The world isn't just Big Macs and Coke

How many people can the earth sustain? While the world feverishly computes the answer, it must not forget that sustainability is not just feeding people; love and solidarity also play a prominent role.

By Anders Wijkman
Published: Monday 31 May 1993

Drying rotis on a Calcutta foo (Credit: Pradip Saha)TWO HUNDRED years ago, Thomas Malthus had asked at what point man's population would exceed his means of subsistence. The world's population then had not reached 1 billion. Today, a year before the population conference in Cairo, the total number of people in the world is fast approaching 5.5 billion. I doubt if anyone -- from the Vatican officials to the technocrats -- knows how many of our species this planet can sustain.

It is clear, however, that prevailing lifestyles play a prominent role in this argument. The global village is characterised by great inequalities. Overconsumption and wasteful lifestyles characterise the lifestyle of the rich, while underconsumption and desperate survival patterns that of the poor. As such, in analysing "carrying capacity", the picture varies greatly among the different segments of the world's population.
Wasteful lifestyles The main causes of the current environmental predicament are to be found in the industrialised countries, as it is here that most goods and services are produced and consumed. Lifestyles in North America, Europe and Japan generate an amount of waste that exceeds the sink capacity of the global ecosystem.

The environmental situation of the South is more complicated, as it is not a homogeneous entity. Regions like south-east Asia are currently experiencing rapid industrialisation. In these regions, pollution from production and consumption constitute a major problem, just as in the North. However, the vast majority of the South's population lives in rural areas dependant on subsistence farming. Poverty, growing population and poor farming techniques put increasing strain on local soils, forests, and aquatic resources. As a result, in many parts of the world, man is the most endangered species. Four million people die yearly from just a lack of safe drinking water and sanitation.

Theoretically, there might be room on the planet for many more people. But bearing in mind the lifestyles and survival patterns prevailing today and the concomitant difficulties in effecting change, it would be irresponsible not to see continued rapid population growth as a problem. Solutions will require considerable time, courage and imagination.
Human development index A few years ago, World Development Report started a discussion about the need for a human development index. GNP per capita offers little indication as to a population's standard of living -- its distribution of income, level of health care, literacy rate etc -- indeed, the rapid exploitation of a resource is considered as adding to GNP.

In his book Human-scale Development, Manfred Max-Neef, the Chilean economist and philosopher, brings to the fore the importance of what he calls "the informal sector", especially in poor countries (See also page 50). Excluding it from discussions of a nation's economy or living standards is, according to Max-Neef, totally misleading. Whether a person lives in affluence or poverty and enjoys high or low quality shelter, clothing or food, those needs remain the same. He concludes that many of our basic human needs, such as for freedom, understanding, leisure and affection, are not directly related to the traditional economic growth concept.

As Vaclav Havel recently observed, "If Western societies had not had communism to point at as an evil threat, they would have given more attention to the shortcomings of capitalism."

In Western societies today, how much attention do we give basic needs such as participation or affection? We know from many studies that children need close and stable relations with adults. Yet, how do we treat our children? In most cultures, for example, teenage girls are denied access to reproductive health services.

In sum, at the core of our discussions about population growth at Cairo or earlier must be quality of life. But what do we mean by quality of life? How do we measure it? How do we bring it about? Unfortunately, I do not have full answers to these questions. Their discussion, however, is essential. We are at a point in time where the most important thing appears to be to ask the right questions, not necessarily to give all the answers.

I do know, however, that no society can develop harmoniously on the basis of materialistic values alone. We all expect more from life: people worldwide care about the environment, people care about poverty and people care about inequality. Political leaders must address in unison that within us which has to do with love, affection, solidarity and caring for the future of our children.

---This has been extracted from the keynote address by Anders Wijkman, director general of the Swedish Association for Research in Developing Countries, at the European Population Conference in Geneva on March 23, 1993.

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