Human Population Growth and Ecology: Jonathon Porrit at the Cheltenham Science Festival

The BES policy team attended several insightful and stimulating talks at this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival, which took place last week. In particular, Jonathon Porrit (Programme Director of Forum for the Future and Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission) delivered a fascinating, if controversial talk on the issue of global population growth, in the context of rising oil prices, increasing food costs and ongoing environmental degradation. Jonathon identified a number of global regions , many in South East Asia and Africa, where population growth exceeds a neutral growth rate, or ‘replacement’ rate; with some families having up to seven children on average. He cited the lack of funding, and political will, for effective family-planning programmes in many developing countries as a major barrier to reducing global population growth.

With the global population set to exceed 9 billion by 2050, and current resources struggling to fulfill demand, the current rate of consumption cannot hope to match a future population if everyone in the world consumed as much as those in ‘developed’ countries. What Jonathon failed to identify clearly was the link between demand for resources and demography. It is true to say that many of the world’s poorest reside in the most biologically diverse regions of the world, such as tropical rainforests, and that they depend on their resources for their livelihood. But in the same spirit, the driving force of habitat loss and destruction is generally from economically more developed countries.

A strong case has been made for sustainable population growth, if not reduction, but the root cause of the world’s environmental ills presently is not just in the rapidly expanding population, but in the existing and falling populations in economically more developed countries with the overwhelmingly larger environmental footprint. Geometric population growth should not be overlooked as an environmental issue because of its controversy, but the facts should not be misrepresented, so as to ease the mindset of the economically most developed countries into continuing unsustainable and environmentally damaging activities, such as over-exploitation of natural resources, continued pollution of the natural environment and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

We all have a part to play in living less environmentally harmful lifestyles and globally, countries should take responsibility in equal measure rather than naming and shaming others.

The Economist provides an interesting insight to the topic of population growth, and other links.

The BES would like to invite blog readers to share their thoughts and opinions on this topic.