The ‘population question’ needs to be handled with care by the UK at the Earth Summit

The thorny issue of keeping the human population in check in order to protect the environment and to raise the standard of living in developing countries needs to be handled with care at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg next year and should occur in conjunction with the wealthy West cleaning up its own environmental act, according to a United Nations Environment and Development (UNED) UK working group.

At the first meeting of the working group on ‘Population, Carrying Capacity and Sustainable Development’ as part of the UK’s preparation for the Earth Summit, chaired by John Guillebaud, Professor of Family Planning and Reproductive Health at the University of the City of London (UCL), it was emphasised that the phrase ‘population control’ should never be used as it implies a dictatorial, colonialist-style attitude. Those pushing for greater family planning are also liable to be labelled racist or bossy, and their opinions sidelined, said Guillebaud.

It is generally agreed that humanity’s impact on the environment has three main components, said Guillebaud, which can be expressed with the equation: I = P x A x T, where ‘I’ is the impact, ‘P’ is the number of humans, ‘A’ is per capita affluence, which is inevitably linked with resource consumption and waste, and ‘T’ is the per capita technology factor. The higher the ‘T’ factor, the greater the pollution and consumption resulting from the technology, but the factor can be lowered with greener technologies such as renewable energy. “The ‘T’ factor is never going to make a really dramatic impact,” said Guillebaud.

With regard to the ‘A’ factor, he pointed out that affluence actually needs to be increased for a large proportion of the global human population. “Out there, there are two and a half billion people who are living really horrible [poverty-stricken] lives,” he said, with only 20% of the population possessing 82.7% of the world’s wealth. This leaves only the ‘P’ factor to have any meaningful effect on humanity’s impact on the environment, he said, and as it is of such importance, it should not be treated as a fringe issue.

As well as impacting on the environment, high population densities also work to the detriment of humans, being linked to effects such as violence, disease, maternal and infant mortality, and starvation, said Guillebaud. He added that those who regard the current AIDS tragedy unfolding in places such as Southern and Central Africa as a solution to over-population are wrong. “We should not just be in the business of counting people, but ‘people count’,” he said.

“[Family planning] should be about choice,” said Regina Keith, Health Advisor for Save the Children, explaining that birth control is only contrary to human rights when it is enforced, but not when it is about people choosing the size of their families. In the past, population policies have largely been driven by the First World, a region that needs to look to its own over-consumptive behaviour first, she said.

The standard of living is so low in some countries that the recent issue of whether developing nations should have access to cheap drugs is irrelevant, said Keith. “The reality is no matter how many pills you develop, there are no doctors on the ground,” she explained, pointing out that in one region of Liberia there used to be only one doctor for 850,000 people, but now he has moved away from the area, so there are no doctors at all.

The quality of life which arises from good family planning or, alternatively, from the lack of it, most effects women, said Sandhya Sastry, of Marie Stopes International, the charity which promotes the right of the individual to have children by choice, not by chance. “At the local level, women are the group most affected by environmental problems, yet women also have the most potential to create change,” said Sastry. By expanding the education and job opportunities for women, marriage and childbirth are delayed, she said, but added that many young people still face physical, social or financial barriers to obtaining good quality contraception.

The broadcaster David Bellamy pointed out that the human population has been living outside the natural limits of the evolutionary process ever since we moved away from renewable energy generation during the industrial revolution. “We are now paying the price for our profligacy as we destroy the very fitness of the environment upon which we depend,” he said. “Our answer to date has been to use more energy and destroy more of the natural world in an attempt to solve the problem.”

Bellamy pointed out that symptoms of this include “the death of 60,000 children every day from factors relating to malnutrition and environmental pollution exacerbated now by the scourge of AIDS”, as well as holes in the ozone layer, an overheated global greenhouse, acid rain, particulate diesel, respiratory diseases, allergies, superbugs and BSE. The problems are exacerbated by the fact that the world’s richest 200 people now have more money than the poorest two billion. “It is my considered opinion that access to modern methods of reproductive healthcare are now not only a cornerstone to that process of sustainability and as such must – along with freedom of access to fresh air, potable water, wholesome food, adequate life space and peace – be a human right, and that’s why we’ve got to make sure we debate it properly in Johannesburg,” said Bellamy.

Currently, the world human population stands at 6.1 billion, with 3,500 new babies every 20 minutes, a total increase of 78 million people per year, said Sastry. On average, women around the world today have 2.7 children, a dramatic drop since the 1950s, “but the number of women about to enter their child-bearing years is the largest ever, and if they have only one or two children each, a population explosion is still in the offing”, she said. Currently, 97% of population growth is occurring in developing countries where there are scarce health care services, Sastry added.

The meeting was part of the UK’s preparation for the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002, on the tenth anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit (see related story). There are five other working parties: biodiversity and natural resources conservation; energy; sustainable cities and communities; sustainable production and consumption; and the UK in the wider world.

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