Climate Change

Seven Billion and Counting: Population and the Planet

May 1, 2014

Friends and supporters gathered at a reception before the Future of Nature panel discussion on population this week. Photo credit: John Clarke Russ for The Nature Conservancy

What’s the connection between population and conservation? How can we deal with the challenges posed by a growing population while honoring the autonomy of individuals? What’s the role of technology…of education?

A panel of four leading thinkers on conservation, population, and development tackled these and many other questions in a wide ranging conversation — 7 Billion and Counting: Population and the Planet — hosted by the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts on April 28.

Overall, the discussion took a positive and candid tone while dealing with a topic that has provoked some of the worst hand-wringing and finger pointing in the history of conservation.

The Human Influence

Alan Weisman — author of Countdown and The World without Us, and an award-winning science writer — framed the challenge, as he outlined the thought experiment that forms the premise of his books: What would the world look like without humans and how would we add ourselves back in if we had a do-over?

Among the most striking statistics he offered was that humans, a single species of the millions on Earth, have altered over 40% of the land surface to feed ourselves.

The other panelists — including Caroline Crosbie, Senior Vice President of Pathfinder International, Roger-Mark DeSouza, Director of Population, Environmental Security and Resilience at the Wilson Center, and the Conservancy’s Chief Scientist, Peter Kareiva — focused primarily on the proven successes and even greater potential of improved education and governance practices.

Integrated Action

Integrated population, health and environment (PHE) programs often bring several organizations together to work on a suite of challenges, said Crosbie. The approach makes use of connections between what may at first seem unrelated issues. By reducing economic insecurity and empowering women and girls to explore different economic opportunities and influence community decisionmaking, PHE programs offer a way to simultaneously slow population growth, improve human well-being, and avoid or reduce environmental degradation.

For example, the Tuungane program operates in Tanzania – in the Greater Mahale ecosystem on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Run jointly by Pathfinder International, the Nature Conservancy and the Frankfurt Zoological Society, Tuungane combines improved primary health care and family planning, micro-lending, fisheries cooperatives, and land use planning to raise family income, reduce soil runoff and protect fish breeding sites.

“We do not live our lives in silos,” said a program participant as she described the impact of a similar program that Pathfinder International runs in Ethiopia, said Crosbie.

DeSouza told the story of a 39 year old Ethiopian woman he met who had been married at 13 and had 11 children. DeSouza asked her how she had become a model farmer — travelling the countryside mentoring others in techniques to improve yield and conserve soil.

He says she told him: I am a beautiful woman and my husband can’t keep his hands off me, but when I learned about family planning, I finally had the time to learn better farming techniques and share them with my community.

The Economic Challenge

Jatnna Garcia, a Nature Conservancy volunteer, participates in the photo booth, showing her hope for the "future of nature." Photo credit: Eric Aldrich for The Nature Conservancy
Jatnna Garcia, a Nature Conservancy volunteer, participates in the photo booth, showing her hope for the “future of nature.” Photo credit: Eric Aldrich for The Nature Conservancy

In many more developed countries, the problem is flipped. When women have education and employment opportunities, fertility rates often decline below replacement rates.  As they face the costs of caring for an aging population, governments have powerful economic incentives to maintain a higher population of young, economically productive individuals.

On one hand, that harsh reality can drive governments to adopt policies aimed at increasing population — as has happened in France. On the other hand, it highlights the role of young people in pursuing solutions, especially as they break down outdated silos between issues. “Young people don’t have the same baggage around population as we sometimes do,” said DeSouza. “My college-age son is sitting down and talking about responsible sexuality and what it has to do with climate change. How does that happen?”

Climate change — and climate resilience — figured strongly in the discussion as well, but the speakers stayed focused on the present rather than getting drawn into speculation. Kareiva emphasized the power of short term results to sustain commitment. “The solution to these very real problems,” he said, “is identifying actions we can take today that will improve lives within the next few years. The question is not how many is too many, but how do we want to live?”

The event, moderated by Christian Science Monitor science reporter Peter Spotts, kicked off the 2014 Future of Nature series, which will continue with “Investing in Nature” on May 12 and “Weathering the Storm: Boston’s Future Climate” on June 9. Missed the event? See the video.

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1 comment

  1. I’m sorry; but the question is also “how many is too many”; and for the health of the Earth’s systems we are probably past that point by a factor of two or three times. Human impacts are a product of numbers, consumption, and methods of production. All three should be honestly addressed.