This week I’ve been reading People and the Planet, a report from the Royal Society. It’s a broad ranging survey of humanity’s relationship with the earth, and the interplay of consumption and rising population. They sum up the problem in three key challenges. Since they reflect a lot of my own thinking, I thought I’d post them.
First, the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people need to be raised out of extreme poverty. This is critical to reducing global inequality, and to ensuring the wellbeing of all people.
Second, in the most developed and the emerging economies unsustainable consumption must be urgently reduced. This will entail scaling back or radical transformation of damaging material consumption and emissions and the adoption of sustainable technologies, and is critical to ensuring a sustainable future for all.
Third, global population growth needs to be slowed and stabilised, but this should by no means be coercive. A large unmet need for contraception remains in both developing and developed countries.
I’ve focused my own writing around point number two, hence the blog title. We have agencies working on poverty and development. There are other organisations encouraging action on population growth. It’s that middle bit that tends to fall through the cracks, perhaps because it doesn’t look like a very appealing message.
In truth, there’s no reason why scaling back our material consumption should mean less fulfilling lives. We know the things that make life meaningful, and that past a certain point consumption only plays a supporting role to things like healthy relationships and rewarding work.
People and the Planet has more to say how this can be done. They mention decoupling, the circular economy and accounting practices that value natural capital. They suggest an emphasis on collaboration rather than competition that David Cameron would do well to listen to, having declared us to be in the economic equivalent of war earlier this week: “So long as an excess of competition between nations continues, the future of humanity is in doubt.”
They also cross the rubicon and mention growth. “At present, consumption is closely linked to economic models based on growth” they write. “There is a need to explore alternative models to the growth-based economy. This is not to suggest simply abandoning the current model. There are serious challenges in devising an economy with flat or contracting GDP. The most significant of these arise from the need to generate full employment for the working age population, the need to stabilise debt-based financial systems, and the need to maintain high quality public services. None of these difficulties eliminates the urgency of addressing the problem.”
In the midst of that scepticism about growth, they recognise the crucial fact that many of the world’s people need to increase their consumption. “In the richest parts of the world per capita material consumption is far above the level that can be sustained for everyone in a population of 7 billion or more. This is in stark contrast to the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people, who need to consume more in order to be raised out of extreme poverty.”
This is the balance we need to strike. Poorer countries need to grow and develop, while overdeveloped countries reduce their consumption and re-define what it means to be wealthy in the 21st century.