Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The False Malthusians

By John Seager, President and CEO

The recent report, World's 65 and older population to triple by 2050, is sure to rouse the “birth dearthers.” Malthusians of a sort, they’ll make their usual ominous predictions about a future without young people. They are wrong on so many counts that it’s hard to know where to begin.

First, 65 isn’t what it used to be. Many older people are vigorous, productive members of society these days.

Second, it’s not the ratio of old to young that is key. It’s the ratio of workers to dependents. Most people earn wages during the “middle” 40 years of their life and rely on other sources of support - be it family, the government or their own accrued savings - during the time between birth and the early 20s and from age 65 or so. And that ratio isn't changing all that much as family size declines.

Third, the overall economic strength of a society depends largely on having a well-educated, healthy workforce. Smaller families make this task much easier. So, as family size declines in healthy nations, they can become more productive, ensuring the possibly of a better life for young and old alike.

Finally, we may need more life care communities, but we might need fewer nursery schools, more gerontologists, but fewer pediatricians. It will take a bit of adjustment, but what’s the alternative? An ever more crowded future? No, thanks.

Population Connection website

Monday, June 29, 2009

Environmental Refugees Spur Global Migration

By Pam Wasserman, Vice President for Education

A recent article in The Economist, "A New (Under) Class of Travellers" shines a light on one of the most dire consequences of global climate change -- the rise in the number of "environmental refugees." Tens of millions of desperate people are already fleeing their homelands in Africa as they become uninhabitable from chronic drought. Climate scientists expect these numbers to grow as sea levels rise, displacing the vast populations that live along fragile river deltas in Asia. And, of course, population growth will only worsen the situation.

While we should do everything we can as a global community to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we won't be able to reverse the climactic trends that will continue to displace the most vulnerable populations from their homes in the near term. As once-fertile lands dry up or flood, the carrying capacity of the planet may very well shrink, making an expected population of 9-10 million by 2050 completely unsustainable. Reducing fertility rates could, over time, relieve the pressures of global migration and boost the capabilities of all nations to meet the basic needs of their people.

Population Education website

Educating Kids about Population

By Pam Wasserman, Vice President for Education

As part of Population Connection's mission, we work with teachers nationwide to incorporate population education into their classroom instruction. In 2008, we held 524 workshops for over 11,000 teachers and future teachers in 36 states and 2 Canadian provinces. At these workshops, educators learn about the impacts of human population pressures and the best ways to address these issues with different age groups. Each workshop features a variety of hands-on activities. Based on past evaluation surveys, we estimate that educators trained in our 2008 workshops will allow us to reach an additional 800,000 students each year.

Our staff of trainers is small, but we have a wonderful corps of volunteer trainers around the country who present these workshops in their local areas. This group includes university educators, K-12 teachers and nonformal educators who feel passionate about Population Connection curricula and want to share it with others. Last year, their in-kind contribution of time was over $240,000!

We greatly expanded our outreach in California last year after conducting a "train-the-trainers" Institute for 30 new workshop facilitators in San Francisco, and hope to replicate this in other areas of the country as funding allows.

One of our great achievements of the year was completing a new edition of our high school curriculum, Earth Matters: Studies for Our Global Future on CD-ROM. Read more about it at populationeducation.org.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Needless Pain in an Overcrowded World

By John Seager

The New York Times story, Death in Birth - Fragile Tanzanian Orphans Get Help After Mothers Die, about a handful of Africa’s 50 million orphans provides one ray of hope in a vast chasm of despair.

So much needless pain and suffering could be avoided if the poorest women in the world had access to family planning and other basic health care. It’s great that so much attention is now being paid to the need for action on climate change. But the failure to focus with equal intensity on the impacts of overpopulation has immediate, irreversible consequences. So far in 2009, the White House and Congress have taken vital steps in the right direction when it comes to family planning. But so much more needs to be done and done quickly.

