“This is a time of rapid and multifaceted change in both population and the planet,” said Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, a member of the U.K. Royal Society
’s People and the Planet
working group and contributing author to the report of the same name
at a June 4 launch at the Wilson Center. “The question that the report is trying to address is whether we can actually envision a world in which we can sustainably and equitably meet the consumption needs
of seven billion people, and the more to come
The Royal Society is a self-governing fellowship of scientists that fosters research to address pressing social issues and better inform policy on a global scale. Eloundou-Enyegue, also an associate professor of development sociology at Cornell University, was joined by fellow working group member and African Institute for Development Policy Director and Founder Eliya Msiyaphazi Zulu
to discuss their assessment of growing population and consumption pressures on global wellbeing.
Current Trends Are Unsustainable
“The current trends of global population growth and material consumption and the concomitant changes in the environment are unsustainable,” said Zulu.
On the population side, “you have changes that are affecting not just the size, the growth of the population, but also changes in family structure, in the population distribution, [and] population movement,” said Eloundou-Enyegue.
On the consumption side, “beyond the increase in consumption itself, there’s also a dramatic rise in aspiration,” he continued. “People are in greater contact and this tends to encourage…an increasing aspiration to mimic or to emulate the consumption standard of the more industrialized countries.”
Limits to Equitable Growth
When measuring consumption, which itself tends to be a misplaced barometer of wellbeing, according to Eloundou-Enyegue, there is a “disproportionate focus on GDP.”
Sir John Sulston on ‘People and the Planet’
Using GDP growth as a measure of consumption and wellbeing both “misses a lot of the economic production that’s not mediated through the market,” and “counts as positive things that are damaging to the planet,” he said.
The People and the Planet
report marks a departure from the traditional consumption framework by asking “about the relevance of growth – is growth what we ought to be after?”
“The report tried to make a distinction between two types of consumption – the consumption of material resources and the consumption of goods and services – that are all relevant to wellbeing but have different implications for the environment,” Eloundou-Enyegue said. “So there is a need to think about how to shift or to favor consumption that is less damaging to the environment.”
Not an “Either-Or” Proposition
There is “a tendency to look at population and consumption when you’re addressing the impact of the environment in an either-or format, as if you had to choose either population as being the main culprit or consumption,” said Eloundou-Enyegue. “The reality is that they all have to be integrated and considered jointly
At the same time, there is “a tendency to shy away from population issues
when you set development goals because they tend to be controversial,” he said. And yet, said Zulu, “there’s no question about it, the global population growth needs to be slowed down and ultimately stabilized for both people and the planet to flourish.”
The vast majority of future population growth is expected to come from Africa
. Based on the United Nation’s medium variant projection
, 70 percent of global population growth over the rest of the century will come from the continent.
That projection, however, belies a big assumption
: “that the high fertility countries now will follow the same pattern in decline in fertility as the countries that have [already] achieved lower fertility had [in the past],” said Zulu, which “may actually not be the case.”
“You might actually find a situation where fertility might stabilize around three to four children in some of the…least developed countries,” he said, “and if that happens, it means that actually we stand a much, much bigger chance of getting to the high variant [of 15.8 billion by 2100] than we often tend to assume.”
In spite of that dire warning, however, Zulu said that “we should recognize that demography is not destiny, that through…appropriate socioeconomic and health policies and investment, we can actually slow down population growth.”
The report concludes that voluntary and non-coercive “reproductive health and family planning programs are urgently required,” said Zulu. “There is also a need for strong political leadership and financial commitment to make sure that these programs and services reach out to all women around the world who need them.”
Have We Missed the Boat Again?
Part of the urgency from the working group is because, so far, commitments to reproductive health appear to be falling short. It is the international community’s responsibility “to make sure that women have the contraceptives that they need in order to achieve their fertility aspirations,” said Zulu, but some of the most important agenda-setting events in global development over the past 20 years have sidelined population, reproductive health, and family planning.
The Millennium Development Goals
, for instance, “tried to stay clear of population,” said Eloundou-Enyegue, even though “all the indicators that I see are either intrinsically demographic or have a strong demographic component.”
“If you think about stratification and the reproduction of inequality and poverty across generations and the role that differential fertility and reproduction plays, there’s no way you can sidestep population,” he continued. “If you’re talking about maternal mortality and child mortality…it doesn’t make sense to set population aside.”
Now, as the international community prepares for the upcoming Rio+20 summit
, “there’s been a big struggle to get…consideration of population issues” on the agenda, said Zulu.
“Population is at the peripheral of all those discussions,” said Zulu. When in Nairobi for a preparatory conference earlier this year, Zulu said UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin “told me that he was quite alarmed that there was hardly any mention of population in all those discussions. And he asked me the question, ‘have we missed the boat again?’”
That concern reinforces the main argument of People and the Planet, said Zulu: there is an “urgent need to reduce material consumption of the richest, and increase consumption and healthcare for the poorest 1.3 billion people.”
“We’re talking about having the majority of people in the world being able to flourish, being able to lead decent lives.”