UN-Substantiated Claims

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

I made a resolution recently, one that I had to break within a matter of days.

Quick digression: in my former life on the Mobil Oil graduate programme, we used to enjoy a game called Buzzword Bingo (there are some rather more colourful names for it).  I’m sure it’s familiar across the corporate world – a quick Google search for “buzzword+bingo” returns more than 90,000 hits.  For the uninitiated, each player starts with a grid consisting of words and phrases that sound thoughtful but tend to be vacuous – things like “synergy”, “low-hanging fruit”, or “hit the ground running”.  Each time a particular word or phrase is used, players will strike it off their grid until all have been eliminated – HOUSE! – following which the maverick will stride confidently out of the room and into the dole queue.  

Back to my resolution.  Having attended and participated in countless sustainability-related conferences over the last 5 years, it struck me that too many words and phrases are parroted without a second thought for their true meaning, much less their plausibility.  So I resolved that the next time I’m attending a conference and I hear someone assert with confidence “the world will have 9 billion people by 2050”, I’d shout HOUSE! and then head for the fire escape.

Foolish of me, in retrospect.  Within days, at the World 50 sustainability forum in London, I heard both Patrick Dixon and Nick Stern trot out the “9 billion people” assumption-masquerading-as-fact, yet I couldn’t bring myself to walk out on either of them.  They’re both utterly brilliant and it was a real privilege to listen to them outline their views of the human development challenges facing us over the next forty years.  I’d have been cutting off my nose to spite my face.

But it did concern me that two great minds would have us accept this projection as pretty much inevitable.  Why has it become such a resilient piece of conventional wisdom, unchallenged and unchallengeable?  Is it because it comes from the United Nations?  I decided to check the assumptions that underpin the UN’s population projection.  From the website of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, I found this revealing statement: 

 To project the population until 2050, the United Nations Population Division uses assumptions regarding future trends in fertility, mortality and international migration.

Three trends – fertility, mortality, migration – play out over the next four decades to deliver 9 billion people by 2050.  But what are the other implicit assumptions that underlie this projection?  For instance, that oil supply will continue to expand to meet rising demand?  

I’ve yet to see any business plan that starts with the assumption: the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.  That would be silly – that’s just the way the world is.  And for the last 150 years since E. L. Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, oil supplies have risen more or less continuously (barring the odd political intervention) to meet growing demand.  That’s just the way the world is.  Along the way, agriculture has mechanised, delivering humanity a huge endowment of arable land for food production rather than husbanding of draft animals.  In parallel, this has liberated millions from back-breaking manual labour – we can leave all that to our personal “ghost slaves”, or barrels of oil – enabling rapid urbanisation and the associated social complexity that characterises modern civilisation.  And, of course, a human population that has grown more than six-fold from just over one billion in 1850 to almost seven billion today.  

The global population will be 9 billion by 2050, and oil supplies will continue to grow to satisfy rising demand.


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