Population Connection website

"A Family Planning Page-Turner"

By Stacie Murphy

In the most recent issue of The Reporter, our communications manager, Marian Starkey, reviewed Michelle Goldberg’s new book The Means of Reproduction. Today, the Wilson Center held a release event for the book, and Ms. Goldberg was there to share her thoughts and answer questions about the work that one presenter called “a family planning page-turner.”

While the entire discussion was interesting, there was one moment that really stood out for me. Ms. Goldberg noted that the idea of family planning as politically “controversial” is a relatively recent phenomenon, pointing out that at one time both Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman were board members of Planned Parenthood. Hard to imagine that today, but it’s true. There was a time when population growth was broadly understood as an issue of importance to the mainstream, not just to the left.

Happily, she believes we may be experiencing a resurgence of interest in population. Goldberg mentioned a recent spate of stories about resource scarcity and population and environment issues, and also pointed former CIA director Michael Hayden’s reference to population growth as a security concern as evidence of a new trend.

The full video of the event will be available here in about a week. I’d recommend watching.

Population Connection website

Monday, June 22, 2009

Population growth and time perspective

By Marian Starkey

Philip Zimbardo's recent TED Talk reinforced from a psychological perspective a theory those of us concerned with population growth have long believed.

People who can anticipate the long-term problems that population growth will cause (and have already caused) have a future-oriented time perspective. People who are past-oriented or present-oriented focus more intently on the short-term economic challenges that will accompany a stabilizing or decreasing population.

Zimbardo uses the example of teens pledging to abstain from premarital sex (60% of whom lose their virginity within the year) to demonstrate different people's ability to delay gratification. Those who give in to premarital sexual urges are less able to overcome their present-oriented minds in order to live out the future-oriented vision they have for themselves as virgin brides/grooms.

He shares that time perspective theory is now being applied to a variety of global issues, including promoting sustainability and conservation. Perhaps population activists like us should incorporate his theory into our advocacy work in order to reach those with other than future-oriented time perspectives.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Health Care Reform Off to a Slow Start

By Brian Dixon

After months of talk, Health Care Reform is finally getting its first official congressional debate. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) has begun what promises to be weeks of work toward crafting legislation. If you want to watch, you can find it here.

HELP is only one of five congressional committees that will have some say over the final product, and if it’s an example of how the process is going to play out in each of them, it could be a while before anything comes up on the floor of either house.

Republicans have filed some 300 amendments in the HELP committee. Among them are nearly a dozen that will have some impact on access to reproductive health care. These efforts include several by Tom Coburn. His proposals include one to establish an office on Unborn Children’s Health, another to allow health care providers to refuse to provide any service to which they have a “moral objection,” and yet another to use federal funds to help recruit and train staff for crisis pregnancy centers (“clinics” which exist to intimidate women into carrying pregnancies to term.)
Other amendments include several to restrict services at School Based Health Clinics. All of these will undermine reproductive health care.

But there are a host of other amendments which are clearly designed for the sole purpose of slowing down the process. Some are kind of funny, like this Coburn amendment to prohibit the use of health care funds from being used to build football stadiums. Others propose changing the names of sections of the bill to “Slush Fund for Special Interests” or “Federal Takeover of Local Communities.” They’re not serious. They’re not designed to further the discussion or to contribute to a better bill. They’re written to try to stall.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

More money for family planning in 2010?

By Stacie Murphy

Yesterday, a House subcommittee approved the Fiscal Year 2010 State/Foreign Operations Appropriation bill that includes a substantial increase in funding for international family planning.

The subcommittee, under the leadership of Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), allocated $648 million for family planning and reproductive health care, including $60 million for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This amount is significantly higher than President Obama’s budget request of $593 million with $50 million for UNFPA.

Overall funding for international family planning declined by nearly 40% between 1995 and 2008. President Obama indicated his intent to reverse this trend by designating more than half of his proposed global health budget increase for family planning.

Yesterday’s move by the House subcommittee goes even further, signaling that they understand that, even in a difficult economic climate, real investment in international family planning will pay dividends: it will increase maternal and child survival, ease pressure on the environment, and encourage social stability in the developing world.

