Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Elephant in the Room

Human population is the unspoken elephant in the room driving environmental crises

by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD (September 13 2010)

It is hard to come up with a looming environmental problem not ultimately rooted in human population expansion, be it a local issue like traffic congestion, litter and air & drinking water pollution or more global concerns like ocean fish depletion, deforestation, species extinction and global climate change.

We humans currently number 6.9 billion and continue to swell the planet by nearly eighty million more each year. Almost half of us are under the age of 25, and, if present trends continue, we will double in number before 2060.

The United States does not earn a pass when it comes to population pressures on the environment, in part because our per capita resource consumption and waste production dwarf that of much of the rest of the world. Furthermore, the Central Intelligence Agency tracks birth rates, and although the current US birth rate (13.8 births per 1000 people per year) is roughly one-third that of several African countries, 69 other countries have lower birth rates.

The US population has continued to rise by roughly three million each year over the last two decades with the latest total estimate topping 307 million. By the end of this century, there could well be 570 million of us, according to the US Census Bureau.

Given these harrowing projections and the monumental environmental dilemmas we face already, you would think that candidly stated strategies to stabilize the population, at home and abroad, would be a priority at every level of government. Not so.

For starters, consider that neither the Democratic nor Republican Party Platforms of 2008 even mention population growth. The closest the Democratic Platform comes is through explicit support for access to comprehensive family planning services (including sex education, contraception, and safe abortion) as strategies to help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. The Republican Platform heavily stresses the need for immigration reform but without any reference to population control.

While it may be fashionable for politicians to acknowledge that our environment is in serious trouble, and indeed many do work diligently to pass legislation to improve environmental protections, it is nearly impossible to imagine any one of them saying to the public that there are - or will soon be - too many of us.

What ever happened to Zero Population Growth?

Baby Boomers may recall when, during the 1960s and 1970s, the nonprofit organization Zero Population Growth (aka ZPG) enjoyed a formidable presence on college campuses and in the popular media. Though since renamed Population Connection, it remains the largest grassroots population organization in the United States. To understand why population per se is not a front page issue anymore despite mounting pressures on the environment, I approached the five-year President of Population Connection, John Seager.

Seager points out the challenge in keeping the public interested in population numbers because the headline would read the same every day, that is, that global population had jumped by about 220,000 the day before. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a confluence of events pushed population into the American public's consciousness for the first time. Among them were Paul R Ehrlich's best-selling book The Population Bomb (1968) which predicted mass human starvation, the advent of birth control pills, the Supreme Court's 1965 establishment of a constitutional right to use contraceptives, and the unprecedented wave of female Baby Boomers going on to college and choosing to have smaller families.

Yet Seager asserts that population stories are still very much in today's headlines, but in the guise of seemingly unrelated issues like California's chronic water shortage, political squabbling over drilling in Alaska's Arctic refuge, the Aids epidemic in Africa, and this year's unprecedented flooding in Pakistan which has killed tens of thousands.

Tackling the problem of population head-on is also particularly sensitive at this time in American society because the nation is so divided on abortion rights and immigration, the two flash points that invariably surface whenever population issues come to the fore. According to Seager, unplanned births and immigration contribute about equally to US population growth.

Given the political climate, Seager sees as less important whether politicians speak openly about population growth than whether they support the three measures scientifically proven to curb it: family planning (synonymous with access to modern, artificial means of birth control), comprehensive sex education as opposed to abstinence-only programs, and access to safe and legal abortion.

As evidence that political alliances for or against these measures have shifted substantially over time, Seager points to the fact that Republican President Richard Nixon ardently lobbied for and signed into law Title X (ten), the federal program dedicated to providing family planning services nationwide (his legacy also includes the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency). Consider also that George Bush Senior, as a young congressman, was such an outspoken supporter of Planned Parenthood that among House colleagues he earned the nickname "Rubbers". Only later while positioning himself for the White House did he reverse positions on abortion to the extent that he embraced a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.

While President Obama's stance on controversies affecting population is evident from his campaigning as a pro-choice candidate and subsequent policy implementations (for example increased federal funding for domestic and international family planning services; shift away from abstinence-only sex education programs for teens; and rescinding the last-minute Bush Administration policy which allowed pharmacists nationwide to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraceptives), Obama has also refrained from openly pointing to population as the root environmental problem.

The sheer number of we humans is undeniably the behemoth elephant in the room when it comes to the daunting environmental issues of our time. One has to question how far we can get in creating an environmentally sustainable future for our children when we all silently agree to acknowledge, not the elephant, but only its manifestations like smog, water shortages and climate change.

This situation is akin to the elephant hunter who targets just the tail, tusk or trunk and wonders why it does not keel over. And the problem with this particular beast is that, come mid century, it will be double in size and likely many times more difficult to fell.

Bill Totten


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