One of the world's oldest scientific societies has weighed in on one of the planet's most vexing future challenges: How to support a growing human
population without undermining ecological and economic systems. The Royal Society in the United Kingdom today
unveiled its first major report on population issues, which includes eight recommendations for policy action and research.
"This report is offered, not as a definitive statement on these complex topics, but as an overview of the impacts of human population and consumption
on the planet," Royal Society President Paul Nurse, a geneticist and cell biologist, writes in an introduction. "It raises questions about how best to
seize the opportunities that changes in population could bring—and how to avoid the most harmful impacts."
An international committee began work on the report nearly 2 years ago, in part
because the society "had been somewhat missing out on the issue of population," says John Sulston, a biologist at the University of Manchester in the
United Kingdom, who led the panel. "We really felt we should draw things together and have a look at our position."
Ultimately, the group concluded that "you have to look at population and consumption together, and separate one from the other," Sulston says. The
report reflects that union, with chapters devoted to consumption trends and how they affect natural resource supplies, climate, and ecosystems. There
is also ample discussion of how to shift consumption patterns in a world marked by stark income disparity. "Many kinds of consumption must increase in
the Least Developed Countries," the report concludes. "But some kinds of consumption must stabilise and decline in the Most Developed Countries (whose
ranks are being rapidly enlarged by the emerging economies). Continued international discussions leading to binding treaties are essential to reconcile
the opposing needs."
The report's recommendations—which include calls for reducing poverty, improving education, and improving economic measures to include the value of
natural ecosystems—aren't "too surprising," Sulston concedes. "It would be nice if one could produce a silver bullet, but one can't do that," he
says, adding that the list "mostly reaffirms what we felt were the most important points that need to be considered as we negotiate how to manage the
planet more sustainably." (A special issue of Science last year was also
devoted to population issues.)
One major take-home message, Sulston says, "is that putting our heads in the sand when it comes to population issues is something we've got to learn
not to do."
The report's recommendations:
The international community must bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty,
and reduce the inequality that persists in the world today. This will require focused efforts in key policy areas including economic development,
education, family planning and health.
The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce
material consumption levels
through: dramatic improvements in resource use efficiency, including: reducing waste; investment in sustainable resources, technologies and
infrastructures; and systematically decoupling economic activity from environmental impact.
Reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes urgently require political leadership and financial commitment,
both nationally and internationally. This is needed to continue the downward trajectory of fertility rates, especially in countries where the unmet
need for contraception is high.
Population and the environment should not be considered as two separate issues.
Demographic changes, and the influences on them, should be factored into economic and environmental debate and planning at international meetings, such
as the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development and subsequent meetings.
Governments should realise the potential of urbanisation to reduce material consumption and environmental impact through efficiency measures.
The well planned provision of water supply, waste disposal, power and other services will avoid slum conditions and increase the welfare of
In order to meet previously agreed goals for universal education, policy makers in countries with low school attendance need to work with international
funders and organisations, such as UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF, IMF, World Bank and Education for All.
Financial and non-financial barriers must be overcome to achieve high-quality primary and secondary education for all the world's young, ensuring
equal opportunities for girls and boys.
Natural and social scientists need to increase their research efforts on the interactions between consumption, demographic change and environmental impact. They have a unique and vital role in
developing a fuller picture of the problems, the uncertainties found in all such analyses, the efficacy of potential solutions, and providing an open,
trusted source of information for policy makers and the public.
National Governments should accelerate the development of comprehensive wealth
This should include reforms to the system of national accounts, and improvement in natural asset accounting.
Collaboration between National Governments is needed to develop socio-economic systems and institutions that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth. This will inform the
development and implementation of policies that allow both people and the planet to flourish.