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Royal Society Calls for Redistribution of Wealth and More Birth Control to Save the Planet

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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During the 352-year life span of the Royal Society, the human population has risen from less than one billion people to seven billion and counting. That boom has been supported by science and technology—Watt’s coal-fired steam engine, Haber and Bosch synthesizing nitrogen fertilizer, Fleming’s discovery of penicillin—and continues today as the world’s population expands at the rate of 78 million people per year.

Now the Royal Society wants the world to do something about population growth in a bid to stave off environmental and economic calamity, according to a new report dubbed “People and the Planet” released on April 26. At the same time, the excessive consumption of the world’s richest billion people must be restrained so that pets in the U.S. don’t consume more resources than people in Bangladesh.

The human economy (as measured by gross domestic product) has quadrupled in the past 50 years, outpacing even the rate of population growth. More recently China, India and other emerging economies have lifted millions out of poverty and begun to afford to some of their citizens the material affluence enjoyed by citizens in Europe, Japan and the U.S. And yet more than a billion people around the world still live in absolute poverty (and have the highest fertility rates).

The impact of the twin perils of population numbers and excessive consumption is readily apparent, and includes climate change from fossil fuel burning and land clearing, oceanic dead zones proliferating thanks to fertilizer runoff, and a sixth mass extinction of other species as we leave less and less room for other life. The list will get longer as we proceed deeper into what geologists are beginning to call the Anthropocene, or age of man. We have become a geologic force.

So how can the world balance the need for economic growth and forestall ecological disaster? A team of 23 scientists convened by the Royal Society spent the last 21 months puzzling over the conundrum. The resulting report calls for population and consumption to be considered together rather than separately by the world’s governments as they move to embrace sustainability and lists three in-no-way-surprising recommendations:

(1) The poorest people will require more—better everything, or as the scientists put it “increased per capita consumption,” but that means that

(2) Developed and even emerging economies will have to cut back. Yes, the Royal Society is calling for a global rebalancing of wealth. Oh, and more recycling. Finally,

(3) “global population growth needs to be slowed and stabilized,” though this should not be “coercive.” In other words, there is an urgent need for more free birth control, if not one-child policies. The scientists recommend putting population on the agenda for the upcoming United Nations environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro in June.

Here is the good news: everything the scientists call for is to some extent already happening. Population growth peaked in the 1960s and has been declining ever since. Education of women, whenever and wherever it occurs, boosts incomes, restrains fertility and even increases farming output, among other positives. There is literally no downside to the empowerment of women that is even remotely detectable. At the same time, the flight of much of the world’s population to cities —emerging economies are adding the equivalent of a million-person city every five days—may help reduce the global impacts of the extended family of man. The trick will be ensuring that new cities are built right and old cities get the right retrofits, all while improving agriculture (particularly reducing waste).

Yet managing a transition to some form of just, low-impact global economy is not going to be easy. The right choices need encouragement, the wrong ones disparagement. After all, we rich may simply decide to move from trashing this finite planet to trashing asteroids, moons and even other worlds instead. Scientists, for their part, will have to take over management of natural ecosystems on the only spaceship known to offer a comfortable home to humanity to ensure they continue to provide the services, like clean water, we all rely on to survive. And humanity will have to make smart use of its oldest talent—adaptability—to cope with the changes we have brought on ourselves. Otherwise, the “age of man” may prove quite inhospitable to man.

The fear promoted by this Royal Society report is one of economic and ecological disaster if the twin perils of consumption and population are not addressed through restriction. Of course, most of that population growth is not happening in countries the scientists formulating the report hail from, but rather in the least developed countries, the bulk of which are in Africa. Fears of the wrong sort of population growth have a long dark, history, but actual history suggests that an excess of humanity can actually be a good thing, providing the renewable resource of human ingenuity that then fuels economic development (and world-changing scientific ideas). Plus, there is the troubling question of: what number is the right number, who decides and who enforces it? As the Royal Society’s motto goes “take nobody’s word for it.” Not even the Royal Society’s.

