Engineering sustainable population growth

The Engineer

With the world’s population predicted to rise to 9.5 billion by the end of the century, many believe that we’re heading inexorably towards a point where the number of people outstrips our planet’s ability to sustain us. Where ever-increasing pressures on food, water and energy use will plunge us all into an age of escalating political tensions, grinding poverty and disease.

Wherever you stand on this most emotive of issues –  and people have been arguing about it since before Thomas Malthus energised the debate over 200 years ago – there’s little doubt that population growth, and the pressure it places on energy supply, the climate, land use, food production, and infrastructure, is at the root of humanity’s biggest challenges.

And while many believe that Malthus’ prediction that we’re all doomed will finally come to fruition, others are more optimistic about mankind’s ability to square growth with a more sustainable existence.

Indeed, according to a report published today by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) many, if not all of these challenges can be overcome by the application of existing engineering expertise.

The title of the report, “Population: One planet, too many people?” is somewhat startling, and appears to suggest that it might deal with ways of stemming population growth. In fact, it recommends nothing of the sort, and instead details some of the ways in which governments could work with engineers to address fundamental challenges around food, water and energy provision,.

For instance, with demand for agricultural production expected to double by 2050, the report examines how increased mechanisation and automation of agriculture, and innovations in urban farming and biotechnology could help feed the world.

Meanwhile, with demand for water predicted to grow by 30%  over the next couple of decades, it suggests that giant ponds could be built to capture rainwater and replenish underground aquifers, whilst advances in desalination technology could ensure that a planet covered in water makes better uses of one its most plentiful resources.

The institution also calls for the continued development and deployment of low carbon energy technologies as – and the correct financial incentives in place to invest and develop technologies

Elsewhere, the report talks of the need to help the developing world leap-frog the dirty phase of industrialisation, to try to ensure that the mistakes made by the developed world aren’t repeated across Africa and Asia. To help achieve this the report calls for  Department for International  development to train engineers to provide developing-world governments engineering expertise: a practical, grassroots suggestion that could prove far more effective than any amount of self-righteous political posturing.

The report provides a sobering reminder of the challenges facing humanity and the critical role that engineers can and must play.  If we have one criticism, it’s that it is perhaps too ambitious, that the scale of the challenges set out too overwhelming and diverse for it to have the kind of headline grabbing point that can galvanise political opinion and force through change. For everyones’ sake, let’s hope we’re proved wrong.

A full copy of the IMechE’s population report can be downloaded below