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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Solving the Population Problem

The key is to improve the lives of women

by Carl Pope

Six billion and counting: that's the world population on the eve of the millennium, a number far beyond what the planet can sustain. Homo sapiens now consumes 55 percent of the available fresh water and 45 percent of the total energy captured from the sun through photosynthesis. As long as our numbers continue to increase, any gains we might make by improving technology and reducing wasteful consumption will be eroded-and the less chance there will be that the 1.5 billion people who live on less than a dollar a day will be able to attain a decent standard of living.

There are three broad approaches to dealing with this problem. By far the most popular is to simply ignore it-as Congress has done in recent years by actually reducing the amount of money the United States spends on family planning. A closely related position is that of the technophiles and free marketeers who either deny that a problem exists or insist that technology and the market can solve it. The late University of Maryland professor Julian Simon, for example, argued that natural resources were not being depleted because they were still cheap. That says more about international markets, however, than it does about humanity's appetite for raw materials. It also presumes that humans are the only species that matters.

The second view, originally articulated by Thomas Malthus, warns that a geometrically growing population will inevitably be checked by disease and famine. Malthus advocated that large families be regulated; his approach is most visible today in China's strict "one-child" policy.

Malthus based his theory on mechanistic 18th-century ideas about biology. We have since learned that species respond to population growth in many different ways. A limited food supply may reduce natural fecundity, for example, as may a lack of breeding habitat. Human societies also show a wide diversity of birthrates (see "Y6B: The Real Millennial Threat," Lay of the Land), which belies Malthus' grim predictions.

A third perspective recognizes people's complex motivations for bearing children, and seeks cultural solutions to family planning. After all, some societies have managed to keep their birthrates low even without modern methods. Buddhists in Ladakh, for example, practiced polyandry; brothers married one wife, and many women became nuns. For a century after the famine in poverty-stricken Catholic Ireland, birthrates were kept very low by the practice of late marriage.

Decisions about family size are made by individuals, but influenced by culture. The key to lowering human fertility-and to keeping it low-is to encourage progressive cultural trends, especially those that improve the lot of women. No one is suggesting the spread of polyandry, but we all might learn from Kerala, one of India's poorest states, where high female literacy, social status, and participation in the workforce have resulted in very low birthrates.

In many countries with declining fertility, there appears to be a shift away from regarding children as producers (more help on the farm) to seeing them as an investment in the future, with the return coming after extensive education. Mexico provides a dramatic example. Since 1965, average family size has decreased from 7 children to 2.5. Why? It isn't a turn away from religion-Catholicism is probably stronger today than it was 50 years ago. Nor is it newfound prosperity, as the average Mexican's buying power is actually decreasing.

What has changed are Mexican attitudes toward children, influenced both by urbanization and the widespread availability of family planning services. The key to family prosperity is no longer seen as many young hands, but a few diplomas. That makes large families a liability. As one mother told Sierra's Mary Jo McConahay ("A Smaller But Better Future," July/August), "If I had more children, buying shoes for one meant the others would go barefoot."

While the education of girls and women is obviously desirable for its own sake, it is especially crucial to lowering birthrates because of the different possible futures it opens up. Still, the United States stands alone among the industrialized nations in opposing the Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women. So last year Sierra Club volunteers gathered thousands of signatures at the Lilith Fair, the women's rock tour, urging the Senate to ratify the Convention. (The Club is one of a handful of environmental organizations participating in the Coalition for Women's Economic Development and Global Equality, which advocates U.S. investment in international programs for women and girls.)

Such a broad, empowerment-based campaign for population stabilization can transcend the fixed positions that have paralyzed the political debate in this country for decades, and even penetrate the halls of Congress. This spring, after heavy lobbying by the Sierra Club and other organizations, a bipartisan group of House Foreign Affairs Committee members voted to reinstate funding for the United Nations Population Fund. Key to recruiting new congressional support was getting across the message that family planning not only empowers women but lowers fertility.

A year and a half ago Club members voted to remain neutral on the issue of immigration. Members still have strong personal feelings on the topic, and it is clear that any official position by the Club would be deeply divisive. The third approach, however, is one that all can support. By opening the doors of education and social participation for the world's women and children, we can not only help our human family to a better life but reduce our pressure on the planet as well.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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