What Scale Relevant Lessons Can We Take from the Population Issue?
Avoiding the Difficult Issues Will Not Provide Solutions
The lack of clear goals regarding desirable and sustainable combinations of population and per capita consumption are a major obstacle to achieving sustainable scale. The anticipated course of increased population and per capita consumption (some 9 billion people by 2050, all presumably aspiring to a consumption level similar to that of wealthy nations today), will result in greater ecological degradation, and seriously endanger future generations. Our current implied goal is not only unsustainable but physically impossible, and would require and additional two planet earths to achieve.
Only by confronting the difficult issues of living within the biophysical limits of global ecosystems, developing a global consensus on fairly sharing the bounty provided, and targeting an agreed population level consistent with sustainable consumption, can we have any hope of a prosperous global civilization.
Time is Not Our Friend
Every decade that results in increases in global population and total consumption is a decade where natural capital will be reduced for future generations. The longer ecological “overshoot” occurs, and the more it grows, the more the bioproductive capacity of global ecosystems will be compromised. At some point ecosystem resilience will be reduced to the point where their ability to continue providing the life-support services required for human well being will not longer be adequate. The Millennium Assessment Report ( ) is but the latest of a long list of scientific evidence warning us of this.
The sooner the difficult issues regarding total global consumption are faced, and optimal scale is seen as the highest international priority, the more of the earth’s bounty will be preserved for human enjoyment. There is no doubt that global consumption will eventually decline. The longer the current course is maintained the more likely will draconian measures be required to deal with the environmental and social chaos which will result.
The current course will result in a decline of the nastiest sort – violent conflicts, disease, extreme weather events, social chaos, misery and destruction. A collectively planned decline in total consumption, linked with a global increase in human well being is not only possible, but the only choice which is collectively survivable.
Laws of Nature Must Be Respected
The biophysical limits of ecosystems are determined by the laws of nature. They cannot be negotiated away, altered, or intimidated by force. They will endure, and it is only by respecting the limits defined by these laws that humanity will prosper. Whatever social and cultural beliefs and values we adhere to, these laws will function and set limits to our total consumption.
The sooner we find beliefs and values compatible with these laws, the sooner we will prosper. Religious traditions which support the concept of the stewardship of nature demonstrate that there are unresolved conflicts within these traditions (e.g. which support both stewardship and forbid contraception), which urgently need attention (see Moral..).
“Population” Is Not the Issue
Population size on its own is not the key issue. It is the combination of population and per capita consumption that threatens to exceed sustainable scale. It is essential to recognize this connection to deal effectively with the “population problem.” The implications require us to accept the biophysical limits of global ecosystems, and ensure that the economic activities which determine our total consumption levels remain within these limits. The many changes required – in fertility rates, economic paradigms, business practices, and technological approaches – will all take time to bring us to sustainable scale. Coordinated actions are urgently required in all these areas.
Easy Fixes Usually Aren’t
The fossil fuel era was viewed as a solution to feeding the world’s poor. The green revolution dramatically increases global food supply and lead to an exponential increase in human numbers. After only a few decades of more food and significant economic growth we are now faced with unprecedented challenges to the health of the planet and the continuation of a global civilization. What appeared to be a miracle energy source ( ) has led us to problems we may not be able to solve ( ). Solution will require much creativity and hard work, and careful attention to respecting ecosystem health.
Only Collective Solutions Will Work
The overpopulation-consumption challenge requires a collective, coordinated response from all nations. From a sustainable scale perspective the challenge is to ensure total consumption remains within the biophysical limits of ecosystem functioning. No single nation can solve the problem on its own; no single nation can isolate itself from the consequences if the problem remains unsolved. No amount of economic growth or military power or any other strategy will allow a single nation to survive a system where global consumption exceeds sustainable scale.
Individual nations can, however, make significant contributions by
- advocating and encouraging sustainable population-consumption levels globally
- implementing national policies that bring that nation’s population-consumption level in line with the “equal earth share” for that nation (by lowering their own fertility and/or consumption levels)
- providing assistance to other nations to enable them to achieve their “equal earth share.”
Nations acting individually are unlikely to solve the global problem. But they will lead by example, demonstrate that the will exists to achieve a sustainable population-consumption level, and make a real contribution to moving in the right direction. Above all, they would provide hope that a solution is possible.