The State of World Population 2001 The State of World Population 2001
Chapter 1: Overview

United Nations Population Fund


Over three and a half million years ago, two of modern humanity's ancestors left their footprints in the sand near what is now Laetoli in the United Republic of Tanzania. This couple was walking barefoot along a plain. Their people probably numbered in the hundreds or thousands and possessed very rudimentary implements. Only a remarkable chain of coincidences preserved their trail for our current inspection and wonder.

Hartmut Schwarzbach, Still Pictures
Woman washes dishes in river in Nepal. In developing countries, more than 90 per cent of sewage and 70 per cent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into surface waters.

Today the footprints of humanity are impossible to miss. Human activity has affected every part of the planet, no matter how remote, and every ecosystem, from the simplest to the most complex. Our choices and interventions have transformed the natural world, posing both great possibilities and extreme dangers for the quality and sustainability of our civilizations, and for the intricate balances of nature.

Our numbers have doubled since 1960 to 6.1 billion, with growth mostly in poorer countries. Consumption expenditures have more than doubled since 1970, with increases mostly in richer countries. During this time, we have created wealth on an unimaginable scale, yet half the world still exists on less than $2 a day. We have learned how to extract resources for our use, but not how to deal with the resulting waste: emissions of carbon dioxide, for example, grew 12 times between 1900 and 2000. In the process we are changing the world's climate.

The great questions for the 21st century are whether the activities of the 20th century have set us on a collision course with the environment, and if so, what can we do about it? Human ingenuity has brought us this far. How can we apply it to the future so as to ensure the well-being of human populations, and still protect the natural world?

The stewardship of the planet and the well-being of its people are a collective responsibility. Everywhere we face critical decisions. Some are about how to protect and promote fundamental values such as the right to health and human dignity. Others reflect trade-offs between available options, or the desire to broaden the range of choice. We need to think carefully but urgently about what the choices are, and to take every action that will broaden choices and extend the time in which to understand their implications.

Today every part of the natural and human world is linked to every other. Local decisions have a global impact. Global policy, or the lack of it, affects local communities and the conditions in which they live. Humans have always changed and been changed by the natural world; the prospects for human development now depend on our wisdom in managing the relationship.

One of the key factors will be population. It is also one of the areas where action to broaden choices is universally available, affordable and agreed upon.

The Connections

Population and the environment are closely related, but the links between them are complex and varied, and depend on specific circumstances. Generalizations about the negative effects of population growth on the environment are often misleading. Population scientists long ago abandoned such an approach, yet policy in some cases still proceeds as if it were a reality.1

As human populations increase and globalization proceeds, key policy questions are: how to use available resources of land and water to produce food for all; how to promote economic development and end poverty so that all can afford to eat; and, in doing so how to address the human and environmental consequences of industrialization and concerns like global warming, climate change and the loss of biological diversity.

Environmental devastation is not simply a waste of resources; it is a threat to the complex structures that support human development.

Understanding the ways in which population and environment are linked requires detailed consideration of the way in which factors interrelate, including affluence, consumption, technology and population growth, but also previously ignored or underrated social concerns such as gender roles and relations, political structures, and governance at all levels.

The relationships among environment, population and social development are increasingly better understood. There is broad agreement on means and ends. Women's empowerment, for example, is a development end in itself. Removing the obstacles to women's exercise of economic and political power is also one of the means to end poverty.

Reproductive health is part of an essential package of health care and education. It is a means to the goal of women's empowerment, but it is also a human right and includes the right to choose the size and spacing of the family. Achieving equal status between men and women, guaranteeing the right to reproductive health, and ensuring that individuals and couples can make their own choices about family size will also help to slow population growth rates and reduce the future size of world population.

Among other things, slower population growth in developing countries will contribute measurably towards relieving environmental stress.

Demographic Challenges and Opportunities

Changes in the size, rate of growth and distribution of human populations have a broad impact on the environment and on development prospects. A variety of demographic changes in different areas provide new challenges and opportunities.

Population and fertility trends

Fertility is highest in the poorest countries and among the poorest people in these countries. Failures in health, education and other services, especially for women, contribute to poverty in these countries. Reproductive health services cannot meet even the existing needs of women who want to prevent or delay pregnancy, and demand is expected to increase rapidly in the next 20 years.2 Maternal mortality is high and rates of contraceptive use low (often less than 15 per cent of all couples).

