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The population bomb is ticking again

Scenarios are dire, but solutions may be surprisingly easy

Ecology and You

Erik Curren



Sometime during October, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, America will add its 300 millionth resident. While profiling the candidate may be a quirky exercise in fiction writing - it will be a baby of Anglo or Hispanic parents in Los Angeles, say experts - the issues behind America's rapid population rise are real. The U.S. is expected to reach 400 million by mid-century. Whatever happens as a result of global warming or the energy crisis coming when world oil production peaks, overcrowding alone will make America a very different place than it is today. And not a better one. Every day, we see the consequences of too many Americans: temper-testing traffic; a shortage of affordable housing nationwide; trash at parks and on beaches; pollution in rivers, lakes and bays; and sprawling development that covers the best farmland and diverse wildlife habitat with master-planned suburbs, miles of freeways and acres of parking lots.

Basically, everything we love about America - from amber waves of grain to purple mountains majesty - is threatened by overcrowding.

And now our population seems about to collide with global warming. Coastal communities are some of the fastest growing, and more than half of all Americans now live within 50 miles of a coastline in areas that will be vulnerable to worse storms and more flooding.

It was only in 1967 that the U.S. reached 200 million. At that time, Paul Ehrlich's controversial book The Population Bomb, predicted that the explosion of our species would overwhelm the earth's natural resources and lead to pestilence, war, famine and death.

But then the eco-aware 1970s gave way to the greed-is-good 1980s, and the world's natural systems did not indeed collapse. Many people started claiming that the population bomb was a dud. Free-market enthusiasts said that better technology could feed the world for decades to come and that there was no need to worry about keeping our numbers down. 

The bomb defused, for a time

"One of the reasons why the population bomb didn't go off is because some of the warnings were heeded, and the U.S. and other donor nations started programs to help couples choose how and when to have kids in the developing world," says Tod Preston, senior advisor with advocacy group Population Action International. "Birth rates are still very high in some areas, but they've come down. Our efforts have been a success.

"Yet today around the world, you still have huge and growing problems in terms of resource scarcity, water, arable crop land, forests and other resources. And that's only going to get much, much worse if we don't do more."

Like many experts on population issues, Preston is less concerned with the U.S. than with developing nations, who are the main contributors to a runaway world population of 6.5 billion.

America reaching 300 million is "indicative of a much bigger story in the developing world," Preston says. "Here we're talking about sustainable development, sprawl, habitat loss and other problems. But if you look at the developing world, the situation is much more serious. In Uganda or Ethiopia, for example, populations are doubling every 30 years. They already have huge issues with hunger and famine and are already dependent on food aid from foreign donors including the U.S.

"Imagine if we were talking about the likelihood that our population would jump to 600 million in 30 to 40 years. There would be a strong sense that this was a very grave problem. People would term it a crisis or a catastrophe. But that's the reality in some countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, it's not being talked about much here, and some easy, popular programs to ease this crisis are being neglected by the U.S. and other rich countries."

When you hear so much bad news from places where population growth is a problem, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, it's all too easy to fall into fatalism and apathy. The place is beyond help, so what can we do? And anyway, doesn't America have enough problems at home to solve before we worry about places far away?

But this kind of compassion-fatigue is shortsighted. And it is not necessary. 

Overpopulation in poor countries is our problem, too

With globalization, the world's problems are now our problems. "After 9/11, people are starting to realize that there's no part of the globe we can write off in terms of security," Preston says. "The Pentagon is talking about setting up a command dealing with Africa. Al-Qaeda trains there."

So if our security requires that we try to relieve suffering worldwide, the most effective population control measure, family planning, is many times cheaper than any military option. It is even cheaper than famine relief.

Family planning has been so effective that, because of efforts to educate women and couples about contraception so that they can choose to have the number of kids they want at the time they want them, birth rates have fallen in many developing nations. In Mexico and Egypt, for example, birth rates have been halved in the last 35 years, according to Preston.

Yet despite its proved effectiveness, family planning has dropped to a small percentage of the U.S. foreign aid budget. "U.S. taxpayers spend $1 billion on food aid yearly. Last year in Ethiopia alone we spent more on food aid than we did on family planning across the planet," Preston says.

Since it came into office, the Bush administration has cut family-planning funding significantly. Population experts like Preston say that this is not because family planning doesn't work - it does - or that people in developing countries don't want contraceptives - they do, even in strongly Catholic or Muslim nations - but for domestic political reasons.

