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19th February 2020
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Too many people

Posted 11/07/2012 by sevans

It is a topic that most politicians are too scared to talk about: The fact that we are producing too many children. Yet evidence of the pressures that the burgeoning over-population crisis are putting on the planet is everywhere to see – from the spiralling costs of minerals and metals to the damaging impacts of intensive agriculture on bird and insect populations, the vast quantities of garbage now piling up in our oceans and even more worrying build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Technological solutions including switching from fossil fuels to renewables, smarter sensor based farming, use of biopolymers and biomaterials, harnessing bacteria and other cell-based production systems and GM, will all play a part in addressing the problems. But none is yet ready for implementation at the level needed for tackling the issues at scale, and all will come at a price, with many of the consequences as yet unknown or unforeseen.

And with the world’s population projected to hit 9bn people by 2050, up from 7bn today, the problems can only be about to get far worse.

This week, Washington, US-based WorldWatch Institute (WI) has issued a nine point plan to help stabilise population growth – before it reaches the 9bn point that many believe is simply unsustainable. In the book State of the World 2012: moving towards sustainable prosperity, WI president Robert Engelman argues that: ‘Unsustainable population growth can only be effectively and ethically addressed by empowering women to become pregnant only when they themselves choose to do so.’

So what does all of this have to do with chemistry? A growing population – with increasing numbers of more affluent middle class consumers – is fuelling demand for the industry’s products and services, while at the same time reducing the availability and driving up prices of raw materials and resources on which it depends.

A number of scientific innovations are already helping to some extent. But many established technologies are not being adopted or deployed quickly or widely enough to make the difference they might. Buildings insulation and GM are just two examples.

Chemistry’s biggest contribution to tackling the population crisis, however, is contraception. And, with nearly two in five pregnancies reported as mistimed or never wanted according to WI, that tool remains vastly under-exploited.

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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