People and the Planet: A Report by the Royal Society

On April 26, The Royal Society, the UK’s 350 year old academy of science, released the results of a 21 month study of patterns of population and consumption.  Sir John Sulston, chair of the working group, put it very simply:

“The world now has a very clear choice.  We can choose to address the twin issues of population and consumption.  We can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption, to reframe our economic values to truly reflect what our consumption means for our planet and to help individuals around the world to make informed and free reproductive choices.  Or we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future.”

The Society issued a 132 page report that makes several key recommendations

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Please look at this video clip of Sulston summarizing the findings of the report, which he will present at the United Nations on May 1, ahead of the Rio+20 conference.

Of special interest to me was Sulston’s critique of GDP as the key measure of economic wellbeing for nations.  GDP, he says, drives growth to levels that cannot be sustained.  Michael Meade once observed that unbridled growth in the body is cancer, and unbridled growth in the body politic is a parallel ill.

Growth is such an ingrained measure of wellbeing that re-imagining global socio-economics will not be simple or easy.  One tactic, according to the working group, is to factor in real costs:  what are the real costs of disappearing forests and species?  What is the real cost of water when the study predicts that 1.8 billion people will live with severe water scarcity by 2025?

The issue of water brings to mind my previous post, “Another Regulation Conundrum,”, which describes a couple’s 40 year effort to create an self-sustaining and non-polluting homestead.  One of their projects was recycling household “gray water.”  The county building codes have no provision for such experimental ways of doing things, and the couple has racked up large fines and an eviction notice.  In a very real sense, the status quo is the problem.  According to the Royal Society, not only our building codes but the mindset behind them must change or the quality of life for everyone will continue its spiral of decline.

One parting thought:  the study was released on Thursday.  Why haven’t we heard it mentioned on any US media?

4 thoughts on “People and the Planet: A Report by the Royal Society

  1. It’s hard to get people to think globally when problems locally are so difficult or at least more difficult than we are used to. We worry about our children and grandchildren, but seldom think of people on the other side of the world. Our problems here at home seem so dire. Can we really affect world-wide issues? Well, sure, but it’s hard. We have to start by thinking differently. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. You’re right about the media being too preoccupied with other things — like the never ending presidential campaign. Another thought provoking post, Morgan.


    • Yesterday there was a very pertinent episode of Bill Moyers. Moyers interviewed Marty Kaplan, who wrote the screenplay for The Distinguished Gentleman, 1992, a satire about Washingon, starring Eddie Murphy. Kaplan studied microbiology, has a PHd in literature from Stanford, and founded the Norman Lear Center, which studies “politics, entertainment, and commerce – and their effects on us.”

      Kaplan said in 1998 the Center tracked local news programs in the LA region for content and found a total of 22 seconds of hard news during each 30 minute broadcast. Kaplan is really well positioned to comment on our news media morphing into a category of entertainment, and that, I think, is a big part of the problem. For instance, it’s shameful that people who claim global climate change is a hoax are taken seriously as candidates, but Kaplan understands it. We’re programmed to love conflict, he observes, so pro and con of any issue will attract viewers – it’s far more entertaining than facts…

      He showed clips of the recent Republican debates where the moderator stopped the conversation to cut away for a commercial and said, “Can you imagine that happening during the Lincoln / Douglas debates?”

      Scary stuff. It’s on

      Thanks for your comment.


      • One of the Sunday morning shows we never miss is Fareed Zaharia’s Global Public Square, one of the best (and most global) news shows on the air. It is one of the only TV offerings that forces us out of our local thinking and myopic view.


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