Royal Society “People and the Planet” report

The Royal Society today launched their report “People and the Planet”, amongst other things a submission for Rio+20. (You can download the whole report, or just a summary here.) I went down to the launch this morning.

Such events always claim that this bit of work is highly significant, but I think it’s genuinely true in this case. A major report by a body as respected as the Royal Society has to be taken notice of, particularly when it brings the issue of population very much into the sustainable development debate. It has been something of a taboo topic for some years, but the report doesn’t shy away from warning of the dangers of food and water shortages and possible conflict if many less developed countries continue on their current trajectories, and the need for urgent education and investment to enable women to elect for family planning: the key factors that have been significant in reducing population growth elsewhere in the world.

However, while it argues for an end to extreme poverty and that the least developed nations need the opportunity to consume more, it is equally strong in pointing out the conflict between the high and increasing consumption in already developed nations on the one hand, and our single finite planet on the other.

It was interesting that guest speaker Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development, was very keen to endorse the former, but shied away from making any comment on the latter, despite being pushed to do so on a couple of occasions. It may be unfair to make this judgement on the limited amount he said, but he did seem to be wedded to the current economic model that sees anything other than continued GDP growth as unimaginable.

The third main section of the report, entitled “Wellbeing” questioned this, and argued for GDP to be solely a measure of one sort of economic activity, and not a measure of a country’s success. Instead, they printed one of the familiar graphs which shows that while well-being does increase sharply with income up to a certain point, after that it flattens considerably.
We should thus be considering using one of the various “happiness” measures.

So far so good, but it was some of the other economic material where I’d have hoped for some more thought-through discussion. Steady-state economics is referred to, and some of the issues discussed, but the report claims “not to [be] the place to pursue these highly contested strands, but they cannot be ignored.” It might have been helpful to do so, given elsewhere there are critiques of how our current economy works, almost going so far to say that it is incompatible with the cuts in consumption required. But in other places market-based price signals are advocated to get more carbon-efficient behaviour. It is fine to be uncertain on these topics, but a single section to bring together the issues and present the options would have helped.

Religion and belief didn’t get a specific mention, except under the general heading of culture, and even this featured in the report more as a potential obstacle – the requirement for family planning programmes to be “culturally-sensitive” for instance. A questioner suggested that competing ethnic or culturally-different groups might see it to their advantage to have a higher population relative to their rivals.

This point was noted but not expanded on, but there are situations where it’s important. In Nigeria, for instance, the population is reasonably equally divided between Muslim north and Christian south, but the south fears that only a relatively small Muslim majority both nationally and in certain states could give them perpetual electoral dominance. So attempts to encourage lower fertility could be resisted.

The same discourse exists in parts of UK politics. The far right will warn you that higher fertility rates among immigrant populations will mean we are headed for a Muslim majority by the end of the century. Not at all likely to be borne out by the evidence, but you wonder if people who hold these sorts of views tend to have larger families themselves to compensate. In Northern Ireland, long-term fertility rates amongst Catholics exceed those of Protestants, which could have political consequences if and when populations reach approximate parity.

Finally, nothing was said at the meeting about the Roman Catholic Church’s views on contraception, although a couple of people I talked to in breaks mentioned it. An important but obviously extremely difficult issue too complex to go into here, but clearly one that impacts the rest of the Christian Church’s work in this area.

But overall a highly worthwhile report, and if Rio+20 takes account of it, it should influence the debate considerably for the better.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Royal Society “People and the Planet” report

  1. Colin Bell

    The Guardian has collected together various responses to the report here. Some more helpful than others…

    I’ve also come across a Christian Aid report which argues rather differently that overconsumption is the main cause of environmental damage. Lowering fertility is still worth doing, but for other reasons. (I haven’t read the report itself, just the summary.)

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