Should big numbers scare us?

Global population trends and their possible implications have caused debate through the ages. Recently this has reached fever pitch with the publication of Stephen Emmot’s “Ten Billion”, which predicts that the impacts of a global population of more than 9 billion people will be catastrophic.

In contrast, Danny Dorling (in “Population 10 Billion”), argues that such a future will be less frightening than predicted because massively unsustainable consumption is concentrated in a small percentage of the global population, and also that 10 billion is fewer than some have feared.

Conjecture about the future is just that – guesswork based upon observable trends. As a response many organisations develop scenarios, possible future outcomes based upon varying policies and behaviours. Scenarios help us move beyond binary guesses to a nuanced appreciation of a range of plausible possibilities.

Doom mongering based upon simplistic fixed relationships between activity and impact does not have a proud history, Malthus is the poster child of backing the wrong horse (so far) on this one.

Likewise, optimists can often forget that the physical limits of this planet (and therefore our scope for action) are defined by the laws of thermodynamics, most significantly the effects of entropy.

“The entropy of the universe tends continually to zero.” Peter Guthrie Tait

The future we face will most probably lie somewhere between the worst doom mongering predictions and the most optimistic techno utopian dreams. Simple black or white arguments might suit the modern media but life tends to present itself in varying shades of grey.

However, we can be sure that our future is uncertain and our passivity or action will play a role in its shape. If we choose action, how could we move to a sustainable future?

Hope for a populous planet?

Our transition to sustainability may fail for many reasons, but it won’t be because we didn’t know how to. It will be because we didn’t try hard enough.

Hope lies in making changes to the way we value, manage, prioritise and produce such that our actions have innate rejuvenative environmental and social implications.

Let’s push at the limits of what is possible, not at the limits of what is sustainable, taking action in five interdependent areas.

1. Governance and equity

We must enhance the focus and efficacy of all levels of governance to prioritise the right of humanity to benefit from, share and enhance the quality of all life on our only home.

We must reconcile common and private ownership so that one does not automatically undermine the other, and balance our needs with those of the as yet unborn. The choices we make today should not restrict those available to future generations.

2. Economy and finance

Fundamental change is needed in the nature and purpose of economics and finance systems so that they are able to define, trade and enhance the real value – the environmental and social capital – which sustains us all.

3. Technology

Our technology must become both explicitly and inherently rejuvenative, making a manifest contribution to the abundance, vitality and productive capacity of natural systems.

4. Companies and markets

Companies and markets should, as a natural aspect of market capitalism:

  • consider the longevity and safety of supply of the resources they depend upon;
  • act to value and enhance the quality and diversity of the natural capital upon which human life depends, and;
  • prioritise mutual equity in relationships with suppliers, customers and other stakeholders.

5. Trade rules and regulations

Considerations of longevity and sustainability should be placed at the heart of trade rules and regulations. Allowing all current and future members of our species to thrive and share in the common enterprise of life.

Tidy the house – we have visitors coming

The laws of physics are beyond our control. The inertial impact of our activities on the planet’s climate, biodiversity and resilience will play out over decades (if not centuries).

Yet the behaviours and technologies likely to support a future fit for us and our descendants already exist – should we decide to use them at the scale required.

“The world believes in machines more than it believes in life; it is fascinated more by the marvels of technology than by the miracle of life.” Karel Čapek

While both existing and imagined techno fixes appeal to many of us, we should not ignore the wondrous properties of life. Nor should we forget that the actions which could drive ecological and social rejuvenation are available now, as they have always been. It is not magic we require for a sustainable world, just coordinated will and intent.

When expecting visitors, do you tidy the house – or loot it?

We should work to welcome the arrival of our billions-strong family.


This post was originally published under a different title by Guardian Sustainable Business on 23/07/2013.

About Joss Tantram:

Joss Tantram is an expert in sustainable strategy, reporting and management, with 20 years’ experience in the private and not-for-profit sectors in the UK, Europe and world-wide.

Joss leads Terrafiniti’s strategic services and their innovation initiative, Towards 9 Billion. Joss is the author of the Towards 9 Billion book series – presenting big, playful, hopeful ideas for a sustainable, equitable future, available at the Amazon Kindle store.

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