These countries are also among the most severely challenged by soil and water degradation, and the most severely affected by food deficits. In some ecologically rich but fragile zones, known as "biodiversity hotspots", population growth is well above the global average of 1.3 per cent a year.3 Rising demand from more affluent areas adds to the pressures on natural resources in these ecosystems.

The good news is that fertility in developing countries as a whole has dropped to just under three children per woman, about half what it was in 1969, and the expectation is that it will fall further, to 2.17 children per woman by 2045-2050. At the same time, global life expectancy has increased to an average of 66 (up from 46 in 1950), and—outside the areas worst affected by HIV/AIDS—people are healthier throughout the life cycle than at any time in history.4

The AIDS pandemic will have severe demographic effects. By 2015, life expectancy in the worst affected countries will be 60, five years lower than it would be in the absence of AIDS.

In some countries, including Mexico and parts of South-east Asia, fertility has fallen very sharply over the past generation, creating the "demographic bonus" of a large generation of 15-24 year-olds ready to enter the workforce, without the pressure of an equally large generation of children behind them. These countries can also expect a rapidly growing generation of older people, but the demographic bonus offers the opportunity for preparation to meet their needs. Countries where fertility is still high and life expectancy is increasing have no such opportunity. Globally, there are over 1 billion young people between 15 and 24.

Box 1: Population Growing Fastest Where Needs Are Greatest

In industrial countries, fertility is now 1.6 children per woman, below replacement level.5 Their populations are rapidly ageing, and in some countries might actually shrink unless supplemented by migration. The downward trend in fertility is well established. However, recent studies in the United Kingdom show that family size in some low-income families is smaller than the parents desire.

The vast bulk of consumption is in the industrial countries, but it is rising fast elsewhere as incomes grow. Measures to conserve energy, curb pollution and promote sustainable use of natural resources are essential for sustainable development in the future.

Parallel measures are needed to stabilize global population growth. Whether world population in 2050 reaches the high projection of 10.9 billion, the low of 7.9 billion or the medium projection of 9.3 billion will depend on choices and commitments in the coming years. Two actions are central: first, ensuring that the right to education and health, including reproductive health, becomes a reality for all women; and second, bringing an end to the absolute poverty that affects the 1.2 billion people who live on less than $1 a day. These two aims are closely linked because most of the absolutely poor are female; action towards one will reinforce the other.

Governments, international donors, civil society and, in many cases, the private sector all have important roles to play in achieving these goals and creating a virtuous circle of smaller, healthier families, healthier and better-educated children with expanded opportunities, and increased progress towards population stabilization and environmental sustainability.


In the past decade we have learned more about the deepening ecological footprint resulting from the growth of human numbers, changing population distributions and unsustainable consumption and production patterns. The stark challenges to sustainable development have become clearer. At the same time, there are some important signs of positive change, including a growing international consensus on actions to promote development while protecting the environment.

Important milestones in this regard are the agreements of the United Nations conferences of the 1990s. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, was one such milestone. The international community recognized that environmental protection and natural resource management had to be integrated with action to alleviate poverty and underdevelopment.

Maternal Mortality, by Subregion, 1995

Progress recognizing the importance of population and women's rights and empowerment to the development agenda was marked at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights (1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD, 1994) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995). Participatory development strategies featured strongly in the World Summit on Social Development (1995).

The ICPD agreed on an explicit and detailed series of goals, using an approach based on human rights and individual decision-making. Among them are elimination of the gender gap in primary and secondary education by 2005, and universal primary education before 2015; sharp reductions in maternal mortality and in infant and under-5 mortality; and universal access to reproductive and sexual health services including a full range of safe and reliable family planning methods by 2015. Attaining these goals would also lead to early population stabilization.

Implementing the ICPD recommendations for development (including better reproductive health and moves towards gender equality) will help defeat poverty and protect the environment. By promoting slower population growth, it will buy time in which critical decisions can be made.

Each of these major conferences stimulated a wide range of specific actions and policy reviews, including formulation and implementation of national plans and changes in national policies and priorities. Fifth-year reviews of progress in implementing each agreement have identified key future actions. Each step marks further progress towards the realization of sustainable development.

