The Royal Society gets it wrong on people and the planet

The Royal Society – Britain’s premier scientific institution – has just released a major report called People and the Planet, arguing that per capita resource consumption in the richest parts of the world needs to come down dramatically if the poorest 1.3 billion are to be lifted out of extreme poverty whilst protecting the Earth’s environment from irreparable harm. (Do join Leo Hickman’s debate on the Guardian site here, and my thanks to him for prompting this piece.)

I wouldn’t argue with most of the data underpinning this report, but I do have problems with some of the assumptions. The first is that population growth is necessarily a bad thing, and that there is therefore a pressing need to reduce the rate of growth in developing countries. The report states early on:

“At a time when so many people remain impoverished and natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, continued population growth is cause for concern.”

What it fails to acknowledge however is that population growth is correlated with economic growth – and therefore if developing countries are to continue to escape from poverty then reducing their rate of population growth should not be the initial priority. In a recent blogpost the World Bank’s Wolfgang Fengler starts by reminding us:

Africa’s population is rising rapidly and will most likely double its population by 2050. Depending on the source of data, Africa will soon pass 1 billion people (and it may already have) and could reach up to 2 billion people by 2050 [ I am using the UN’s 2009 World Population Prospects, which projects Africa to exceed 1.7 billion by 2050 based on sharply declining fertility rates]. This makes it the fastest growing continent and Africa’s rapid growth will also shift the global population balance.

Sounds scary. But what no-one mentions is that in terms of population density Western Europe is far more over-populated than Africa:

If we look at Western Europe – where I come from – there are on average 170 people living on each square km. In Sub-Saharan Africa there are only 70 today. This gap will narrow in the next decades but even by 2050, Western Europe is expected to be more densely populated than Africa.

He then concludes:

…population growth and urbanization go together, and economic development is closely correlated with urbanization. Rich countries are urban countries.  No country has ever reached high income levels with low urbanization. And this is critical for achieving sustained growth because large urban centers allow for innovation and increase economies of scale. Companies can produce goods in larger numbers and more cheaply, serving a larger number of low-income customers.

Population growth may therefore put us on the edge of a “golden age of development” for Africa – hardly the message from the gloomy Royal Society report. As the excellent book Emerging Africa, by Steven Radelet, shows, seventeen sub-Saharan African countries have seen sustained economic growth since 1995, vastly improving their prospects and – I suspect – further reducing fertility rates in the process.

Whilst using a lot of dark language about increasing numbers of humans globally, the report nowhere acknowledges that the current median level of total worldwide fertility has fallen dramatically from 5.6 in the 1970s to only 2.4 today. In other words we are already close to natural replacement levels in terms of total fertility – the reason that the absolute population will continue to grow to 9 billion or more is that more children are living long enough have their own children. To my mind a reduction in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy are self-evidently good and desirable – and their impact on world population levels should be celebrated, not bemoaned.

Secondly, the report seems to be largely predicated on a neo-Malthusian version of economics, where resource use is a zero-sum game, and therefore the rich need to get poorer if there is to be any increase in comsumption for the poorest. It states:

Human impact on the Earth raises serious concerns, and in the richest parts of the world per capita material consumption is far above the level that can be sustained for everyone in a population of 7 billion or more. This is in stark contrast to the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people, who need to consume more in order to be raised out of extreme poverty.


The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels…

This redistributive model has been shown in the real world to be completely wrong: China, India and now many African countries have seen rapid and sustained economic growth (and the concurrent lifting out of poverty of hundreds of millions of people) not because we have had to reduce our own wealth and consumption in an absolute sense, but through trade and other globalisation-related liberalisation benefiting both parties (and the poorest most).

Moreover, a dramatic decline in inequality is already actually happening, because the richest countries are either not growing now (due to the post-2008 economic crisis) or are growing very slowly, whilst the emerging economies and even many sub-Saharan African countries are growing at 5% or more per year. The big Malthusian error – which was repeated by the Limits to Growth approach of the 1970s, and many times afterwards – was to see ‘natural resources’ as some kind of absolutely-limited cake which would have to be shared equally if all were to exit from poverty.

In actual fact the stock of natural resources (natural capital) change both both because of consumption patterns and technology. Take fisheries – it is often assumed that because many are over-exploited at the moment then there will never be enough fish for everyone’s wants to be satisfied. However, as a scientific report only last week showed, if fisheries and aquaculture are properly managed there can be at least the same levels of per capita fish consumption by 2050 as today (for a 9.5 billion population). There is no reason to assume collapse is inevitable.

