Bjørn Lomborg's essay (“Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now,” July/August 2012) looks backward to criticize an antiquated and narrow environmentalism. He writes that "the world is not running out of resources, not running out of food, and not gagging on pollution, and the world's population and industrial output are rising sustainably." His essay ends with a vague paean to economic growth, but he leaves economic growth undefined and its virtues unqualified. He offers no analysis of the meanings of economic growth in different cultures, for example, or for species other than humans.

In April 2012, the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, released the report “People and the Planet,” which provides a more realistic and balanced picture of human well-being and offers a vision of the future that goes beyond Lomborg's perspective. This report results from two years of extensive data gathering and broad consultation, deliberation, and debate among an international working group of experts in diverse fields.

The conclusion was that the twenty-first century is a critical period for people and the planet. The global population reached seven billion in 2011, and UN projections indicate that it will reach between eight billion and 11 billion by 2050. The material consumption of the wealthy is far above a level that could be sustained on a global scale, especially given the rise in the world’s population. By contrast, the world’s poorest people need to consume more to escape extreme poverty.

As Lomborg points out, the global population growth rate has slowed since the late 1960s. But the trend line disguises regional disparities. The least developed countries have the highest fertility rates, and the more developed countries (and increasingly countries in Asia and Latin America) have the lowest. The poorest countries are thus neither experiencing nor benefiting from declining population growth rates.

The combination of a rising global population and increasing overall material consumption cannot be sustained on a planet with finite resources. As both have continued to spike, the world has started to experience adverse effects, including climate changes that have reduced crop yields in some areas and growing numbers of species extinctions.

Population, moreover, is not only about the sheer amount of people. Changes in age structure, migration, and urbanization present challenges to human health, well-being, and the environment. And those are driven not only by economic development but also social, cultural, and environmental factors. Countries with different cultures and socioeconomic statuses have transitioned from high to low birth and death rates at different speeds.

Demographic changes and consumption patterns create several pressing challenges. As Lomborg observes, those living in absolute poverty in the developing world cannot afford the basic resources they need to live. Economic development and increased material consumption among this group are therefore essential. But eliminating poverty means reducing global inequality, which should be achieved through economic expansion only where it is needed, not necessarily through the current model of global economic growth.

Unsustainable material consumption in the most developed and emerging economies must be urgently reduced. This change will entail scaling back damaging material inputs and emissions and adopting sustainable technologies. These adjustments do not, however, necessarily mean a lowering of living standards; indeed, they have the potential to raise them. Although the current way in which society uses materials is closely linked to economic models based on growth, this does not have to be the case. Recycling will play an important part in cutting down the overall intensity of material use per economic unit.

A large unmet need for contraception remains in both developing and developed countries, with an estimated 222 million women in developing countries lacking family-planning services and materials. Voluntary family planning brings benefits to individuals’ well-being and, at the same time, helps advance the long-term goal of a stabilized population. Education is also important for personal development. Well-educated people tend to live longer, healthier lives; are more able to choose their family size; are more productive; and adapt more successfully to change.

Science and technology have a crucial role to play in meeting these challenges. They can improve the understanding of causes and effects, such as why stratospheric ozone is being depleted, and develop ways to limit the most damaging trends, including by enhancing agricultural production with reduced environmental impact. But society must pay attention to the socioeconomic dimensions of the use of technology, and nothing guarantees that technological advances will save humanity or the planet.

If sustainable development is to be achieved, the goals of economic development must be reappraised. GDP has been adopted as the primary measure of national prosperity, but it does not capture much of what is valuable in human life: freedom, health, and social relations. Although some resources, such as fresh water, might be replenished, they might also suffer from effectively irreversible deterioration when overused. Because such resources are not considered scarce assets in current economic models, they are undervalued by markets.

Demographic changes and their associated environmental impacts will vary across the globe. This means that regional and national policymakers need to adopt local solutions for local problems. Single-mindedly pursuing economic growth, without paying attention to reducing inequality, preserving cultures, protecting environments, and fostering well-being, will not achieve a prosperous and flourishing future for the human race. 

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  • JOHN SULSTON is Chairman of the People and the Planet Working Group at the Royal Society.
  • More By John Sulston