At the Millennium Summit (2000) national heads of state outlined priorities for development and poverty eradication. This milestone event consolidated the commitments undertaken at the earlier conferences, defining specific goals to measure progress, and providing a vision of the changes needed for a sustainable future.

Next year's "Rio+10" review of UNCED will present an opportunity to incorporate the social agenda of these milestone events into initiatives to promote sustainable development.

Major Themes of the Report

Environmental Trends (Chapter 2)

As populations grow and demand increases, the search for water, food, and energy resources and the resulting impact on the environment are calling sustainability into question. The limits of technologies and the wisdom of our use of them are growing challenges, and questions of governance, social organization and human rights are increasingly important to a sustainable outcome.


Water may be the resource that defines the limits of sustainable development. The supply of fresh water is essentially fixed, and the balance between humanity's demands and available quantity is already precarious.

Not all countries are affected equally. The more-developed regions have, on average, substantially higher rainfall than less developed regions and have developed technology to use water more efficiently.

While global population has tripled over the past 70 years, water use has grown six-fold. Worldwide, 54 per cent of the annual available fresh water is being used, two thirds of it for agriculture. By 2025 it could be 70 per cent because of population growth alone, or—if per capita consumption everywhere reached the level of more developed countries—90 per cent.

In the year 2000, 508 million people lived in 31 water-stressed or water-scarce countries. By 2025, 3 billion people will be living in 48 such countries. By 2050, 4.2 billion people (over 45 per cent of the global total) will be living in countries that cannot meet the requirement of 50 litres of water per person each day to meet basic human needs.

Many countries use unsustainable means to meet their water needs, depleting local aquifers. The water tables under some cities in China, Latin America and South Asia are declining over one metre per year. Water from seas and rivers is also being diverted to meet the growing needs of agriculture and industry, with sometimes-disastrous effects. In 1997, the Yellow River in China ran dry for a record 226 days.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 1.1 billion people do not have access to clean water. For the first time, official statistics reflect a decline in water coverage compared to previous estimates.

In developing countries, 90-95 per cent of sewage and 70 per cent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into surface waters where they pollute the water supply. In many industrial countries, chemical run-off from fertilizers and pesticides, and acid rain from air pollution require expensive and energy-intensive filtration and treatment to restore acceptable water quality.

Purely technological solutions to water scarcity are likely to have limited effect. Desalinized sea-water is expensive and now accounts for less than 1 per cent of the water people consume.

Protecting water supplies from pollutants, restoring natural flow patterns to river systems, managing irrigation and chemical use, and curbing industrial air pollution are vital steps to improving water quality and availability.


In many countries, population growth has raced ahead of food production in recent years. Between 1985 and 1995, food production lagged behind population growth in 64 of 105 developing countries studied, with Africa faring the worst.

Australia, Europe and North America have large surpluses of food for export and are probably capable of expanding food production. However, there are questions over the long-term sustainability of intensive agricultural practices.

Most of the developing world is classified as "low-income, food deficit countries" by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). These countries do not produce enough food to feed their people and cannot afford to import sufficient amounts to close the gap. In these countries, some 800 million people are chronically malnourished and 2 billion people lack food security.

Food production capacities in many poor countries are deteriorating due to soil degradation, chronic water shortages, inappropriate agricultural practices and rapid population growth. Much agricultural land is also increasingly devoted to cash crops for export, depriving poor local people of land to farm and food to eat.

Today, 15 crops provide 90 per cent of the world's food intake. Three—rice, wheat and maize (corn)—are staple foods for two out of three people. The continuing genetic erosion of the earth's wild strains of cereals and other cultivated plants threatens continuing efforts to improve staple crops. Unless the rate of plant genetic loss is halted or slowed substantially, as many as 60,000 plant species—roughly one quarter of the world's total—could be lost by 2025.

Fish stocks are also under threat. According to FAO, 69 per cent of the world's commercial marine fish stocks are "fully exploited, overfished, depleted, or slowly recovering."

To accommodate the nearly 8 billion people expected on earth by 2025 and improve their diets, the world will have to double food production, and improve distribution to ensure that people do not go hungry. Since available cropland is shrinking, most production will have to come from higher yields rather than new cultivation. However, new high-yielding crop varieties require specialized fertilizers and pesticides, which may disturb the ecological balance and create new disease and pest problems.