Similarly for energy – if we deploy sufficient clean energy resources (renewables, nuclear and gas with carbon capture) there is no fundamental limit on human potential energy consumption. Energy is essential for water supply (increasingly with desalination), agricultural production, urbanisation and so on – and here the Limits to Growth assumptions are both anti-development and nonsensical.

To conclude: I would love to see a much more positive approach from scientists on these issues, one acknowledging human development as a much more positive prospect, and treating environmental resources not as a fixed quantity but as a dynamic part of a rapidly-changing (and in many ways improving) world. This does not mean denying biophysical limits (‘planetary boundaries’) insofar as they can be scientifically determined, but it does mean taking a radically-different, and much more human-centred, approach to tackling them.


  1. Enron

    “there is no fundamental limit on human potential energy consumption”

    Of course there is, it’s called thermodynamics.

    Do The Math

    1. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      That’s serious nit-picking. I’m not talking about centuries away, and to assume an upwards exponential growth curve in energy consumption forever is absurd.

    2. Enon

      ” . . . to assume an upwards exponential growth curve in energy consumption forever is absurd.”

      Not forever, just for the foreseeable future. Isn’t that exactly what we have seen for several centuries already? Isn’t that what continuing economic growth implies?

      I’m not talking several centuries either. Business as usual will come to a grinding halt well before we boil the planet.

      It’s a thought experiment to illustrate the disconnection of economics from reality.

      The assertion that “there is no fundamental limit on human potential energy consumption” is on a collision course with physical reality.

    3. Brent Hargreaves

      Have a heart! Mark Lynas was predicting Thermageddon a few short years ago, and for once he has the decency to question the worst Malthusian scaremongering of the RSPGWH* you go slagging him off!

      Keep going, Mark. A public statement along the lines of James Lovelock’s would be most appreciated. Suggested book title: Living With Point Six Degrees – Easy!.

      *Royal Society for the Promotion of the Global Warming Hoax.

    4. Lars P.

      In the own graphic that you link it is clear that the exponential growth is already not appropriate to tell last, actual and further US total energy growth.
      The malthusians do the same error as the communists were doing in planning economies – projecting for the future the same thing that exists today but “a little more”.
      Malthusians do not understand that evolution is transformation.
      With our energy needs now it is far from reaching the limits of the planet.
      As we have seen population growth tends to limits itself – when the population reaches a certain level of culture and civilisation.
      So the question would be: do we work towards reaching a high life-standard, access to information and technology for everybody – or do we do it the malthusians way.
      And be sure we will not boil the planet.

    5. Adam Nealis

      I don’t think it is nit-picking. What you said is literally wrong. You should rephrase “there is no fundamental limit on human potential energy consumption”.

      You sound like a typical Cornucopianist in this post. “I know things are finite, but we won’t hit the stops for ages yet, so I’ll just carry on as if things are infinite until later. Maybe.”

    6. Rupert Wyndham

      The Royal Society is now the preserve of a clique of cultist hucksters, epitomised, if proof were needed, by the recent election of Paul Ehrlich as a fellow.

    7. vakibs

      It is ridiculous to assume that we will produce (and consume) as much energy as the sun does, without ever colonizing outer space.

      With increased consumption of energy, it is highly likely that humans will spread to other places along the galaxy .. So this thermodynamic limit will never be touched.

    8. Enon

      That’s a common reaction. I’ll just note that reality is not a Star Trek screenplay and suggest you take it up with Professor Murphy.

  2. Toby

    “The big Malthusian error – which was repeated by the Limits to Growth approach of the 1970s, and many times afterwards – was to see ‘natural resources’ as some kind of absolutely-limited cake which would have to be shared equally if all were to exit from poverty.”

    Isn’t this just another assumption that my be equally wrong? It assumes that Africans and Asians will be happy to remain on a diet of rice, maize and soya beans. The populations of China and Brazil want steak, fries and creme brulee, just like the people they regard as their equals in the USA and Europe. They also want to drive cars, air condition their homes, have fridge-freezers and consume as much energy as the West does.

    And they are quite entitled to desire those things and work for them. They are not about to be fobbed off with what will seem a second-class lifestyle to the west. The government that denies them will face a classic “revolution of rising expectation”.

    The fact is that the earth’s resources cannot provide the world’s population with a Western middle-class lifestyle. Energy demand is set to double in the next 20 to 40 years at current rates. Meanwhile, the threat of climate change looms in the background. We need technological solutions, and fast.

