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Carrying Capacity: Should We Be Aiming to Survive or Flourish?

February 22, 2011 // 2:00pm4:00pm
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"In the eyes of many governments, population has, as we all know, been a rather uncomfortable topic for a number of years," said Nobel Laureate Sir John Sulston, FRS, chair of the Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation at the University of Manchester and chair of the Royal Society's "People and the Planet" working group. Sulston and his co-panelists, Martha Campbell, president of Venture Strategies for Health and Development, and Professor Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue of Cornell University, encouraged active debate on a range of population dynamics and their connections to economic, environmental, and political futures.

The Nexus of Population and Consumption

The dialogue between population and environmental communities has been pushed aside for many years but has lately been climbing its way back onto national agendas, said Sulston. However, the debate remains polarized. Scientists need to "sort out the facts as best we can" to help bring the communities together, he said. The Royal Society's "People and the Planet" study, which will be completed by early 2012, will "provide policy guidance to decision-makers as far as possible" and "play our part in engendering constructive dialogue," he said.

"What we should be aiming to do is to ensure that every individual on the planet can come to enjoy the same high quality of life whilst living within the Earth's natural limits," said Sulston. Instead of talking about the maximum number of people the Earth can hold, we should also focus on "the quality of life of those people," he said. People are happier, healthier, and wealthier than ever before, according to human development indexes. But, Sulston said, 200 million women worldwide have an unmet need for family planning, ecosystems are degraded, biodiversity has decreased, and there are widespread shortages of food and water.

For centuries humanity has pursued a policy of "competitive growth," both in population and consumption. But in preparation for the UN "Rio+20" summit on sustainable development in 2012, policymakers should be discussing "pathways to sustainability within the context of population," said Sulston.

"Humanity needs to learn to act collectively and constructively in the face of these long-term and therefore rather elusive threats, just as we do rather well when we're faced with immediate and tangible ones," Sulston said. "So we need the best technology, but we need it in the context of a thoughtful society, and then we can both survive and happily flourish."

A Demographic Crossroads

"No longer is population growth or population size the only issue of the day," said Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue. "You have to worry about both population growth and population decline, you have to worry about immigration, you have to worry about aging, you have to worry about HIV and adult mortality, et cetera."

Some people, Eloundou-Enyegue said, take this diversity of demographic issues as "grounds for complacency" by thinking they do not share in others' problems. Yet, he said, population and ecology are areas where the risks are shared by all.

These challenges demand a "more comprehensive framework" that details the interactions between population, affluence, environment, technology, and inequality, said Eloundou-Enyegue. Tensions persist between these different areas, and breaking them will require "call[ing] on other qualities of the human spirit," he said. The world is, Eloundou-Enyegue concluded, at a "demographic crossroads."

The Timing of Declining Fertility

The key to ending the sensitivity to the issue of population growth is to "understand that this is about options: options for women and options for families," said Martha Campbell. Strong attention and funding support can meet needs and lead to declining birth rates, as in the case of Kenya before the mid-1990s. But with the broader emphasis on reproductive health and concerns about coercion that followed the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, funding for family planning declined. As a result, Kenya's fertility rates leveled off instead of continuing to decline, said Campbell, contributing to an upward revision of global population projections.

Campbell illustrated the impact of delays in achieving replacement-level fertility on the overall population size of individual states. In the case of Pakistan, for example, analysis by Venture Strategies for Health and Development and the African Institute for Development Policy projects that the country will have a total population of 350 million if replacement-level fertility is reached by 2020, and a population of almost 600 million if that same mark is reached by 2060.

Looking ahead to the "Rio+20" summit in 2012, Campbell emphasized the need for continued discussion about population growth and family planning. The silence on these issues after Cairo in 1994 and the subsequent global impact should serve as a warning for future generations, she said: "It is important for this next generation and the current generation to understand what happened so that it will never, ever happen again. The silence on population must not occur."

Drafted by Christina Daggett and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker
Geoff Dabelko, Environmental Change & Security Program, 202-691-4178

 
Event Speakers List: 
  • Chair, Institute for Science, Ethics, & Innovation, University of Manchester
  • Venture Strategies for Health and Development
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