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What Additonal Scale Relevant Polices are Needed? 


Asking the Right Question: What is Optimal Scale for Population and Throughput?

The current approach to population issues focuses on economic growth as the means of reducing fertility, without any clear targets for either fertility rates or total population. Population policies generally ignore the issue of biophysical limits of material throughput (i.e. consumption levels) imposed by global ecosystems.  From a sustainable scale perspective the issue is not population numbers alone, but what combination of population and per capita consumption is both desirable and sustainable.


Questions of what is both desirable and sustainable are questions of optimal scale ( ).  Biophysical limits determine the sustainable aspects of optimal scale, and socio-political factors determine the desirable social norms established. The recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report ( ) recognized that healthy ecosystems are required to meet human needs by stating that the Millennium Development Goals will not be achieved if global ecosystems are allowed to continue degrading at the current rate.


Current Global Consumption Unsustainable[1]

The Ecological Footprint indicates that global consumption currently exceeds by about 20% the annual regenerative capacities of the limited bioproductive land and sea available on the earth’s surface.  With no further increases in per capita consumption, the anticipated 50 % increase in population to the year 2050 would result in a 40% “overshoot.” Current population policies seek to increase per capita consumption as a way of dealing with the population issue. Given that the earth’s bioproductive capacities are fixed, increases in population can only lead to a decline in per capita consumption. Clearly, such solutions are unsustainable.


Biophysical Givens

The amount of bioproductive land and sea available to supply human needs is limited.  Currently, the approximately 11+ billion acres [???] of productive earth, divided by the 6.3 billion people who depend on it for their well being, results in an average of  approximately 1.8 hectares per person as the “equal earth share” available. 


Collectively we are currently using approximately 2.2 ha per person, or over 20% more than is produced annually.  Gradually, this draw down of natural capital ( ) will reduce the “equal earth share” available, and eventually disrupt ecosystem functioning to the point where human needs may no longer be met (see sustainable or unsustainable).  Recent assessments indicate that approximately 60% of global ecosystems are currently stressed to the point of their future viability coming into question within the next few decades ( MA report).


Desirable Consumption Levels

What level of per capita consumption can be derived from the current “equal earth share” of 1.8 ha per person? Some of the nations currently at or near this level are: Gabon, Thailand, Dominican Republic, Namibia, Egypt, China, Albania, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Uganda, South Korea, Cuba and Tunisia. 


By comparison, nations with considerably higher levels of consumption (footprints of at least 6 ha per person, or 300% higher than the “equal earth share”) include: United Arab Emirates, United States, Kuwait, Australia, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, and Norway.


It should also be noted that a large number of countries, representing approximately one third of humanity, currently survive below the “equal earth share.”  These include India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Peru, Angola, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Somalia and Afghanistan, amongst others.


Is 6 ha Per Person a Desirable Level of Consumption?

Simply for purposes of discussion, let us imagine an arbitrarily targeted consumption level approximately half way between the current “equal earth share” and the levels used by nations with the highest footprints in excess of 9 ha per person).  Nations currently at or near this level of 6 ha per person include: Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, France, Greece, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.


All of these nations are generally considered to have a high standard of living, and provide a high level of well being by objective measures. Most people on the planet would likely find such a level of consumption reasonably desirable.


What would the global population have to be to allow the “equal earth share” to be 6 ha per capita?  The arithmetic is simple: divide the 11+ billion bioproductive hectares by 6 ha per person to obtain a targeted global population of 1,830,000.  This is a bit less than the global population in 1930, and less than one third of current population.


Is a Global Population of 2 Billion Feasible by 2100?

Continuing this imaginary exercise, let us ask what it would take to achieve a stable human population of approximately 2 billion people by the year 2100.  What kind of measures would be necessary?


The current global growth rate (birth rate minus death rate) is 1.3 [ ????? or 1.2???]; if this rate were to remain constant the global population would be over 22 billion people by 2100. Such a population would provide only 0.5 ha per person, roughly the current footprint of Somalia or Afghanistan.