    Not saying the Royal Society have all the answers. But we have to stop thinking that China and the other BRICS will always be behind the West in their ecological footprint, and that their populations will constantly accept second best.

  3. michael hart

    One billion people in a continent the size of Africa doesn’t sound like a lot to me. And, of course, an African could say that 60 or 70 million in a country the size of the UK is too many.

    I expect there would be outrage if a bunch of African do-gooders organised a conference to discuss the UK population problem.

    Time to stop telling other countries that we know what is best for them?

    1. quokka

      23 million doesn’t sound like much of a population for a continent the size of Australia, but they have certainly managed to do severe environmental damage.

    2. William Hughes-Games

      The trouble with Australia is that it is mostly a wasteland as far as conventional agriculture is concerned. If here in New Zealand, we run ten stock units to the hectare, they need ten hectares to the stock unit. What isn’t a barren desert gets flooded from time to time and most of the flood runs down to the sea rather than being turned back into the interior. They have a huge legacy of mineral wealty from nature and are selling off the family silver as fast as they can pull it out of the ground. Not a pretty long term picture.

    3. ianhilliar

      Environmental degradation in Australia? compared to what? Oh , you must be talking about our terrible cities, where we have laid waste the landscape, and covered the virgin wilderness in concrete, tarmac ,and suburbia. Like much smaller versions of London, Vancouver, Rio, etc. Oh well, we cant all live in the wilderness, like Quokka, who ,I am lead to believe, is qite different from Burchell’s zebra. More like a donkey.

  4. J the C

    One important factor your analysis on population growth neglects to mention is that a relatively sudden (but benign) fall in fertility rates to near-replacement levels (or below), usually caused by better education of girls and, associated, emancipation of women, is a key factor in allowing greater development to occur.

    The phenomenon is well-known and well-linked to rising HDI, and is called the ‘demographic dividend’. It occurs when mortality rates drop and fertility rates also drop, leading to the majority of the population suddenly being relatively young and working age. Economic growth and associated improvements to quality of life generally follow fairly rapidly if the political situation allows it. Fertility rate differences have been advanced as an explanation for why South-East Asia is now home to the world’s fastest-growing economies, while Africa – despite, after World War II, being broadly similar by most measures of development and economic activity – is mostly still stuck in the doldrums.

    Sadly, Asia’s rise is fuelled by coal; while I agree with the technical point that human civilisation doesn’t *by necessity* have to have a large and destructive footprint on the very biosystems that support us, it’s a bad sign that global consequences are still considered an ‘acceptable’ price for local advancement by a majority of the world’s nations, despite much lip service to the need to reduce emissions, and pretty clear-cut science as to why it needs to be done. I don’t see human nature changing so much that people will suddenly become rational, forward-thinking and cooperative, willing to look a long way ahead and make painful choices now for the sake of a better future; and unless that happens, we’re simply postponing the inevitable crisis that we fail to adapt to. Entropy does rather work against us in a complex civilisation, though.

    I hope I’m wrong, I really do.

    1. William Hughes-Games

      I agree with your comment with one niggle. Birth rate actually decreases when contraception becomes affordable. In the western world this is when people become prosperous. However, a number of countries, notably Iran, of all places, have drastically lowered birth rate by subsidizing contraception and making it easy to access.

  5. RobertM

    Don’t let the trolls get you down. Keep on saying it as you see it; I’m sure I’m not alone in appreciating your balanced take on these issues.

  6. Lars P.

    Thank you Mark for the voice of reason!
    It is so much Armageddon in the news everywhere that I must cite Judith Curry: the real peril “is distracting local governments from dealing with their actual problems.”
    Even the much blamed CO2 has had a very positive effect of increasing the total biosphere – which has indirectly also solved one of the problems with producing food. Why no scientific paper ever made a scenario of what would be the world now with 280 or 290 ppm CO2 and 7 billion humans? What would mean for humanity if the dreams of reducing CO2 would suddenly come true.
    The malthusian these is very wide spread and not easy to put right. People keep on doing the same error as you pointed out even after being told not to.
    For the comments above about everybody wanting to have a steak, have they ever thought at the possibility that maybe in the not so distant future we will grow steaks in cells cultures in labs?

  7. William Hughes-Games

    Malthus was completely right but could have expressed his thoughts a little more clearly. With apologies to Parkinson

    “Population Increases to use up any Advances in Food Production”.

    Arguably, we have 700,000,000 more people on earth today due to the green revolution which stated in the 60’s. Malthus, though, couldn’t have predicted some of the technological advances we have made, especially in contraception.

