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
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
* 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
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. …