Speak Out on Population
© Richard Grossman MD, 2009
“I do not understand why there is very little discussion, or even acknowledgement, that unless the human population on this planet can be limited to a sustainable number, there will be wars and death over food and water.”
I agree with Rick, a fellow Bayfield resident, who wrote the above sentence several months ago in response to one of my articles. Rick started:
“I read your article in the Herald this past weekend and was encouraged to find some recognition that human population growth is the root cause of this planet’s problems. I find it nauseating to read countless articles written by supposed experts proposing band-aid fixes to the increasing numbers of problems we humans face, when in fact, that will only delay the inevitable”.
I feel rewarded to know that there are others who feel the same way as I do. Thank you, Rick, and all of the others who have written or spoken to me in response to Population Matters! articles. I even appreciate hearing from people who do not agree with me. I count as a friend a man I haven’t met, but we communicate respectfully about abortion—a subject about which we have radically different ideas.
I am amazed that people do not make the connection between environmental issues and the human effect on Earth. After all, it is our profligate consumption and our ever-increasing numbers that are causing pollution, loss of species and global climate change—amongst other crises. Fortunately there are people, like Rick, who do “get it”; they understand the relationship, and are willing to do something about it.
Concern about human population became popular after Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb was published in 1968. Shortly afterwards, Zero Population Growth (which espoused reaching a steady state of population) was founded. Interest came to a halt in 1994 when the International Conference on Population and Development shifted the focus from population to “reproductive health.” The assumption was that providing reproductive health care would allow people to have as few children as they wanted.
The other part of that assumption is that economies were improving, and that fertility would decline as peoples’ wellbeing improved. Unfortunately, economic development implies increased consumption, so development is not an unmitigated blessing. Education (especially of girls) is all-around good, since education doesn’t need to increase consumption—but definitely is associated with smaller family size.
There were several reasons that people at ICPD turned away from population and toward RH. This huge conference of the United Nations needed to reach a consensus of the 179 nations attending (including the Holy See or Vatican) and RH was an easier concept for some countries to tolerate than population stabilization. A major reason that limiting population growth went out of favor is the abuses that were perpetrated in its name. In some countries people were coerced to use contraception or to have sterilization operations. China’s one child family policy is famous for being coercive, and there is evidence that some women were even forced to have abortions. We now recognize that the most successful family planning programs are totally voluntary.
So ICPD was a turning point away from concern about population. But how successful has the focus on RH been? In the fifteen years since ICPD the world’s population has increased by more than one billion people and atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased from 358 to 386 parts per million. Furthermore, we are now using the resources of about 1.3 planet earths, whereas in 1994 we only used about 10% more than was sustainable. We have not done well! I feel that attention has been distracted from the real issue.
How could this be? Why do people not pay more attention to population? I recommend a short video by a Harvard professor of psychology. Although it focuses on the related issue of global climate change, much of what it says also pertains to population: www.desmogblog.com/dan-gilbert-on-the-psychology-of-global-warming-video.
An additional reason that population is even more taboo than climate may be more important. Population involves the issues of sexuality and contraception that many people—and religions—feel strongly about.
John Feeney, a Colorado journalist, has created the Global Speak Out on Population at http://gpso.wordpress.com/. The goal of GSOP is to bring the issue of human population back into the public’s consciousness. I suggest that you check out the website, and then sign the pledge of support.
Rick, you are correct; human population growth is the root cause of many of this planet’s problems. Thank you for recognizing this!
Published in the Durango Herald 2-09
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