Recent years have shown us, through economic uncertainty and growing inequality, that our current systems are far from perfect. With a clearer picture of the challenges of the next few decades evolving, and an emergent global movement for delivering shared goals such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, 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 we already face, there is growing concern about those we will face in the future. One such fear 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 kilogram of finished product can vary hugely. For example, 1kg of aluminium requires 85kg of resources and 1kg of copper needs 500kg.
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 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.
The mess we are currently in is not one of population per se, but of an economic structure which promotes inefficient consumption without recognising 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.
Real-world examples include:
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 sustainable seeds.
Making sustainable choices the norm, rather than the exception, is the major means by which sustainable intent will turn into sustainable action. However, making such outcomes the default requires a more significant evolution of value than is currently underway through most responsible consumption and ‘green growth’ initiatives.
Towards 9 Billion: Shall we tidy the house, or loot it?
Feeding, clothing, housing and providing the other stuff of life to a global population at scale over time is a challenge to be sure, just as the evolution of our systems of finance and production so that they innately produce sustainable outcomes presents a similarly lofty goal.