Some right-wing opponents of abortion also oppose contraception, and since the White House has been eager to obtain the support of the Republican base, it has tried to distance itself from birth control. But since Americans overwhelmingly support access to contraception - 91 percent in a Harris Interactive poll from July - the administration has hesitated to declare open war on birth control. Instead, it has quietly cut funding to support family-planning programs abroad.

"This administration is in thrall to a domestic political base that is fundamentally opposed to the right of women to use contraceptives," said Brian Dixon, director of government relations at another advocacy group, Population Connection.

"One of the first things that this president did in 2001 was to implement a global gag rule, to cut off U.S. aid to any family-planning providers around the world who had any connection to abortion."

The gag rule said that if health-care providers wanted to receive U.S. funds, then they couldn't even counsel patients on abortion or bring it up as an option. Because many doctors, nurses and medical aides were not willing to play by Washington's new restrictions, they lost funding.

"The rule caused clinics to close in Zambia and Kenya, and it caused the laying off of healthcare staff. It has also led to a shortage of contraceptives in Ethiopia. But the gag rule has had no impact on abortion, except maybe to increase it, because we've cut off access to contraception. The U.S. no longer contributes to the UN Population Fund because the president refuses to release the funds that Congress has appropriated for it. The target in all of these cases is contraceptives."

Also a problem at home

While Dixon agrees that the developing world should be the focus of family planning and other measures to control population growth, he feels that we need help in America, too.

Noting that a third of all births in the U.S. are unintended, Dixon says that "we're not really paying attention to teen-age pregnancy, though we have the highest rate in the industrialized world."

Though the effects of overpopulation worldwide and even in the U.S. could be horrific - imagine Blade Runner, Escape from New York or your favorite sci-fi vision of an overcrowded apocalypse - Dixon says that the main solution, family planning, is relatively simple to implement.

"The real cause for hope is that we know how to do this. There's no need to make huge sacrifices. We're giving people the tools to make decisions about their lives. Not only does it help the global picture but it helps individual families. Women can become part of their communities through work. Kids can go to school. Countries can catch up. It allows nations to start improving the quality of life for their people.

"Family planning is a relatively simple and cheap solution. That's very hopeful. We just need the political will. We don't need to find new technologies and complicated solutions. It's really about giving people what they already want."

Surveys consistently show that couples in developing nations want more access to birth control than they have now.

Environmentalists also support controlling population growth, but they add other solutions which are more applicable to the U.S. than a place like Egypt or Mexico.

"First, if we're going to grow, we need to grow smart," says Eric Antebi of the Sierra Club. That means building up and not out, and focusing new development in dense urban areas rather than letting it sprawl out into suburbs. High-density development uses less land and requires less driving, thus saving fuel and cutting pollution, especially the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

"Second, we need to look at the international drivers of population growth. We should then look at our international policies, whether it's our trade policies or foreign aid, to see how they exacerbate poverty and environmental degradation that tend to contribute to international migration patterns.

"Third, we need to make sure that families have the information and the resources to plan their own growth. That primarily means access to health care and family planning options. That's as important domestically as it is internationally."

Aside from supporting family-planning efforts both here and abroad, ordinary Americans can also mount their own personal campaigns against uncontrolled population growth and its negative effects. First, couples who want children can consider having smaller families or even adopting a child. Then, all of us can try to reduce our individual impact on the earth, to make our "ecological footprint" smaller.

Today, the average American requires about 20 acres of land to provide his or her food, water, energy and other daily needs. That means 300 million of us draw from an area twice as big as the U.S. for our needs.

One American uses as many resources and creates as much waste as 10 or 15 Chinese or Indians - and twice as much as someone from Britain or France for basically the same lifestyle.

Our population may not be the biggest, but with our unbridled consumption and criminal waste, America's population is certainly the baddest.

So, while America's main problem might not be cutting our population growth, we have an even more crucial role to play to build a sustainable world by just scaling down our lifestyle.

We can start by driving and flying less, buying less stuff and using less energy. Then, we can advocate for the big changes necessary to help redesign the American lifestyle away from profiting corporations and gratifying consumers and towards allowing a humane, satisfying life for families and communities.

This may be humanity's big adventure in an age of global warming, peak oil and overpopulation.

Erik Curren is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Curren is the author of Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today. More information about Curren's works is available on-line at www.alayapress.com. The views expressed by op-ed writers do not necessarily reflect those of management of The Augusta Free Press.

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