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Sex, Population, Pollution and Prospects for a small planet

Article by Phoebe Griffith

September 15, 2006

The Second Lecture of the 2000-2001 Global Health Lectures came as a powerful reminder of the implications of exponential population growth on the environment, development and the future of the human race on an overcrowded planet. John Gillebaud, Professor of Family Planning and Reproductive Health at the UCL Medical School and a leading mind in the field, recalled his personal awakening in 1959 when, while still a medical student, he confronted the daunting prediction that the world’s population would double by 2000, from 3000 to 6000 million inhabitants. A year and a half after this prediction became a reality on October 10th 1999, Prof. Gillebaud gave a compelling and authoritative talk on both his personal and professional thoughts on the subject, urging the audience to recognise that “population is the most important issue of our time”.

This was essentially a visual presentation, brought to life by a rich selection of slides of tables, cartoons, photographs and charts, and a variety of daunting facts and figures driving his arguments forward, culminating in a 4 minute film. Journalist / broadcaster and expert on women’s issues, childcare and the NHS, Claire Rayner, kindly chaired the event.

Impact (I) = Population (P) x Affluence (A) x Technology (T)
The increasingly widespread tendency to rely on technological advance as the key to confronting the impacts of population explosion is dangerous in the long-term. Science can and will deliver reductions in the impacts of population growth. However, its power should not be overestimated. Firstly, greener, more efficient technologies are expensive, often beyond the means of developing countries. Secondly, while technology can help ease the strain on both the resources available and the environment, it has also tended to work as a scapegoat for the issue that lies at the core of the impact which we are having on the planet, and that is population growth itself. In his words, the question should not be how to “make the bucket bigger” but how to “stop the flow” which is threatening to overflow that bucket. Public policy must thus shift away from its efforts to cater more, and start emphasising the need to curtail population growth, particularly in the countries where it is hardest to cater for fast growing numbers.

The destruction of the Natural World – “love thy neighbour”
In addition to the depletion of resources which we live off, population growth is affecting what Prof. Guillebaud called the right of every living creature to live. Our current destruction rates amount to the disappearance of 10 species a day, a figure that will probably rise to 100 species by the end of this decade. Human thoughtlessness lies at the heart of this destruction. The each-man-for-himself mentality dominating people’s lives today (“I’m doing nothing wrong, just doing my job” frame of mind), stymies our ability to see beyond the everyday and to formulate a long-term game-plan to stop the destruction of the natural world, asking ourselves what kind of world we will be leaving behind for our grandchildren. Further, the tragedy is intensified by the fact that the very rarity of species makes them more coveted by human beings thus furthering their fate at man’s hands.

The footprint concept in environmental terms measures the legacy that each human being and each nation leaves on the planet. Unsurprisingly it is the rich developed nations that are leaving greater footprints in their wake. Holland, for example, a country generally admired for its equality, prosperity, environmental record and democracy, is not a paragon of perfection when put into the context of the long-term effect which its population is having on the planet’s environment. As a country, it lives off 14 times its so-called allocated means, in terms of the rates of the pollution it produces and resources it consumes. The UK does not fair much better with a footprint of 11-12 times. Such figures are by no means sustainable in the long term and are exacerbated by our own inability to see the extent of the impact that our attitudes as consumers will have on our ever-growing footprints.

The affluence question
Every five days one million extra humans all wanting and deserving to consume and pollute like we do are born. Most of these people are being born in the developing world. However, what they are faced with are the other, more deadly and less obvious effects of exponential population growth. Among these are: violence and genocide, disease, maternal mortality, infant mortality, starvation, shortage of water and other resources such as energy. People in the developed world must not forget that, with this mass migration and global instability will follow. Africa is undoubtedly the continent which is suffering from these issues all most intensely, issues directly linked to the dramatic increases in population undergone in the continent. Much of their suffering could have been curtailed had those countries faced up to the problems of over-population in hostile lands sooner.

The tyranny of unwanted fertility
The suffering impinged on those women who are put at risk by unwanted pregnancies is a serious matter yet has been routinely ignored. Two of the capital risks facing women in poor countries are those of unsafe abortion and death at childbirth, both of which are directly linked to unwanted fertility. Contrary to what is claimed in institutions such as the Catholic Church, family planning should thus be perceived as a pro-life mechanism which allows women in poor countries to avoid these forms of suffering. Family planning is also pro-life in terms of the effect it has on infant mortality rates for there is a proven link between unwanted births and the deaths of young children. One revealing fact is that, contrary to what is often believed, in the UK fertility rates declined before infant mortality rate.

Poverty and Population
Poverty has many dimensions but population growth is the multiplier of all the world’s major problems. The crisis in poor countries is exacerbated by the well-known vicious cycle which dominates rural poverty. In poor rural communities it appears more advantageous to have more not less children given high infant mortality and the “social security” aspect aptly summarised as “every mouth has 2 hands”. Were we to view this problem with a greater degree of vision it would become clear that the promotion of later marriages, education, literacy in these communities are all important factors in the shift of mentality necessary to reverse this trend.

Prof. Gillebaud however stressed the fact that the provision of these factors alone would not have a significant effect on population growth. Policies designed to address these issues will not work without giving poor people (and women in particular) access to contraceptive methods. Provision of contraception for all who want it would cost as little as 17 million pounds a year. It is thus important to strike a constructive balance between development and contraception, giving the developing world access to the plethora of contraceptive methods available in the UK today.

Glimmers of Hope
Successful population control methods must invariably hold the fact that ‘people count’ at their heart. Top-down policies such as sterilisation programmes are not only inhumane but past experiences have proved that these will eventually backlash and become unsustainable. Prof. Gillebaud ended his lecture by highlighting the positive efforts being made in some parts of the world, countries such as Colombia and Thailand which have succeeded in controlling population growth without turning to the coercive techniques used by China and India in the past. He also referred to the so-called ‘love jelly’ – a treatment that women can use internally to stop the HIV virus, and the wider availability of the morning after pill. He also highlighted the success of the entrepreneurial methods such as those being used by the Mary Stoppes clinics.

This was the second in a series of 5 Global Health Lectures currently being organised by the Foreign Policy Centre in association with MEDSIN and the Wellcome Trust.

If you would like to receive further information about the next 3 lectures please contact or telephone 020 74015352.

The Foreign Policy Centre would like to thank the Wellcome Trust for their generous support.

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