Consumption And Population Control, Key Factors In Sustainable Future
April 26, 2012

Consumption And Population Control, Key Factors In Sustainable Future

Lawrence LeBlond for

Experts need to focus their attention on over-consumption in the developed world and a ballooning population throughout the poorest countries in order to bring society back down to a sustainable future, says a new report by the Royal Society.

The planet is currently on a collision course with an economic and environmental catastrophe if world leaders do not come up with real solutions quickly, according to the “People and the Planet” report, chaired by Nobel laureate Sir John Sulston.

The Royal Society report, published today by an international group of 23 scientists, calls for a rebalancing of consumption in favor of poor countries coupled with increased efforts to control the growing population in an effort to reverse widespread poverty.

Currently there are more than 1.3 billion people on the planet who live on less than $1.25 per day. To put it into perspective, that´s less than $40 per month, and less than $500 per year -- a number that most Americans see in a week.

Perhaps most unsettling, however, is the fact that that poverty levels could rise to 10 billion people by the end of this century if we continue on the track we are on, according to UN figures.

A huge part of that poverty growth -- some two billion -- will be seen in Africa, where fertility rates are extremely high and show no signs of slowing down.

While lifting the poor out of poverty is an imperative goal to sustaining the future, some argue that unsustainable consumption patterns are depleting resources and damaging the environment and need the utmost attention.

Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at Essex University, said curbing over-consumption is going to be a difficult task. Simply telling people to go without isn´t going to work, he added.

“The trick will be to encourage more sustainable forms of consumption that don´t impact so heavily on the planet´s finite resources. At the moment we´re moving in the wrong direction so we need to develop different thinking about consumption, different thinking about what a green economy might look like,” Pretty told Tom Fielden of BBC News.

When asked what a world based on more sustainable models of consumption look like, she offered solar power as an example. “If we all had solar panels on our roofs we´d have millions of net contributors to energy generation, and if we used that power to charge an electric car we´d get a double benefit,” Pretty explained.

The report authors are taking both sides of the equation into account and are feeding them into preparations for the Rio+20 summit in June.

“This is an absolutely critical period for people and the planet, with profound changes for human health and wellbeing and the natural environment,” said Sulston. “Where we go is down to human volition - it´s not pre-ordained, it´s not the act of anything outside humanity, it´s in our hands.”

“Over the next 30 - 40 years the confluence of the challenges described in this report provides the opportunity to move towards a sustainable economy and a better world for the majority of humanity, or alternatively the risk of social, economic and environmental failures and catastrophes on a scale never imagined,” said the scientists.

The 133-page report, a work-up two years in the making, comes against a backdrop of severity-plagued governments trying to reduce subsidies for renewable energy, global car manufacturers struggling to meet demand for new cars in rapidly growing economies like China and Brazil, and increasing pressure to exploit vast untouched gas reserves around the globe through the controversial “fracking.”

But scientists who worked on the report insist that the goals are realistic and argue that lifestyle choices, human volition and government incentive programs can make a significant difference to curb over-consumption to ease the burden on the growing population.

The scientists used such examples as the growing appetite for recycling in the developed world, Britain´s switch to lead-free fuel in the 80s, and the solution to air traffic control to show how international cooperation can work.

Sulston, who came to fame through his involvement in the UK part of the Human Genome Project, and his 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, said governments quickly realized that the consequences of not managing air traffic could be catastrophic, and knew cooperation was the key to making it work.

Developed and emerging economies should stabilize and then start reducing their consumption of materials by increased efficiency, waste reduction and more investment in sustainable resources, said the report authors. Carbon dioxide emissions are up to 50 times higher in rich countries compared to poor nations, they add. Rising greenhouse gas emissions are almost certainly responsible for increasing global average temperatures, leading to rising sea levels and more extreme weather.

Professor Sarah Harper of Oxford University, one of the authors of the new report, said population issues have waned in the past 15 years. Not too long ago, it was believed that the planet was able to support more people than predictions had suggested, and many developing countries believed the population issue was just a smokescreen to hide Western over-consumption.

She said the population problem should be reinstated as a significant issue along with environmental challenges, and the June Rio+20 summit is a good place to start.

Eliya Msiyaphazi Zulu, one of the report authors and Executive Director of the African Institute for Development Policy research group, said education in family planning and improved access to contraception is a crucial ingredient in cooling the over-population, especially in Africa, which is forecast to contribute 70 percent of the average population growth. All the evidence points to African women wanting fewer children and he argued the main reason for high fertility in such poor countries as Niger was the fact that half of all women married by the age of 16.

A revision in how we measure economic growth is much needed as well, insist the report authors.

“We are extremely wedded to the idea that Gross Domestic Product [GDP] increases are a good thing,” said Pretty, arguing that GDP measures many of the ℠bads´ in terms of the well-being of the planet as well as the ℠goods,´ adding: “There is an urgent need for policy change.”

The report provides some startling statistics. The average child in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times as much water as one from the developing world. Global caloric consumption on average increased about 15 percent between 1969 and 2005, but in 2010 nearly 1 billion people wasn´t meeting minimum calorie needs.

Minerals production soared through 2007, with copper, lead and lithium production up about four times over those nearly 50 years earlier. And metals used in electronic gadgets are up 77 times.

The author´s message to the developed world is quite simple: “You don't have to be consuming as much to have a healthy and happy life.”

While it makes a lot of sense, it may be a tough sell to politicians and consumers in rich countries.

“It is a brave politician who is prepared to tell Western consumers to consume less to let the developing world consume more,” Tim Lang, Professor of the Center for Food Policy at City University in London, told Reuters. “But we need such bravery now, urgently.”

“The West over- and mal-consumes its way to diet-related ill-health from a diet with a high environmental impact. The evidence is there but will politicians and consumers listen and change?” asked Lang, who was not involved in the report.

While the report authors say the need for sustainability for the future of mankind is of dire importance, they also agree that humanity has already moved beyond “safe” planetary boundaries on biodiversity loss, climate change and the nitrogen cycle, risking severe impacts in the future.

The Royal Society says that the use of GDP as a sole indicator of an economy´s health needs to end, arguing that there are other measures adopted that value “natural capital” -- the goods and services that nature provides for free.

“We have to go beyond GDP; and either we can do it voluntarily or we´ll have to do it because pressure on a finite planet will in the end make us,” said Pretty. “The environment is the economy to some extent... and you can talk about running economies in ways that improve peoples´ lives but don´t damage natural capital, that even enhance it.”

The Rio+20 summit in June is likely to agree on establishing a set of “sustainable development goals” to follow on from the existing Millennium Development Goals that are helping to reduce poverty and improve health and education in developing countries. Whether the SDGs will commit rich countries to curbing consumption is currently yet to be seen.