Population is about people, and Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, associate professor of development sociology, wants to ensure we don't lose sight of that while we prepare our planet to house and feed 9 billion of them by 2050.
"It's not just about surviving, but rather about thriving," he said at a panel discussion hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., Feb. 22. "We should be aiming to raise the quality of life for everyone while living within the Earth's natural limits."
Eloundou-Enyegue is part of a team assembled by the United Kingdom-based Royal Society to review the science surrounding population dynamics and sustainable development.
As part of the "People and the Planet" study, slated for completion in early 2012, Eloundou-Enyegue and others will look at the implications of population changes that are observed and predicted in different parts of the world, and how scientific and technological developments might alter those rates.
Eloundou-Enyegue joined Nobel laureate Sir John Sulston, chair of University of Manchester's Institute for Science, Ethics, and Innovation, at the event to announce the launch of the yearlong study, which will also delve into culture, gender, economics and law.
Eloundou-Enyegue drew upon his own research and personal experiences in Africa to provide an example of why several socio-economic factors should be considered alongside demographics.
Declining birth rates, higher mortality due to health epidemics and migrations have led to a shifting age structure in Africa that includes a growing segment of well-educated, working-age men and women. Ideally, this would drive economic development, but Eloundou-Enyegue said it could, in some cases, feed social disruption instead, as a lack of job opportunities means most are idle and restless.
"Even the gains you get from addressing fertility are not fully realized because of mortality, unemployment and other social issues," Eloundou-Enyegue said. "Demography is not destiny."
The problem with population is not simply sheer numbers of people, but also how much they consume and how they treat the environment in which they live, Sulston added.
"We need to make sure that population is not recognized as the sole problem, but a multiplier of so many others," Sulston said. "The economy is a huge factor. We rely heavily on competitive growth and the GDP as a measure of economic health, yet it is driving us to overconsume."
A dispassionate discussion about population control is also vital, because its association with coercion has hampered family planning efforts worldwide, said panelist Martha Campbell, president of the nonprofit Venture Strategies for Health and Development.
While the aim of the Royal Society study is to present scientific evidence in a broad and comprehensive context rather than directly provide policy recommendations, Sulston said he suspects the best course of action will be to invest in family planning and the alleviation of poverty -- although he admitted this would not be enough unless consumption demands were also dramatically decreased.
"It's a slow agenda, and it might not come in time to save the Earth, but we should try," Sulston said.
Eloundou-Enyegue said he believes the world is at a demographic crossroads.
"We will need to rely on our creativity," he said. "But we will also need to call on other qualities of the human condition, such as caring, transcendence and stewardship of the environment. The question is, do we, as a global society, have those qualities?"
Stacey Shackford is a staff writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.