To achieve food security, countries must reverse the current course of land and water degradation. Even the poorest countries can safeguard their resource base—particularly topsoil and freshwater, improve the productive capacity of land, and increase agricultural yields. Needed are responsible governance balancing many interests, community participation (including women, who often manage local resources), a commitment to food security, and the cooperation of the international community.

Climate change

In the 20th century, human population quadrupled—from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion, and carbon dioxide emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere, grew 12-fold—from 534 million metric tons in 1900 to 6.59 billion metric tons in 1997.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the earth's atmosphere will warm by as much as 5.8 degrees Celsius over the coming century, a rate unmatched over the past 10,000 years. The panel's "best estimate" scenario projects a sea-level rise of about half a metre by 2100.

In 1995, the 20 per cent of the world's population living in countries with the highest per capita fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions contributed 63 per cent of the total global emissions. The 20 per cent in the lowest-emission countries contributed just 2 per cent of the total. The United States, with only 4.6 per cent of the world's population, produces one fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

For industrial countries as a whole, per capita emissions have been relatively flat since 1970, about 3 metric tons per person. While per capita emissions of developing countries are still far lower than those of developed regions, the gap is narrowing.

Climate change will have a serious impact including increased storms, flooding and soil erosion, accelerated extinction of plants and animals, shifting agricultural zones, and a threat to public health due to increased water stress and tropical disease. These conditions could increase environmental refugees and international economic migration.

Equalizing the benefits and costs of climate change for the good of all will require responsible leadership, concrete steps by the wealthier countries to curb their emissions, coupled with financing, technology transfer and capacity-building to help poorer regions respond to the significant challenges ahead.

Sometime early in the 21st century, developing countries will contribute more than half of total emissions. As the gap in per capita emissions closes, population size and rate of growth will become more significant in policy discussions.

Forests, habitat and biodiversity

In the last few decades as population growth has peaked, deforestation rates have reached the highest levels in history.

Since tropical forests contain an estimated 50 per cent of the world's remaining biodiversity, their destruction is particularly devastating. At current rates of deforestation, the last significant primary tropical forest could be harvested within 50 years, causing irreversible loss of species. Tropical deforestation also contributes to the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

While sustainable forestry holds some promise, projected increases in population growth over the next few decades will present challenges and difficult choices. Many of the countries that contain the largest blocks of remaining tropical forest are also those with the highest population growth rates.

One key to preserving remaining forests and biodiversity may be the integration of reproductive health and family planning programmes with park and forest management efforts.

Development, Poverty, and Environmental Impact (Chapter 3)

More people are using more resources with more intensity than at any point in human history. Affluence consumes energy and produces waste at far higher rates than poverty. The effects of poverty also destroy environments, but the poor are at the end of a long chain of cause and effect. They are the messengers of unsustainability rather than its agents.

Population growth, increasing affluence—with rising consumption, pollution and waste—and persistent poverty—with the lack of resources and the technology to use them and lack of power to change these circumstances—are putting increasing pressure on the environment.

The consumption gap

A huge "consumption gap" exists between industrialized and developing countries. The world's richest countries, with 20 per cent of global population, account for 86 per cent of total private consumption, whereas the poorest 20 per cent of the world's people account for just 1.3 per cent.

A child born today in an industrialized country will add more to consumption and pollution over his or her lifetime than 30 to 50 children born in developing countries. The ecological "footprint" of the more affluent is far deeper than that of the poor and, in many cases, exceeds the regenerative capacity of the earth.

Poverty and the environment

Despite soaring economic activity, now estimated at over $30 trillion annually, some 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day. Nearly 60 per cent of the 4.4 billion people in developing countries lack basic sanitation, almost a third do not have access to clean water, one quarter lack adequate housing, 20 per cent do not have access to modern health services, and 20 per cent of children do not attend school through grade five.

Globalization has clearly increased global wealth and stimulated growth. It has also increased income inequality and environmental degradation. Poverty is causing many poor people to increase their pressure on fragile natural resources to survive.

Increasing urbanization presents another challenge. Every day about 160,000 people move from rural areas to cities. Today almost half of all people live in urban areas. Many cities in developing countries face serious environmental health challenges and worsening conditions due to rapid growth, lack of proper infrastructure to meet growing needs, contaminated water and air, and more garbage than they can handle.

