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Exponential procreation or eternal damnation?

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The Rio +20 outcomes from the perspective of a UK-based NGO focusing on population.

Population: What Elephant?

Somewhere around 31-October-2011 the human population reached 7 billion individuals, right around the time when the first preparatory committees were convening to discuss the issues in advance of the United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.

Population and sustainable development are inextricably linked, yet the subject remains almost a social and political taboo. Despite the fact that population growth rate is slowing, the growth curve remains exponential, with the population estimated to double approximately every 70 years, growing around 10,000 people per hour.

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Developing nations with an increasing population and growing incomes tend to mean greater consumption of goods and services, and thereby increased pressure on finite resources.

Given the findings of recent research, one would find it difficult to disagree that earth’s finite carrying capacity is a distinctly limiting factor on population. However, “no system is infinitely sustainable”, says University of Illinois’ Dr Jonathan Tomkin.

Many countries where population is growing fastest are the same countries where there is: a) either less wealth or grossly imbalanced wealth, b) high levels of illiteracy, c) poor healthcare and d) extremely low fertility education and family planning.

Observers of international development quickly point out that social instability, poverty, hunger and reduced economic activity also result in large part from overpopulation and related food and water resource issues. In addition, ecosystem degradation and pollution are frequently caused by the interconnected issues of population, agriculture, water, energy.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t preclude shifting from ‘business-as-usual’ towards a restorative system based on prosperity versus endless, unsustainable growth. On the table at Rio+20 were negotiations to produce international commitments to tackle some of these issues.

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Rio+20 Outcomes on Population

Following the press coverage prior to Rio+20, one would be forgiven for thinking it was destined to fail. Advance draft texts were heavily criticised in the media. Many reviewers quickly identified a lack of strong political commitment to converge on a set of mutually beneficial goals, measurable actions and delivery mechanisms, particularly in financing.

Observers from the IISD suggested that, “[a] vast distance has opened up between the practices of sustainable development on the ground and the ability of multilateral negotiations to set the pace.”

EarthTimes reports that pre-conference calls for, among other things, “[…] measures to act on women’s rights to reproductive health failed to make it into the final agreed text of Rio+20. Absence seems to be the dominant theme.”

In an insightful commentary, Peter Lehner of the National Resources Defence Council said, “[it’s] critical that we don’t equate Rio with a document. It’s not what it should be about. We don’t save the world with a document.”

Whilst many have highlighted the successes of civil society and grassroots movements with the 3,000+ activities that took place alongside the Conference, there is little evidence of this for population issues.

Disappointingly, two prominent civil society ‘sideshows’ offered little in terms of identifiable goals on population, including the opinion-forming vote.riodialogues.org website and Lehner’s group’s web-based Cloud of Commitments.

Fortunately, the outcome document itself offers some hope.

The subsection on “Health and Population” outlined three directly relevant and very specific outcomes.

In the first, parties signed up to “…systematically consider population trends and projects in national, rural and urban development strategies and policies.” A broad-brush approach, however, such language fails to commit resources or action beyond that necessary to “consider” population in planning. Unfortunately this most likely related to demographic change (i.e. movements) and migration than exponential growth problems.

Despite reservations lodged by the Holy See, somewhat more concrete commitments were made with the “full and effective implementation” of two previous international action programmes. Unfortunately neither of these programmes amount to binding treaties.

Nevertheless, with these commitments we should continue to see further progress in sexual rights and reproductive health, and the “promotion of all human rights in this context” (my emphasis).

This is a subtle but important matter. Couching population issues in much more empowered and publicly-palatable language of human rights gives them a much wider audience, potentially circumventing extremists and the far-right. Written into the very fabric of modern society, few would deny the universal importance of human rights.

Strangely, language in the same paragraph is indicative of a low-level commitment, “emphasising” universal access to reproductive health.

Whilst it must be appreciated that these are challenging issues in the public eye, without action-based leadership at the highest levels, initiatives based on politically-weak terms such as “considering” and “emphasising” will bear little weight.

With a beacon of hope, what could be the most significant commitment to action surfaced in the section’s last paragraph, where the Conference pledged to:

– Protect people’s rights to full personal control on “matters related to their sexuality, […] free from coercion, discrimination and violence”, including access to sexual/reproductive health.

– Ensure that health systems provide the necessary women’s reproductive information and services.

– Work towards universal access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable modern methods of family planning.

Covering many key points, these commitments are wide-scope, clear and unambiguous, eschewing weak language for positive pledges for action. It covers the issues whilst redirecting focus toward human rights and gender equality without delving into contentious language or ‘population control’ references – it’s about individual choice, not government intervention.

Unfortunately all these points fail to provide timelines, frameworks for governance, finance, or mechanisms for implementation. Without these, any commitment is merely hollow platitude. To proceed further than negotiating tables, efforts must push for effective investment and implementation mechanisms. And not just from the West. Implementation is especially critical and urgent in BRICS and high-growth developing nations.

Will time tell? IISD remind us that, “[…] early downbeat assessments of the 1992 Earth Summit gave way to a recognition that the world’s leaders had, in fact, caught the zeitgeist and shifted the language of development for good.”

This an opportunity to expand the population debate, capitalising on the RIO+20 momentum to bring issues behind exponential population growth into the realm of public consciousness, policy debate, development strategy and most importantly, action where it is needed most.

Just for fun, here is an example of what this article might look like if it were to be published in somewhere like the Guardian Weekly magazine:

PSD1 A1 Mag Article layout_RPKulczak_121018

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This entry was posted on 22 November 2012 by in Environmental Sustainability, Social Sustainability, Sustainable Development.

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