How serious is the population problem?
The growth in the world’s population is the equivalent of adding a new Sacramento every two days – or a new Ethiopia every year. Both domestic and global population growth is adding to conflicts over water, energy, food, open space and wilderness, transportation infrastructure, school rooms, and numerous other problems. In developing countries, large family size is a major cause of poverty and poor health. No country has graduated from “developing” status to “developed” status in the last sixty years without first reducing population growth. Yet projections for population growth through 2050 are being increased as funding for family planning has been reduced over the last 15 years by many governments.
One of the biggest threats of continued population growth is deforestation and loss of biodiversity. We do not know the extent to which we can continue to lose species before the ecological system collapses, but many ecologists and other scientists – including 58 of the world’s scientific academies – have warned we are approaching that point. Adding to this is the growing toxification of the environment, with thousands of chemicals that have been released by various companies without good scientific understanding of their long-term effects.
Loss of forest cover is directly contributing to climate change, since forests contain large amounts of stored carbon that returns to the atmosphere when the trees are destroyed. Growth in human numbers, even at the low per capita rates of greenhouse gas emission of the average developing country citizen, is driving emissions upward. The projected addition of 2.7 billion people to the world’s population from now to 2050 is the climate equivalent of adding two United States to the planet.
What are the causes of the population growth?
The success story of vaccination programs and other public health measures after World War II led to falling death rates, especially among infants and children. It has taken decades in many cases for birth rates to follow. Lack of priority by governments and donors for women’s rights and family planning is a key reason that we have not been more successful in bringing about stabilization of numbers globally.
In the U.S., immigration drives about two-thirds of the country’s population growth. There are business interests, such as the construction industry and those who want to exploit cheap labor, that have lobbied for continued population growth. Almost every week, some U.S. publication prints an article by an economist or business representative calling on Americans to have more babies and on the country to do everything to encourage population growth. Forbes Magazine recently ran a special edition on immigration, with a lead article headlined, “Let Them In.”
Yet, since the 1940s, the vast majority of the public has wanted growth to stop. Two Presidential Commissions have called for an end to growth. But these views have been ignored by special interests that think of short-term profits over the welfare of the country. If we truly think long-term, we must look beyond the age of cheap oil and think about the number of people that can be sustained at a decent standard of living in the future. Fresh water supplies may be even more limiting than energy supplies, as is evident in many parts of the country, including California.
Why do you feel the issue is so controversial?
As I said in “Population: the Multiplier of Everything Else,” population is in a class by itself in terms of controversy. The issue touches on many areas that people have long considered personal – such as family size decision making. Solutions involve better sex education, equal rights for women, and availability of family planning services and information for married and single people – each controversial among some element of the population. Attempts at coercion in India and China have raised concerns, even though most of the progress in reducing fertility rates has been made through voluntary family planning programs. Some environmentalists see the population issue as a distraction from trying to reduce consumption and waste. Concern over national population growth in the United States leads to discussion of immigration policies, themselves fraught with controversies, including the best way to handle people here illegally, accusations of racism, and concerns over the size of the future labor force.
What sort of solutions are there?
The keys are voluntary family-planning information and services, role-modeling small family norms for the global public, and elevating the status of women and girls worldwide. About two billion people today are not using any method of family planning, because of three main barriers: desire for large families, lack of correct information, and social opposition. Mass media, particularly entertainment media, can play a significant role in making family planning acceptable and in providing correct information to overcome the myths that exist throughout the world regarding contraceptive safety and effectiveness. This is why Population Media Center (www.populationmedia.org) creates locally written prime-time serial dramas on TV or radio in which key characters gradually evolve into role models for the audience for elevation of women’s status, daughter education, use of family planning, and adoption of small family norms.
What’s the biggest barrier to action?
It’s getting the world’s governments, donor institutions, academicians, the media and the public to understand the importance of stabilizing human numbers at a level that can be sustained by the world’s resources. If the public understood what is at stake, they would demand immediate action to provide the relatively small amounts of money necessary to provide family planning information and services to everyone worldwide.
How are world governments doing on this issue?
Both the developing and developed countries have failed to live up to the pledges they made at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. The result has been immense suffering, especially by the women of the world, 350,000 of whom die in pregnancy and childbirth each year – a figure equal to the total number of American soldiers killed in the Civil War, World War I, the Korean War and Vietnam, combined.