There is increasing consensus that only an integrated approach to the problems of poverty and environmental degradation can result in sustainable development. The building blocks for success include increasing the resource base of the poor, investing in energy services and infrastructure, supporting green technologies, and implementing appropriate pricing policies for resources such as water, electricity and fertilizer.

Poor people often spend long hours gathering fuel and pay higher unit prices for energy, while electricity subsidies favour urban elites.

Rural population growth does not necessarily damage the environment, but limited land availability often leads poor people to settle in fragile areas. Constructive policies, including population policies, will make the most of opportunities, avoid limits and promote equity.

Only an integrated approach to defeating poverty and protecting the environment can result in sustainable development. Local control and respect for local knowledge will be important. Attention to the voices of women, who are responsible for food, water, fuel and other household resources, is essential

Human impact on the environment is exacerbating the intensity of natural disasters, and the poor suffer the consequences. There are 25 million environmental refugees.

Women and the Environment (Chapter 4)

Worldwide, women have primary responsibility for rearing children and ensuring sufficient resources to meet their needs. In the rural areas of developing countries, women are also the main managers of essential household resources like clean water, fuel for cooking and heating, and fodder for domestic animals.

Women make up more than half of the world's agricultural workforce. They grow crops for the home and market and often produce most staple crops. In the world's poorest countries, women head almost a quarter of rural households.

However, although women have the primary responsibility for managing resources, they usually do not have control. National law or local customs often deny women the right to secure title or inherit land, which means they have no collateral to raise credit and improve their conditions.

Women often lack rights in other aspects of their lives, reinforcing gender inequalities. High fertility and large families are still a feature of rural life, though the rationale has long since passed. In part, this reflects women's lack of choice in the matter.

Sustainable development demands recognition and value for the many ways in which women's lives intertwine with environmental realities. Women need legal and social support for land ownership, tenure and inheritance. They also need access to credit, and agricultural extension and resource management services.

With fewer opportunities on the land, many men migrate, increasing women's family burdens and responsibilities, though they may receive money for housing, education and health care.

Urbanization offers a series of risks and opportunities to women. Pregnancy and childbirth are generally safer in urban areas, where health care is more likely to be accessible. City life also offers women a broader range of choices for education, employment and marriage, but it also carries heightened risk of sexual violence, abuse and exploitation.

Whether urban or rural, choices over family size and spacing; health care, including reproductive health; education and partnership with men, are among the range of options women need in order to be effective managers of household and other resources.

Women's involvement in health and environmental decisions is essential. A growing body of experience shows that reproductive health and environmental services can work very profitably together, if they are designed to meet communities' own priorities.

Laws and policies on women's rights and equality, and on the sustainable use and protection of natural resources, are also essential. Without such support, many women are trapped in a vicious spiral of continuing environmental degradation, poverty, high fertility and limited opportunity.

Women's groups are organizing to integrate women fully into the political process, so they can take their full part in making policy decisions affecting their lives.

Health and the Environment (Chapter 5)

Environmental conditions help determine whether people are healthy or not, and how long they live. There is a close relationship between the environment and reproductive health.

Environmental conditions contribute significantly to communicable diseases, which account for about 20-25 per cent of deaths annually worldwide. An estimated 60 per cent of the global burden of disease from acute respiratory infections, 90 per cent from diarrhoeal disease, 50 per cent from chronic respiratory conditions and 90 per cent from malaria could be avoided by simple environmental interventions.

Unclean water and associated poor sanitation kill over 12 million people each year. Air pollution kills nearly 3 million more, mostly in developing countries.

Changes in land use can have many effects on health. Dams and irrigation can create breeding grounds for disease carriers; increased use of pesticides and fertilizers can expose local populations to toxic chemicals.

Densely populated and rapidly growing megacities subject their populations to air pollution levels far in excess of allowances recommended by WHO.

Indoor air pollution—soot from the burning of wood, dung, crop residues and coal for cooking and heating—affects about 2.5 billion people, mostly women and girls, and is estimated to kill more than 2.2 million each year, over 98 per cent of them in developing countries.

Pollution has a direct effect on reproductive health, especially among the poor. Unplanned urban development and the opening of marginal, rural lands increase the number of people without access to reproductive health services, increasing the risks of maternal mortality and unwanted pregnancy. Lack of clean water at health facilities undermines service quality.

