In London today the Planet Under Pressure conference will come to an end.  “What is this conference about?” I hear you ask.  Well, according to its website (seriously, what did we do before the internet??) the conference:

“…will provide a comprehensive update of the pressure planet Earth is now under. The conference will discuss solutions at all scales to move societies on to a sustainable pathway. It will provide scientific leadership towards the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development – Rio+20.”

It is to get a group of scientists, NGOs etc together before the 2012 UN Conference so that they can thrash out issues and discuss things. A discussion before a discussion – a discussion entrée perhaps?  Now, contrary to rumours, I am not a “whiff of grapeshot” reactionary.  (The picture of Metternich hanging in my office is purely for aesthetic purposes.)  I do think that there is much that we can and should be doing to reduce pollution and our impact upon the Earth – we are, after all, its kaitiaki, or guardians.  What I do worry about is when scientists at a conference entitled “Planet Under Pressure” (that pressure obviously coming from humanity) have, according to the AFP:

“…pinpointed population growth as a major if indirect contributor to global warming, depletion of resources, pollution and species loss…they also mark it as an issue that has disappeared almost completely off political radar screens.”

“Oh no” I thought, “here we go. Another push for people to have one baby each – it’s worked out well for China and its people hasn’t it??”

But I was pleasantly surprised by the sensible noises coming from the conference.  The reason we’re not talking about population pressure at a political level is:

“…partly because of religious sensitivities but also because of traumatic memories of coercive fertility controls in poorer countries in the 1970s that no-one wants to repeat.”

Those darn religious nutters with their crazy sensitivities! What’s wrong with them!? Oh and also all those terrible coercive measures. Oh yes, them too. At least the realisation of the logical end point of beating the “population is bad” drum is being recognised. In fact, Professor Diana Liverman of the University of Arizona even admits that due to a decreasing worldwide fertility rate, “there is a strong possibility that population growth will level off around nine billion and may in fact fall thereafter”. 

Even more importantly, there is a recognition that lifestyle, not just population, is important: “The world’s carrying capacity isn’t a single headline figure but depends on lifestyle, technology, and so forth,” said Lord Martin Rees of the Royal Society, whose report on demography and the environment will be issued next month.

Those countries that consume and pollute the most (Europe, USA, Japan etc) have populations that are stabilising or even falling, while those that consume and pollute the least (sub-Saharan Africa) are where global population growth is being driven.  Thus, when we talk about the population growing to 9 billion people and trying to stop that growth in some way, we’re not talking about stopping growth in the West. That’s happened already. We’re talking about stopping growth in poorer countries, countries that aren’t consuming or polluting nearly as much as the West is. 

But, as specialists at the conference point out, population control is not the only solution:

“Strategies for working on the demographic drivers of environmental damage are essentially two-pronged, said specialists. One is to change consumption patterns, so that the rich countries — and the emerging giants rushing to catch up with them — use energy and resources more sustainably. The other is to protect women’s rights, education for women and their access to jobs and contraception.”

We’ve commented on this blog before about the need to change individual behaviour and for us (particularly in the West) to realise how much we use and waste for the good of the planet.  So we can find some common ground with the Planet Under Pressure conference. As for the contraception point – I’m sure the American public will have no problem being forced to pay for it. Right? 

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...