Population and Sustainability

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Population and Sustainability is a new interdisciplinary journal with papers from the social sciences, humanities, environmental and natural sciences, aiming to bring together research on all aspects of the relationship between human numbers and environmental issues.

Two contributions in this first issue struck me as particularly interesting. Colin Kelley’s paper, On Sustainability, Vulnerability, Climate and Conflict, examines the influence of population growth and climate change on susceptibility to conflict. Drawing on research on changes in rainfall patterns in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, Kelley argues that population pressure, drought and agricultural collapse have played an important part in the civil conflict and mass migration in the region.

Population Projections: Recipes for Action, or Inaction? by Jane N. O’Sullivan is a much-needed antidote to an ambient fatalism about population growth, a fatalism implicit even in UN projections:

UN’s deterministic approach to projection overlooks the role of choices, rather than chance, in the different paths each country has followed. It was programme choice which saw Thailand’s fertility fall rapidly in the 1970s, Iran’s pull abruptly away from those of its neighbours, Costa Rica lead the pack in Central America, and Rwanda now diverging so strongly from neighbouring Burundi and Uganda. These choices are not being talked up by the UN. Indeed, by presenting the projections as “probabilistic”, the impression is given that direct action is futile.

Looking at the decisive role of policy choices, O’Sullivan notes,

Much faster fertility transitions are possible, if family planning and small family norms are promoted…. Many developing countries have successfully achieved below-replacement or near-replacement fertility in this way. …. In each case, the abrupt start to fertility decline coincided with initiation of voluntary family planning programmes. Rates of fertility decline have been two to three times those expected in the UN projections. No economic or educational trigger was evident, but in each case economic development, including improvement in educational and health outcomes, followed as a consequence of lower population growth.

To conclude, Time is of the essence, but if political will could be rallied quickly enough, perhaps a peak around 9 billion could yet be achieved. Such an outcome would ease many challenges, particularly food security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and biodiversity loss. It could head off mass mortality on a scale humanity has never seen. … By failing to acknowledge the impact of choices, [population projections] have undermined pre-emptive action.


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