Malthusian Outlook Overlooks the Positive

If that headline sounded more like an update on the recent terror attacks or the war in Afghanistan, it might be because the U.N. report sounded so pessimistic.

The 2001 annual report of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), "Footprints and Milestones: Population and Environmental Change," was published last month. Reuters presented it Nov. 7 in the following words: "The human race is plundering Earth at an unsustainable rate."

"We are looking over a cliff here. It is a crisis of global proportions that needs to be addressed with some urgency," said Alex Marshall, editor of the U.N. report. For good measure, he added: "Putting this report together scared me stiff quite frankly."

The UNFPA emphasized that world population has doubled since 1960 to 6.1 billion. "Increasing population and consumption, propelled by new technologies and globalization, are altering the planet on an unprecedented scale," the annual report warned.

So what´s the solution, according to UNFPA? "Achieving equal status between men and women and guaranteeing the right to reproductive health, including the right to choose the size and spacing of the family," it insisted.

Reproductive health, in U.N.-speak, includes abortion on demand for all, including underage girls, as well as free distribution of contraceptives and sex education that promotes promiscuity.

The UNFPA obsession with population control is not new. As the report reminded readers, "The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994 linked environmental protection to individual decision-making and human rights, including gender equality and the right to reproductive health."

The report goes on to list a series of grave ecological dangers facing the world.

--By 2050, up to 4.2 billion people will be living in countries that cannot meet the daily requirement of 50 liters of water per person to meet basic needs.

--Between 1985 and 1995, food production lagged behind population growth in 64 of 105 developing countries studied, with Africa faring the worst.

--The atmosphere will warm by as much as 5.8 degrees Celsius over the coming century, and the sea level will rise about half a meter.

--Climate change will have a serious impact including increased storms, flooding and soil erosion, accelerated extinction of plants and animals, shifting agricultural zones, and a threat to public health due to increased water stress and tropical disease.

--In the last few decades as population growth has peaked, deforestation rates have reached the highest levels in history.

--Increasing urbanization presents another challenge. Many cities in developing countries face serious environmental health challenges and worsening conditions due to rapid growth, insufficient infrastructure, contaminated water and air, and more garbage than they can handle.

Agenda-driven document

Is the situation really so bad? Several commentators accused the UNFPA of exaggerations, citing its desire to extend family planning.

Stephen Mosher of the Population Research Institute called the report an "agenda-driven document, premised on the myth of overpopulation." He said most people in the countries in which UNFPA is active do not want the services and see them as not empowering, but enslaving.

Moreover the Population Fund´s report is not even representative of opinion within the United Nations. The Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs recently published a report titled "Population, Environment and Development," whose conclusions are not nearly as pessimistic. Among them:

--From 1900 to 2000, world population almost quadrupled, from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion. Yet, real gross domestic product increased 20 to 40 times, allowing the world not only to sustain the larger population, but also to do so at vastly higher standards of living.

--The percentage of the world´s population living in absolute poverty (living on less than $1 per day) declined from about 28% in 1987 to 24% in 1998.

--World agricultural production has outpaced population growth, and the real price of food has declined.

--The director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf, stated Oct. 16 that "The fight against hunger may be difficult, but it is a battle that can and must be won." In a press release to mark World Food Day, Diouf did not mention population as a problem. Among the main obstacles to reducing hunger that he cited are the lack of peace and political stability.

--Concerning global warming, the Population Division noted that human influences stem mainly from modes of production, not from the size, growth and distribution of population. Moreover, continued the report, humans may have a positive effect on the environment: Human efforts against threats such as bubonic plague, smallpox and tuberculosis led to the 20th-century gains in life expectancy and health.

--Even where environmental problems beset countries with high population growth, it is not necessarily the latter that is causing the former. Nor is it clear that halting the growth in population would solve the environmental problem; other social and technological "driving forces" are usually also contributing to environmental degradation.

--Environmental stress is a matter not just of population change, but also of how and what people produce and consume, now and in the future.

Cramped Europe

Ex-Greenpeace activist Bjorn Lomborg in his book "The Skeptical Environmentalist" observed that reports of overpopulation are normally illustrated by large glossy pictures of tightly packed masses.

However, Lomborg noted, many of the most densely populated countries are in Europe. Southeast Asia, often highlighted by commentators warning of population dangers, has the same number of people per square kilometer as the United Kingdom. The Netherlands and Belgium are far more densely populated than India.

Over the next 30 years the greater part of population growth will take place in cities. Rural populations are expected to stay almost unchanged.

While living conditions in Third World cities are by no means ideal, Lomborg pointed out that even shantytown dwellers live better lives than they would in rural areas. Water supplies, sewage, health and education are usually better in urban conditions.

The problems of starving families and premature deaths are not so much due to overpopulation as to poverty, argues Lomborg.

Whatever problems the world faces -- and environmental concerns are indeed legitimate -- "reproductive rights" are not the solution. The U.N. Population Fund would do a lot better to fight for economic justice and balanced development. Adequate income for families and access to decent education and jobs are what people most need.


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