Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Population Acceleration

The planet’s booming population is a mega trend reshaping everything. Over coming decades our growing presence and rampant appetite for resources will shake up every form of life on earth.

At current birthrates, the world’s seven billionth inhabitant will join the rest of us very soon (some say the end of October – Halloween!). It took us a while to get to this point, but now we’re putting the pedal to the metal. For the first thousand years of the current era the world’s population was a mere 300 million. In the early 1800s we hit one billion. In the next 150 years we added 1.5 billion more. Over the last 60 years we have gained another 4.5 billion.

Writing for The Guardian, Robert Engelman paints a grim picture of what population acceleration means for the planet. Plants and animals are condemned to extinction. Food supplies get stretched. Fresh water is spread thin – so much so that in just 14 years two thirds of the world’s population will be living in countries facing water scarcity or stress. We’re not running out of space, but we are running out of the basic stuff we need to live, and squeezing other life out of the picture as we go.

Compounding these issues is the fact that as the global population grows, consumption per capita is also on the rise. More of the world’s economies are evolving into consumer societies where people move beyond basic necessities and enjoy the privileges of modern life. So more of us are consuming more.

There are two ways we can respond to the problems that come with global population growth. The first is to slow it down. Engelman points out that many of the world’s pregnancies are unintended by the women who experience them, so making sure that women have greater freedom over whether or not they choose to have children, or how many they might choose to have, could make a huge difference. It’s liberating to think that dealing with this aspect of the population issue isn’t about forcing people to make decisions they don’t want to (such as asking people who want to have children not to), but rather empowering those who don’t have a choice.

The other way that we can respond to the pressures of population growth is by becoming much more productive. If we agree that everyone has the right to pursue higher standards of living – whether that’s enjoying different kinds of food or owning a TV set – the challenge is to deliver more products and services with the same limited resources (or less). This is where enterprise holds the key to a better future, improving lives while preserving the planet. It’s the definition of True Blue, the call for business to turn an environmental crisis into commercial solutions that deliver for the greater good. More on one of the biggest areas of opportunity tomorrow.