Population growth: some concrete facts

If my last post on population growth was something of a ramble – albeit a conscious one – then this one will regain some clarity. Writing about the topic, I thought back to an article I read in April about a report from the Royal Society, two years in the writing, that did actually put down some clear concerns that, unequivocally, must be addressed.

Of the extra three billion people by 2100, perhaps two billion will be in Africa

Richard Black’s article is available here for your perusal. Black picks out some highlights from  the report, chaired by Sir John Sulston, previously head of the UK Human Genome Project. Here are the main points:

  • As the world’s population has continued to grow, blasting past previous warnings about overcrowding, the debate has been pushed off the table, perhaps because Western mass consumption is an unstoppable force
  • The UN’s medium projection for population growth sees the global total peaking just over 10 billion before 2100
  • Of the three billion new people, most will come from the least developed countries, with at least two billion in Africa
  • If the fertility rate in the least developed countries does not come down to levels in the rest of the world, by 2100, the worst case scenario would be a world population of 22 billion
  • The main suggestion from the report is to make lifting the bottom billion out of extreme poverty the main priority
  • This will certainly mean increased food consumption, water use and energy requirements – things which scare the mainstream of environmentalists – but it is a necessary step

What is really interesting out of the report, is that it proposes a positive message about lifting billions out of poverty, but this is only one part of the solution. There is a clear double imperative now: help the poorest nations develop and, simultaneously, develop more sustainable models of economic growth.

This double imperative is something we have to accept, not one or the other alone. If you focus solely on bringing prosperity to the developing world, we’ll end up in a far greater environmental crisis, because of the far greater consumption that it will bring. Or, if you focus solely on protecting the environment, your argument feels rather elitist. The wealthy seem to be protecting what they’ve already got.

An integrated, global plan of action is clearly necessary. Doesn’t Rio+20, which aimed to provide sustainable solutions for the world in social justice and environmentalism, seem the perfect vehicle? Oh wait, that didn’t work so well. The fact that what we needed to achieve was so clear, but this much anticipated conference could not deliver it, underlines the travesty.

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