[A-List] The Elephant in the Room
shimogamo at ashisuto.co.jp
Tue Dec 14 17:28:27 MST 2010
Human population is the unspoken elephant in the room driving
by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD
boogiegreen.com (September 13 2010)
It is hard to come up with a looming environmental problem not
ultimately rooted in human population expansion, be it a local issue
like traffic congestion, litter and air & drinking water pollution or
more global concerns like ocean fish depletion, deforestation, species
extinction and global climate change.
We humans currently number 6.9 billion and continue to swell the planet
by nearly eighty million more each year. Almost half of us are under
the age of 25, and, if present trends continue, we will double in
number before 2060.
The United States does not earn a pass when it comes to population
pressures on the environment, in part because our per capita resource
consumption and waste production dwarf that of much of the rest of the
world. Furthermore, the Central Intelligence Agency tracks birth rates,
and although the current US birth rate (13.8 births per 1000 people per
year) is roughly one-third that of several African countries, 69 other
countries have lower birth rates.
The US population has continued to rise by roughly three million each
year over the last two decades with the latest total estimate topping
307 million. By the end of this century, there could well be 570
million of us, according to the US Census Bureau.
Given these harrowing projections and the monumental environmental
dilemmas we face already, you would think that candidly stated
strategies to stabilize the population, at home and abroad, would be a
priority at every level of government. Not so.
For starters, consider that neither the Democratic nor Republican Party
Platforms of 2008 even mention population growth. The closest the
Democratic Platform comes is through explicit support for access to
comprehensive family planning services (including sex education,
contraception, and safe abortion) as strategies to help reduce the
number of unintended pregnancies. The Republican Platform heavily
stresses the need for immigration reform but without any reference to
While it may be fashionable for politicians to acknowledge that our
environment is in serious trouble, and indeed many do work diligently
to pass legislation to improve environmental protections, it is nearly
impossible to imagine any one of them saying to the public that there
are - or will soon be - too many of us.
What ever happened to Zero Population Growth?
Baby Boomers may recall when, during the 1960s and 1970s, the nonprofit
organization Zero Population Growth (aka ZPG) enjoyed a formidable
presence on college campuses and in the popular media. Though since
renamed Population Connection, it remains the largest grassroots
population organization in the United States. To understand why
population per se is not a front page issue anymore despite mounting
pressures on the environment, I approached the five-year President of
Population Connection, John Seager.
Seager points out the challenge in keeping the public interested in
population numbers because the headline would read the same every day,
that is, that global population had jumped by about 220,000 the day
before. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a confluence of
events pushed population into the American public's consciousness for
the first time. Among them were Paul R Ehrlich's best-selling book The
Population Bomb (1968) which predicted mass human starvation, the
advent of birth control pills, the Supreme Court's 1965 establishment
of a constitutional right to use contraceptives, and the unprecedented
wave of female Baby Boomers going on to college and choosing to have
Yet Seager asserts that population stories are still very much in
today's headlines, but in the guise of seemingly unrelated issues like
California's chronic water shortage, political squabbling over drilling
in Alaska's Arctic refuge, the Aids epidemic in Africa, and this year's
unprecedented flooding in Pakistan which has killed tens of thousands.
Tackling the problem of population head-on is also particularly
sensitive at this time in American society because the nation is so
divided on abortion rights and immigration, the two flash points that
invariably surface whenever population issues come to the fore.
According to Seager, unplanned births and immigration contribute about
equally to US population growth.
Given the political climate, Seager sees as less important whether
politicians speak openly about population growth than whether they
support the three measures scientifically proven to curb it: family
planning (synonymous with access to modern, artificial means of birth
control), comprehensive sex education as opposed to abstinence-only
programs, and access to safe and legal abortion.
As evidence that political alliances for or against these measures have
shifted substantially over time, Seager points to the fact that
Republican President Richard Nixon ardently lobbied for and signed into
law Title X (ten), the federal program dedicated to providing family
planning services nationwide (his legacy also includes the Clean Air
Act and the Environmental Protection Agency). Consider also that George
Bush Senior, as a young congressman, was such an outspoken supporter of
Planned Parenthood that among House colleagues he earned the nickname
"Rubbers". Only later while positioning himself for the White House did
he reverse positions on abortion to the extent that he embraced a
constitutional amendment to ban abortion.
While President Obama's stance on controversies affecting population is
evident from his campaigning as a pro-choice candidate and subsequent
policy implementations (for example increased federal funding for
domestic and international family planning services; shift away from
abstinence-only sex education programs for teens; and rescinding the
last-minute Bush Administration policy which allowed pharmacists
nationwide to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraceptives), Obama
has also refrained from openly pointing to population as the root
The sheer number of we humans is undeniably the behemoth elephant in
the room when it comes to the daunting environmental issues of our
time. One has to question how far we can get in creating an
environmentally sustainable future for our children when we all
silently agree to acknowledge, not the elephant, but only its
manifestations like smog, water shortages and climate change.
This situation is akin to the elephant hunter who targets just the
tail, tusk or trunk and wonders why it does not keel over. And the
problem with this particular beast is that, come mid century, it will
be double in size and likely many times more difficult to fell.
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