Population Research and Policy Review 23: 55–71, 2004.
© 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Equity, efﬁciency, and identity: Grounding the debate over
population and sustainability
BLAKE D. RATNER
Institute for Social, Economic, and Ecological Sustainability, and Department of Sociology,
University of Minnesota, USA
Abstract. If social scientists are to provide a more useful contribution to international de-
bates over population and environment, we must ﬁnd ways to combine the insights of our
competing theoretical traditions. Political economy, rational choice, and cultural institution-
alist perspectives are each associated with a different assessment and characterization of the
population “problem”, as well as divergent strategies of response, prioritizing in turn the goals
of equity, efﬁciency, and cultural identity. The principal argument of this paper is that these
three perspectives, and the goals which they embody, are like the three legs of a stool; none is
sufﬁcient and each is necessary to uphold socially acceptable responses to population growth
in the context of broader challenges of sustainability. Each perspective is reviewed in turn,
distinguishing narrow and polarizing applications that trivialize the way social and economic
systems rely on the natural environment from applications that are useful in fashioning a more
integrated approach. The paper concludes with reﬂections on how this approach may support
and enrich a focus on sustainable livelihoods in development planning.
Keywords: Development policy, Environmental degradation, Population growth, Sociological
theory, Sustainable development
The ﬁrst half of this century presents a combination of daunting challenges
at the global scale hinging on the relationship among social processes of
production, consumption, and alterations to the environmental resource base.
Human population growth plays a central role in these challenges. Many
ecologists have argued that it is the single most important trend in deter-
mining future prospects for environmentally sustainable and socially equit-
able development versus widespread social breakdown (cf. Ehrlich 1968).
Sociologists and other social scientists have often objected to a reductionist
view that human numbers alone hold such explanatory power with little re-
gard to diversity in social organization and processes of social adaptation
– and rightly so. We have objected in so many different ways, however,
and with such divergent implications, that social science contributions to
international policy debates over the nexus of population, development, and