The bill will be considered by the full Appropriations Committee next week. We will keep you updated as the bill makes its way through the House and Senate.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Even the parks aren't safe

By Marian Starkey

Kutai National Park on the island of Borneo is trading its many species of mammals for one much more menacing species--humans. Already, half of the park has been degraded by illegal logging and development. There are at least 27,000 people living inside the park. All of them need houses, fuel wood, and jobs. The resources that the park boasts (coal, timber, and oil) provide those jobs, as evidenced by the factories that have set up shop on the park's perimeter.

It's hard to blame people in a country that grows by 2.7 million people every year for encroaching on protected areas. Population density in Indonesia is 122 people per square kilometer (compared with 33 people per square kilometer in the United States). When protected lands are some of the only fertile and forested lands remaining in a country or region, they are vulnerable to settlement by ambitious and/or desperate internal migrants. I wrote an article about this dilemma in the Peten province of Guatemala in the February 2009 issue of The Reporter.

Until we achieve zero population growth and everyone lives on already-settled land, national parks will continue to be threatened. As so many examples around the world have shown, humans will (often illegally) encroach on protected land, fight with other species over territory, and unsustainably extract natural resources in order to survive. Population stabilization is imperative for the survival of wildlife and the entire biosphere.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Have You Seen This Ad?

By Brian Dixon

Have you seen this ad?

In DC, it’s everywhere. On the Metro trains. In the newspapers that cover Capitol Hill. In magazines. Clearly this is one company that sees population growth as good for its bottom line. More genetically modified crops means more money to Monsanto. In their view, that’s the only way we’ll be able to feed 9 billion people.

Of course, we have no idea if there will be 9 billion people in 2050, or 11 billion. Because the projection that the population will grow to 9 billion is based on the assumption that more people will use contraceptives and birth rates will continue to fall. That’s hardly a given. There’s already a serious shortfall in contraceptive supplies in the poorest countries. At least 200 million women would like to limit their childbearing, but have no access to birth control and experts predict that demand for contraceptives will increase by 40 percent in just the next fifteen years.

Unless there is significant new investment in family planning in the developing world, it’s unlikely that population will stabilize at 9 billion. Indeed, between 2006 and 2008, experts had to revise their population projections for several countries, including Kenya and Pakistan--upward.

Monsanto has one thing right. Feeding an additional 2 billion people will be difficult.

Feeding an additional 4 billion might be impossible.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Overpopulation Rules the Day in Pakistan

By John Seager

In today’s troubled global economy, an annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate of 2% would seem pretty good, considering. That’s the latest projecting for Pakistan. But there’s a problem. Pakistan annual population growth rate exceeds 2%. As its economy struggles to moves forward, the nation as a whole is falling further behind. What with pervasive poverty, internal strife, and annual inflation soaring by more than 20%, we’re all too likely to see many more worrisome headlines about Pakistan in the months to come.

Few of these stories will highlight the role played by rampant population growth. And it’s a rare economist who points out that smaller family make it easier to insure quality health care and education. In turn, this can lead to higher per capita GDP in a less-crowded world. Sounds like a winning strategy all around.

Abortion Cartoons

By Stacie Murphy

I’m piggybacking on someone else’s blog today instead of writing my own, but I just had to take the opportunity to point out the extremely insightful commentary going on at Sociological Images in response to this post.

The initial poster points out that in editorial cartoons about abortion (as in so much of the abortion debate generally) there is a tendency to obscure the fact that there is an actual woman involved in the process. The women, when they are depicted at all, are shown as faceless, voiceless, often disembodied beings, while all the thoughts and emotions about abortion are attributed to the fetus.

Comment contributors have pointed out a number of other memes highlighted by the cartoons, among them the myths that pro-choicers want to force abortion on unwilling women, and that abortion late in pregnancy is common.

