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Tackling the three pillars of civilisation: consumption, population and the planet



Professor Jules Pretty OBE, one of the authors of the Royal Society’s recent People and the planet report, spoke with Alex Blackburne about the need for swift global action in three key areas – population, consumption and the planet.

Tucked some way behind the mainstream environmental battle that is climate change are two global challenges that jointly threaten the very existence of the human race.

In combination, a rising population and increased consumption lead to potentially calamitous effects in an increasingly developed world, and form the basis of a recent Royal Society report, People and the planet, which paints a picture of an “unequal and inhospitable future” if the two issues aren’t tackled.

Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex and a Royal Society member, is one of the 23 authors of the report, which was chaired by Sir John Sulston.

Pretty, who was the recipient of an OBE in 2006 for his services to sustainable agriculture, begins our conversation by outlining the study’s focus.

If [population and consumption] both go up”, he summarises, “then we’re in real trouble.”

The frightening thing is, both are doing just that. In the 20th century alone, the world’s population quadrupled to six billion, is now up to seven billion, and is expected to reach over nine billion by 2050.

Meanwhile consumption is arguably an even more pressing issue. The consumption of the average American is 32 times that of the average Nigerian.

What we’ve got is three important variables”, Pretty explains.

There is population or people, and their numbers and distribution, there is the planet itself, which is a finite resource of natural capital and environmental services that are important to us, and mediated between people and the planet is consumption patterns.

[The report tries] to link together these three quite often separated narratives.”


The correct conception is to give people choice, and if they have that choice, they will reduce the number of babies they have.

Although it’s a challenge that certainly needs monitoring, population is, in some ways, a red herring when it comes to the environmental and societal issues that threaten the planet or its people.

Population is heading towards nine billion for sure by the middle part of this century, and will probably carry on growing to ten billion by the end of the century, if our assumptions are correct”, says Pretty.

97 affluent and rapidly industrialising countries have already got their total fertility rates—the number of children per woman—down, so there are many that have either stabilised or are reducing in population.

Population is increasing, though, in countries where poverty is at its most endemic, particularly in Africa, where people do not have access to family planning, and female education is at very low rates.”

Indeed, it is in developing areas where population growth is at its most rapid. In Africa alone, there are 250 million people in need of family planning education, meaning an increase in the number of people born is almost inevitable.

Therefore, in its report, the Royal Society stresses the importance of giving people an opportunity to take voluntary action with

Population density per continent: Ben Willers. (Click to enlarge).

regards to controlling their birth rates, because even after one generation, dramatic shifts have been witnessed.

Pretty recalls case studies of Bangladesh and Iran— both of which have seen birth rates rapidly halved from around six children for every woman to around three in recent years.

“There is a good consensus that we’ll stabilise things, and the certain amount of scaremongering amongst those who think there are too many people or certain parts of the population are having too many children—that’s the wrong conception of the problem.

The correct conception is to give people choice, and if they have that choice, they will reduce the number of babies they have.”


We’ve got to find pathways by which the affluent can change their consumption of material resources in order to have a positive impact upon the planet.

Consumption, or rather, unsustainable consumption of resources witnessed in developed nations, is to some, an issue of unrivalled importance.

In a piece for Yale Environment 360, Fred Pearce wrote, “By almost any measure, a small proportion of the world’s people take the majority of the world’s resources and produce the majority of its pollution”—something that was proven by Blue & Green Tomorrow last month.

We wrote about the Pacific Island nations that were fighting a losing battle with climate change, and included in that story was an infographic showing each world country’s contribution to the carbon emissions total.

The real eye-opening facts emerge when looking at the statistics surrounding the US, which produces as much carbon as the bottom 194 countries combined but has a population equal to the bottom 129.

Pretty adds that in China there are 0.8 cars for every 100 people, but in the US, there are 80 cars for every 100 people, including all the babies, the elderly and the infirm; a fact that is mirrored in resources such as water, food and energy.

If we were all converging on ways of living that were in some senses sustainable and all having positive impacts on the planet, then we could all retire and put our feet up”, he says.

Unfortunately, the convergence is on the groups of people or countries that are having a severe impact on the planet. If everybody did the same thing, it just wouldn’t work.

The old argument that used to be made where we can save the world by wearing a hair shirt won’t work. People won’t buy it.

We’ve got to find pathways by which the affluent can change their consumption of material resources in order to have a positive impact upon the planet, so, in that sense, peoples’ well-being and contentment could be maintained, but their impact on the planet reduced.”


Because of the weight of evidence, anyone who’s spent a bit of time looking at climate change has to say it is occurring and it is anthropogenic.

The final part of the Royal Society report, Pretty says, focuses on “the evidence for climate change, carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere, methane losses, nitrogen enrichment, ocean acidification, tropospheric ozone pollution, groundwater losses, and soil erosion”, amongst other human-caused issues.

In the end”, he outlines, “all of those are impacting on economies, and sadly at the moment, we measure damage to planetary resources as a positive thing rather than a bad thing.”

Pretty refers to Gross Domestic Product—the market value of a country derived from all its financial transactions—much of which is sourced from unsustainable industries.

There have been a few somewhat tongue-in-cheek calls for countries to be instead ranked on their Gross National Happiness, which is perhaps a much fairer way to assess a country.

When it comes to climate change, the Royal Society’s stance is unequivocal.

Underpinning the report is a very strong sense that the weight of scientific evidence for climate change is extremely compelling”, Pretty says.

Each extra quantum of evidence that comes forward further convinces most people who have looked at the evidence that climate change is a real problem and that it is largely anthropogenically driven.

There are quirks, uncertainties and contradictions in data as there often are, but none of those on their own dismantle the huge weight of evidence, or the kind of assumptions that go into the models.”

Yet still, there are deniers who, despite the overwhelming evidence for human-caused climate change, are adamant that it’s not a threat to civilisation.

A recent Australian documentary, called I Can Change Your Mind About… Climate, set out to tackle to issue once and for all.

Because of the weight of evidence”, Pretty concludes, “anyone who’s spent a bit of time looking at it has to say it is occurring and it is anthropogenic.”

Ultimately then, these three variables – population, consumption and the planet – should form the cornerstones of global human development.

The Royal Society report eloquently highlights the trio as major issues, and attempts to influence the affluent to change their ways. But will it work?

I think we must be optimistic about it”, reflects Pretty, “otherwise it becomes in itself a dismal set of propositions, because one would then be saying that we can’t make the sort of changes that we need to.

It will require a lot of political will, but also a lot of technological development.

But people can’t generate that technology themselves as individuals. We do need help with incentives to move things forward.”

America, China, Britain and a good many countries like them need to take stock of their agendas. It is simply not sustainable to continue along our current path.

Pretty concludes: “Put the whole lot together [population, consumption and the planet] and what we’re saying in the report is in a sense there isn’t a thing called business-as-usual – it’s just going to get a whole lot worse unless we act very rapidly.”

But it’s not just down to governments across the world to make a difference. Individuals and communities also have a responsibility to contribute by ensuring that investments support sustainable companies and solutions.

Our recent Guide to Sustainable Investment, which you can download for free, highlights the many ways in which you can give your money a true voice and why there is a compelling financial incentive to do so.

Further reading:

Current global consumption will lead to “unequal and inhospitable future”

Changing your mind about climate

Sir Paul Nurse on climate change and the economy

Global food system crisis

Editors Choice

2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage



Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker |

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018



Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art |

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly


Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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