Air Date: Week of September 2, 1994
For the third time in 20 years, the United Nations has convened a global summit to discuss what many believe is the world’s most pressing problem: burgeoning population and its connection to human development. The world’s population has grown by more than a billion since the first conference in 1974, but for those attending this year’s conference in Cairo, there’s strong disagreement over what those numbers mean . . . and what should be done to create a sustainable human society. Host Steve Curwood reports.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For the third time in 20 years, the United Nations has convened a global summit to discuss what many believe is the world's most pressing problem: rapidly growing population and its relation to human development. Since the first conference in Bucharest, Romania, in 1974, the world's population has grown from 4 billion to 5-and-a-half billion people. But for those attending this year's conference in Cairo, there's strong disagreement over what those numbers mean. And what should be done to create a sustainable human society. Twenty years ago, Paul Ehrlich's controversial book The Population Bomb was still fresh in the minds of delegates in Bucharest. The book argued that without fast action, humans were headed for disaster, a belief Ehrlich still holds today.
EHRLICH: You can't support many more people on the resources of this planet. There is no doubt at all; one need not be worried in the slightest about whether or not the population explosion will stop. It will stop. The only question that's before us now, and is probably going to be answered in the next 50 years, is whether the population explosion will stop because humanity greatly reduces the birth rate, or whether nature simply comes along and increases the death rate.
CURWOOD: Numbers dominated the early years of the debate. Chilling images, such as a hellish future with one square meter per person, were common. But many people from poor countries, like Indian economist, philosopher, and development expert Amartya Sen, object to what they call this fearful rhetoric.
SEN: I think it's extremely counter-productive. So to move away from that state of panic, to think rationally, reasonably, about the real issues, is very important.
CURWOOD: And the real solutions, many in the developing world began to argue, lie in addressing the most basic needs of the poor.
PITANGUI: The major problem faced by the population of the world today is poverty. Hunger and poverty.
CURWOOD: Brazil's Jacqueline Pitangui says many groups who advocate population control don't realize that poor people have children for their own economic security. And can't simply be viewed as numbers on a chart.
PITANGUI: You do have many northern organizations and governments that look at the population in southern countries with this perspective: they're not real people. They're just targets.
CURWOOD: Many in the developing world argue that family planning will never work unless it's combined with anti-poverty measures. Development, they say, is the best contraceptive. But people like Paul Ehrlich were only partly convinced by the argument for greater equity.
EHRLICH: It would be very silly to do our, all our planning on the basis that we will convert humanity suddenly into a society of saints that will share everything equally. We should be trying to get rid of inequity; it's going to be very, very difficult. But if you did so, we'd still be stuck with the population problem and environmental problems and so on unless we took other steps as well.
CURWOOD: And at the second population conference, in Mexico City in 1984, even direct efforts to reduce population growth ran into trouble. Reagan Administration officials downplayed population as a concern, and they cut funding for family planning programs, especially those including abortion services. By the late 80s, a powerful new force had become highly influential in the population debate: feminists. They rejected any attempts to reduce growth rates by controlling women's bodies. Indian eco-feminist and development analyst Vandana Shiva.
SHIVA: There is this continued sense that women not regulated from the outside, by technocrats, doctors, aid people, are biologically exploding. Nothing could be more stupid than to think that women are this cancerous biological system.
CURWOOD: The real cancer, many from the south argue, is the consumptive lifestyle of much of the north. On this point at least, Paul Ehrlich agrees, pointing out that the richest fifth of the world uses nearly three quarters of its resources.
EHRLICH: When people in the south say that it's important that the rich start reducing their numbers and reducing their consumption, they're absolutely correct. On the other hand, the poor have so many people, and they're growing so rapidly, and they have plans for development, that it will be very easy if they don't choose a different path from the one we've come down, for them to even exceed the impact of the rich. So what has to happen is, the rich should start reducing their wasteful consumption, the poor should be doing everything they can do to limit their population growth and start shrinking, because that will help get them out of poverty. But they also ought to be looking at different courses of development.
CURWOOD: In the 20 years since Bucharest, the population debate has grown immensely complex. It's linked to alleviating poverty, reducing consumption, improving the status of women, and providing safe access to effective birth control. Some believe that a comprehensive solution is possible, but that it must come soon. The world's population is heading for 8 billion within 30 years. And depending in part on the outcome of the Cairo process, it could stabilize or go higher still.
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