About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. em_allways_right 4:07 pm 04/26/2012

    Why should I as a pet owner have my pet consume less than a person in S.E. Asia? I am not the one having 10 children. In fact I have none.

    Maybe I should get 10 dogs and cats and feed them what 10 starving people would eat. That would be better as my pets would not conume any more heat or elec. than I would, nor would they aspire to car ownership or eating beef. If people have the right to breed like rabbits, then I can own lots of rabbits.

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  2. 2. geojellyroll 4:33 pm 04/26/2012

    em…great perspective. Canadian women have 1.4 children whereas for those in Kenta it’s almost 7. Both former British colonies. In Canada we have lots of food, energy, clean water, education, etc. No need for us to do anything. My two cats have full tummies.

    ‘Royal Society’ calls for…. tough beans. The days of Empires and white man’s burden are long over. Kenyans, Indonesians, etc. can make their own way. I’m turning up the heat.

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  3. 3. geojellyroll 6:02 pm 04/26/2012

    James Davkis: “They are going to continue to breed like rats and put a burden on the planet’

    True. Up to them to stop breeding like rats. They aren’t children and know where babies come from. In the meantime, I’ve got to remember to get my cat his favorite flavour of food…’shredded turkey’…he just turns his nose up at ‘seafood supreme’.

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  4. 4. marclevesque 7:25 pm 04/26/2012

    Good article, thanks.

    It’s sad to see that so many are not aware of how their culture, lifestyles, and governments past and present helped engender, still support, and seemingly still plan on perpetuating all the problems we see around us in the world today.

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  5. 5. Lunapilot 8:16 pm 04/26/2012

    It was less than a hundred years ago that we in the west were “Breeding like rats” Just look at how many children families had around the turn of the 20th Century! We spent large amounts of money on educating women, spreading democratic ways of thinking, offering equal rights for everyone and inventing many different forms of contraception. What took us hundreds of years to get our population growth under control, could take just a single generation for the third world – If we help them now! Money spent on education and contraception is never wasted!

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 7:11 am 04/27/2012

    Unfortunately, providing the poorest with more will necessarily produce more consumption of limited resources (especially food, water & energy), more environmental impact (aka global warming) and more of the poor (increased availability of food during the past ~200 years is a critical factor in the 7 fold population increase during that period).

    Also, while optimists like to point out that population growth is slowing, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population will increase >33% by 2050, from 314M to 423M, and the global population from 7 billion to 9.4 billion – that 2.4 billion increase by itself exceeds the population of the world at any time prior to about 1950. Reducing growth isn’t quite as great an achievement as it might seem…

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  7. 7. hanmeng 8:49 am 04/27/2012

    How about people in the Royal society all off themselves and give their money away? It would be a stirring example.

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  8. 8. geojellyroll 11:36 am 04/27/2012

    Lunapilot: “What took us hundreds of years to get our population growth under control, could take just a single generation for the third world ‘

    Huh? It didn’t take Canada or Australia or New Zealand hundreds of years. We were colonies like Kenya….what’s the difference?

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  9. 9. huichang 11:56 am 04/27/2012

    The first main point is that we should do our best to equalise all the people no matter wealthy or poor.The second main point is that we should control the booming of pupulation and control the consumption.So it is no sense for you all to focus on the pets.I am agree with the author that it is the hunman that more important than a pet.And I think there are two ways decide whether to support the poor. First ,we fellow the theory of evolution,let the poor die off from the earth and the stronger one survive.Secondly,we can follow the Bible that “ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL”.AND I CHOSE THE SECOND ONE.

