Population challenge

Independent Commission on Population and Quality of Life's concerns to be presented at the International Conference on Population & Development)

By Phyllis Creighton and Natasha Feder | 1994-07-01 12:00:00

Every day more than a quarter of a million people are added to earth's population, 90% of them in developing countries. With current trends, the planet's 5.5 billion will swell to 8.5 billion in the next 30 years. By 2100 there could be 19 billion. What we do in the next decade is crucial.

In September, the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo will address these issues for humanity's survival, justice, and peace. The formal document drafted at three preparatory committee meetings will be finalized there.

Parallel to it, the Independent Commission on Population and Quality of Life is holding hearings involving experts and grassroots activists. Addressing ethical and socio-economic dimensions, it will publish reports in 1995.

This article draws on a brief we presented at its North American hearings and on our work with NGOs and the government in preparation for the ICPD.

The Present Challenge

Are we already pushing the limits of earth? Global warming, deforestation, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and recent declining food production relative to population growth-all these suggest so. The industrialized North's overconsumption and its damage to the environment reveal a denial that natural resources are finite. And the South has a legitimate expectation of development that will intensify our already unsustainable demands on the biosphere.

The Web Of Life

For 300 years we have viewed man as ruling nature and believed progress through reason inevitable. We should have known that we are part of the web of life, dependent on the biosphere, our lives interlinked with plants and animals, water, air, land. The web is the nexus of people/environment/economy. We must accept our creatureliness and finitude, but also our special nature as beings endowed with consciousness and thus responsibility. Our tasks are to foster the tied well-being of humanity and earth; to understand economy-environment linkages; to care for our fellow human beings and for the natural world. We need a paradigm shift to justice/interconnectedness. Values in the North must move away from unsustainable overconsumption so that the South may become more affluent. Global population stabilization is also imperative. But various myths still abound, posing barriers to an understanding of these issues.

Myth: We Can Rely On Socio-Economic Development To Slow Population Growth.

Some people believe that, with socio-economic development, population growth will automatically decline.

Developing nations are not experiencing the classical demographic transition that took place in many industrialized countries over the past century.... Recent evidence suggests that birth rates in the developing world have fallen even in the absence of improved living conditions. ... Developing countries appear to have benefited from the growing influence and scope of family-planning programs, from new contraceptive technologies, and from the educational power of mass media."[1] To ignore unmet family planning needs on grounds of eventual socio-economic progress is not prudent or fair.

Myth: A Slowing Of The Growth Of Human Population Will Avert The Perils To Earth.

The developed countries pump 50% of the carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. Placing the onus for environmental degradation on the developing countries is unfounded. If all people consumed natural resources and fossil fuels at the rate of the developed countries, energy supply would have to increase by an estimated factor of five.[2]

Myth: Altering Northern Consumption Patterns Will Stop Global Environmental Destruction.

Development is a legitimate expectation of countries in the South, yet it will increase unsustainable demands on the biosphere. Changing consumption patterns in the North will not be sufficient. Global population must be stabilized.

Myth: Technological Advances Will Save Us.

Technology is a two-edged sword. It has created centralized dependence for vital commodities. Technology is a stopgap until we learn to live in balance with the environment. At best it can buy time-it cannot cure.

Myth: International Population And Development Agreements Will Impede National And Religious Sovereignty.

Population remains a sensitive topic. During the third preparatory committee meeting for the ICPD, the Vatican mobilized five countries to scuttle the consensus that a sexual and reproductive health approach to procreation is needed. Over 170 delegations might have agreed, but at Vatican insistence, references to family planning, contraception, unsafe abortion, and reproductive health services willgo to Cairo without consensus approval.

Over 400,000 women each year die from complications of unsafe abortion. The right to family planning has been accepted by the international community for over 20 years. Yet an estimated 350 million couples, over 90% of them in the Third World, lack access to family planning services.[3]

Myth: Population Programs Mean Coercive Control.

Coercive population control programs are contrary to international human rights standards. Except for China's draconian measures, they are ineffective in slowing population growth. Effective family planning and reproductive health care measures require voluntary, accessible, affordable, women-centred local programs.

Myth: Denial Of The Population Numbers Issue And Of Demand For Family Planning Services Will Further Women's Rights.

Many of the 16 NGO representatives on the Canadian National Advisory Council (CNAC) do not believe that there is a global population problem or that population growth rates are an urgent issue. They concentrate on immigration, human rights, and overconsumption in the North. Some discount the relationship between population and environmental issues because they do not want to give governments any excuse for coercive birth control programs.

Recent studies show that one in five women in the developing world want but do not have access to family planning and maternal and child health care. To meet the unmet demand for family planning requires $2.4 billion annually-4% of official development assistance, or one day of global military expenditures. Many countries promised in 1989 to allocate this percentage, but have not met the commitment. Denial of the needs will not make them go away.

Myth: We Have Time To Make Decisions.

Intelligent use of science and technology can go some way to improving human welfare, but more is required. Forty-six of the world's scientific academies, gathered at New Delhi in October 1993 warned, "As scientists cognizant of the history of scientific progress and aware of the potential of science for contributing to human welfare, it is our collective judgment that continuing population growth poses great risk to humanity."

Canadian Myth: Canada Needs More People To Develop Its Vast Natural Resources.

None of our resources, from forest to agricultural land, is being used below its sustainable limits. The Atlantic fishery has actually crashed. What specific resources do we need help developing and why couldn't unemployed fishermen, miners, and loggers do it?"[4]

Canada's ecological and economic systems are not in balance. The fisheries collapsed from increased demand for food related to population growth, plus technological development (more "efficient" trawlers), plus governmental failure to control over-harvesting. This social disaster affects 27,000 people.

Lessons? Countries must recognize that their standard of living depends on the carrying capacity of the natural resources, not just on the productive work of people and machines. Natural wealth is not free. We must place value on natural capital and the capacity of the biosphere to assimilate wastes.

Policy Recommendations:

We must fund sexual and reproductive health care, including family planning. We must ensure that all women can determine the number and spacing of the children they bear. Developed countries must stabilize and then reduce their consumption of natural resources and all countries must commit themselves to stabilizing populations in the near future. All nations must match development with carrying capacity. If we do not respond now from a sense of justice, much worse may follow. Coercion could become inevitable-population control by abhorrent measures. The policies that we have proposed can further the oneness of humanity in the web of life.


1 Bryant Robey, Shea O. Rutstein, Leo Morris, "The Fertility Decline in Developing Countries," Scientific American, Dec. 1993, p.60.
2 Jim MacNeill, "Sustainable Development and Environmental Protection-Birds of a Feather, but not the Same Birds," address to Conference on Deciding our Common Future and Sustainable Development, Toronto, Oct. 25-26, 1991.
3 Earth Negotiations Bulletin, report on PrepComm III, 25 April 1994.
4 ZPG Fact Sheet, Myth and Humour.

Phyllis Creighton is a member of the Conservation Council of Ontario's Population Committee and Natasha Feder is consultant to it.
Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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