I USED to believe that to save Planet Earth, all I had to do was conserve water and recycle religiously. But on Oct. 23, I changed my thinking. That was the day the United Nations released a major report, "Population and the Environment: The Challenges Ahead." Published by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the document clearly links population overgrowth and the destruction of earth's ecologic resources.
On the first page, UNFPA Executive Director Nafis Sadik warns that the tireless work for conservation "will be meaningless if population issues are ushered to the sidelines." Environmentalists on every continent should heed that challenge.
Consider the frightening facts:
* World population, 1 billion persons in 1830, now stands at 5.4 billion. Predictions say the 6 billionth human will be born in 1998, and the 10 billionth only one generation later (by the year 2027).
* Every day, 240,000 babies are born -- 3 people per second. Of the 97 million people born each year, 96 percent will live in the poorest nations.
* Global birth rate exceeds death rate by 76 million annually.
* By 1999, 42 percent of the world's population will be under 25 years old.
Paul and Ann Ehrlich of Stanford University have developed a simple formula that explains the devastating effect of population on the environment: I equals PAT. The Ehrlichs propose that three multipliers -- population (P), per capita consumption (A) and technology of production (T) -- all cause impacts (I) on environmental resources.
For example, even if the 1 billion people in Western nations -- the world's primary polluters -- reduced solid wastes and drove more fuel-efficient cars, the incidental gains of say, 1 percent in (A) and (T) could be neutralized by the growing population (P) of impoverished persons (increasing at 1.8 percent annually) who do not or cannot follow conservation practices. The net result: a loss for the global environment.
UNFPA forecasts a corresponding slate of environmental problems caused by population growth:
* An exponential loss of tropical forests (an estimated 50 percent have already been destroyed) -- a major area of oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange, and home for 80 percent of the world's species, including one-quarter of all plants used for production of medicines and drugs.
* Increased greenhouse emission which will effect human health and possibly, global warming.
* Desertification due to loss of trees, topsoil and wetlands.
* Critical water shortages and potable water contamination.
* Depletion of fisheries (catches have quadrupled in the last quarter century).
* Extinction of species, throwing the entire ecosystem out of balance.
UNFPA has proposed a blueprint of bold, practical policies for global population stabilization to combat environmental Armageddon. Adapted from the 1989 Amsterdam Declaration, unanimously endorsed by 79 nations, including the U.S., the initiatives focus on reducing fertility -- cutting birth rate from an average 3.8 to 3.3 children per woman by the turn of the century.
The key to success is to provide flexible education, family planning services and contraceptives to more than 1 billion persons of child-rearing age; to reduce maternal and infant mortality; and to improve the literacy and social status of women.
Will these ambitious programs fly in the Third World? They have in Mexico. Since America's southern neighbor began family planning 20 years ago, birth rate has fallen 30 percent. And the number of abortions have been reduced by half.
UNFPA calls for a funding increase from its current $3.5 billion a year to $9 billion annually at the end of the century to support the new programs. Obviously, industrial "donor" nations have been asked to pick up much of the tab by committing 4 percent of their foreign aid budgets. For the United States, that will amount to $570 million this year, up from $330 million last year.
Hawks in the congresses and parliaments of developed nations should appreciate how the population explosion threatens their security. As the number of earthlings spirals out of control, stresses on resources will require proportional increases in foreign aid or even military intervention. Immigration pressures from "environmental refugees" fleeing famine, drought, pollution and landlessness will also test the willpower of developed nations to protect their own borders.
World leaders must push politics aside and face up to the glaring consequences of population overload on the earth and the human race. Their vote for reasonable family planning is really a vote for planetary survival. Presidents, premiers, prime ministers, are you listening?
Todd Ballantine is a South Carolina-based environmental 8 scientist and journalist.