The Bridge publishes eight-page supplement on population

April 24, 2009 • Daily Email Recap

The Montpelier Bridge of Vermont has outdone most other newspapers in the world by publishing an eight-page supplement on population concerns. At a time when many journalists fail to mention population, even when it is an obvious factor in the issue being discussed, publisher Nat Frothingham deserves your congratulations for his March 19 exploration of the role population growth and size plays in world events. You can read the supplement at, and you can email Nat at

Below is a article from the supplement by Nat Frothingham.

Taking Charge of Our Lives

by Nat Frothingham

In June 1961—just after graduating from Harvard College with a BA in English—I became a participant in the Teachers for East Africa project of Teachers College, Columbia University. Looking back on it now, I see the three and a half years I spent teaching English in East Africa as the transformational event in my life.

What was there about Africa that captured my imagination? It all began with Ann Edinger, a fifth-grade geography teacher who made her students feel that geography was the most important thing in the world.

Like other fifth-graders, I remember being asked to go up to the front of the class and, using a map, trace the flow of a major African river from its source, rivers with strange, beguiling names like the Nile, Congo, Zambezi, and Limpopo.

Years passed and as a college senior, I had an African friend from Kenya with the grand, improbable name of George Washington Jalango Okumu who encouraged me to join the Teachers for East Africa project and teach in his country.

Nothing I can write will ever come close to describing the East Africa I experienced in the outgoing friendliness of its people, the size and sweep of its landscape, the rich profusion of its natural life —- great trees and tropical plants and also elephants, zebras, lions, rhinos, elks, and giraffes —- and the lakes, grasslands, and mountains of an unspoiled wilderness.

The truth is this: I never wanted to leave Africa, and I have ever wanted to go back.

I set off for East Africa in July 1961 with about 150 other Americans, boarding a plane from New York to Entebbe, Uganda. For about a year, I took a teacher-training course in Kampala, Uganda. Then in 1962, I was sent to teach English at an African boys’ secondary school not far from Nairobi, Kenya.

In the 1960s, the experts pretty much agreed that the world was overpopulated, and that population pressures were most intense in places like China, India, and South America. But from what I had observed in three and a half years of living and working in East Africa, I was convinced there were serious problems of human overcrowding in Africa South of the Sahara as well.

When my teaching contract ended, I returned to the United States, and in the summer of 1967, I was hired to undertake a study and write a report on population problems and family planning in Africa South of the Sahara. In conducting this study, I learned a number of things: that indeed there was a population problem in south of the Sahara where human numbers had grown beyond the carrying capacity of the land and that rising populations often had a lot to do with the traditional practice of having large families in a subsistence agricultural economy so that if some children died, other children could take their place.

I came to understand, also, the absolute importance of equality between women and men, the critical need of education for women, and the critical leadership role of women all across the world.

In writing this introduction, I decided to take a quick look at past and present population numbers in Kenya. In 1961, when I joined the Teachers for East Africa, the population of Kenya stood at 8.3 million. Today, that population is more than 35 million. Here, then, is the lesson: When a poor nation’s population doubles, triples, or quadruples in size, the people of that nation find themselves looking at land hunger, pollution, crime, dysfunctional government, civic unrest, and often war itself.

During the late 1960s, I found myself ever more deeply involved in population studies through the Harvard Center for Population Studies and later through the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was during my time at Chapel Hill that I was forced to come to terms with some unsettling contradictions.

As I looked out at the world, I saw the forbidding growth of human numbers with impacts on food supplies, water, immigration, health, political stability, animal and plant diversity—and the list goes on and on. But I also began to realize something else. It was not only human numbers that were growing out of control, the power and invasiveness of modern technology was also running amok.

As an American, how could I even begin to talk about population restraint to anyone in a Third World country when Westerners and Americans were themselves consuming and sometimes wasting and seeking to control ever-more scarce supplies of natural resources as if these resources belonged uniquely to them?

In the years between the late 1960s and today, world population numbers have more than doubled from 3 billion to 6.7 billion. In those years, also, the destructive force of our technology has yielded nothing short of planetary ruin. In talking about that ruin, let’s pay attention to Gustave Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry, who has developed a list of losses: losses of wetland habitat, rainforest ecosystems, marine fisheries, species diversity. Add to this the problem of climate disruption and change. To Speth’s list I would add toxins that produce cancer and other diseases, denatured food, war and weapons of war, and, of course, overpopulation, which is intensifying all these problems.

Nationally and as individuals, we Americans have been living on borrowed credit, and we have not sufficiently returned this borrowed credit to the earth: too many cars, too much oil consumption, too many roads, too many weapons, too many wars, too much centralized authority, and too little respect for the Constitution of the United States.

If the events of the past six months have taught us anything, they have taught us that the party is over, and with few exceptions, the politicians in Washington, D.C. and the captains of finance on Wall Street cannot be trusted. It’s therefore time for all of us here in Vermont to live within our means and take charge of our lives here.

This is a dynamic moment. A February 17, 2009 public hearing on agricultural matters in the Vermont House Chamber was packed to overflowing with barn-smelling dairy farmers and new-age cheese makers—young and old. At this hearing, the testimony lasted four hours, and the message was spirited and clear: Lift the federal restrictions on farming so that local farmers can sell directly to local customers.

In that spirit, let’s continue talking and listening to each other. Let’s pull together an annual meeting of environmental groups all across the state and look at the world as it is. Let’s agree on certain root causes of the environmental crisis we face, such as worldwide population growth and unregulated cowboy capitalism. Let’s also agree on limits to runaway technology and nuclear power and controls on the toxins that cause cancer and other diseases and pollute the public air and water.

In the 1950s, we launched ourselves into orbit and looked back from space to see the loveliness of our blue planet, the home of life. Let’s catch that promise of a world united against war, environmental degradation, and human distress. In our personal lives, let’s discriminate carefully between what we want and what we need.

We don’t have to be joyless or wear a hair shirt or live in a dungeon. But we can once again embrace the idea of Yankee thrift, and we might decide on voluntary simplicity as an antidote to greed and waste. We might also discover that local self-reliance is the logic of our lives: local food; locally produced, safe power; local manufacturing; local government; local communities of faith; a lively local press; a flourishing community of thinkers, artists, and writers; and schools to match these values. These traditions and innovations may be our best chance at the present moment as we take charge of our lives, take the lead, and insist on a world that’s good enough, safe enough, and respected enough for us to pass on to our children.

Current World Population


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