Mother Jones Asks “Who’s to Blame for the Population Crisis”?

May 11, 2010 • Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Bob Walker for his blog (which appears below my commentary) about the May-June issue of Mother Jones, which focused on population issues. You can read the primary article from the May-June issue at http://motherjones.com/environment/2010/05/population-growth-india-vatican, where you can also post comments and questions. The New Media Editor is asking readers for questions for a panel of experts, of which Paul Ehrlich and I are two. The forum discussion about population will appear Wednesday to Friday (May 12-14) at http://motherjones.com/blue-marble/2010/05/population-forum.

Bill Ryerson’s comments about the lead article:

Congratulations to Mother Jones for dedicating the cover of their May/June 2010 issue to the population crisis. I have worked in the population field for four decades, and since joining the movement in the late 1960s, when the issue was at the forefront of public concern, I have witnessed an alarming decrease in responsible reporting on population issues and the importance of addressing the dramatic growth we are faced with each and every day. So, thank you, Mother Jones, for being one of the few to bring the population issue back to the forefront of public discourse. We will never be able to successfully tackle the most pressing problems plaguing our planet – climate change, poverty, food and water shortages, and the energy crisis – without also addressing the population factor.

That said, I would like to make a few points with regard to the lead population article by Julia Whitty. First, the author states, incorrectly, that “Two hundred million women have no access whatsoever to contraception…” This is false and represents a common misunderstanding of the primary driver of the population problem. Many people think that the term “unmet need,” which is used to describe the estimated 215 million women who don’t want to be pregnant and are not using contraception is actually the phenomenon of unmet demand for contraception. It is not.

In fact, most of these women don’t want or intend to use family planning because: 1. they have heard it is dangerous, 2. their male partners are opposed, 3. their religion is opposed, or 4. they don’t think it will work because they think God determines how many children they will have. I have summarized this information (see attached), but many people in the population/family planning field do not know this information, let alone journalists.

In most countries, lack of access is a very minor reason for non-use. For example, in Nigeria, lack of access is cited by 0.2 percent of non-users who don’t want to be pregnant. This is important, since bringing about a major increase in contraceptive use can only be accomplished using communications to overcome these informational barriers. In addition, there are about 1.6 billion adults in the world who do not practice family planning because of societal demands for large families. Providing people with informed choice based on knowledge of the health and economic benefits of delayed and spaced childbearing is critical to addressing this major driver of population growth.

My other concern about the article is that Whitty’s only description of those concerned about national population issues is that they are nativist/racist. There are, of course, some racists involved in population and immigration debates. However, their racist arguments are not condoned or supported by the mainstream population stabilization movement. Nor should they be.

However, we must not shy away from the issue of population stabilization in the United States simply because a few on the margin insist on making the debate about color or national origin. Diversity has made and will continue to make the US strong and vibrant. Yet, we must also pay close attention to our domestic carrying capacity and limit population numbers, as recommended by two Presidential commissions, if we are to have a healthy and prosperous future with some semblance of biodiversity remaining.

As exemplified by the population debate that is currently dominating the headlines in Australia, where population is mainly driven by immigration, there are legitimate concerns about limitations of water and other resources making national sustainability impossible if population growth continues at 2.1 percent a year ad infinitum (a population doubling time of just 33 years). Meanwhile, in the United States, our population is growing at about 1 percent per year. This may not sound significant, but will result in a doubling in only 72 years. We are currently at 309 million and already the third most populous nation on the planet.

The late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a liberal Democrat and the first African American woman elected to Congress from Texas, led a Congressional Commission calling for reducing legal and illegal immigration – the major drivers of our population growth – in order to protect the job security and wages of low-skilled, vulnerable workers. In this effort, she came up against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests that favor high immigration in order to keep wages low and maximize profits. African American leaders like Clarence B. Jones (see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/clarence-b-jones/somebody-close-the-door-r_b_553937.html), Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University; Frank Morris, former President of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; and attorney Leah Durant, Executive Director of the Institute for a Sustainable America, have been wrongly labeled as nativists by a few bloggers for following in Barbara Jordan’s footsteps. Approaching the US population issue not only from this economic point of view, but a domestic sustainability point of view as well, they advocate for family planning assistance to developing countries, as well as reducing legal immigration to a sustainable number.

