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POPULATION

A Looming Threat We Won't Face

January 20, 2002|PAUL R. EHRLICH and KATHERINE ELLISON

STANFORD — On Jan. 10, President Bush signed into law a foreign operations bill that included approval of $446.5 million for U.S. family planning aid through the U.S. Agency for International Development. While that amount represented more than he'd originally requested, the combined total remains less than half of what Americans annually spend on microwave popcorn.

Congress also kept in place a Reagan-era "gag rule" that withholds U.S. grants from foreign nongovernmental organizations using any of their budgets to perform abortions or even provide abortion counseling. The rule's full impact has yet to be measured, but it's already known to have cut significantly into the services provided by such effective reproductive-health groups as the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes International. Worse yet, in response to antiabortion groups' complaints that the U.N. tacitly condones forced abortions and sterilization by aiding family programs in China, the White House now has held up the funds for the U.N. population agency.

At a time when we've shown how quickly a nation can unite against the threat of terrorism, our lack of resolution in the face of increasingly threatening population pressures seems all the more strange.

While some early projections, including a few published in "The Population Bomb," overstated how dire our food situation would be today, the concern they raised, all too briefly, was inarguably valid. The rapid adoption by farmers in the 1970s of the "green revolution," with its higher yields from better seeds and fertilizers, forestalled widespread famines. But even so, today some 10 million people a year die of problems related to inadequate diet. Meanwhile, other issues raised in "The Population Bomb," such as the threat of novel epidemics and climate change, were, in retrospect, understated.

The world's relentless population growth, including our own weighty share in it as Americans, is inexorably leading us to an environmental breakdown. Yet, our attention to this problem now seems to be waning just when urgent action is needed.

As President Bush decides what to do about those funds for China, and as he finalizes next year's budget requests for international family-planning programs, we urge him to think past the next real-time crisis and invest in long-term risk management. Although birth rates have slowed in much of the world, the population continues to rise. At more than 6.1 billion, we're already seeing the first breakdowns in our life-support systems, including severe pressures on our freshwater supplies and climate changes that signal potentially catastrophic instability. The United Nations Population Fund recently warned we risk climbing to a population of 10.9 billion by 2050 if we fail to ensure women's rights to reproductive health.

Judge for yourself if we're meeting that challenge.

Politicians continue to argue over abortion, and advocacy groups raise alarms at each new population forecast. Yet, there's little debate about how many world citizens--or, in particular, Americans--is desirable and how we can get to that number. The world's richest, most powerful, most can-do nation, which adds about 1.7 million people to the world's population each year, far more than any other industrialized country, still has virtually no domestic policy and only a weak foreign policy on population.

Though so fundamental in determining our future, population is "a marginal issue, at best, in American public dialogue," says Robert Engelman, vice president for research at Population Action International. "The press runs screaming from it, and we lose an opportunity to engage our own public and the world as a whole on how population change affects our lives." While we can quickly summon the will to crack down on terrorists, we balk at discussing birth rates, made timid because the subject is so often polluted by racial or religious bigotry. This is so despite the appalling fact that at the dawn of the 21st century, nearly half of U.S. pregnancies are unintended, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

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