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The World's Future

Last year, the Royal Society (London) and the US National Academy of Science issued a joint statement expressing concern about the critical connection between population growth and degradation of the global environment.

The statement noted that world population is growing at almost 100 million per year, possibly reaching 10 billion by the year 2050. By 2020, 84% of the global population will reside in less developed countries. The less developed countries have low GNPs, one billion people in absolute poverty, 600 million near starvation, and they have only 6-7% of the world's active scientists and engineers.

Both developed and developing countries have contributed to environmental degradation, and environmental change has been accelerated by population growth. Science and technological innovations have overcome many pessimistic predictions about resource constraints, the report said. However, unrestrained resource consumption, especially in developing countries, could lead to catastrophic outcomes for the global environment. There is an urgent need to address economic activity, population growth, and environmental protection as integrated issues.

The statement listed the many contributions which science can make to the global problem, such as the development of safe, easy-to-use, effective contraceptive agents; development of benign alternative energy sources; improvements in agriculture and land management; improvements in public health; maintenance of ecosystems and biodiversity.

The scientific societies see the future of our planet in the balance. Sustainable development can be achieved, but only if irreversible degradation of the environment can be halted in time. The next 30 years may be crucial, they say.

Where do New Zealand scientists stand? I believe that we must accept a responsibility to inform politicians and the public about the consequences of continued population growth. How often do we hear politicians and economists say that New Zealand needs more immigrants and a higher population? How often do we hear Prime Ministers idly boast that New Zealand is a country rich in resources? Both statements are, in my opinion, absolute rubbish. These claims are never supported by any quantitative data about our resources and are never challenged by resource scientists.

Have you ever seen a rebuttal of these claims by New Zealand scientists? Sad, isn't it, that scientists who know these claims are false do not publish factual information on our resources. For example, only about five percent of the land of New Zealand is versatile and of high quality for food production -- comparable to that of Africa.

Isn't it time that New Zealand scientists seriously examined New Zealand and South Pacific population and resources in terms of sustainability? Our Resource Management Act is said to lead the world in that it emphasises sustainability. Unfortunately, it has no teeth, and the Act does not commit central government and its departments or SOEs and research institutes to its principles.

Nobody seems to have any responsibility or funds to research and advise government on matters of population policy, resource consumption and sustainability on a national basis. State departments cannot do it because they have to administer acts and carry out policy. Nor can the new research institutes, for they are commercial companies who now keep secret resource information which was formerly part of the public domain.

I believe that we need a small independent organisation or research group to carry out this task. And we need plenty of debate, too, from individuals and environmental and conservation organisations.

The Royal Society and NAS are belatedly waking up to the reality of growth and development; population, resources and sustainability must be considered as well as economic and social factors in safeguarding our future. Our survival is at stake.

Edmund Cutler is a retired soil scientist.