If the current global population of families targeted a replacement strategy (i.e.two children per family), then the global population would stabilize at approximately 8.7 billion people by 2050. This would result in an “equal earth share” of 1.2 ha per person, the current footprint level of Cote de Ivoire or Angola. This is roughly the scenario currently anticipated by the UN??? ( ).


For purposes of comparison, consider a one child policy.  This would result in a global population of 2 billion before 2100, and decline to 1.4 billion by 2100. If a transition were made to a two child per family policy at this point, the result would be a stable global population of only 600,000 by 2150.  This would result in a “equal earth share” close to double that of the United States in 2001, or some 18.3 ha per person.


[how many births do unwanted pregnancies account for??]


The point in describing these scenarios is to demonstrate that a stable global population of 2 billion people is feasible with some combination of measures which would result in fertility rates somewhat, but not far, below current rates. This example also includes a level of consumption (approximately 6 ha per person) that the vast majority of people would find comfortable. The most important point of this example is that the combination of per capita consumption and global population results in a total level of consumption (throughput) believed to be within the biophysical limits of ecosystem services upon which we depend.


Other scenarios could target a larger global population, but would have to accept a lower per capita level of consumption to achieve sustainable scale.  It is possible, but far from certain, that future advances in technology may allow for significantly greater resource productivity to modify the population – per capita consumption equation within a sustainable envelope.  However, it should be recalled that most increases in technological efficiencies over the last 150 years were made possible by cheap energy. The likelihood that global energy supplies will decline with the advent of peak oil (see Energy) suggests we should be prudent in planning for much of a boost from technologies over the next 150 years.


What Policy Options Are Available to Ensure Sustainable Scale for the Human Populations?

The above scenarios indicate that a stable population of approximately 2 billion people, with a per capita consumption level of approximately 6 bioproductive hectares is feasible within the current century.  What policy options could bring us to some such sustainable population-consumption combination? 


  1. Enhancing Current Approaches   The emphasis on voluntary measures in the currently dominant approach could be enhanced. This could be done in a variety of ways, such as:



All of the above actions could be done within a framework of voluntary measures, respecting individual rights as much as possible, but clearly placing the challenge within the context of collective rights and responsibilities. However, unless such voluntary approaches are creatively and aggressively promoted, more mandated approaches may be required.


      2. Mandated Approaches   A variety of mandatory approaches have been used or proposed.  Ones which might be considered include:


Clearly, mandatory approaches are less desirable than voluntary approaches.  However, unless the entire issue regarding the population-consumption total is taken more seriously, the need for such mandatory programs will increase.  The alternative will be to leave billions of people currently alive in misery and chaos, and further degrade global ecosystems for all future generations.



The Difficult Issue of Reducing Consumption in Wealthy Nations

The above scenarios and discussion assumes that all nations’ consumption levels will converge on the some mutually agreed desirable “equal earth share” (6 ha per person of bioproductive surface in the examples above).  The consumption levels of poor nations would need to increase to this share, and those of wealthy nations would have to decline to this level. Such an assumption is not likely to be fulfilled in the present social and political climate: economic growth is the dominant policy paradigm and is well entrenched at all levels of government and across most sectors of society ( ).


However, this policy priority is not a law of nature and can change. Indeed, if sustainable scale is to be achieved, economic growth must decline and be maintained at a steady state (  ). Part of the challenge of achieving sustainable scale is to shift our priorities from economic growth for its own sake to an economic paradigm which serves human well being ( ).  We have the knowledge and skills to achieve a comfortable level of material and social well being that is consistent with sustainable scale. Our biggest challenge is public education and political change which puts a priority on living comfortably and fairly within the limits of the earth’s bounty.  Anything less is ecologically and socially unsustainable.

[1] Specific measures mentioned should be taken as very general indicators and as containing considerable error margins. However, the error margins are not so great as to invalidate the basic points: collective decisions are required about what combination of per capita consumption and population should be the target of international policies. It should also be noted that the Ecological Footprint is a conservative measure and actual levels of consumption are likely to be higher than reported by the footprint.

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