High Time for Some Population Intelligence

E Magazine, February 1994 | Go to article overview

High Time for Some Population Intelligence


Last September, Jane Fonda addressed the United Nations, now preparing for the Conference on Population and development in Cairo, Egypt this September. She and her husband, Ted Turner, are Special Goodwill Ambassadors to the United Nations Population Fund. The following is excerpted from her speech.

Population. I have not spoken about this before. I have been an environmentalist for 20 years, but I never talked about population. I am not alone. The controversy around contraception and abortion made it politically easier to speak and organize around air pollution, deforestation, toxic waste and biodiversity while ignoring the role our own burgeoning species plays in all this: politically correct with blinders on. As Dennis Meadows writes in Limits To Growth, "You can always blame any particular problem on something that is not over population. Nobody ever dies from over population. They die of famine, disease, war."

Scientists agree that the precise relationship between population and environmental destruction is not fully understood. We do know, however, that:

* Every year farmers around the world are trying to feed 90 million more people with 24 billion fewer tons of topsoil.

* Desertification from over-grazing and inefficient farming methods is taking 15 million acres out of use each year.

* Increasing demand for fresh water has diminished our water supplies by trillions of gallons above and below ground. In several regions of northern China, water tables are falling by 12 to 15 feet a year. Parts of Mexico City are sinking as underground aquifers are pumped dry.

* Approximately one billion people do not get enough food to function.

* Our species alone co-opts, consumes or eliminates 40 percent of the Earth's basic photosynthetic energy and appropriates two-thirds of the planet's land surface.

There have been populations in the past which collapsed once critical, natural thresholds were exceeded: the unique Planishing civilization on Easter Island in the South Pacific; the pre-Columbian American civilizations of the Mayans, the Mimbres, and the Anasazis. They had the excuse of not knowing. We know. In early 1992, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London issued an unusual joint report warning that "if current predictions of population growth prove accurate, and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continuing poverty for the most of the world."

But I'm also a woman, and I share the concern that a crisis mentality, which is justified and necessary, might cause us to resort to coercive, insensitive fertility control measures. All of us are in this together, and women must not be blamed because we bear the children. Our health and our bodies must not become the sacrificial altars on which demographic targets are callously arrived at. If we have learned one lesson over the last 30-some years, it is that the way that work best to reduce fertility are ways that are respectful of women.

We must ensure universal access to family planning by the end of this decade. It is unconscionable in a world with so many going hungry that we aren't doing more to prevent unwanted children from being born. Children have the right to be wanted. But cost has stood in the way. Even in the U.S. about 42 percent of the women who want contraception require some assistance to pay for it. We also need new contraceptive choices, such as a safe, effective microbicide which would kill sperm as well as the viruses, bacteria and parasites which play havoc with women's reproductive health.

In virtually every country that has been studied, raising the level of women's education leads to declining birth rates. According to Sharon Camp, formerly with Population Action International, the impact of women's education really becomes strong and consisted at about seven or eight years of formal education. …

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