There is a tendency in some media to assume that anyone concerned about limiting immigration is racist without looking at their motivations. This creates even greater stigma against the population field – in this case, by a magazine that at least had the good sense to bring the global issue of population out of the closet. There are also those who say that anyone concerned with global population issues must be driven by racist concerns. But as a driving factor in determining whether human civilization is sustainable, the population issue is too important to be ignored, and the name calling against those working toward true sustainability on the planet needs to stop.

Unmet Need Lack of Access or Lack of Information 11 11 09 (Word doc., 77 KB)
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Here is Bob Walker’s blog

Mother Jones Asks “Who’s to Blame for the Population Crisis”?
April 19th, 2010

The cover story of the May-June issue of Mother Jones {“Who’s to Blame for the Population Crisis?”] asks the provocative question, “What unites the Vatican, lefties, conservatives, environmentalists, and scientists in a conspiracy of silence?” The answer, of course, is population.

In writing the article, Julia Whitty returns to her “genetic roots” in KolKatta (Calcutta), India, and looks first hand at the challenges posed by population density and growth. While acknowledging that global fertility rates have declined significantly in recent decades, she says:

But it’s not enough. And it’s still not fast enough. Faced with a world that can support either a lot of us consuming a lot less or far fewer of us consuming more, we’re deadlocked: individuals, governments, the media, scientists, environmentalists, economists, human rights workers, liberals, conservatives, business and religious leaders. On the supremely divisive question of the ideal size of the human family, we’re amazingly united in a pact of silence.

Much of her article is focused on the food security challenge posed by population growth. She says:

Voiced or not, addressed or not, the problem of overpopulation has not gone away. The miracle of the Green Revolution, which fed billions and provided the world a sense of limitless hope, also disguised four ominous truths about Earth’s limits. First, the revolution’s most effective agents, chemical fertilizers of nitrogen and phosphorus, are destined to run out, along with the natural resources used to produce them. Second the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that grew the food that enabled our enormous population growth in the 20th Century bore expensive downstream costs in the form of polluted land, water and air that now threaten life. Third, crop yields today are stubbornly stable and even beginning to fall in some places, despite increasing fertilizer use, in soils oversaturated with nitrogen.

The Green Revolution’s duplicitous harvest–giving life with one hand, robbing life-support with the other, also mask a fourth ominous truth. We’re running out of topsoil…

In addition to family planning, Whitty sees poverty reduction and female empowerment as critical to addressing the population crisis. She says:

Whether we are a world of 8, 9.1 or 10.5 billion people in 2050 will be decided in no small part by the number of illiterate women on Earth. Of the more than 1 in 10 people who can’t read or write today, two-thirds are female. Locate them, and you’ll find an uncannily accurate roadmap of societal strife–of civil wars, foreign wars, the wars against equality ingrained in patriarchal and caste systems.

Citing the Philippines, she notes, however, that “The best family plans, the best intentions of any woman, can be waylaid by her government, since politics control fertility with god-like powers.” She also faults the disruptive impact of the global “gag rule” on U.S. providers of international family planning assistance, saying that it resulted in “a whole generation of unplanned Bush babies.”

Later this week, the world will observe the 40th Earth Day. This article should be required reading for all those who are concerned about the future of the planet and the future welfare of humanity itself. In her conclusion, Whitty focuses on the challenge posed by resource scarcity and limits to growth, and the need to achieve a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources. She says:

The paradox embedded in our future is that the fastest way to slow our populating growth is to reduce poverty, yet the fastest way to run out of resources is to increase wealth. The trial ahead is to strike the delicate compromise: between fewer people, and more people with fewer needs…all within a new economy geared toward sustainability.

That’s an Earth Day message worth pondering


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