Letter: Disaster is not inevitable from population growth

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The Independent Online
Sir: I am dismayed by the doom- laden predictions of the American ecologist David Pimentel ('Birth- rate cut urged to avert crisis', 22 February) about there being too many people on our planet. His simplistic argument that population growth represents a global threat is hugely misleading. It is the common currency of many academics. It is not, however, the common view of ecologists or environmentalists.

Ecologists do not say that increasing populations will inevitably lead to a series of disasters. They no longer believe in yesterday's thinking that environments have absolute carrying capacities. Environmental quality is closely tied to the capacity of local people to manage resources in a way that they choose. And poverty undermines this capacity.

The way to bring down population growth is to focus on poverty alleviation. This is also the link to safeguarding the environment. Where people have the technologies, resources, social organisation and capacity to decide for themselves, their ingenuity and skills have led to remarkable economic growth in many communities the world over. More people can result in less erosion. More people can result in more trees and forests. And when people feel secure about the future, so birth rates fall.

But these successes are threatened by consumption patterns in Europe and North America. It is our overconsumption of resources that is appropriating the capacity of poorer countries to develop. Our consumption leaves a deep 'ecological footprint' on the developing world. Sustainable development is supposed to be about partnerships. But partnership does not mean that they (in the Third World or the South) cut their populations, while we (in the industrialised countries) continue to overconsume.

The good news for all of us is if we act locally, but think globally, then 'continued population growth' will not lead to 'catastrophic public health and environmental problems'.

Yours faithfully,

JULES N. PRETTY

Director, Sustainable Agriculture Programme

International Institute for

Environment and Development

London, WC1

23 February

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