Since 1900, industrialization has introduced almost 100,000 previously unknown chemicals into the environment. Most of these chemicals have not been studied, either individually or in combination, for their health effects. Some of them, banned in industrialized countries because of their harmful effects, continue to be widely used in developing countries.

Many chemicals have found their way into the air, water, soil and food—and human beings. Exposure begins in the womb. Some agricultural and industrial chemicals are associated with pregnancy failures and with infant and childhood developmental difficulties, illness and mortality. Exposure to nuclear radiation and some heavy metals has genetic impacts.

Climate change will have a variety of effects on health, for example changing the zones of risk for insect-borne diseases.

Migration and trade between rural and urban areas, and between different countries help to spread diseases. Human settlements in new areas are poorly served by health services.

The HIV/AIDS crisis is closely linked to wider development issues, including poverty, malnutrition, exposure to other infections, gender inequality and insecure livelihoods. The epidemic, with its direct and devastating impact on health and the family, complicates environmental protection, intensifies agricultural labour problems and adds to the burdens of rural women.

Action for Sustainable and Equitable Development (Chapter 6)

Definitions and understandings of development have changed. Economic development; the state of the environment; the health of men, women and children; and the status of women are all intricately intertwined. Development requires improvements in the lives of individuals, usually by their own hand, the status of women powerfully determines the state of development, and women require good reproductive health care for their status to improve.

This understanding has been articulated in consensus documents negotiated at a series of global meetings convened in the 1990s. These meetings dealt with environment and development in 1992, with population and development in 1994, and, in 1995, with social development and with women's rights.

The 1994 ICPD recognized the interconnectedness of slowing population growth, reducing poverty, achieving economic progress, protecting the environment, and reducing unsustainable consumption and production. It emphasized the need to ensure women's rights, including the right to reproductive health, as essential in its own right and a key to sustainable development.

A 1999 review by 185 countries of progress in implementing the ICPD Programme of Action found that the goals and approach remained valid, that many governments had made changes in their health and population programmes to conform more closely with the Cairo approach, that a handful of issues—notably HIV/AIDS—had grown in urgency since 1994, and that funding was falling alarmingly short of hopes and goals expressed in Cairo. The review adopted new benchmarks and commitments to action.

Next year's review of the 1992 Agenda 21 agreement reached in Rio de Janeiro will present an opportunity to incorporate the ICPD agenda into sustainable development initiatives.

Actions and resources

Urgent action is needed to mobilize the resources to implement the ICPD Programme of Action. Current resources for reproductive health and population programmes are well below the $17 billion the ICPD agreed would be needed in 2000. While developing countries are providing most of their two thirds share of needed resources, support from international donors is less than half of the $5.7 billion called for in 2000.

HIV/AIDS prevention was part of the ICPD package. But considerably more funds are needed for treatment and care of the millions of people living with HIV. The total elimination of unmet need for family planning by 2015 is now an internationally agreed goal; this will require further resources. Reducing maternal mortality is another major challenge.

The funding shortfall is already showing its effects: fertility declines have been slower than would be expected if more couples and individuals could have the family size they desire. The costs of delaying action will increase rapidly over time.

Returns for slower growth

Policies and programmes addressing issues of population growth, reproductive health and women's empowerment meet pressing human needs and advance human rights. They also have important environmental benefits. It is hard to quantify these, because of the multiple interactions. But it is clear that providing full access to reproductive health services, which are relatively inexpensive, is far less costly in the long run than the environmental consequences of the faster population growth that will result if reproductive health needs are not met. There would also be substantial benefits in terms of health and economic and social opportunity.


Promoting human rights, eradicating poverty, improving reproductive health and achieving a balance between population and development needs and environmental protection will require a broad range of actions. Some priorities are to:

  1. Implement the global consensus agreement of the International Conference on Population and Development.
  2. Provide incentives for the dissemination, further development and use of more sustainable production processes.
  3. Improve the information base for more-sustainable population, development and environment practices.
  4. Implement internationally agreed actions to reduce poverty and promote social development.

Action on population, environment and development issues is both necessary and practical. The various international environmental agreements and the international consensus on population and development are being translated into working realities. These agreements only underline the need for broader and more extensive efforts.

Cultural Change, Population and Environment

All communities seek to secure what they value. Cultural change is the means by which a society accommodates and adapts to a changing world. But it is not a one-way process—social change may begin with changing perceptions at the local level as well as being a response to change in the external environment.

