Post Writers Group, July 3, 2011
Billion Souls and Counting: The Issue We Won't Discuss
By Neal Peirce
The population of Planet Earth is now projected to pass the 7
billion mark this October - up from just 2.2 billion in 1950.
One study shows that if today's explosive birthrates in developing
nations continues, the African continent alone, by the end of
this century, could have 15 billion people - twice the population
of the world today.
That won't happen. As populations age and urbanize, today's fertility
rates - in many poor nations an average of five, even six children
for every woman - are bound to recede.
But the speed of the decline depends significantly on whether
women have access to family planning and contraception services.
Plus legalized abortion. Unwanted pregnancies and abortions are
actually declining in countries which have made abortion legal,
according to the Guttmacher Institute. Yet it notes that 70,000
women across the world die each year from illegal, often seriously
A closely related issue: food for our expanding billions of people.
Popular "Malthusian" concerns - how many people the
globe can sustain - were put to rest by the fabled Green Revolution
that flowered from the 1960s onward, bringing dramatic gains in
new corn, wheat and rice varieties, huge new irrigation systems,
synthetic fertilizers and pesticide use.
But more crop gains - especially gains to match the world's population
growth - may be seriously limited. "The great agricultural
system that feeds the human race is in trouble," Justin Gillis
reports in a New York Times roundup of global food issues. A special
point of concern: demand for four critical staples - wheat, rice,
corn and soybeans - has begun to outstrip production. Some grains
more than doubled in cost in 2007 and again in the most recent
Why is this occurring? Yes, escalating oil prices are partially
to blame, for every "ag" use from tractors and fertilizers
to long-distance transportation costs.
But for the toughest reality, check your newspaper, It will reveal
recent weather disasters, from fires in Arizona, heat-scorched
harvest loss in Russia, deep drought in Australia to record-setting
floods in Pakistan and right now in North America. Plus melting
glaciers and rising tornado, typhoon, hurricane threats. Add to
that fresh indication that the rising carbon dioxide levels of
a warming climate will not, as many scientists had projected,
necessarily act as a plant fertilizer and help raise yields.
But the world's population plays a major role too. In 1960, the
Population Press reports, there were 1.2 acres of good cropland
for each person in the world. Today that figure has shrunken to
half an acre per person - in China a quarter acre, a decline compounded
by soil degradation.
Nothing in human or natural life is infinite: one day world population
must and will stop expanding. Yet there's remarkably little U.S.
or global discussion of the perils of today's rising world population
- to food, to climate, and in fomenting social tensions and economic
crises. The Copenhagen Climate Summit, for example, produced no
mention of the population issues. British broadcaster and naturalist
Sir David Attenborough suggests there's a "bizarre taboo"
around population, as if it's "not PC, possibly even racist
to mention it."
And in U.S. politics, the debate (and apparent new Republican
orthodoxy) focuses on "right to life" antiabortion politics
as if population issues were virtually nonexistent. The House
of Representatives in February actually voted to reinstate the
so-called "gag rule" - denying foreign organizations
receiving U.S. family planning assistance the right to use their
own non-U.S. funds to advocate for, or provide information and
referrals for legal abortions.
First imposed by President Reagan in 1984, the gag rule was rescinded
by President Clinton, then reinstated by President Bush in 2001,
then lifted by President Obama when he took office. When it's
in effect, vast numbers of women worldwide are denied community-based
reproductive health counselling, resulting in dangerous abortions
by untrained providers.
On top of that, there's now strong Republican pressure to cut
deeply into the core federal budget allocations for international
family planning and reproductive health - at $615 million a year,
a tiny fraction of what we spend for our foreign wars. Or by way
of measuring priorities, one-fifth of our annual military aid
($3 billion) to Israel alone.
The United States has its population challenges at home - building
the infrastructure, from schools to roads to food supply - for
a predicted 100 million more people by 2040. Preparing for an
expanded nation, including a proposed national infrastructure
bank, needs to be accelerated - right now.
Locally, there are sparks of good news - inventive new ways to
build metropolitan economies, reduce regional carbon emissions,
cope with schooling and social issues - topics I often cover in
But there's an alarming possibility: that our best community efforts
may be stop-gaps, even cancelled out, until national policy turns
from denial to engagement on the pressing global issues of global
population, food and climate change - the very basics of life
Neal Peirce's e-mail is email@example.com.
this page to a friend!