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Sir David Attenborough:

People and Planet

Negative effects of population growth will come home to roost


The eminent naturalist Sir David Attenborough has warned that human beings have become a “plague on the Earth”.

The 86-year-old broadcaster said the negative effects of climate change and population growth would be seen in the next 50 years. He told BBC Radio Times:

"It's coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It's not just climate change. It's sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us -- and the natural world is doing it for us right now.

We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia - that's what's happening. Too many people there. They can't support themselves - and it's not an inhuman thing to say. It's the case.

Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a co-ordinated view about the planet, it's going to get worse and worse."


Population Matters:
The challenge of sustainability

On a finite planet, nothing physical can grow indefinitely. The more of us there are, the less resources there are for each of us and for the other species with which we share the planet. We are already eating into our capital: according to the World Wildlife Fund / Global Footprint Network Living Planet Report, we are collectively consuming the renewable resources of 1.5 Earths.

There are no magic numbers — only trade-offs. Any given area of land can sustain many more very low-consuming poor people at bare subsistence level than high-consuming rich people living like millionaires. Population will certainly stop growing at some point. This will either be sooner by fewer births — the humane way of informed individual decision-making on family size — or later by more deaths — the natural, inhumane way of famine, disease and predation or war. There is no third alternative of indefinite growth.

The sustainability equation
For activities to be genuinely sustainable it must be possible for them to continue indefinitely. The impact of humanity on the environment and the demands that people place on the resources available on the planet can be summarised by the equation I=PAT (here I = impact on the environment or demand for resources, P = population size, A = affluence and T = technology). The two most important conclusions deriving from this relationship are that the Earth can support only a limited number of people in a sustainable manner; and humanity has a clear choice between more people with poorer lifestyles and fewer people with a better quality of life.

Living sustainably
Living sustainably means maintaining a stable and healthy environment for both humanity and biodiversity. The implications are radical. A sustainable society, i.e. one that could physically be sustained indefinitely, will need as a minimum a stable or reducing population, very high levels of reuse and recycling, 100 per cent renewable energy and no net loss of soil or biodiversity. No country is yet near it.

This requires a radical change in outlook and our consumption, our technology choices and our population numbers in order to live within the means of the planet. We must tackle all three if our children and grandchildren are to have a decent life.

We need to move towards sustainable consumption. This means matching our individual and collective consumption to the resources available. And we need to stabilise our numbers at a sustainable population level that consumes resources at a rate the Earth can support. Halting population growth and, in many countries, reversing it is a vital part of living sustainably. In some societies, population growth has already slowed or stopped. Typically, the empowerment of women and improved availability of contraception have played major roles.

A stable and ethically acceptable transition to sustainable numbers can only occur gradually. For densely populated, high-consuming countries, this may require several generations to complete. If our children and grandchildren are to inherit a world worth living in, the process must begin without delay.

Courtesy: Population Matters

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