  8. Rupert Wyndham

    This is the seer who asserts that alleged human induced climate change is a manifestation of Occam’s Razor.

    Goodness me!


  9. GM

    Similarly for energy – if we deploy sufficient clean energy resources (renewables, nuclear and gas with carbon capture) there is no fundamental limit on human potential energy consumption. Energy is essential for water supply (increasingly with desalination), agricultural production, urbanisation and so on – and here the Limits to Growth assumptions are both anti-development and nonsensical.

    Seriously, how can you say something so stupid and claim to be an expert on the subject??? It is good that they gave you a link to the Do The Math blog above, I would have done the same but I was beaten to it.

    BTW, “clean energy” resources are absolutely incapable of powering even an industrial civilization even a fraction the size of ours. All the people who claim otherwise are basically in as much denial as those who deny there isn’t any problem. But they feel obliged of either believing it or bending their consciousness and saying it because otherwise we have to talk about downsizing the scale of the human enterprise and this, as the outrage that the Royal Society report caused demonstrates so well, is too uncomfortable to people. And that report, BTW, goes nowhere near as deep into the issues as it should, as its authors, some of them no doubt aware of the real seriousness of the situation, were also too scared to say it as it is and felt compelled to release something politically correct.

    The big Malthusian error – which was repeated by the Limits to Growth approach of the 1970s, and many times afterwards – was to see ‘natural resources’ as some kind of absolutely-limited cake which would have to be shared equally if all were to exit from poverty.

    The most outrageous thing in the whole discussion is that the more time passes, the more disconnected from the fundamentals it becomes. Malthus was talking about these things in terms of arithmetic and geometric progressions; that’s a bit too primitive, but the correct framework for looking at the state of humanity was laid out by Schrodinger almost 70 years ago in terms of entropy and negative entropy and what we have been doing in those 70 years is to ignore it, and move the discussion further and further into the realms of obfuscation and wishful thinking.

    Natural resources are indeed absolutely limited – the energy cost of bringing materials onto Earth from outer space is so high (again, refer to the Do The Math blog if you haven’t done are you’re unable to do the math yourself on the subject) that it makes no sense to even try (which does not prevent all sorts of scientifically and numerically illiterate dimwits to claim it can, should and will be done). So there are the atoms that the planet contains and that’s it. And yes, those atoms are vastly more numerous than what we have estimated to be “recoverable resources”, and yes, some more atoms will become resources in the future, either through more discoveries or better technology. And yes, we could in principle recycle them infinitely. But the vast majority are in a state of such low concentration, i.e. very high entropy, that it will take absurd amounts of energy, i.e. a lot of negative entropy to concentrate them, while we move vast quantities of them from a state of low entropy to a state of higher entropy with our wasteful production-consumption-disposal cycle.

    And these are the real limiting factor, entropy and negative entropy. Life is a constant battle against entropy, human civilization exists in a state of extremely low entropy, and its growth requires more and more negative entropy to be expended to prevent it from falling apart. At some point the negative entropy flows of the planet, which are limited to the sun, a little bit of geothermal energy, whatever stores of fossil fuels we have, and whatever nuclear reactions are accessible to us, will be overwhelmed, and it will all fall apart. Unless we find a way to convert matter into energy, which does not seem at all likely in the foreseeable future, these are some very real limits we need to consider and set up our society in accordance with.

    Now that’s the general, first-principles treatment of the subject which tells you there are limits to growth, we will reach them at some point, and if we go too deep into overshoot, we will collapse. Anyone who denies that has not right to be in the discussion but is rather in dire need of getting his head examined by a mental health expert.

    The practical question is where exactly the limits are, have we hit them, and what do we do to avoid that, or if we have hit them, to get out of overshoot. All the evidence points that we have been in global ecological overshoot for a while and are only digging deeper. So, in the light of that, how exactly is the fact that population may level off at 9 billion something to cheer? We’re in overshoot, we add another 2 or 3 billion, we only go much deep into overshoot as a result; how can you say there is no problem? And how can you say that we need to move billions of people out of poverty first, before we can tackle the sustainability issue? Isn’t that increase in per capita consumption going to move us even deeper into overshoot?? Where is the logic here?

    Secondly, the report seems to be largely predicated on a neo-Malthusian version of economics, where resource use is a zero-sum game, and therefore the rich need to get poorer if there is to be any increase in comsumption for the poorest.