Cultural understandings mediate the application of transcendent values to everyday life. Most cultural traditions, for example, recognize human stewardship of the environment. They value each generation's natural inheritance, which it leaves in turn to future generations. They emphasize the long-term perspective when making immediate choices (though this wisdom is often ignored).

Cultures tend to evolve slowly and cautiously in the face of the risks and uncertainties of change. But vibrant cultures evolve in response to change in the external environment.

Cultural understandings can recognize and adapt to changing economic, social and environmental realities, and culturally based resistance to change may reflect short-term interests rather than fundamental values.

Shehzad Noorani, Still Pictures
Bangladeshi woman at adult literacy class. Educating women and enabling them to have only the number of children they want would lead to smaller families and slower population growth.

These general principles are reflected in the international discussion of the issues covered in this report. Their marks can be found in the consensus agreements on social development reached by the global community.6

Cultural practices can be a source of important information. Indigenous knowledge and practices reflect adaptation to environmental realities that scientists and technocrats may not fully appreciate. Modern science has re-learned lessons from traditional agricultural practices. For example, terraced farming of potato crops in Meso-America generate higher yields and more pest protection at lower cost than many successor techniques. Farmers and ecologists have achieved similar benefits from alternating rows of selected crops in fields—local diversity produces results that large-scale monoculture cannot.

Yet the diversity of cultures is threatened along with the diversity of species. Many forms of traditional knowledge may disappear before they can be validated and more widely disseminated. Many drugs in the modern medical toolkit are derived from natural plant or animal substances that have been used in historical cultural practices.7 Changing forest patterns have already transformed cultures in the Amazon region, Central America, Africa and South-eastern Asia.

Rapid environmental change, from natural causes, human agency or a combination of the two, threatens traditional cultures. Lake Chad in Africa has lost 95 per cent of its area in 40 years as a result of drier weather and increased demand for irrigation.8 Settled farmers have replaced the nomadic cultures and fishermen that depended on its waters.

Box 2: Globalization and the Private Sector

Dams have made possible power generation and irrigation on a vast scale; but existing dams contribute to many environmental problems, and new dams will displace communities and long established ways of life, from the marsh Arabs of the Tigris-Euphrates delta9 to the Himba of Namibia and their neighbours.10 The World Commission on Dams reports that 68 of the 123 dams they studied worldwide will displace settlements, many of which represent unique cultures.

Cultural adaptation takes many forms, the most widespread being the change to urban life now in progress in all regions. Urbanization offers many advantages, but a specifically urban culture, reflecting concern for the well-being of individuals, the community and the wider environment, is slow to grow. Developing the mechanisms for cultural organization on a large scale—including governance of a diverse group which may be far larger than the traditional homogeneous community—is a development project to which too little attention has been paid.

The forces of change are many and powerful. Additional changes are being introduced worldwide by greater information about other lifestyles, by economic and social trends (including local, regional and global market impacts) and by changes in education, civil institutions and social roles. Agents of change are not likely to command respect unless they in turn respect communal values, nor benefit from local knowledge unless they have some contact with the community.

Policy makers at all levels, public institutions and private businesses, including multinational operations, should seek dialogue in terms that are locally understood. They should respond to local concerns and incorporate local perspectives. Diverse cultural understandings can be a source of strength and improved decision-making if they are voiced and acted on.

With an inclusive approach, cultures adapt. The Tuareg of the Sahel, to take only one example, are forsaking their nomadic trading and herding lifestyle, as mechanized transport becomes the preferred means of pan-Saharan travel. With a switch to settled agricultural occupations, strict gender roles have been changing, providing women with greater communication with men and increased opportunities for valued economic and social participation. Yet along with such changes, respect for the desert and its ecology remains.11

In a diverse society, means must be found to reflect the interests of the wider as well as the local community. Thinkers such as Amartya Sen are exploring the cultural dimensions of democracy and its positive implications for development.

The population-environment-development debate is concerned among other things with the relationship between individual freedom of expression and choice on one hand, and the broader interests of the community on the other. A measure of consensus has already been reached; it is agreed, for example, that free individual choice on the size and spacing of the family will promote slower population growth. By moving towards gender equality and the empowerment of women, reproductive choice also promotes environmental conservation.

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