talk abaut population

After working on the Royal Society’s People and the planet report for almost 2 years, and after attending a number of party conferences, it seemed only natural to me that this year we might have an event at the party conferences on the topic of our report. It seemed particularly relevant given the current review of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), David Cameron’s involvement in that review and the many discussions that are taking place on the focus, scope and reach of the post-2015 development framework.

So, we held an event on the topic of the People and the planet report at this week’s Labour Party Conference. Sir John Sulston FRS, Chair of the People and the planet report, gave an overview of the current situation with regards to impact on the planet. Professor Tim O’Riordan, a Fellow of the British Academy described how we might make progress on these issues and Rushanara Ali MP, Shadow International Development Minister, described the Labour Party’s positions on these issues. The event was expertly chaired by Guardian journalist, Tim Radford.

Yet the audience at the event seemed quite taken aback by some of the points put forward at our event. One member of the audience remarked that is was the first party conference fringe event on the topic of population for as long as he could remember. Some were grappling with the prospect that those in developed countries actually need to reduce their material consumption! Others enquired about how this message had gone down at a time when political focus was almost entirely on getting the economy out of the recession.

Yet it is clear that 7 billion people now, and a potential 9 billion in the future, cannot consume at the level that those in the most developed countries do. Tim O’Riordan eloquently described how the environment is changing, and how inadequate our response to this change is. He puts this down to the fact that most people are physically removed from nature and feels that we just don’t pay enough attention to what’s happening around us. Tim would like to see a focus on addressing overconsumption of food, water and energy, on the rights of women and on education.

Rushanara Ali said: “It’s fantastic that we are discussing these important issues”. The MP for Bethnal Green and Bow feels that “talking about population growth in the context of climate change and consumption is the right way forward”. She called for a bold and ambitious approach to build resilience so that people and cope with changes that affect their lives.

I’ve definitely learnt something at this conference. There are still some elephants in the room: some people in developed countries, such as the UK, do not want to hear that they have to reduce their consumption of material goods, and they definitely are not used to talking about population.

I had previously thought that the biggest challenge in moving forward on the post-2015 development agenda would be bringing together the priorities and interests of the developed and developing countries. But from the discussions I attended at the Labour Party Conference, we still have some work to do in bringing together the international “human” development agenda with the sustainable “environmental” development agenda. We all need to work together to make this happen.

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