    The one thing that is correct above is that resource use is not a zero-sum game at this point. It is a negative-sum game, because we are already deep into overshoot. The only way of getting out of this mess is for the rich to get much poorer, for the poor to become just a little more rich and for the numbers of both rich and poor to decrease by an order of magnitude. Not exactly a message you can sell to a public that has lived all their life hearing only promises for a future of more and more, but nature does not care for human wishes and human politics, it does what it does and we ignore it to our peril…

    1. Lars P.

      “we are already deep into overshoot”
      Well that is where the malthusians and you are wrong. Of course there is a limit and of course if we continue to extrapolate our energy needs we would come to need as much as the sun produces or galaxy. yes. Interesting thought.
      Are we there yet? No. Are we close? No. How far are we from reaching that limit? Very far.
      On the Earth how far are we from reaching the fossil fuel reserve limits? We are far away from it, the estimations differ but if we take coal, oil and gas we have more then a couple of centuries to go.
      So what should be our priority now? Keep people in the poor countries poor and downgrade the level of life in developed countries to that to maybe add another century to the 2 we estimate? Are you serious, this is the solution you think about and talk about?
      As we have seen from the recent history all nations reaching a level of civilisation and security stop growing in terms of population.
      So the next logical step is to facilitate this. The problem is more the corruption in many forms which does not allow for countries to achieve this level of civilisation and security.
      Take case by case many underdeveloped countries and make the due analysis. Look at countries in Africa, Asia or South America.
      Yes we cannot promise everything will be ok in 200 years from now, but we can do it now and workout for future through further developing science and technology.
      What should we do with the stock of stones kept preciously by the stone age man for the future generations who sacrificed half of theirs to put them up?
      On the exploitation of the resources outside earth – who the hell need those materials to be brought back to earth? Why? If we start truly space exploration, then the best solution is to use those resources directly there in space, why to bring them down to ship them back up?

  10. Paul

    Paging Mark Lynas, paging Mark Lynas your help is needed urgently. The publicity stunt you pulled several years ago to alert the world to rising sea levels (they haven’t by the way) by staging a mock cabinet meeting underwater may well have to be staged again in order to tell more people about a REAL environmental issue, namely pollution.
    See more here at the BBC:

    I’d wager a pound to a penny that you will refuse to post this comment.

    1. William Hughes-Games

      Hi PI aul
      You are certaily right that pollution is one of our major problems but this and a whole raft of other even more destructive problems are related to the combination of an increasing population and an increasing push for a western standard of living by all the people of the world. The first is sorting itself out wherever contraception is in the hands of women and affodable either because of increased wealth or because governments subsidize it. The second part will have to run it’s course and it is a toss up what will come first. I would be willing to bet on a major destructive shift in our Giya support system (clean air and water, medicine, food and fiber from nature etc.) and climate but I hope I am wrong. If it does happen, Giya will shuffle a lot of us underground and we may achieve the Lovelock number (1b or less)

  11. Alex Lawrie

    OK, I accept that the Royal Society’s focus on population may have been on the heavy side, and that urbanisation is necessary for economic development. But… you claim that ‘population growth is associated with urbanisation’. Really? Citation needed, I’d say. Why should the proportion of people that live in cities be affected by the number of people? The US is generally thought of as fairly urban and developed (in some senses, at any rate) but it has a population denisty of 34 per sq km, half that of Sub Saharan Africa. The claim that since Europe has reached high population densities, it must be ok for everywhere else to do the same thing, also needs justification. We lost a lot of species as that happened, and drove up global impacts massively; I simply don’t see Europe as a model for development elsewhere, and neither do most people in developing countries who are demanding and employing family planning technologies themselves precisely in order to secure some prosperity.

  12. Gordon Glass

    Anyone who can find time to watch the film ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ would surely never think to defend the status quo on within this kind of debate – particularly in terms of the notion of lifting populations out of poverty. The reality of commercial exploitation tends to have quite the opposite effect. Local people are left with the rotting scraps after the outsiders have fished out all their wealth of natural resources.

  13. david spikes

    mark-have you despaired? rather than an effort-any effort- to control emissions it seems that there is instead a tacit and not so tacit agreement to do everything possible to increase and hasten climate change. the govt approved plans of the energy extraction cos. imply decades of more and more of the same. your date of 2015 for peak emissions will see emissions rising faster than ever. even the market for ridiculous remediation plans seems to have evaporated. i almost certainly and you probably are old enough to escape the disaster but lord how sorry i feel feel for my friends children.

  14. William Hughes-Games

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