On the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society the Guardian’s G2 magazine has explored some of the most challenging uncertainties facing global health and sustainability.  Sir John Sulston FRS, Chair of the Society’s People and Planet study, was interviewed on the scope of the study and the world’s ability to cope with the range of issues raised by population change, in particular the ever-increasing global population.

To date, much discussion has focused around finding an answer to the Planet’s carrying capacity and debates over the “optimum population”.  A growing number of analyses and divergent opinions have strived to establish how many people the earth can support. Estimates range from as low as 2bn to as high as 38bn.

But some commentators argue that this is the wrong way to look at the issue:

“The question, how many people can the Earth support, does not have a single numerical answer, now or ever. Human choices about the Earth’s human carrying capacity are constrained by facts of nature which we understand poorly. So any estimates of human carrying capacity are only conditional on future human choices and natural events.”  Joel Cohen, Professor of Population at Columbia and Rockerfeller Universities.

In this context, the question for Sir John Sulston to address is “how to ensure humanity survives and flourishes”. A more holistic approach is necessary, one in which we recognize the strengths and benefits of working together.  Our collective ingenuity and our willingness to bridge the gap between the natural and social sciences will be critical for ensuring the global population can live within the planet’s means.  This type of collaborative effort is increasingly eroded in a world which emphasises a narrow definition of competition and is increasingly obsessed with consumption, testing the planet’s support mechanisms and its ability to replenish resources.  This is an argument that has led many to discredit any optimism and paint a bleak picture of our successes and future challenges.

Should we panic? No, replies Sir John Sulston, “it is something that we should discuss openly and manage… a challenge we can meet if we think more collectively”.  Not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned by the problems created as a result of population growth. The underlying problem that we are over-running the planet is not a justification for ignoring the opportunities presented by a managed transition. We have the means and knowledge to ensure humanity can survive and flourish.

This sense of optimism and understanding of the challenges ahead are shared by the convened panel of experts in the People and Planet Working Group.  The working group draws expertise from both the social and natural sciences, and that group will have some difficult questions to answer as they try to come to a consensus on some of the most complex challenges faced by our planet.

More information on the People and the Planet study is available here .

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