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The Planet

December 1997, Volume 4, number 10

GOOD NEWS: Humans Not an Endangered Species
BAD NEWS: Humans Not an Endangered Species

by John Byrne Barry

At the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, just inside the main entrance, the "Touch the Earth"interactive exhibit flashes two numbers. The top number, labeled "people on the rise,"reads 5,863,921,335. That"s the human population of the world.

The second number, labeled "habitat on the decline,"is 17,460,075,312. That"s an estimate of how many acres of the planet"s wild habitat remain.

The population number keeps increasing -- by 2.73 people every second -- while the habitat number goes down -- by 1.37 acres every second.

Does one cause the other?

Most environmentalists would agree that human civilization is putting increasing pressure on our finite and renewable natural resources. There is less agreement, however, about whether habitat is being destroyed because there are too many of us or because some of us consume too much.

Are forests being razed to make room for necessary new homes or to make cardboard boxes for not-so-necessary wide-screen television sets?

The Sierra Club approaches the problem from both directions through its International Population Campaign by working to stabilize population and reduce excessive consumption.

"We can't tackle one without the other,"says Ron Weisen, chair of the Campaign Steering Committee.
It"s like the zoo exhibit says, "population times consumption equals impact.

From Wilderness to World Population
The Club first addressed population in 1961, when volunteer Dan Luten wrote in the Sierra Club Bulletin (the precursor to Sierra magazine) that "each of us should be asking himself whether he is concerned for an enduring wilderness or merely for his lifetime . . . . Does a wilderness . . . policy without a population policy make any sense?

In 1965, the Club Board of Directors adopted its first policy expressing concern about population growth. Then, in 1968, Sierra Club Books published Paul Ehrlich"s The Population Bomb, the seminal work linking environmental problems to population growth. The board adopted a population policy in 1969 that called on the United States to "abandon population growth as a pattern and goal."The policy called for individual states in the United States to legalize abortion and for economic foreign aid to include birth-control programs.

At first, the program's primary focus was internal -- demonstrating to members how population stabilization was integral to the success of other Club programs like protecting forests and wetlands. "One of the axioms we often used back then," says Judy Kunofsky, longtime population volunteer (and first staff person of the Club's population program), "was 'Every cause is a lost cause without population stabilization.'"

Certainly, the first line of defense for the environment is strong laws and vigilant enforcement, but more people can add more pressure to cut forests or drain wetlands for housing and roads. And the top priority for the Club's global warming campaign is to cut carbon dioxide emissions by requiring better fuel efficiency for cars and trucks. But if we were to achieve those gains, they would be wiped out if the number of people (and cars) kept growing.

"That's why we need to address numbers and consumption," says Chris Kennedy, co-chair of the Population Committee, which works on a number of population issues not directly covered by the campaign. "When we consider the way we consume, the United States may be the most overpopulated country in the world."

According to a United Nations estimate, 80 percent of the people in the world live on an average income of less than $100 a year and consume only a fraction of the resources consumed by the remaining 20 percent.

Making Population a Priority
In 1990, the Club's grassroots leaders and Board voted to make population a priority national campaign. There were 12 chapter and group population committees then. Today there are almost 300.

Legislatively, the Club's primary goal is to increase U.S. funding for international family planning to pay for health personnel, birth-control supplies and counseling services. This year, the U.S. contribution to family planning outside its borders is $385 million. (See Less Funding, More Restrictions for Family Planning)

The campaign also seeks the U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and funding for Title X, a federal program that supports family-planning programs for low-income Americans.

Though population clearly affects other environmental issues, says Kunofsky, the approach can be tricky. "If we want to clean the air, we talk about air pollution. If we want to save wilderness, we talk about the wildlands we seek to protect. But if we want to lower the population rate, we have to talk about women's rights, girls' education, abortion, family planning and birth control."

In addition to the legislative work, volunteers work on education -- promoting safe and available birth control, fighting for equality and education for women, demonstrating simpler ways of living and urging men to take more responsibility for birth control and parenting. These efforts are coordinated by the Club's national Population Committee, which has set up four subcommittees to accomplish its objectives.

  • The foreign assistance subcommittee works in concert with the campaign on increasing the amount of foreign aid devoted to family planning. Part and parcel of this advocacy is an emphasis on human rights. "While we support efforts to reduce family size, they must be voluntary," says Marceline White, International Population Campaign director in the Club's Washington, D.C., legislative office. "We oppose forced sterilization and other coercive measures."
  • The women's issues subcommittee focuses on ways to increase women's empowerment, like CEDAW ratification. (See Girls' Education, Womens' Rights Linked to Family Planning Success)
  • The consumption/sustainability/equity subcommittee explores ways to convince the public to reduce our consumption here at home. "We're trying to place more emphasis on quality of life, not quantity of stuff," says Kennedy.
  • The domestic health subcommittee is working to improve reproductive health, family planning and maternal and infant survival programs in the United States, such as Title X.

Promising Trends
The trends in population stabilization are encouraging. The population growth rate is decreasing, and many countries have achieved stable population patterns. This success can be attributed to family-planning programs in the 1960s and 70s that gave women more control over the number of children they had. Giving women more economic power and higher social status has paid off in steady reduction in birthrates in every region of the world. The goal of the Club is to continue and accelerate these trends.

But Kunofsky cautions against too much optimism. The earth's population of 5.8 billion continues to grow by 90 million every year. "Things are getting worse at a slower rate," she says.

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