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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


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