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The people summit; too many people, not enough money. The population conundrum comes to Cairo.

To Americans weaned on visions from Soylent Green, a sci-fi film made in 1973, the specter of overpopulation calls forth images of city squares so crowded with people that giant scoopers must shovel them clear like dirt. Every night, Charlton Heston, the movie's grimy anti-hero, must climb a staircase of human bums to get to his apartment, basically a condemned attic. With so much humanity, little else survives, so we are forced to begin eating our dead for food, reconstituted as something like rubbery green pancakes. What environmental threat could be worse? When Heston tastes his first strawberry, he begins to cry.

But experts in family planning consider population to be one problem we know how to solve. And it should be relatively cheap to do. Since the great population fright of the 1960s, they have learned a great deal about reducing birth rates. It takes more than condoms. But it takes less than transforming every nation into an industrial society with a naturally low birth rate. Dr. Nafis Sadik, head of the United Nations Fund for Population Assistance (UNFPA), says: "When we started 20 years ago, contraception usage was at only 10 percent. Today it's over 50 percent." The average number of children per family in less developed countries is also coming down. "It was six in the late 60s. It's now 3.6." And today almost every country takes population seriously--so seriously that about 20,000 officials and onlookers will gather in Cairo, Egypt from September 5 to 13 for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

Last April, delegates at the U.N. hammered out the ICPD's basic Programme of Action, a statement of principles and a funding request for the world to raise its budget for population programs from around $6 billion today to $13.2 billion by the year 2000. That's a hefty hike but still a pittance compared to solving all of the world's environmental problems, for which the Earth Summit of 1992 budgeted at $600 billion a year. (So far, the wealthy countries have responded by contributing $3.4 billion to the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility.) Sadik says that population programs are already "very cost effective" and "more successful" than many other forms of foreign aid and industrial development. The recipe for lower birth rates, experts have found, includes family planning programs, better maternal health care, more education for women and lower infant mortality rates. UNFPA, International Planned Parenthood (IPP) and other population programs now need more money and people-power to reach places, such as sub-Sahara Africa, that still have high birth rates. The U.N. estimates that 350 million couples around the world don't have any access to family planning programs, and another 120 million women would use it if not for the pressure of their families and societies. Giving everyone access to these programs by the year 2015 is one of the major goals of ICPD. If this program works, adds Sadik, the global population of 5.6 billion today will stabilize at 7.8 billion by the middle of the next century, far smaller than the population of 12.8 billion that the U.N. projects at our current birth rates.

The greatest booster of the ICPD may be the United States, a complete reversal from the Reagan and Bush administrations when our government viewed population growth as "a neutral phenomenon" and cut funding to UNFPA and IPP. Vice President Al Gore plans to attend the Cairo conference, and State Department counselor Tim Wirth appeared often at the April U.N. meetings. "Elections make a difference," Wirth says. President Bush lost in 1992 partly because he botched the Earth Summit, Wirth believes, which was a more important issue to swing voters than Desert Storm. In two years the Clinton administration has boosted the funds for international family planning programs from $400 million to $585 million in its current budget proposal. "Many in Congress believe that we should aim for $1 billion for family planning alone by the end of the decade, plus additional money for education and women's health care," says Wirth. "We know what to do. The pieces are all out there. Now we need to summon the political clout to get it to happen." Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, National Audubon Society, and others have formed The U.S. Network for Cairo 1994 to stir up the public.

That's the ICPD's sales pitch. Will it work? The famous dissenter, of course, is the Vatican, which managed to purge population from the Earth Summit. In March, the Pope invited Sadik to Vatican City for a talk and a stern letter which read in part: "All propaganda and misinformation directed at persuading couples that they must limit their family to one or two children should be steadfastly avoided, and couples that generously choose to have large families are to be supported." He called abortion "a heinous evil," reminded her that "the Church stands the promotion of methods of limiting births," namely, contraception--and lamented that in the ICPD programme, "Marriage is ignored, as if it were something of the past."

Sadik responds with some finesse: "A U.N. conference addresses all religions and all peoples. The majority of the world, four-and-a-half billion people, are not Catholics." She hopes that everyone will agree, at least, that all people have the right to control their own fertility and deserve the full range of choices. "Catholics can choose natural methods, abstinence or whatever else they find in keeping with their needs."

But abortion is no idle matter. About 500,000 women die from pregnancy related causes every year, about half of them from unsafe abortions. A U.N. survey found that 173 of 189 countries do allow abortion to save a mother's life. "We are not saying that abortion should be legalized, but that the ill health and death caused by unsafe abortion must be stopped around the world," Sadik says.

Ever since Thomas Malthus raised the specter of overpopulation in his famous essay in 1798, society has bitterly debated the question of how many people is too many. The ICPD may confidently assume that the population question has been answered, save for money and people-power, but outside of the U.N. the debate rages on. Dr. Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station recently calculated that with smarter farming and more vegetarian diets, the planet could feed 10 billion people on less land than we use for agriculture today. Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University has figured that the Earth could only support an "optimum human population" of two billion in the year 2100 after we've exhausted our supply of fossil fuels. The two estimates stand so far apart one hardly knows where to begin. Waggoner considers the dramatic increases in crop yields since the 1960s and finds that present farmers are "within striking distance" of feeding 10 billion. Pimentel sees a planet that already has 1.2 to two billion people living in poverty, soil eroding 20 to 40 times faster than it replenishes itself, aquifers being drained and the tremendous gap between rich and poor. Neither mentions Soylent Green, but the great question remains: in decades to come, will Charlton Heston be viewed as an eco-prophet, or an actor who couldn't get a better part? Contact: The U.S. Network for Cairo 1994, 1400 Sixteenth Street NW, Suite 320, Washington DC 20036/(202)332-2200.
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Author:Nixon, Will
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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