U.S. Foreign Assistance

At Long Last: Prominent Attention to Population

In recent months, a growing chorus of prominent individuals has been sounding the alarm about an issue that has suffered from bewildering inattention in recent years: the negative impact of rapid global population growth on the health and well-being of our planet.  Although rarely stated directly, implicit in these statements (highlighted below) is that more should be done to support voluntary family planning and basic reproductive health care for millions of poor women who lack it.  Why?  Because lack of family planning is a primary cause of the more than 60 million unintended pregnancies worldwide every year and the resulting yearly net increase in global population of 78 million people.

This morning I attended an extraordinary presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars by Thomas Friedman about his new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded.  As you might suspect from the catchy title, the book focuses on how “global warming, the stunning rise of middle classes all over the world, and rapid population growth have converged in a way that could make our planet dangerously unstable.” [See p. 5 @

In recent months, Friedman’s been joined in bringing attention to the role of population growth in such critical issues as poverty, climate change, hunger, and security by the Secretary General of the U.N., the director of the CIA, former President Bill Clinton, the leaders of the G-8, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and the United States Senate.

Here are a few excerpts:

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon: “Global Action to Save Global Growth” — Washington Post op-ed (July 3, 2008)

“climate change and environmental degradation threaten the future of our planet. Growing populations and rising wealth place unprecedented stress on the earth’s resources. Malthus is back in vogue. Everything seems suddenly in short supply: energy, clean air and fresh water, all that nourishes us and supports our modern ways of life.”

Bill Clinton: Speech at the Slate 60 Conference (October 22, 2007)

” the population of the world is supposed to go to nine billion by 2050. Nobody is going to talk about this in the election this year for either party, but I’m not running so I can say it.  …[I]t took us 150,000 years to go from one person to 6.5 billion, and we’re going to nine billion in 43 years? Now just think about it. Think about the accelerating pace of change in the world. We’re going to nine billion people. Almost all of those 2.5 billion people are going to be born in countries now unable to support the people who live there.

CIA Director Michael Hayden:  Speech at Kansas State Univ. (April 30, 2008)

“In thinking about the future, one of the most important things that our analysts brought to–CIA analysts–brought to my attention was world demographics. Now I’m probably pointing at the obvious here, but let me point to some of the things that our analysts brought to my attention.  Today, there are 6.7 billion people sharing the planet. By mid-century–by mid-century, the best estimates point to a world population of more than 9 billion. That’s a 40 to 45 percent increase–striking enough–but most of that growth is almost certain to occur in countries least able to sustain it, and that will create a situation that will likely fuel instability and extremism–not just in those areas, but beyond them as well.”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates:  Speech at U.S. Global Leadership Campaign Tribute Dinner (July 15, 2008)

“We also know that over the next 20 years certain pressures – population, resource, energy, climate, economic, and environmental – could combine with rapid cultural, social, and technological change to produce new sources of deprivation, rage, and instability. We face now, and will inevitably face in the future, rising powers discontented with the international status quo, possessing new wealth and ambition, and seeking new and more powerful weapons. But, overall, looking ahead, I believe the most persistent and potentially dangerous threats will come less from emerging ambitious states, than from failing ones that cannot meet the basic needs – much less the aspirations – of their people.”

United States Senate – July 18, 2008: FY 2009 Annual Foreign Assistance Bill (Senate Report 110-425, p. 36)

 “the stresses on woefully inadequate social services in many developing countries caused by high rates of population growth, which contribute to competition for limited resources, environmental degradation, malnutrition, poverty and conflict. Assisting countries in reducing rates of population growth to sustainable levels should be a priority of USAID.”

For those of us who have lamented the declining support in recent years for international family planning programs – in part due to the lack of attention paid to the implications of rapid global population growth – these statements are very encouraging.  But forty years since world leaders first proclaimed that individuals have a basic right to determine how many children to have and when to have them, some key questions remain: 

  • Will this renewed attention to population issues result in greater funding and political support for international FP/RH programs? 
  • Will we finally provide the resources necessary to ensure that all women, rich and poor, rural and urban, literate and illiterate can freely determine when and if to have a child?

We have a ways to go in reaching that goal.  Modern contraceptives still remain out of reach for hundreds of millions of women in poor and developing nations because of issues such as availability and affordability.  As a result, more than one-third of the 190 million pregnancies worldwide are unintended – a major driver of the addition of nearly 80 million people to our world each and every year.

This isn’t rocket science. Couples around the world fundamentally want family planning – and it works.  In addition to fostering slower, more sustainable population growth, it raises standards of living, improves maternal and child health, and reduces abortion. 

Of course, in the end it’s all about sex and the empowerment of women – two issues which a lot of officials would rather sweep under the rug and ignore.  But the price of doing so is an increasingly high one.  Just ask the “experts.”

