People and the Planet: Crowded planet must change to avoid future environmental, social and economic woes

By Martin Leggett - 26 Apr 2012 16:21:46 GMT
People and the Planet: Crowded planet must change its ways

People and the Planet; Credit: Shutterstock

People and the Planet - a 21-month-long study by 22 experts into the intertwined dilemmas of population growth , persistent inequality and environmental collapse - presented the world with a stark choice today: moving towards a more equal distribution of resources, and a stabilized global population; or a descent into a gathering storm of 'of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future.'

Those were the words of Sir John Sulston, Fellow of the Royal Society, the group of esteemed UK academics who commissioned and authored the report. The study was conducted during a period in which saw the global population count click over the 7 billion mark, and during which developed countries struggled to keep flickering economic growth alive. The inability of the current economic approach to resolve the collision between shrinking resources and swelling numbers suggests the need for new thinking, said the report.

'Material growth' out, 'global needs' in

'We call on all governments to consider the issue of population carefully at the Rio+20 meeting and to commit to a more just future based not on material consumption growth for their nations, but on the needs of the global community, both present and future,' said Sir John Sulston. The study was kicked off back in July 2010, aiming to provide dispassionate and expert guidance for leaders and public alike, on how tackle the tangled nexus of woes concerning overpopulation, inequality and the environment.

Specific recommendations by the report authors included:

Emphasizing the moral imperative on the international community to haul 1.3 billion people out of absolute poverty. Determined action on economic policies, education, family planning and health is seen as essential.

Stressing the importance of the richer world making do with less resources, by stabilizing and then reducing its material consumption. That should come through dramatically improved resource-use efficiency, switching to sustainable resources and technologies, and unhooking the link between economic growth and environmental disruption.

Making reproductive health and voluntary family planning programs a national, and international priority, to help push down fertility rates, especially where the need for contraception currently not met. This will help global populations to stabilize at a lower, more manageable level.

Recognizing that the twin worries over a burgeoning population and a degrading environment are not separate issues, but intimately connected. As such, 'population' needs to sit with equal footing at international meetings on economic and environmental policy (such as the upcoming Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development).

The changing face of the global populace

The changing nature of the world's population was also captured in this far-reaching study. While the global headcount continues to rise, the rate of increase peaked as long ago as the 1960s, and the annual absolute increase has been declining since the 1990s. By 2050, the planet will host some 9.3 billion people, with numbers stabilizing somewhere around 10 billion, thereafter. And the world is getting older, fast - over-65's made up 5% of the population in 1950, 9% now and will hit 20% by 2050. Most of the globe will also be living in cities by mid-century.

In addition to looking at resource distribution, and the changing population balance globally, the study also focused in detail on key countries - including South Korea, Kenya, Niger and the UK. Inequality is a persistent theme of the current economic system, the report found. For example:

A child living in the developed world consumes 30-50 times more water as a child in the poorer parts of the developing world.

The amount of calories consumed per person may have risen by 15% between 1969 and 2005, but 2010 saw nearly one billion people still living on less than their minimum calorie needs.

Energy use was 50 times higher in high-income countries, compare to low-income ones

Time to reboot the system?

Of course, this is far from the first report to stress the need to tackle inequality and runaway resource depletion. Last May, the UN released a report stressing the need for a decoupling of economic growth from natural resource use. As the authors of 'People and the Planet' conclude, GDP is far from a 'be-all and end-all' measure of human happiness - and is in fact a 'poor measure of social well-being and does not account for natural capital.'

So the time is long overdue for a change in the ways we do things, it would seem. As Sir John Sulston concluded 'Ultimately, we should all strive for a world in which every individual has an opportunity to flourish... Humanity must now act collectively and constructively if we are to face the future with confidence.'

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