Observe a Quarter Century of Change

            Twenty-five years ago I was in hot Cairo, Egypt for the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development. It changed the direction the world has taken and also was life-changing for me.

            There were thousands of people at ICPD and many simultaneous events. It was exciting to be among people from all over the world who were concerned about the subject that had caught my attention 3 decades before—human population.

            One of the experiences I remember best was sitting in a sweltering room waiting for my conference pass. The Durango Herald had provided three of us from Durango with journalist credentials, but we needed UN sanctioned passes. Sitting and sweating to my left was a journalist from Cameroon. I offered my water bottle to him and struck up a conversation.

            “Why are you concerned about population?” he asked. I told him that I had 2 children and a vasectomy. He said he had 3 young kids and wasn’t sure what the future would bring. I answered that all children should have those advantages a small family can bring, including a good education.

            The ICPD moved interest away from population and toward reproductive health. Pushback against incentives, where people were given money or gifts if they agreed to be sterilized, motivated this change. Some countries, most notably India and China, had demographic goals so family planning workers were given quotas. As a result people were coerced into using contraceptive methods that weren’t suitable, were sterilized without understanding that they couldn’t bear children, or were forced to have abortions.

            The fact that Earth’s population was not sustainable was seldom discussed at ICPD. In the quarter century since we have grown by 2 billion people and the world is even more overpopulated.

            There is good news, however. At the ICPD25 Summit that just ended in Nairobi, Kenya, people celebrated the improvements in the past 25 years. Among notable achievements is the doubling of the number of women in the least-developed countries who use modern contraception. Furthermore, the worldwide maternal mortality rate has dropped by 40%–partly because of the increased usage of birth control, and partly because more than 3/4 births worldwide are attended by trained people. These improvements have required huge efforts. For instance, FP2020, the largest international effort ever to distribute family planning information and access, has reached millions of women and couples in many of the poorest areas in the world.

            The global population growth rate has declined over the past 50 years. The peak was in 1970, when world population increased by more than 2% annually, but now it is just 1%. However, we are still growing: the net growth is about 80 million each year.

            The Nairobi Summit recognized that there are still unattained reproductive goals. Every day 830 women die from pregnancy, 33,000 girls are forced into child marriage and 11,000 girls undergo female genital mutilation. The Summit focused on several areas, including universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and ending gender-based violence and harmful practices.

            They also recognized the importance of providing funding for these services. The money necessary to save the dignity and lives of so many people is estimated at $264 billion over 10 years. Although a huge sum, it equals the combined wealth of the 3 richest people in the USA, or what the US military spends in 3 months.

            After Cairo I realized that helping women in my medical practice was not enough. John Byrd, who also attended the ICPD, Fort Lewis College professor Don Gordon and I banded together to brainstorm ways to alert people to problems of overpopulation. We observed World Population Awareness Week with speakers, then taught an online class at the College, and ended up with a face-to-face class. Bio141, People and the Planet, was popular for several years.

            After writing “The Gynecologist’s Column” for Women’s World, I recognized that I could reach more people as an author than in the exam room or classroom. I approached Morley Ballantine, then Herald editor. who suggested writing a column. In addition, she gave me an unusual gift by allowing me to own the copyrights. Various of these Herald essays have also been republished in other media, and they are emailed to over 300 people in several countries.

            The ICPD has improved the lives of many people throughout the world. In addition, it motivated me to become more of an activist, including writing the Population Matters! column you are now reading.

©Richard Grossman MD, 2019


Follow the Children

Kallan Benson

“We will not put down our signs and go back to school until you act to stop fossil fuel emissions. Giving up is not an option.”

                        Kallan Benson, at the Champions of the Earth award ceremony

            A group of young people is forcing us to face what many politicians and other adults are trying to ignore. Greta Thunberg (the 16 year old Swedish girl) has drawn global attention to the climate crisis, an existential threat.

            Earlier this month I listened in awe to one of these young activists. Kallan Benson is 15 years old and already an accomplished public speaker. She is a Quaker and continues the long history of social activism by members of the Religious Society of Friends. Her mother, a marine scientist, accompanied her since Kallan is too young to drive. Wearing a brown ruana and standing without a hint of nervousness, she addressed the environmental group I am active in, Quaker Earthcare Witness.

            Kallan is a leader of Fridays for Future, started by Greta. Remember that Greta skipped school to sit outside the Swedish Parliament building every Friday to raise awareness of the climate crisis. Since then she has inspired young people around the globe to express their concern for planetary changes. She has also tried to inspire older people at the United Nations and the United States Congress, with limited success,

            When she was 9, Kallan walked in the 2019 People’s Climate March in New York City. She wrote: “During that march, I evolved from concerned kid to a committed activist.” The next step in her commitment was to give other kids, many of whom couldn’t go to a climate demonstration, the opportunity to express their concern. She painted a giant monarch butterfly on a huge play parachute, which was then signed and decorated by over 1600 kids. This colorful statement flew down Pennsylvania Avenue and around the White House.

            Not satisfied with just working in this country, Kallan catalyzed the formation of Parachutes for the Planet, an international art initiative. More than 900 colorful parachutes have been created by children from all over the world; many of them decorated the National Mall in D.C. last year.

            Recently Kallan joined other young people at a ceremony in New York City. She stood in for Greta Thunberg, who couldn’t attend, to receive the Champions of the Earth award for starting Fridays for Future. “Champions” is the most prestigious environmental award of the United Nations. Other award winners include the country of Costa Rica (for its policy leadership in protecting its environment) and Dr. Katharine Hayhoe (who appeared by video in Durango last year at the Climate Change Solutions Symposium).

            Kallan appeared a little nervous and occasionally angry on the YouTube video of her speech. She started by saying: “Awards are for celebrating achievements, but the achievement we seek has not occurred. The world is in climate crisis and actions of the United Nations are failing to stop it…. We understand that the Champions of the Earth Award is a great honor, but we cannot accept it. Instead we offer to hold it for you to earn. You at the United Nations hold the power to save humanity from itself. You must act in time to become the real champions of the Earth.” It was amazing to see the United Nations being chastised by a teenager—and with good reason!

            Kallan and Greta are not alone. The organization Fridays for Future is just over a year old, but already has members in 30 countries. In addition to supporting students who strike (stay away from school) on Fridays, they have organized several large demonstrations. The largest was on September 20th when it was observed in 150 countries, with an estimated 4 million participating. My wife and I joined the group in Durango, organized by a Fort Lewis College student. After school let out the sidewalk in front of City Hall was crowded with students.

            Two weeks ago Greta was in Denver, just one of the speakers at a rally attended by over 7000 people. Perhaps the youngest person to speak then was just 13 years old. Haven Coleman has been striking since January. She said that it gets lonely, and was glad to be surrounded by so many people at the demonstration. These kids are amazing!

            I’ll end with what Kallan said close to the end of her talk: “Every Friday we invite all people of conscience to climate strike.” I hope to see you there!

© Richard Grossman MD, 2019