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  10. 10. Purpleplane 12:05 pm 04/27/2012

    I am saddened to see so much disconnect from and disregard for the people in other parts of the world. The article is only pointing out a statistic- something to reflect on- it is not meant for others to feel guilty on how they treat their pets. No one is asking for the billionaires to no longer be billionaires- just help a little more- because they can and it is the right thing to do. Some people are not aware of the circumstances of the people around the world (those that have not been born into the same opportunities)-it gives them something to think about. Some people know and don’t care- and that is their choice, but it shouldn’t fuel anger and hostility towards others. There is obviously a divide in this world and unfortunately as people become more egocentric, I just see the gap getting bigger. Don’t you see that compassion for others is what makes us different from other living things- Actually, I take that back- some animals like our pets do show a level of compassion when we are not well. They however are much better than we- because they don’t judge our behaviors or make us feel as though it is our fault (poor decisions) when we are not well. Maybe some of us should take a lesson from our pets. You can believe that a person’s fate is based solely on the decisions he/she makes – or you can believe that there are other factors involved and that those who have the ability to help should. I just see so much judgment on others when there is very little understanding of what these people in other countries experience or even people in this country experience. If born in similar circumstances could you say for certain that you wouldn’t make the same decisions? I think we all know the answer.

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  11. 11. Molecule 12:50 pm 04/27/2012

    @JamesDavis and other who think the same : “We didn’t have this problem until the third-world countries, like Africa, started breeding like “out-of-control rats”” – Don’t you think its because of Europeans colonialism that put them into slavery, destroyed original life style, broke natural borders between tribes for artificial ones and force them away from natural equilibrium into our artificial money-based economy!

    “They are going to continue to breed like rats and put a burden on the planet” No no it’s us the burdon, may be not by the number but with the life style and bad examples! How many 3rd world CO2 equivalent for one rich american who travel a lot by plane and got a hummer? May be a number between 50 and 500 3rd world people!

    @ marclevesque : need 7 post to read a clever one at last!

    @ huichang : “The first main point is that we should do our best to equalize all the people no matter wealthy or poor.The second main point is that we should control the booming of population and control the consumption.”

    Nop … just the reverse, what would you do with an equal world full of pollution dying people?

    @jtdwyer : “Unfortunately, providing the poorest with more will necessarily produce more consumption of limited resources” Except if it’s more contraception!

    And more generally :

    What about free 3rd world :
    (1) Contraception.
    (2) Family planing advice.
    (3) General education! As it works as a contraceptive we should use it massively!
    (4) Security insurance for old age in exchange for sterilization (?)
    (5) Free green technology for the 3rd world (wind mills, sea power etc.)

    And we should be a role model :
    (1) may be even fewer children.
    (2) less consumption.

    And who cares if we get genetically run over as white people, because they still be plenty of good genes lefts and we will have managed a necessary cultural transition! May be we will have darker skin! Practical with more aggressive UVs.

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  12. 12. singing flea 1:54 pm 04/27/2012

    We all need to address the issue of why the poorest countries have the biggest family size. The reason is obvious to me. It is not because these people are stupid or lack birth control. Poor farmers have more kids because those kids will work for food and the whole family benefits if it is a big family. Any farmer knows this. Rich countries now depend on mechanization to farm their food and kids become a financial burden rather then an asset. In fact, in America we pass laws to prevent kids from working. There is a law pending right now that would prevent kids from doing farm chores. Think about it. This is not rocket science. The solutions proposed by the Royal Society are not as cockeyed as most Americans with wealth would call them.

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  13. 13. Steve3 5:38 pm 04/27/2012

    There are some disgraceful comments here.
    I think it’s time SciAm had a button to report and delete this racism etc.
    Who do repellant and ignorant people like you come here to post your worthless bile?

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  14. 14. Steve3 5:39 pm 04/27/2012

    Correction — Why do..repellant and ignorant people like you come here to post your worthless bile?