It’s worth pointing out that two of the cartoons shown are pro-choice in perspective. It seems that forgetting who is really at the center of the debate isn’t limited to only one side.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

False Alarm

By Marian Starkey

The Korea Herald and The Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan) both have editorials today about the perils of low birthrates. According to the Korea Herald, South Korea had the lowest fertility rate in the world last year at 1.19 children per woman. The editors warn that shrinking economic growth and a burdensome elderly population are inevitable.

Contrary to the claims of the Korea Herald, population decline doesn't have to be "scary" for the economy.

In fact, there is a very strong argument that countries like the Republic of Korea have been able to develop quickly because of the fact that family size shrunk from 6.33 children per woman in 1955-1960 to 1.6 in 1985-1990. Couples with fewer children are able to afford higher education for the kid(s) they do have and are able to save more, contributing to individual and nation-wide economic growth.

Couples who claim to be abstaining from having children because of the cost are probably not being entirely truthful in their survey responses. Poor couples the world over have children (often very many children) and find ways to make ends meet. Shocking as it may seem, some people find other activities more rewarding than child rearing and may be using the financial burden as an excuse for not having a baby in the face of social pressure.

Raising the sales tax in Japan to pay for child rearing subsidies (as the editors of Yomiuri suggest) and increasing the "cradle-to-university" subsidies that the South Korean government already provide will not raise birthrates for the right reasons. And they will certainly not solve any impending economic problems due to demographics. Why dump more money into baby incentives when that money could be used to accommodate the aging population that already exists?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Domestic Terror on the Rise

By Stacie Murphy

My heart sank yesterday when I heard the news about the murder of Dr. George Tiller, the Kansas ob-gyn who was one of the country’s few remaining providers of late-term abortion services. I was sick, and I was stunned. But I wasn’t really surprised.

Only a few weeks ago the Department of Homeland Security released a report highlighting an increased risk of domestic terror attacks from right-wing groups. The report specifically mentioned fanatical choice opponents as potential perpetrators. After an outcry from the right, political pressure forced DHS to retract the report and issue an apology. It turns out the agency’s fears were well founded. The alleged shooter appears to have longtime ties to both separatist militia movements and to Operation Rescue, the radical anti-choice group famous for publishing the personal information of abortion providers on its website.

Dr. Tiller was no stranger to these kinds of attacks. He was shot and wounded in 1993, and his clinic had been a target of bombings, vandalism, and other threats for over two decades. In the last month, Dr. Tiller had asked law enforcement for additional security, citing increasing harassment and threats. His constant vigilance and careful security measures were not enough, however. Yesterday morning, a man entered the lobby of the church where Tiller was serving as an usher and shot him dead.

There can be no debate: the murder of George Tiller was a terrorist attack. The aim was not merely to stop Dr. Tiller, but to send a message to other doctors and choice advocates: believe as we do, or die.

Along with every other choice advocate in the country, I am grieving today. I mourn for a man who braved violence, intimidation and threats to stand up for the rights of women in the most vulnerable time in their lives. I sorrow for the wife, four children, and ten grandchildren Dr. Tiller leaves behind. And I am heartbroken to be reminded yet again, and in such a tragic way, that our fight for reproductive autonomy is not over.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Someone Gets It

By John Seager

The Central Chronicle, an English language newspaper in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, hit the population nail on the head with today’s editorial, "Humans biggest threat to environment."

India is slated to pass China as the world’s most populous nation by 2030, according to the latest UN figures.

Feeding a Hungry World

By John Seager

As a growing global population seeks more food, Argentina, long known for its fertile soil and exports of beef and wheat, is struggling just to meet domestic demands. A one-two punch of drought and poor policy choices threatens vital supplies, as outlined in The Economist.

Other reports indicate that Argentina may plant its smallest wheat crop in 100 years (Private Equity Report). In the past, Argentina ranked among the world’s largest wheat exporters.

300 Million Suffer More to Come

By John Seager

The Global Humanitarian Forum, chaired by former UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Laureate Kofi Annan, just released The Anatomy of a Crisis. The report concludes that more than 300 million people are already seriously impacted by climate change, and the annual economic cost is $125 billion per year.

