Allowing Humanity to Flourish in a Crowded World

The Royal Society yesterday published ‘People and the Planet‘, a report which marks the end of nearly two years of work by a group including both the British Ecological Society’s current President, Professor Georgina Mace FRS and a past-President of the Society, Professor Alastair Fitter FRS. Speaking to the Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme yesterday morning, Professor Mace warned that we are eroding the earth’s vital support systems through over-consumption and unfettered economic growth and that as a consequence we are not doing a very poor job of ‘gardening the planet’.

The study examines the links between global population and consumption and the implications for our finite planet. The aim of the report is to provide policy guidance to decision makers and to inform interested members of the public. Yesterday’s publication led to very interesting coverage on the Guardian’s environment blog, with members of the working group, including the group’s chair, Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Sir John Sulston FRS, commentators and others offering their views on the content. Some of those commenting contended that the scientists were too negative in their assessment and that economic growth should not always be viewed as having negative consequences for the environment. One suggestion was that economic growth means that natural resources such as timber could be replaced with man-made materials for development purposes, so reducing environmental degradation. Another was that economic growth means technological and scientific advances, with humanity thereby innovating our way out of a crisis.

Aside from any external comment on the project’s conclusions, the overriding message of the study is that we must examine population growth and consumption patterns together and that it is the combination of these two factors that has an effect on the planet. The human population is set to reach 10 billion people, from the current seven billion, by the middle of this century. Over 1.3 billion people currently live in abject poverty, on less than $1.25 per day. It is clearly not desirable to see a world in which both the population increases and inequalities are exacerbated. Inequality must be addressed, people must be lifted out of poverty, but as their wealth and living standards increase, so too will the consumption of resources. Reducing consumption whilst also reducing inequalities and ensuring that those in poverty achieve an adequate living standard is a dilemma, and one which seems intractable.

Yet, speaking to the Today Programme yesterday morning, Sir John Sulston described tackling these pressures on the planet, what he characterised as ‘planning to flourish’, as ‘very simple’. Echoing the conclusions of the report he stated that we need to ‘dematerialise’ our economy, for example by investing in zero carbon forms of energy and by moving beyond GDP as a measure of economic growth to price in natural capital. In addition, tackling population growth will require countries to work together constructively, rather than the developed somehow lecturing the developing world in how to address birth rates. Contraception should be made available to those who want it in Africa, where two thirds of the anticipated growth in population is projected to occur, for example, but representatives of some African nations, such as Kenya, are requesting this, rather than this being imposed from outside.

Top priority is afforded to lifting people out of poverty, in the report’s conclusions. The international community is urged to address inequality through investment in education, family planning and economic development. The other recommendations are (to paraphrase):

– Most developed and developing economies must stabilise and reduce material consumption levels (de-coupling economic growth from environmental impacts and improving the efficiency of resource use, for example);
– Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes should be supported by political leadership and financial commitments;
– Population and the environment should not be considered separately. Demographic changes should be factored in to Rio +20 negotiations, for example;
– Governments should invest appropriately in urbanisation, for example supporting waste collection, which has the potential to reduce environmental impacts through allowing resource efficiencies;
– High quality primary and secondary education should be available for all young people;
– Governments should accelerate the development of a comprehensive wealth measure, including improving national natural asset accounting;
– Governments should collaborate to develop socio-economic systems and institutions not dependent on continued material consumption.

Natural and social scientists have an important role to play. The seventh recommendation calls for scientists to increase their research into the interactions between consumption, demographic changes and environmental impacts, providing policy-makers with the information they require in order to ensure that both the planet and the human population under pressure can continue not only to survive but also to thrive.