If the planet's to survive, we must control population . . .

Nicholas J. Demerath

November 20, 1991|By Nicholas J. Demerath

NOW at 5 billion, the world's population is expected to reach 10 billion by the year 2000. Yet the U.S. and other wealthy nations still do more to stimulate population growth than they do to reduce it.

Death rates are brought down by public health, improved nutrition and other humanitarian interventions. At the same time birth rates stay high, persistently high, amid the poverty, despair and limited contraception among the masses in poor countries. Result? Rapid population increase by fertility in Africa, Latin America and most of Asia. And from these high fertility regions come more and more immigrants to Western Europe and North America.

Can our little star, Mother Earth, support 10 billion people? Maybe not at all. Certainly not in the style to which we in the West are accustomed. The scientists' warnings and the evidence at hand point to the extinction of our own species by ecological suicide: destruction of topsoil and rain forests, diminution of other species of life, pollution of air and water, global warning and flooding seas, etc, etc. If we don't control population growth, nature's most successful predator will have stupidly consumed his host.

To save Mother Earth, we should give ecological security the highest priority, recognizing that the balance between population and environment is the sine qua non and that quality of life may be more precious than life itself. This priority should be even higher than military security or the preservation of some human rights as they are traditionally defined. The commons we share with other living things is a global commons.

For this reason and because the U.S. government so often fails when it acts unilaterally, we should pursue ecological security only through the United Nations and certain non-governmental organizations like universities, scientific bodies, selected corporations and organizations that transcend national boundaries.

We may take some hope from the fact that in the wealthy countries there are some vigorous environmental efforts. They preserve wilderness, they conserve some natural resources, they educate a less destructive cadre of consumers and capitalists, they recycle and they save trees. But the environmentalists are only beginning to recognize the ecological consequences of overpopulation.

Instead of pursuing ecological security by helping ourselves and poor nations achieve population-environment balance, the United States (since 1980 with Ronald Reagan and now with George Bush) has withdrawn support from international population programs. In 1974 then-Texas Congressman Bush wrote an appreciative introduction to a carefully researched book titled "The World's Population Crisis." But in 1991 the political winds blow differently, and President Bush refuses to make the U.S. contribution to the United Nation's Population Fund and would have the Supreme Court strike down Roe vs. Wade. Too few voters and activists understand the connection between overpopulation and ecological suicide. That most scientists now agree on overpopulation's importance as a cause does not mean, of course, that President Bush will follow their advice.

Population assistance is suspect around the U.S. government and several large foundations because their one-track promotion of modern contraception back in the '70s and '80s failed to accomplish much in the poor countries. Conditions are worse today. Nevertheless, we permit our politicians and opinion managers to play politics with issues of human reproduction and gender. "Right-to-life" means quantity, not quality, and abortion is confused with contraception.

Why do we not assign the highest priority to population control in an effort to achieve ecological security? There are three reasons:

* Rising fertility rates, both at home (up from 1.7 children per couple in the '70s to 2.1 today) and abroad are hidden because they are chiefly among the poor.

* Immigrants are valuable to employers and to their sponsors, whatever their cost to the public.

* Most environmental destruction occurs slowly. Politicians are elected for short terms and need not reckon with any but the more annoying and immediate fallouts of overpopulation, for example, traffic congestion, foul air and water, bad sewerage, poor hunting, poor hiking, poor bird-watching.

There can be little ecological security in the world unless we in the U.S. do more at home. For this to occur, cities, states and regions need to draw up population policies of their own and coordinate them with economic plans, land use controls and plans for transportation, energy and human services.

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