By 2030, “worldwide deaths will reach almost 500,000 per year.” The total number of people affected will double, and costs will rise even more rapidly. The most devastating impacts will be felt in the poorest places on earth where there will be a need for vast increases in aid.

I would only add that these are, for the most part, the same places which have the most rapid population growth.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


By Marian Starkey

Yesterday, yet another sign of the Obama Administration’s commitment to international diplomacy was presented to an audience of over 500 in Washington, DC at the
TED@State event. Once the seats were filled, people crowded along the staircases and into the back of the auditorium, standing for nearly three hours to hear the experts’ takes on how to proceed effectively with international development.

TED Talks (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) has partnered with the Global Partnership Initiative, based at the State Department to form the TED@State series. Since 1984, TED has invited experts on a range of subjects to deliver “the talks of their lives” to audiences around the world in 18 minutes or less. In April of this year, the partnership with State was forged so that new ideas could find their way to professionals and politicians in Washington.

Ambassador Elizabeth Frawley Bagley introduced the event on behalf of Secretary Clinton, who had a last-minute invitation to travel with President Obama to Egypt.

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, spoke about how social media is changing our world and how governments must keep up to avoid embarrassment or worse.

Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Discipline, argued that cities are "green" and full of opportunities lacking in smaller villages. He described the living conditions of squatters, who sometimes live right smack up against the gated communities of the rich. From above, slums might look disorganized and void of services, but actually, there are countless informal businesses and access to cash economies that just doesn’t exist in the rural developing world. The people who move to urban slums are working as hard as they can to climb out of poverty and the infrastructure that they enjoy there, while appalling to the Western eye, is actually far superior to that available in the countryside.

Sometimes counterintuitive to our supporters, Population Connection has long stuck up for cities in terms of their ecological footprint. New York City, where most people do not own cars and instead walk or take mass transit, is a champion of energy efficiency. Apartments are small, walls (and therefore heating and cooling) are shared, and less land is converted to development because buildings are built up instead of out.

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, also spoke about poverty and how easy it is for families on the verge of escaping poverty to fall back into it because of an event like a health emergency. He continued Brand’s discussion of the eco-friendliness of cities and even called them “population sinks” because they ease demands placed on rural land by subsistence farmers.

While I see the value of populations congregating cities where they can share economies and infrastructure, I took issue with his comment, “Cities diffuse the population bomb.” While moving away from family farms and letting the land lie fallow may restore nutrients to the soil, it does not reduce the total number of people in the country that need to be fed. Someone still has to grow the food for the world’s population, regardless of whether the majority of its inhabitants are rural or urban dwellers. One important point Collier does make though, is that typically urban residents have lower fertility than rural residents and that this demographic trend helps slow population growth. Smaller families probably arise due to a variety of factors, from increased educational and employment opportunities to new ideas about family and society to simple contraceptive access.

Collier also spoke in detail about the problematic youth bulges of failed states and the need to find work for young men who will otherwise fall into crime, terrorism, or despair. Perhaps outside the bounds of his expertise, it nevertheless would have been helpful if he had mentioned population stabilization as a means by which to speed the rise from poverty of urban slum dwellers and slow the growth of the troubling youth bulges in failed states.

Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and leader of the Acumen Fund, spoke about her insightful approach to philanthropy. Acumen addresses poverty from the bottom-up and brings in private investors who can serve a more grassroots population than donor governments, multilateral agencies, or foundations, which typically must focus on the bigger picture.

Finally, Hans Rosling, creator of the Gapminder tool recently purchased by Google, presented different demographic data in his colorful, easy to interpret graphs. He praised the United States government (he’s Swedish) for funding the Demographic and Health Surveys, which are the primary tools we have for tracking social and health indicators over the past 25 years. Rosling gave a longer talk last week at the Woodrow Wilson Center, which was highly entertaining and informative.