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Population and Sustainability

Malthusian and neo-Malthusian debates focusing on population numbers permeate sustainability research, policy, and practice. Few claim that population numbers are the only factor causing resource problems, just as few claim that population numbers are irrelevant for analyzing and solving resource problems. Reality is persistently complicated, as shown by relationships between population size and carbon dioxide emissions (Jorgenson and Clark 2013) and between population density and agro-diversity (Conelly and Chaiken 2000).

As such, MAHB's research agenda for population and sustainability embraces parameters such as population numbers, population densities, consumption rates, waste rates, affluence, and technology. Analyzing these various factors and the circumstances under which they contribute more to a specific resource problem, or less, is MAHB's research agenda.

For example, a small island such as Malé, the capital of the Maldives, is 100 % urbanized. Building further high-rises is not straightforward because the island's land, effectively at sea-level, has the potential of sinking with such added weight. There is an upper limit to how many people can live on the island without land reclamation. Conversely, the suburbs of Los Angeles are a clear example of urban sprawl in which long, wide streets and large plots for big houses epitomize high resource consumption per capita. What are the behavioral factors drawing different classes of people to these different urban environments? How could behavior be influenced to reduce population density in Malé and to reduce resource consumption in Los Angeles? Both locations display a combination of technical and social challenges. Neither can be solved without the social sciences and the humanities and neither can be solved with only the social sciences and the humanities. Instead, a combination of disciplines working in tandem to solve the place-specific problem is needed, exactly in line with MAHB's ethos.

Another layer can be added to these questions: How can researchers, policy makers, and practitioners focus on the fundamental population-related factors based on science? When population numbers are raised as a specter, the debate often leads to accusations of advocating reproductive control, perhaps through forced sterilization or forced abortion. Such unethical measures are supported by only an extremist minority, yet they often dominate the debate. That is the case even though social science provides details on how raising people's education and affluence levels, especially in terms of giving women reproductive-related education and choices, tends to lead to smaller families, higher infant survival, and better educated children (e.g. Martin 1995). Solving the challenge within MAHB's work is two-fold: Ensuring that scientific arguments dominate debates and keeping the discussion on the fundamental factors rather than having to defend against extremist arguments.

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