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
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.