From time to time, readers post comments here citing humanity’s sheer numbers …7 billion and climbing, on its way to what looks to be 9 billion at a minimum…as the biggest challenge to sustainable development. So many people mean a big global appetite for food, water, and energy. Per capita, those appetites are increasing, in response to economic growth and globalization. It’s hard for this many people, however well-intended, to avoid degrading the environment, destroying natural habitat, threatening endangered species, and the like. And the numbers imply crowding higher populations and greater economic activity into locations vulnerable to natural hazards… coastal zones, unstable slopes, and seismically active areas.
But how to carry the discussion further? Those who are so inclined and looking for a suitable starting point might take note of a multi-authored letter posted in the February 24, 2012 issue of Science. Here’s a link to the letter itself (these are limited to some 300 words; the authors’ names and affiliations come to almost comparable length). Wolfgang Lutz, with IIASA’s World Population Program, is the senior author (of 23).
Here are their five bits of advice:
(i) Recognize that the numbers, characteristics, and behaviors of people are at the heart of sustainable development challenges and of their solutions.
(ii) Identify subpopulations that contribute most to environmental degradation and those that are most vulnerable to its consequences. In poor countries especially, these subpopulations are readily identifiable according to age, gender, level of education, place of residence, and standard of living.
(iii) Devise sustainable development policies to treat these subpopulations differently and appropriately, according to their demographic and behavioral characteristics.
(iv) Facilitate the inevitable trend of increasing urbanization in ways that ensure that environmental hazards and vulnerabilities are under control.
(v) Invest in human capital— people’s education and health, including reproductive health—to slow population growth, accelerate the transition to green technologies, and improve people’s adaptive capacity to environmental change.
Maybe you can improve upon this list. Perhaps the authors have omitted some dimension or issue, or framed what they’ve considered in an awkward way. In several if not all of the five instances, the statements fall short of specifics – actionable steps. But however you look at it, these observations are food for thought, worth keeping in mind, improving, building upon, as the world lugubriously lumbers along toward the RIO+20 Earth summit.
And what’s the provenance of the list? Well, the writers had participated in a meeting convened by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) specifically considering how demographic factors foster or hinder sustainability. A fuller discussion of conclusions and recommendations from their full report, Demographic Challenges for Sustainable Development, is available here.
I agree with the authors’ advice, but find it incomplete. As I indicated in “Cherish the Earth,” it is crucial that we find ways to break the chains of poverty wherever they are found. But their advice does not explicitly state what should be obvious but isn’t – don’t push someone into poverty to pull someone else out of it. For example, we see developing nations demanding “reparations” from the developed world for the potential impacts of greenhouse gases. Where would these come from? In the US, from taxpayers – another burden on the working poor, especially. Hard for me to look my neighbor in the eye and try to justify that…
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help the poor – wherever they are – to break the chains of poverty; but isn’t it better to teach them how to do it themselves, rather than try to buy them out of it? In the US, one of the great accomplishments of the Clinton administration was welfare reform. In spite of those who decried its potential impacts, it was probably the most effective anti-poverty program we have ever had, and based on just this simple idea – provide the tools and resources to the poor so that they can lift themselves out of poverty and dependency – prepare them for the journey away from poverty, rather than trying to magically transport them to some better state. The success of welfare reform is one of the least recognized legacies of the Clinton years, and an important element in the economic prosperity we enjoyed then.
Thanks for this thoughtful comment, John. I hope it prompts additional contributions and discussion.