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  15. 15. jgrosay 6:09 pm 04/27/2012

    Redistribution of wealth is a different thing from redistribution of money, as people with higher levels of monetary income do have limits in their consumption of some goods that are the basical needs of all, they just add goods and services consumed, but in some elementary needs they don’t differ too much to others. Redistributing wealth sound as an ethical goal, but even when the richest do probably use more energy than the rest, the first approach to redistribute wealth inevitably should go thru increasing the global production of goods, an objective that can meet some bottlenecks. In a society where the reward for economical success and achievements is the access to more economical goods, some approaches to redistribution will deeply change the nature of society and economy, I remember an spaniard who fought in the spanish civil war, and then in Russia against the nazis, who was attributed one of the highest awards of the Soviet Union. After getting the medal, he uttered: “I’ve past nearly ten years putting my life in risk for fighting against fascism, and what I got is a tin pin”. Anybody has an answer for the problem?. I don’t, we better be austere, but as Carole King sung: “The sweet taste in good life is so easily found”. Salut +

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  16. 16. jgrosay 6:17 pm 04/27/2012

    Some ways of birth control are just brutal, abortion kills, and the word “contraception” is against the deep of the collective unconscious, having offspring is a way of self-preservation thru preservation of the group and of the species, and the word contraception would be in some way an attack or a damage to self-preservation instinct, something like a suicidal attempt. “Family planning” may be softer in this context.

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  17. 17. John W. Bales 6:36 pm 04/27/2012

    How the mighty have fallen. The Royal Society should stick to something they know something about–science. By their pronouncements they demonstrate their ignorance of both economics and morality.

    Wealth belongs to those who create it and to no one else. It does not belong to society nor to the poor nor to anyone who did not create it. Resources belong to those who own them and to no one else. Those who advocate redistribution of wealth advocate for thievery.

    If the Royal Society were truly concerned with the welfare of the impoverished they would advocate for capitalism–the only system that recognizes the principle of individual rights including the right to the products of ones mind and of ones labor. Note how conditions have improved in India after they freed up their economy. In a free, capitalist society, the poor are capable of working their way out of poverty and of rising to any level their abilities can take them. And in a free capitalist society, there are no limits to growth. If a commodity becomes scarce, enterprising individuals will find a more economical replacement–unless governments intervene to prevent it. Witness the attempts to prevent new sources of energy such as shale gas.

    Those searching for excuses to limit growth are not concerned with mankind nor the future of human life on this planet.

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  18. 18. jtdwyer 7:30 pm 04/27/2012

    I don’t understand where this article came from. Thanks to the included links, I find that the 3 ‘recommendations’ listed here do not accurately represent either the 4 Key Recommendations found at http://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/people-planet/report/ or the list of 9 Recommendations listed in http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/projects/people-planet/2012-04-25-PeoplePlanetSummary.pdf

    I recommend the brief, more balanced Science Insider article, “U.K.’s Royal Society Finds No ‘Silver Bullet’ for Population Issues” at http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/04/uks-royal-society-finds-no-silv.html?ref=em

    Incendiary titles benefit no one…

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  19. 19. captainfishstyx 1:37 am 04/28/2012

    I find it absolutely difficult to read the way that some people view the issues in third world countries in this article. The reason that Canada, New Zealand etc. were able to succeed better is that their countries were not completed plundered, destroyed, and re-organized by self-righteous Europeans. I am aware that this was in the past, but get off of your high horse and at least acknowledge the fact that your ancestors actually did help to ruin countries that otherwise, may have become productive in the world economy had they been developed and worked with rather than taken advantage of and left to rot.

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  20. 20. SiaraDelyn 9:42 pm 04/28/2012

    And yet most of the world’s major religions relentlessly push women to stay home and produce huge families. Go figure.

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  21. 21. David Marjanović 7:15 am 04/29/2012

    How about people in the Royal society all off themselves and give their money away? It would be a stirring example.

    They’re scientists. How much money do you imagine they have???

    Wealth belongs to those who create it and to no one else. It does not belong to society nor to the poor nor to anyone who did not create it. Resources belong to those who own them and to no one else. Those who advocate redistribution of wealth advocate for thievery.

    You want to lecture us about morality!?! “I got mine, fuck you” is immoral.

    Witness the attempts to prevent new sources of energy such as shale gas.

