Ismail Serageldin


STS Population and Resources

 07/10/2013 | STS, Kyoto, Japan

The debate on population and resources has been joined at least since Malthus and Condorcet… The former could not foresee anything except population growth hitting resources limit that would lead to famines and death. Condorcet saw that human imagination, science and technological innovation would be able to meet the needs of a growing population. Condorcet was right.
But neither of these two worthies, writing in the late 18th century could imagine in his wildest dreams a world population exceeding 7 billion, much less one that exceeds 9 billion… Condorcet could not imagine the scale of consumption and waste that is associated with our western lifestyles or how our technology can disrupt the ecological web of our planet on which we all depend.
Indeed, the demands of a growing population is due both to the increase in population, and to the increase of income, whereby people demand more animal proteins in their diet, more energy, and an unlimited supply of manufactured goods and services. That is what is making the ecological footprint for each of us ever larger.
·        Ever more agricultural production for food and feed, noting that agriculture already commands 40% of the earth surface and some 70% of the global freshwater withdrawals; 
·        Ever more energy; 
·        Ever more solid waste with its complex problems recycling and disposal;
·        Ever more demands for better ways to manage our ever expanding cities and make them truly smart cities; and
·        Ever more pollution that accompanies many of our industrial processes. 
Each of these topics has been much discussed here, including the ranges of policies and programs that could address it.
So let me turn to the Population side of the equation: Why does global population continue to grow? And is there something that we can do to slow it down?
The demographic transition:
The reality of the population issue is the demographic transition that all societies go through.
Initially, less developed societies had a stable population with high fertility, high birthrates and high death rates. Health improvements bring down infant mortality with a sudden spurt in population growth, producing the characteristic broad based population pyramids of the poorer developing countries.
If the society grows well enough, and at a pace which could keep pace with that demographic wave, the population then goes on to stabilize again, but this time with low fertility, low birth rates and low death rates. These population stable societies face two separate problems: The ecological impacts of the consumption pattern on a per capita basis, and the special needs of an aging population, and even a declining population if fertility falls below the replacement rate. 
That is the pattern that the advanced industrial societies have experienced. Other societies are just catching up on that demographic transition. But today, the transition is being accompanied by a very rapid rise in the ecological footprint of all societies in the developing world, even as the industrialized world is unable to curb GHG emissions and hold if not reduce their ecological footprint.
The growing children put enormous pressure on schools, universities and other social infrastructure in society, and as young adults, at the most critical moment when they graduate from formal education and join the labor force, they are at their most vulnerable, and that is roughly when they will be forming their own households to bring up their own families.   
If that does not happen, it is likely that youth unemployment will be very problematic, as a younger generation without stake in the future of the society that rejects them will gravitate towards criminality, marginalization and political extremism.
Societies which are going through this demographic transitions, mostly in Africa, South Asia and West Asia, have an opportunity – with proper education and socialization – to make good use of that unstoppable demographic wave of young people to drive a green economic expansion and to move faster towards stabilization of their populations as these youths become economically and politically active members of society.
The schools and universities that handle the 12-24 age group are essential institutions in any society, for they handle the transition of adolescents into adults, and of dependents into full-fledged citizens.   Between the ages of 12-24 youth undergoes five transitions, where the choices they make in each case will have a long-lasting impact. These are:
Continuing to Learn:   Whether to drop out of further structured instruction and university participation or not is the single most important decision in the teenager’s life. Its repercussions and the future path of their career will be inevitably affected by it.
Starting to Work:   The transition from a dependent student to an independent participant in the labor force occurs in these years, and traditionally with a pre-college or college education. A smooth transition into a growing labor market will be very beneficial. Sustained unemployment will enormously increase the chances of marginalization and even deviance into criminality.
Developing a Healthful Lifestyle: Key decisions on smoking, experimenting with drugs, attitudes towards sex and other choices that confront youth at that age can make all the difference in terms of their adoption of a healthy lifestyle or not.
Beginning a Family: Family formation starts at the older end of that age group. Thus the attitudes that they gain in those years can make all the difference between a society with solid family units and one with broken homes.   Household formation is about more than demographic change.
Exercising citizenship: The political awareness of the new generation is formed in those years, usually it is at university that they join political parties, start to vote and get exposed to a wide spectrum of ideas and debates. The attitudes they develop towards politics and society will also make the difference between the rise of extremism and the success of pluralistic politics.
We must reach out to our youth, especially women, and ensure that education for tomorrow is far more than training for marketable skills. Theirs will be an education revolutionized by the Internet, from the tablet to the MOOCs, education will involve changes in everything from content to method to participants to setting. But that is a topic for another day.
But, there is no question that women play a central role in both sides of the population and resources equation: Empowering women through education, access to credit, opportunities for employment, support to their entrepreneurial initiatives with micro credit and SME support structures, that is the fastest route to bring down fertility and move towards a stable population. Women are also the primary builders of social capital and the main vectors for the transmission of values, and thus their involvement in the environmental and resource issue will help broaden the base of support for the more efficient and less wasteful use of resources and the adoption of new technologies that will help move us towards the path of sustainable development.
Never before have the stakes been as great. Never before has the pace of change been so fast, the possibilities for action so promising, and the costs of inaction been so great. Yet, precisely because of this speed, of this novelty of tool and product, people are nervous and alienated. 
More humans today are better educated, and live longer, and freer lives than ever before, BUT we moving on an environmentally unsustainable path and some of the members of the human family are still incredibly deprived.
But that is what this STS effort is all about: To bring together the leaders of science, politics and business to generate a consensus on these complex problems with all the lights and shadows that our technology casts… 
We must have the vision to be bold, the courage to act decisively, and the wisdom to recognize that our own well-being is tied to that of all others. Let us promote development that is people centered and gender conscious, which places short term actions within a long term perspective, and that works with nature not against it. That is the path for a sustainable future.
Thank you.

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