A Portrait of Overpopulation on a Personal and Global Canvas

Article excerpt

THE best thing about George Moffett's book "Critical Masses: The Global Population Challenge," is that he resists the temptation to pretend that population growth is a simple matter. He's bucking a long policy trend, which has lurched from one simplistic theory to another.

Shortly after World War II, when death rates started plummeting in what were then called the "underdeveloped countries," the wealthy nations began to be concerned in an organized way about population growth. The concern was based partly on abstract compassion for the burgeoning hordes, partly on ecological worries, partly on security considerations. Those hordes live in places that supply us with metals, oil, timber - places where political stability is important to us.

Whatever the causes for the concern, a simple solution emerged. The folks having all those babies must not know any better. Give them contraceptives.

So international family-planning programs were born. To some extent, they worked. The poorest women in the most isolated places began to hear the astounding ideas that they might choose the time and number of their pregnancies.

The women chose, however, to have many pregnancies. They needed children to work in the household, to tend the animals, to send to the city to earn money, to provide old-age support. Given the mean economics of their lives, children were one of the few forms of wealth available to them.

Eventually the international community caught on and came up with a new theory. These people need development. Build dams and roads and electric plants and factories. That lasted a few decades. Global population continued to soar upward, eating up, almost literally, whatever development did occur.

Another theory emerged: Focus on women. Give them education and jobs and power. Involve them as equal and dignified partners in the process of development. This women's agenda was the breakthrough of the recently concluded World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Like the previous breakthroughs - the commitments to family planning and development - it is an essential part of the answer. But not all of the answer. Even family planning, development, and women's empowerment together do not make up the full or final solution to the population problem.

Moffett, a reporter for this newspaper, has covered the population issue for years, and he knows it is a messy, fascinating, profoundly human topic. He avoids oversimplicities - but he also manages not to get swamped in complexities.

"Critical Masses" is a remarkably balanced book, balanced not only in keeping an equilibrium among the hot-button issues (abortion, Malthusianism, the pope), but balanced between population as a global issue versus a personal one. Moffett goes back and forth from the particular to the general, from policy to the lives of real people. …