By Donella Meadows
–September 15, 1994–
The population conference just ended in Cairo was not, despite all appearances, about the Pope. At stake were three goals vastly more important than the Holy See’s approval of a world population agreement. The first was to establish that population is a women’s issue. The second was to rally support to help women deal with it. The third was to confront and control the combined consequences of our growing population, poverty, and affluence.
Of those three goals, the first was accomplished brilliantly. The second has to be judged “hopeful, but not yet assured.” The third proved undiscussible.
At the Cairo conference and the preparations that led up to it the women were inspirational. On both the government and the NGO levels they simply took over. They were professional, focused, and unapologetic. Women have the babies, women bring up the families, women are the ones whose health is endangered by inadequate methods of fertility control. If women are to carry the burden of bearing and shaping the world’s future generations, they need the nutrition, the education, the health, the technology, and the freedom to do so responsibly.
It was wonderful to hear this argument presented in a world arena without cant or condescension, as a simple statement of fact. Muslim, Hindu, Christian women, rich and poor women, women speaking all the languages of the world, insisted on their centrality and accountability when it comes to childbearing and child care. They made the bishops, imams, and other male potentates look small.
The women asked for $17 billion per year for women’s and children’s health care and family planning. This sum was depicted by the press as enormous and unrealizable, though it is equivalent to just about four aircraft carriers. Two-thirds of it is to come from the low-income countries, only $5.6 billion from the rich.
The American public seems to believe that we bear a crushing foreign aid load, but in fact, out of our average annual gross economic product of $23,000 for every man, woman, and child of us, we spend just $44 on official development assistance. That’s the lowest amount of all the industrialized nations. Japanese aid amounts to $86 per capita per year, British $110, German $171, French $262, and Dutch $335.
Much of our aid pays for weapons, big dams, and other projects that reach the poor only indirectly, if at all. Just 11 percent is targeted for basic education, primary health care, drinking water and sanitation, family planning, and nutrition, though, to the best of our knowledge, these are the keys to population stabilization.
The United Nations calculates that basic needs could be provided for all the world’s people with the expenditure of 20 percent of government budgets in the poor countries and 20 percent of international aid. Only 13 percent of developing country budgets now goes to basic needs (while 28 percent goes to military spending) and only 7 percent of total international assistance. Even if we forgot about moral obligation and counted the direct cost of present and future poverty and population growth — the lost productivity, the refugees, the environmental damage, the civic disorder — we would see that supporting basic needs is the best investment we could make, both at home and abroad.
If we could see that, the $17 billion would be easy to find.
The unaddressed agenda item at Cairo was the question of how many of us the world can support, and at what level of consumption. It seems unbelievable that a world of rapidly multiplying people with rising material expectations and diminishing resources would hold a population conference and never raise that question. But that’s what we just did.
Delegates from poor nations did hurl occasional verbal grenades at the rich for worrying more about the numbers of the poor than about the disproportionate load of their own high consumption. But the issue of consumption never made it onto the official agenda. Nor did the question of ultimate population size, though some (mostly rich) governments and NGOs did try to set population targets. At the pace birth rates are falling, the human population is expected to stabilize eventually at 12.5 billion. Many scientists believe this number is too high to be supportable, much less desirable. If birth rates could come down faster, the future population might be limited to 8 billion or so.
That discussion was rejected outright, especially by the women who were so impressively making the case for women’s rights. There’s no point, they insisted, in being released from a cultural prison forcing us to have children we don’t want, only to walk into a prison that forces us not to have children we do want.
That argument resonates in my own woman’s heart. But an overpopulated world with diminishing resources is another, and worse, kind of prison. Overpopulation and overconsumption are the most difficult things in the world to talk about. They unleash torrents of pent-up guilt and resentment and fear and anger. No one really knows how to control either consumption or birth rates, and so specters of coercion and discrimination arise.
But keeping all that discomfort safely buried, claiming women’s rights to care for their own families while ignoring the responsibility of keeping the total number of families within the earth’s carrying capacity, heads us steadily toward a time when nature will impose the limits we refuse to impose on ourselves.
Maybe we will be ready for this discussion by the world population conference of 2004, when there will be fewer forests and fish, less soil and water and oil, more pollution, and almost a billion more of us.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994