“Today the network of relationships linking the human race to itself and to the rest of the biosphere is so complex that all aspects affect all others to an extraordinary degree. ”
Recent years have shown us, through economic uncertainty and growing inequality, that our current systems are far from perfect. In addition, a clearer picture is evolving of the challenges humanity will face over the next few decades. Alongside this, there is an emergent global movement for delivering shared ambitions such as the Sustainable Development Goals. Meeting such global goals in the light of increased pressures on ever scarcer resources will mean we need to both address the instabilities of our current systems and re-engineer them to deliver better, sustainable, lives for humanity as a whole.
Alongside the challenges to sustainability we already face, there is growing concern about how these might accelerate in the future. One such challenge is that of population and its impacts, but should the scale of humanity be seen as a threat or as an opportunity?
Is (population) size important?
Population growth over the last 100 years has undoubtedly been dramatic, as this graph from Our World in Data shows, but the relation between sustainability and population is not a simple one.
We live in a world where nearly 80% of the world’s resources are consumed by just 20% of the world’s population. Moreover, that consumption can be wasteful in terms of total material efficiency. The ecological rucksack concept reveals that quantity of natural resources, including raw materials (renewable and non-renewable), energy, water and land required for a kg of finished product can vary hugely (e.g. 1kg of aluminium requires 85kg of resources, 1kg of copper – 500kg and 1kg recycled copper – 10kg).
Population on its own is not the main driver of unsustainability, consumption is.
Whilst it is definitely sensible to be concerned about the relationships between population growth and increased consumption, further ecological decline and increased inequity, it is also worth reflecting on the fact, documented in many studies, that population growth is strongly related to neo-natal mortality.
Population dynamics show a fundamental rationality. In situations of high neo-natal mortality and poor social infrastructure, people tend to keep having children based upon the likelihood of enough of them surviving to support parents in their old age.
When children reliably survive, there follows a change in demographics. Should we be able to improve the quality of life and life chances of the world’s populations, we stand a good chance of a levelling off of the world’s population at around 9.5 or 10.5 (ish) billion people.
Returning to consumption for a moment, it is certain if all the planet’s current and future billions consumed as inefficiently as we in the West do then we would be in a worse mess. However the mess we are currently in is not one of population per se, but of an economic structure which promotes inefficient consumption without recognizing that it operates within a substantially finite system.
Sustaining consumption – the seeds of sustainability are around us
The means to change the relationship between consumption and impact, to reduce either the material and energetic wastage of production processes, or the negative environmental and social impacts of wasteful consumption, already exist.
Should they be deployed with intent, at a large enough scale, we would be able to make significant progress towards sustainability.
There are promising initiatives and approaches out there which seek to deliver radical sustainable change, they include circular production, renewable energy, sustainable commodities and technological innovation.
Here are a number of real-world examples:
- Value chain and commodity sustainability approaches which take collective action to respond to the strategic threats faced by particular commodities.
- Long term sustainability strategies which are founded in an understanding of sustainability context and map a path to some radical change in corporate behaviours and performance.
- Science based targets and the gradual acceptance of placing corporate impact and ambition in the context of the planet’s limits and its capacity to sustain behaviour and deal with impacts (ameliorate pollution).
- Radical approaches to the design of industrial systems such as the circular economy, industrial ecology and Cradle to Cradle.
- Innovation at the bleeding edge of science, technology and imagination, based partly upon the direct application of or inspiration from nature’s technology, but also focussed upon the creation of technologies which could exist but currently do not. This example of a solar powered water generator is just one – it is produced to stimulate thinking as to how it might be produced, though it does not yet actually exist.
The challenge then, is not that we need to invent new and miraculous ways of delivering a sustainable future, but to deploy techniques and approaches that exist at a global scale. In order to do this, we also need a focus on the fundamental systems of value, prioritisation and production which give rise to our current unsustainability to create fertile ground for the seeds of sustainability to flourish.
A version of this piece was published by CSRWire on 8/8/16.