    Myers, N., Mittermeier, R. A., Mittermeier, C. G., da Fonseca, G. A. B. & Kent, J. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403, 853–858 (2000)

  15. 15

    An, L. et al. Simulating demographic and socioeconomic processes on household level and implications for giant panda habitats. Ecol. Mod. 140, 31–50 (2001)

  16. 16

    Yousif, H. M. Population, biomass and the environment in central Sudan. Int. J. Sust. Dev. World Ecol. 2, 54–69 (1995)

  17. 17

    Lenzen, M. & Murray, S. A. A modified ecological footprint method and its application to Australia. Ecol. Econ. 37, 229–255 (2001)

  18. 18

    Ironmonger, D. S., Aitken, C. K. & Erbas, B. Economies of scale in energy use in adult-only households. Energy Econ. 17, 301–310 (1995)

  19. 19

    Durrenberger, G., Patzel, N. & Hartmann, C. Household energy consumption in Switzerland. Int. J. Environ. Pollut. 15, 159–170 (2001)

  20. 20

    Rutledge, J., Lepcyzk, C., Xie, J. & Liu, J. Spatial and temporal dynamics of endangered species hotspots in the United States. Conserv. Biol. 15, 475–487 (2001)

  21. 21

    Liu, J. et al. Ecological degradation in protected areas: The case of Wolong Nature Reserve for giant pandas. Science 292, 98–101 (2001)

  22. 22

    Michael, R. T., Fuchs, V. R. & Scott, S. R. Changes in the propensity to live alone: 1950–1976. Demography 17, 39–53 (1980)

  23. 23

    Bongaarts, J. The End of the Fertility Transition in the Developed World (The Population Council, New York, 2001)

  24. 24

    Kinsella, K. & Velkoff, V. A. An Aging World: 2001 (US Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 2001)

  25. 25

    Daily, G. C. (ed.) Nature's Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems (Island, Washington DC, 1997)

  26. 26

    United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) Cities in a Globalizing World: Global Report on Human Settlements 2001 (Earthscan, London, 2001)

  27. 27

    Cincotta, R. P. & Engelman, R. Nature's Place: Human Population and the Future of Biological Diversity (Population Action International, Washington DC, 2000)

  28. 28

    Kitagawa, E. M. Components of a difference between two rates. J. Am. Stat. Assoc. 50, 1168–1194 (1955)

Download references


We thank J. Eagle, W. Falcon, M. Feldman, N. Keilman, H. Mooney, R. Naylor, S. Pimm, K. Seto and S. Tuljapurkar for their constructive comments on earlier drafts; P. Langhammer and N. Myers for providing lists of hotspot countries; E. Laurent for technical assistance in producing figures; J. Baca, R. Cincotta, W. Lutz and A. McMillan for providing some references; G. Clarke for providing the housing data of India River County, Florida; and W. W. Taylor and Q. Wang for logistical and moral support. Funding for this project was provided to J.L. by the National Science Foundation (CAREER Award and Biocomplexity in the Environment Program) and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Author information

Correspondence to Jianguo Liu.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Results (DOC 25 kb)

Supplementary Methods (DOC 28 kb)

Supplementary Table 1 (DOC 20 kb)

Supplementary References (DOC 28 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading

Figure 1: Household dynamics in 76 hotspot countries (HC) and 65 non-hotspot countries (NHC).
Figure 2
Figure 3


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.