Thoughts on nature's bounty, consumption, women's rights and population
At first glance the idea of identifying a maximum population for the planet seems pretty straight-forward. We’re trashing it already with 7 billion – surely it can’t take anymore?
But dig a bit and it gets more complex. A sustainable population level is intimately tied to how much humans consume and how productive the planet is. Both of these are in themselves hugely complex and changing.
So just over a year ago I set balls rolling to see if we could come up with a rough answer to the question. I think we’ve done so, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
- Firstly, the Anthony Rae Foundation took a detailed look at demographic trends. It identified the in-built inertia in population growth that means that a global population below 8 billion people in 2050 is nigh-on impossible to achieve.
- Secondly, as part of our Big Ideas Change the World project we reviewed the literature and spoke to experts about nature’s bounty. By doing this it became clear that through human mismanagement the biological productivity of the planet is declining and may decline further in the latter half of this century. This is due to soil degradation, climate change, biodiversity loss, water shortages, ozone pollution and more. On top of that, global consumption pressures are increasing, for example through increased meat consumption and a shift to energy from crops. Of course, we can and must do our utmost to turn this around. But even so, the picture isn’t too pretty.
Where does this leave us?
The good news is the global growth in population is declining, even though the median projections for 2050 and 2100 have recently been revised upwards by the UN. Also, many countries in the north and the south say they want to get to grips with the challenges ahead of them.
The bad news is that the UN’s global population projections for 2100 are still very high, especially given the degraded state of the planet and current trends to higher consumption.
So what should be done?
Firstly, I think the answer is don’t panic.
The trend of reducing population growth is good and we know how to maintain and accelerate it. Together with Marie Stopes International and the Population and Sustainability Network we’ve identified that governments need to:
- Provide secondary education to girls everywhere and expand tertiary education.
- Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, including voluntary family planning services that respect and protect human rights
- Eradicate gender inequalities
- Change economic models that rely on unsustainable consumption, and pursue a pathway to sustainable consumption, especially in energy production and diets.
Of course delivering these policies is not necessarily simple, but they are achievable.
Because of the complexities it is not possible to identify a scientifically robust estimate for an optimum population for the planet - so said the Royal Society last year in their report People and the Planet.
But you’d be hard pressed to find many people who are comfortable with the prospect of a global population of 16.6 billion in 2100, which is the UN’s high estimate of a global population at this date.
Friends of the Earth has come to the view that aiming for a peak in population by around 2050, to be achieved by supporting women’s education and reproductive rights, would make sense. This would put us on track for a global population of around 8 - 9 billion by 2050. But even to accommodate this would require significant changes in consumption practices and sustained action to restore nature’s bounty.
Population, consumption and how we treat the planet are intimately linked. It’s just plain wrong to pretend that we can provide a health planet for future generations by focussing solely on population growth or solely on consumption.
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