“We may survive, but we won’t flourish”: The UK’s Royal Society launches a Working Group on Population and the Planet.
On July 13th, 2010 the Royal Society, London launched a two year study titled Population and the Planet. The Group is chaired by Sir John Sulston, recipient of the 2002 Nobel prize in medicine. Speaking to The Independent newspaper, he said, “We really do have to look at where we are going in relation to population. If we don’t do it, we may survive but we won’t flourish. We will be examining the extent to which population is a significant factor in the momentous international challenge of securing global sustainable development, considering not just the scientific elements but encompassing the wider issues including culture, gender, economics and law.” Among other things, the Group “will consider how scientific and technological developments might alter the rate and impact of population changes and affect human well-being.” The Working Group’s report will be published early in 2012, a few months after the Earth’s population size is expected to pass seven billion.
Sir John told the BBC that population “appears to be moving back up the political agenda now.” The Bixby Center can take some credit for this welcome change, going back to the 2009 international Bixby Forum, which brought together 42 distinguished scientists to discuss how global changes in the human population might change our future. The Bixby Forum culminated in a the special issue of the Philosophical Transactions B of the Royal Society The Impact of Population Growth on Tomorrow’s World which concluded that “slowing population growth is essential if the world’s poor are to be lifted out of poverty, and if the next generations are to live in a biologically sustainable economy.” The Bixby Center, along with Venture Strategies for Health and Development, has also had direct involvement on planning and joining the Working Group. Dr. Eliya Zulu, VSHD’s Director of Development Policy and the founder of the new African Institute for Development Policy based in Nairobi, Kenya, also sits on the Working Group on Population.
On July 12, World Population Day, a symposium on population was held in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to launch the Working Group publicly. The symposium highlighted the drama of population growth-related issues facing the global health community. On the one hand, since the 1960s voluntary family planning has revolutionized the lives of billions of people. It has helped overthrow the patriarchal control of women in many countries, improved the health of families, and accelerated economic development. On the other hand much remains to be done. Sir John Beddington, the UK Chief Scientist, spoke of a “perfect storm” of adverse events in food security, energy consumption, climate change and national security in the coming decades.
The Bixby Center identifies taking the manifold and numerous benefits of family planning to the poorest two billion people in the world and moving population back up on the international agenda as central challenges. Many speakers at the Population Day symposium emphasized what had become the primary message of the Bixby Forum – the imperative to meet the unmet need for family planning around the world. Professor John Cleland, the distinguished British demographer, pointed out that family planning had been successful in lowering family size “even among poor and illiterate communities.” His message echoed the words from last year’s Forum at Berkeley, namely that, “Ready access to contraception and safe abortion has decreased family size even in illiterate communities living on a dollar a day. Family planning enables the world to flourish.”