2 Responses to “At Long Last: Prominent Attention to Population”

  1. Steven Earl Salmony

    No bail-out from global warming………..
    There’s no bailout for the next crisis
    Monday, October 20, 2008 The Oregonian
    The recent haggling over how to solve the nation’s economic crisis seems to have done little to ease the anxieties of either Wall Street or Main Street. And with good reason: Intuitively, we know we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.
    Watching a lifetime of stock options head south? Worried about where you’ll find the money to pay for college or about the spiraling costs of health care? Certainly nothing could hurt worse than a foreclosure, could it? Well, maybe it could. If $700 billion sounds like a lot, try fathoming $9 trillion — roughly 13 times the cost of today’s hotly debated bailout. That’s the projected cost of letting global climate change go unaddressed within this decade.
    The thorough shakeup of today’s economic climate foreshadows an even more disastrous global crisis heading our way. The same belief in unlimited, unchecked growth (some would say outright greed) that fattened our economy on a diet of junk bonds and hollow lending is also strip-mining our planet’s environment of the currency that nature safely invested for us over millions of years, and upon which all life — including our own — depends.
    The concept of peak oil is not just some naysayers’ delusion. According to the U.S. Energy Department’s own findings, commonly called the Hirsch report and issued in 2005, it’s an unavoidable reality, one that is hurtling toward us faster than we know what to do about.
    But like the blind eye that was turned on the proliferation of high-risk, foolhardy mortgages in the midst of a slowing economy, we’ve bolstered our bravado in the face of such warnings while enthusing about drilling offshore and in the arctic.
    While we’ve been busy digging our fossil-fuel foundations out from under us with the same kind of naive bluster and faith in infinite growth that gutted the economy, we’ve also been busy ruining things at the top as our upper atmosphere becomes choked with carbon dioxide, leaving us in an environmental demise of our own doing.
    When it comes to the economy, a few sleights of hand and a heavy toll on taxpayers, all partisan bickering aside, can be called upon to help us avert disaster and restore faith in the unlimited expansion model. But when it comes to nature’s bank, cashing out is forever. No amount of midnight meetings, government-ordered buyouts or credit freezes can save a habitat laid fallow by years of unregulated dumping of chemical waste, nor can they lower our thermostats to an inhabitable temperature in the face of global warming.
    Sound policy and the pursuit of new technologies might ameliorate some of our excesses, helping to slow down the rate of climate change and postponing the date of disaster. But like the banking and credit crisis that arrived to the surprise of so many experts — despite the many warnings sounded years earlier — environmental failure is going to rear its ugly head someday.
    And when mother earth forecloses on us, there will be nowhere else to go.
    Lisa Weasel is an associate professor of biology at Portland State University and a board member of The Greenhouse Network.
    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  2. Steven Earl Salmony

    Absolute global human population numbers are exploding. A billion members of the human family exist on resources valued at less than one dollar per day. Africa is suffering from “slow drip” problems. Europe is getting warmer fast. Arctic ice is retreating and the arctic coast of Alaska is eroding.
    Where are the new ideas, the financial backing, and the innovations needed to address these problems? There are tens of trillions of dollars in the global human economy. Where has all that money gone?
    The front page of the NYTimes tells the family of humanity that we are on the verge of a global economic catastrophe. Are the taxpayers of the American family, acting alone, to become responsible for the problems now presented to the human community by the greed of a small group of rich and powerful people worldwide?
    Why are an astonishingly small number of greedy people, holding hundreds of billions of dollars of ill-gotten gains from what are now recognizable as failed business models and Ponzi-like financial schemes, not taking responsibility for their avarice?
    Who are the people behind the mess we see splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world this morning? Perhaps they need to be named, shamed and held to account.
    Some greedy people are easy to identify. They are ones who have proclaimed themselves “Masters of the Universe” or Bohemians or the Greedy Boys of Greenwich or the Bilderbergers or members of The Trilateral Commission or the many too many outrageously enriched ‘experts’ and politicians who say and do anything to enhance wealth and power of themselves and their benefactors.
    At least to me, it appears the problems in the global economy we are seeing today are the results of greed having reached its limits or, to put it another way, having “hit the wall” of unsustainability. That is to say, greediness of self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe and their minions has reached the point of greed’s unsustainability. The global economy can no longer support the conspicuous, patently unsustainable behavior of a small segment of the family of humanity.
    Yes, definitely yes, something new and different needs to be done. Bold action is needed; but, more of the same, old business-as-usual behavior appears insufficient. Limits need to be placed on patently unsustainable behavior. People who are responsible for the mess need to account for their behavior.
    The American family is not responsible for the world’s economic mess; but at the moment American taxpayers are being held solely accountable. There is something not quite right about such unfair and inequitable circumstances.
    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001

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