    LOL. There’s almost none of it, it costs almost as much energy to produce as you can get from burning it, and then there’s the climate you somehow don’t seem to worry about.

    Get to work on improving the efficiency of photovoltaics. Sunlight is not limited for the next few billion years.

    In a free, capitalist society, the poor are capable of working their way out of poverty and of rising to any level their abilities can take them.

    If it’s purely capitalist, with no social safety net, they’re also capable of falling and falling and falling without a bottom.

    If a commodity becomes scarce, enterprising individuals will find a more economical replacement–

    Scientists will, if there are enough of them. That’s a question of funding – in other words, of political will.

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  22. 22. Crasher 7:20 pm 05/1/2012

    Interesting article. My guess is that this will be ridiculed as it calls for humans to be logical and to see what is happening around us, just like climate change and numerous other current happenings. And to make some changes to our lives and lifestyles. The comments regarding the poor and starving as being responsible for their own misfortune make me sick, obviously people in parts of Africa choose to be born there and people with lower interlect choose to be dumb!
    Reminds me of a man just over 2000 years ago that was nailed to a cross for suggesting people be nice to each other.
    Humans will go the way of the dinosaur, only it won’t be a fireball from the sky that takes us out but our own blind stupidity and arrogance. So sad for what might have been.

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  23. 23. LittleDragon 2:34 am 05/3/2012

    Good that finally somebody see the light. For the last 40 years I could never understand how people and organisations could provide help and development support to countries/ areas without understanding that the only thing that would happen would be that in a few years later the problem would become bigger unless that was some form of population control. I largerly regard such people a Bill Gates as criminals almost on the same level as the Chatolic church, that actively promote population growth just in order to get more people in need and suffering and steeped in superstition with the only purpose to gain more power to the church.

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  24. 24. David Marjanović 8:05 am 05/3/2012

    What… wait. Is Gates against contraception???

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  25. 25. WizeHowl 8:35 am 05/3/2012

    I am disgusted in some of the comments posted on here, they show complete ignorance and lack of compassion on the part of the poster. Some African and Asian countries have high birth rates for a number of reasons, one of those as previously pointed out is for labour but in many cases it is mainly a simple case of lack of education and availability of birth control.

    Unlike here in Australia where we have teenagers getting pregnant for cash, thanks to a government policy to pay up to $8,000 for every child born, to increase the population, as it was thought that we needed to “populate or perish” by successive governments. The idea was to encourage couples who were holding off having children to have one, or as the then treasurer put it “one for mum, one for dad, and one for the country”. But unfortunately what it has done has encouraged teenagers to procreate, and they too get the “baby bonus”, which in some states can be up to $8,000, with the federal government paying $5,000.

    Yes, Australia does need to increase it’s population base, but it certainly does not need a population of babies having babies, and my step daughter was one of them, leaving my wife and I to raise what is now a delightful 4&1/2 yr old grandson; whom I wouldn’t be without today; but whom wouldn’t have been born if it wasn’t for the irresponsible government policy.

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  26. 26. Sylvie Degiez 2:24 pm 05/4/2012

    Disheartening to read some of the comments.
    Few people are pointing out that the solution seem to rest in part with the emancipation of women everywhere.
    Less even comprehend the idea of a redistribution of wealth (thus political power) between men and women. That would be a positive start in a new direction. Education is a key and the web could provide free education for everyone if it wasn’t cluttered by junk that appeals to the lower common denominator.
    Concerning the “rich”, there always will be people that will feel entitled to more and that’s OK as long as those stay an exception and don’t become an example for the masses (which is alas what’s happening with the glamorization of merchants and the constant courting of money by the media). Some of those wealthy individual are conscious people who understand that responsibility comes with privilege and use their money smartly but some many are wasteful people that heat enormous empty mansion, and guzzle up mileage as if they were going to be seen as idiots unless they had visited every country in the world. Not unlike some “poor” people I know: everybody need to change their ways, change comes from inside and individual action. Thanks to the Royal Society for this insightful article.

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