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U.K.'s Royal Society Finds No 'Silver Bullet' for Population Issues

One of the world's oldest scientific societies has weighed in on one of the planet's most vexing future challenges: How to support a growing human population without undermining ecological and economic systems. The Royal Society in the United Kingdom today unveiled its first major report on population issues, which includes eight recommendations for policy action and research.

"This report is offered, not as a definitive statement on these complex topics, but as an overview of the impacts of human population and consumption on the planet," Royal Society President Paul Nurse, a geneticist and cell biologist, writes in an introduction. "It raises questions about how best to seize the opportunities that changes in population could bring—and how to avoid the most harmful impacts."

An international committee began work on the report nearly 2 years ago, in part because the society "had been somewhat missing out on the issue of population," says John Sulston, a biologist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, who led the panel. "We really felt we should draw things together and have a look at our position."

Ultimately, the group concluded that "you have to look at population and consumption together, and separate one from the other," Sulston says. The report reflects that union, with chapters devoted to consumption trends and how they affect natural resource supplies, climate, and ecosystems. There is also ample discussion of how to shift consumption patterns in a world marked by stark income disparity. "Many kinds of consumption must increase in the Least Developed Countries," the report concludes. "But some kinds of consumption must stabilise and decline in the Most Developed Countries (whose ranks are being rapidly enlarged by the emerging economies). Continued international discussions leading to binding treaties are essential to reconcile the opposing needs."

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