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Our Insights 19 Jan 2011

New Year, New Life

By Mark Lee

The best of holiday gifts arrived for our family just after the New Year – a healthy baby, born the morning of January 08, 2011. These early days of his life are ones I will remember and cherish, and they have given me reason to think about the type of world in which he, and his two older siblings, will grow up.

One in a Million? No – One in Seven Billion

As we awaited Eamon’s birth, the January cover of National Geographic staring out from newsstands and at grocery checkouts blared Population 7 Billion: How Your World Will Change. As you may know, demographers predict global population will reach seven billion sometime later this year. As that milestone approaches, you can expect lots of commentary about how many people the planet can bear.

While counting milestones in billions can quickly overwhelm, the recent and continuing acceleration of human population growth staggers. We first reached a billion people in the early 1800s. It took more than a century to double from there, reaching two billion around 1930. When I first learned the number of people on earth as a schoolchild in the 1970s, the number had doubled again, to four billion. It was five billion before I graduated high school in the late 1980s, and six billion before the century ended. We have added nearly a billion more in just over another decade and are projected to tip seven billion later in the second half of 2011. Amazing? Indeed. Worrisome? Possibly, but I am less concerned that we should fret numbers than behavior and lifestyle.

Over the Top

From here, growth will slow, peak, and then decline. The prediction is that global population will hit its apex around 2050 at somewhere between eight and 10.5 billion people. If we accept – however uncomfortably – that there are likely to be nine billion people on the planet by mid-century, what impact will that have, and what are we to do about it?

Many will argue human population is the problem and that curbing or reducing it is the answer. This is hardly new (see Swift’s A Modest Proposal from the 1700s and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth from 1972 for two famous examples over time) and is recently championed in Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom, in which one of the key characters, Walter Berglund, songbird preservationist by day, is at heart a zero population growth crusader. With seven billion imminent and nine billion in sight, National Geographic and Franzen are surely only the leading edge of a wave of formal and popular analysis of the impact of, well, us.

Too Many?

In scientific journals or popular culture, where will the analysis lead? While the National Geographic story title suggests it will tell us ‘how our world will change’, it fails on this front, trending more to population facts that amaze than grappling effectively with the differences the numbers will force on us.

But, truly, so what? The curve population growth is following has come about because life expectancy has increased, which we have to celebrate and hope continues to grow especially in the regions of the world where child mortality, disease and conflict still take a horrific, often preventable, toll. After life expectancy increases, it takes birth rates a while – usually a generation – to fall.

The answer, in terms of how many is too many, will depend not as much on how many but how the many behave. Living – and consuming – the way we do, seven billion is certainly far too many, as likely were six, five and perhaps even less than four. WWF’s One Planet Living provides a stark picture of how many earths it would take to sustain present lifestyles if we all lived like Europeans or North Americans (hint: it’s more than the one we actually have).

The Needy (and the Greedy)

John Elkington, Founder and Executive Chairman of Volans and one of SustainAbility’s founders, says in The Transparent Economy that the transformational challenge facing society this century is “…the fundamental, intergenerational task of winding down the dysfunctional economic business models of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the evolution of new ones fit for a human population headed towards nine billion people, living on a small planet which is already in ‘ecological overshoot’.” Bound up in that statement is the reality that we are already living beyond our planetary means, but with such inequity in resource access and use that billions have a fully justifiable claim on further development in order to improve their quality of life, while a minority will need establish radically different – lighter – ways of living on this planet.

A Finite World

In my last blog, All or Nothing, I said 2011 needed to be the year, and the start of a decade, of absolutes – the time to adopt absolute sustainability targets e.g. 100% renewable energy and zero waste. The ten guiding principles of WWF’s One Planet Living do an elegant job expanding on this notion, mapping and explaining how to act on principles from zero carbon to equity and fair trade such that we can make do with one earth. Similarly, Paul Krugman, writing in The New York Times on December 26, 2010, says we have to adjust expectations to The Finite World which we live.

Krugman’s piece examines commodity prices (mostly at or near record highs due to surging demand in emerging economies), then (at least between the lines) paints the demographic and ecological conclusion that “…we’re living in a finite world, one in which resource constraints are becoming increasingly binding… [and which will] require that we gradually change the way we live, adapting our economy and our lifestyles to the reality of more expensive resources.”

A Final Word

Acceptance won’t come easily – we are creatures of habit, and any hint of potentially reduced creature comforts will meet resistance – but changing how we live will be the fundamental means by which we accommodate greater numbers of people while preserving our planet. As above, this will require absolute targets and transformational change… but, thankfully, over a few decades – still imminent in societal terms, but not literally tomorrow.

This bit of space and time is critical. I argued in another previous post, Bit by Bit, that transformational change is most often realized by rapid prototyping – multiple, incremental changes that add up. So lifestyles don’t need to change globally overnight, but we do have to see them evolve in as rapid increments as our cultures and economies can bear.

Diet will be one testing ground. Assuming population will grow to that nine billion and pondering the lifestyle changes we might accept, a French demographer quoted in the National Geographic piece, Hervé Le Bras, says “Eating less meat seems more reasonable to me than saying, ‘Have fewer children!’” Amazingly, even in the US, people are seemingly doing this, with the Washington Post reporting veganism is moving rapidly from the fringes towards the mainstream.

At a personal level, I’d be surprised to find myself vegan down the road, but I am with Mark Bittman, author of Food Matters, who suggests that for health and the planet we should all be at least 70% vegan – and eat food produced more sustainably and ethically 100% of the time. On this path, I am animal protein free at least two meals per day, gave up beef entirely a little over a year ago and in 2011 have embarked on eliminating most dairy. In terms of transport, our young family has a minivan (no Swagger Wagon, no matter what the video says), but no second car. These changes require small sacrifice, but have no real discernable effect on my quality of life, and seem well worth it as steps on the path (which will become steeper) to making sure there is room for Eamon and the rest of the nine billion who need this planet after me.

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