X Close



UCL events news and reviews


Population Footprints and Inequality

By Lara J Carim, on 6 June 2011

The UCL/Leverhulme Population Footprints Symposium held on 25 and 26 May was an interdisciplinary look at the impacts of human population growth, reports Shivani Singh, a PhD student at the UCL Centre for International Health and Development. Undercut with themes of inequality, consumption and health, the conference allowed for academics, members of the public and students to engage in lively debate on past trends and projections for the future.

While there were varied opinions on the potential problems that will be faced by the next generation if our populations continue to swell, there was a general consensus amongst presenters about a major issue that needs to be addressed: inequality.

Panel session at Population Footprints

Further speakers at the Population Footprints conference (from left): Professor Maria Lee (UCL Laws), Professor Anthony Costello (Co-Director, UCL Institute for Global Health), Ms Sara Parkin OBE (Founder Director, Forum for the Future) and HE Ernest Rwanucyo (Rwandan High Commissioner)


With the rise of urbanization, more individuals worldwide are now living in urban areas rather than rural, and the number forced to live in slums is ever rising. Researchers showed a strong link between population, inequality, and health, arguing that simply blaming the poor for straining the earth’s resources is unreasonable and inaccurate. There is a strong correlation between industrialized nations’ overconsumption and depletion of resources, which should be a major driver in influencing policy decisions that promote a more sustainable approach to growth.

Population growth rates

Another issue of debate was global population growth rates. There has been a clear shift in the literature away from an alarmist Malthusian approach to population growth. Whereas Malthus wrote of a future where the exponential population growth would overtake our capacity for food production, researchers are now offering mixed perspectives on just how much we need to restrict population growth.

China’s one child policy has always been an issue of debate and contention, but as Prof Li Shuzhuo (Professor of Population Studies, Xi’an Jiaotong University, China) explained, it’s only one child in certain urban centres, and with caveats which take into account if the parents have siblings of their own. The policy itself when implemented met with a lot of resistance, and it is generally accepted that strict restrictions on how many children to have would be extremely difficult to regulate in other regions.

Suggested approaches to tackling population growth

Suggestions on how to deal with population growth varied from the need to engage with youth (Dr Babatunde Osotimehin – Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund), the need to curb the growth of the rich (Ms Susan George – President of the Board, Transnational Institute), and the need to distribute health services more widely (Dr Vik Mohan – Project Director for Blue Ventures’ Integrated Population, Health and Environment project).

Coming from an interdisciplinary perspective, each of the presenters brought their own experiences to the table. Dr Osotimehin touched on the issue of different states having either a large youth or large aging population. This lack of homogeneity in the world’s population means that approaches must vary, and the need to engage with youth is crucial in addressing what will be essentially the problems they will face in years to come.

Taking a different tack, Ms George examined the questions of sustainability, development failures and continued growth of industrialized nations. If some of the world’s poorest regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, are burdened with huge foreign debts, how can the North realistically expect them to deal with issues such as population growth?

Finally, Dr Mohan presented a case study success story in Madagascar, in a community which has problems with both high fertility rates and overconsumption of natural resources. The organization he works with fills the need the local community has for reproductive health services, while also promoting education on the need for sustainable fishing practices.

The diversity of the presentations along with a keen and questioning audience made for an interesting conference. Opinions varied, along with the approaches that need to be taken to address issues of sustainability, health and equity – however, the fact that so many individuals are passionate about finding solutions is certainly a step in the right direction.

See the full list of presenters and videos of sessions on the Population Footprints website.

Leave a Reply