World Is Running out of Time

Article excerpt

I suppose there should be a birth announcement, though I am not sure congratulations are in order. From the moment the colorful assembly of people from 170 countries arrived in Cairo for the U.N. Conference on Population and Development to the moment they leave, the world will have gained 2 million more inhabitants.

Many of these babies will be welcomed by parents with joy. Many will be greeted with traditional family and tribal rituals. But too many others will slip into overburdened lands and overwhelmed lives, adding to the despair of their elders.

For most of human history, babies have been the universal symbol of hope for the future. But as a number, as a statistic, they have also become a symbol of a worrisome future.

In the language of our time, people are also "the population problem." Fertility, the goddess of bounty, is also a destructive force. And our great "success" as a species carries with it an air of failure. In Cairo, the delegates have all kinds of ways to add up just how fruitful we have been and exactly how we have multiplied.

In the year 1 A.D., there were 200 million people on the planet. By 1800, there were a billion of us. By 1900, 2 billion. Now there are 5.6 billion of us and the optimistic goal of the U.N. plan is only 7.5 billion by the year 2015.

Only the most self-deceptive or fatalistic of us can overlook the meaning in these numbers: a birth rate that's outstripping even the green revolution's ability to feed people. A population growth that's outpacing all but the most ambitious plans of developing countries to employ people. Human passengers sorely taxing what the environmentalists call the carrying capacity of the earth.

Twenty years ago, at the U.N. conference in Bucharest, the developing nations still thought that birth control was an imperialist notion. No more. Ten years ago in Mexico City, the American government under Reagan said that economic development was the only way to stabilize the population. No more.

The road to Cairo was paved by leaders and fieldworkers, government and non-government organizers, who agree that economic development and contraception must fit together in a complicated jigsaw puzzle to stabilize population. …