8.5 Billion People by 2025

SARA ENGRAM

April 04, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

Next time you're sitting in traffic or lamenting the loss of another stretch of farmland to development, try to imagine what your favorite countryside will look like a few decades from now.

According to Census Department projections, United States population will grow from 255 million people in 1992 to 383 million by the middle of the next century. That's 128 million more people who will need transportation and shelter, among other things. So if you think zoning fights or NIMBY disputes are tough now, just wait.

With 383 million people, the United States will look a lot different: more roads, more houses, more schools, hospitals, jails -- less open space, less wilderness and a lot less peace and quiet. But the growth and crowding will be nothing like the crunch that already faces many developing countries.

Consider: In many African countries, population is growing rapidly enough to double every 30 years. Translate that growth rate to the U.S. and by the year 2050, a population of a mere 383 million would seem sparse. The country would have long since passed 500 million and would be headed toward a billion people. Goodbye, green spaces. Welcome to mega-gridlock.

That exercise in imagination lends perspective to discussion of world population -- and to the Clinton administration's intention to restore U.S. leadership in international family planning efforts. The two issues go hand-in-hand.

Almost a decade ago, at a 1984 United Nations population conference in Mexico City, the Reagan administration reversed a decade or more of U.S. leadership in this area and announced a policy overtly hostile to international family planning programs. That year, the world's population stood at almost 4.8 billion people.

By the time the Clinton administration took office, vowing to restore U.S. assistance to major international family planning organizations, world population had grown to 5.4 billion. Current projections predict a population of 8.5 billion by 2025 -- almost double the 1984 count.

There are a number of people who argue that population growth is not a threat, that more people mean more resources for creating wealth. Plainly, it is true that human beings are capable of solving problems, creating wealth and bettering their lives. But it is equally clear that in many hard-pressed countries, such thinking is simply out of touch with reality.

When economies are overwhelmed by numbers, they have difficulty providing adequate food, clothing, shelter, education and health care. In turn, people in those countries are too consumed by the challenge of meeting basic needs to summon the energy and resourcefulness to achieve prosperity. Some do succeed, of course, but not enough of them.

Meanwhile, governments often become preoccupied with containing the political unrest created by population pressures. Egypt's surge of violence from Islamic fundamentalists is a prime example of the political consequences of rapid population growth.

Economic arguments about population also tend to overlook the pressures people place on fragile ecosystems. In many parts of the world, the human population has steadily eroded the resources -- whether farmlands or rain forests or wildlife -- that for years sustained entire cultures.

But there is another aspect to the population issue -- the matter of individual choice. According to groups that follow population issues, there is enormous pent-up demand for contraceptives in developing countries, with fewer than half the couples who want family planning services having access to them. Given the choice, most women want to limit their childbearing. Otherwise, they find themselves in a cycle of prenancies that saps their strength and endangers their infants by causing them to be weaned too young.

In this country's politics, family planning has become tangled up with abortion. But in many parts of the world, family planning services are as close as women ever get to health care. Given the alternatives -- constant childbearing or, too often, illegal and life-threatening abortions -- family planning programs are truly pro-life efforts.

With an administration committed to family planning, the United States can now resume its place as a leader in international efforts to give families help in the most intimate self-determination questions of all -- how many children to have and when. The evidence suggests that simply by giving people the ability to choose how many children they will have, we could go a long way toward stabilizing the world's population.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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