issue 235 - September 1992
sex, lies and global survival
AN NI GUIDE TO GLOBAL POPULATION AND ENVIRONMENT
'The earth is being murdered,' experts say. 'And population growth is the culprit.'
Our investigator Anuradha Vittachi has her doubts. And sure enough, when she sets
out in search of the truth she finds her trail blighted by lies, alibis and false accusations.
Population paranoia is rife. During the recent Earth Summit in Rio every newspaper I opened, every television news bulletin I watched, every journal that landed on my desk, seemed to have someone's views on population and its relationship to the environment. Most blamed the South, some blamed the North, some thought each was a bit to blame. Everyone had a particular axe to grind. Awash with contradictory information, it seemed to me high time to sort out for myself some firm ground on which to stand.
It's an issue I have wanted to think out for many years. I knew myself to hold confused and contradictory responses. I couldn't help noticing my disapproving feelings when I heard of acquaintances being pregnant with their fifth or sixth child. These weren't villagers who needed to have many children for survival's sake. They were people who lived in affluent countries or were from the affluent classes of the developing world. So what was their excuse? But then, why should they need an excuse?
I also believed, dissonantly, in the human right of every parent to choose if and when to have children. Did I now think that population growth was such a heavyweight problem that it overrode the sanctity of this particular human right? Or was overpopulation' not really a problem at all, but merely an excuse by people who didn't want to give up their addiction to over-consuming?
My own confusions were reflected in the conflicting views being offered to me. On April 30 this year, the UK's Daily Mail chose to report the UN's views on population in a front-page story under the sensationalist headline, 'The Human Time Bomb'. The story began:
The world is on the brink of a population catastrophe, a chilling United Nations report warned yesterday.
Unless immediate action is taken to control the spiralling numbers, the very future of humanity is at risk as the planet's resources are swamped. The growth will take place almost entirely in the Third World, where poverty is already rife.
So rapid population growth stood accused - apparently with UN authority - of being the potential murderer of all humanity. And it was firmly identified with the developing world and its poverty; population growth in the industrialized world was not presented as an issue.
Writer Gore Vidal put it like this: 'Think of the earth as a living organism that is being attacked by billions of bacteria whose numbers double every 40 years. Either the host dies, or the virus dies, or both die. That seems to be what we are faced with.'
But by no means all population experts agree. Dr Barry Commoner, US environmentalist, states firmly that: 'The theory that environmental degradation is largely due to population growth is not supported by the data.' And Edward Goldsmith, one of the founders of the ecology movement in the UK, told me categorically last week, 'Population is not the fundamental problem.'
Other experts have it both ways: they assert a belief in the human right of a parent to decide 'freely' how many children to have as long as the parent behaves 'responsibly'. But they don't say who has the right to decide the nature of that responsibility: the parent - or a coercive bureaucrat from a government or a birth control agency who thinks she or he knows how a parent should behave.
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
Why has population become such a hot issue? Now that an ecological crisis of global survival looms near, rising panic in the North is strengthening the arm of the anti-populationists - those who believe that reducing population growth as soon as possible is the solution to the world's problems. The further threat of a flood of refugees from the South is adding to that paranoia.
Population growth in the South used to matter to us Northerners in a generalized but forgettable way. Now it matters to us in the North because it threatens our lifestyles, and maybe even our lives. We now care about alleviating poverty because we think, like Prince Charles, that poverty exacerbates population growth. Even World Bank experts are now urging more education for women because it has dawned on them that educating girls lowers population growth.
Does it really matter whether or not population is pinpointed as the fundamental problem? Yes - because if it turns out not to be the real source of the global ecological crisis, then as long as we are distracted by it the real culprit is free to escape.
Finding the real culprit is not only a matter of practical urgency but of justice. Dr Maurice King, Professor in Public Health at the University of Leeds, recently advised against the introduction of public health measures like oral rehydration therapy (ORT). This is a simple concoction of salt, sugar and water used to save small children from dying of diarrhoea - and diarrhoea is the biggest single killer of under-fives, causing the deaths of between four and five million small children each year. King's argument for denying the children this remedy was that they would 'increase the man-years of misery' .1 In other words, we shouldn't offer these humanitarian remedies to save the lives of children in poor areas, for if they survived that would create more population growth, which in turn would bring about a quicker descent into ecological catastrophe.
Should we perceive these small children, then, as the destroyers of the planet? If King's accusation turns out to be wrong, the affluent in the North will have victimized these Southern children twice over: first by contributing to the poverty they are born into and second by wrongly representing them as the source of the environmental crisis.
And what we are dealing with here is not just a theoretical change of perception but a spur to policy changes that have life-and-death implications for millions of small girls and boys.
1 National Medical Journal of India, Vol 4 No 4.
This special report appeared in the sex, lies and global survival - population issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.