UN's Cairo Conference to Face the Social Costs of Population Liberal Immigration Laws, Foreign Aid Could Send Wrong Message on Population, Environmentalists Now Say

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AS the world gears up for a once-a-decade United Nations conference on population in Cairo this September, activists in the United States are focusing on the issue as key to protecting the environment.

National environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the National Audubon Society are beefing up their population efforts in anticipation of the Cairo meeting. New grass-roots groups are emerging at the state and local level as well. They are encouraged by the Clinton administration's increased funding for international family planning.

But just as it did at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, population is proving to be highly controversial.

Among the hot-button subjects it touches on:

* The question of whether the highly populous third world or the highly affluent industrial nations are more to blame for pollution and declining natural resources.

* The balance between population-control programs and economic aid for developing countries.

* The importance of increasing health services for women and their children.

* The role immigration policies play in encouraging high population growth rates.

For environmental activists - hundreds of whom gathered at the University of Oregon School of Law last weekend - all of these issues raise tough questions about traditionally liberal values involving class, race, culture, and gender.

"A lot of people just don't have the courage to face these issues," says David Durham, founder of Carrying Capacity Network, a research and advocacy group pushing for greater controls on population growth.

But for some, it's not a matter of courage but of intent and results. Some non-white and non-Western activists see population control efforts as inherently racist or elitist. Some feminists see population programs as coercive of women, as they have been in such countries as China and India.

"This is something that has to be faced," says Ric Oberlink, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization.

While population traditionally has been seen as a "global" issue to be dealt with internationally, many experts now say it has to be addressed nationally and even locally - and in the US as much as in, say, Bangladesh.

"The fact is," says Mr. Durham, "the United States is exploding in population growth." While the US fertility rate (number of children per woman) had dropped to 1. …