Population slowdown needed, says report

Posted: 1 February 2001

As the world's population continues to grow, improving living standards without destroying the environment is a global challenge, warns a new report from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

"As we humans exploit nature to meet present needs, are we destroying resources needed for the future?" ask Don Hinrichsen and Bryant Robey, co-authors of the latest issue of Population Reports, Population and the Environment: The Global Challenge, published by the Johns Hopkins Population Information Program.

"Most developed economies currently consume resources much faster than they can regenerate. Most developing countries with rapid population growth face the urgent need to improve living standards" but risk irreparable harm to natural resources on which they depend, according to the report.

"Water shortages, soil exhaustion, loss of forests, air and water pollution, and degradation of coastlines afflict many areas," write the authors. "Without practising sustainable development, humanity faces a deteriorating environment and may even invite ecological disaster," they note.

Sustainable development requires slower population growth. While the rate of population growth has slowed over the past few decades, the absolute number of people will increase by about one billion in the next 13 years, and the environment continues to deteriorate. "Can we assume that life on earth as we know it can continue no matter what the environmental conditions?" ask the authors.

The report urges governments and policymakers to take immediate steps toward implementing sustainable development. This means raising current living standards without destroying the resource base required to meet future needs. In effect, the world needs to live off its ecological interest" rather than using up its "ecological capital," the authors write.

Steps toward sustainable development include using energy more efficiently; managing cities better; phasing out subsidies that encourage waste; managing water resources and protecting freshwater sources; harvesting forest products rather than destroying forests; preserving arable land and increasing food production - a second Green Revolution; managing coastal zones and ocean fisheries; protecting biodiversity hotspots; and adopting a climate change convention among nations.

Stabilising population through good quality family planning services "would buy time to protect natural resources," according to the report. It would also provide opportunities for women and families to raise their living standards. In the balance is whether the world's population could eventually stabilise at 9 billion or less, or whether it will grow to 11 billion and even beyond. "Just when it stabilises will have a powerful effect on living standards and the global environment," write the authors.

Population and the Environment: The Global Challenge, was written by Don Hinrichsen and Bryant Robey and published in the Population Report series by the Johns Hopkins Population Information Program.