Living in the wide open spaces of Montana, I rarely think about the Earth being overpopulated. Oh, maybe when I visit Glacier National Park in the summer and am standing in that long restroom line at the Logan Pass visitor center, I might briefly muse that there seem to be plenty of humans taking up precious space.
John Seager thinks about it a lot. Seager is president of the Washington, D.C.-based group Population Connection that noted scientist Paul Ehrlich co-founded in 1968 at the same time he wrote his best-selling book “The Population Bomb.” Seager says that book had the same effect on our views of population growth as Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” had on climate change.
“Ehrlich raised the alarm on population growth,” Seager said, “and people responded in large numbers to that.”
Not all of Ehrlich’s predictions of the dire consequences of overpopulation have come to pass. Seager says Ehrlich’s a scientist, not a soothsayer but the central premise is still true – that family planning should be an option available to everyone if we are all to live comfortably on this finite planet.
“In a world where 25,000 children die every day needlessly from easily preventable causes,” said Seager, “where a billion people live on less than a dollar a day; where 40 percent of the world doesn’t even have access to modern sanitation – it’s fair to say that population challenges remain a global challenge for all of us.”
The rate of population growth has declined globally since Ehrlich wrote his book back in 1968, but Seager says we’re still adding the same number of people each year – about 80 million.
“Another way to look at it is we add the equivalent of another Montana about every four days.”
To Seager, the negative consequences of this rate of population growth are obvious.
“If everyone on Earth ate the U.S. diet, there would only be enough food for 2 billion people,” said Seager. “The other 5 billion would have nothing. So there are all sorts of challenges we have both in terms of social justice, and in terms of the environment.”
The key according to Seager is not to think in terms of “population control” but rather voluntary family planning and the empowerment of women.
“When those conditions are in effect,” Seager said, “you see family size shrink not because anybody’s telling anybody what to do, but because people are making that free and voluntary choice.”
And again, the statistics are alarming. Three billion – yes, billion – people lack access to adequate food and housing and sanitation despite all our technological advances.
“In India, there are more people who have cellphones than have indoor plumbing,” said Seager.
The recent election-year debate over contraception in this country surprised Seager.
“We’re literally back to debating whether people have the right to access birth control,” Seager said. “And frankly it’s one of the issues that’s making it difficult for the United States to play the kind of leadership role that I know this administration would like to play because they’re fighting literally a rearguard action against people that want to drag us back into an increasingly distant past.”
Nearly all women – more than 98 percent – who are sexually active in the United States have used some form of modern birth control, so Seager sees a huge disconnect between the debate and the reality.
“The key to the health of any society anywhere of any size rests in the productivity of its citizens,” said Seager. “You have a more productive society by having better education, better health care, better workplace flexibility … and none of those things is made easier by reversing the decision of people to have smaller families. When you do have smaller families, simple math shows you have more resources to invest in each child.”
World Population Day is July 11, and Seager hopes it’s a reminder of a still relevant message.
“There really is no better way to improve the planet than by ensuring that every woman and every couple have the ability to really plan and space the number of their children.”
Sally Mauk is news director at Montana Public Radio, KUFM, in Missoula. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Missoulian.