Commentary: Our crowded planet

Why is this planet so darn crowded? When I was in grade school in the 1950s, the earth held 1.5 billion people. Today that number has quadrupled to six billion. And another three billion are on the way by 2050 – nearly all of them in the world’s poorest countries.

We once had a sensible approach to what was called the “population explosion”:

-- donor countries would provide family planning advice, clinics, condoms, diaphragms and the pill

-- and as developing countries got wealthier and healthier, people would stop having eight kids so that a couple survived to care for them in old age.

But the battle to reduce population growth has been lost.

Some 30 years ago you could take a short boat ride off the Thai coast, plunge into the sea with a snorkel and witness a scene of stunning beauty that is as close to the face of God you can find. Sunlight dappled through the aquamarine water and spectacular fish of yellow, white, orange and green danced among the waving tentacles of the anemones while inky-black sea urchins waved their pointed spines and shiny mirrors reflected light from their cores.

Today, silt covers many Thai coral reefs which are 90 percent dead. I recently dove off the planet’s second longest reef in Belize and witnessed another scene of ruined coral beds. Too many mouths to feed, overfishing, over-tourism, over-farming on the land, and rising sea temperatures likely due to carbon pollution have ruined much of the world’s coral reefs which served as incubators for some of the huge fish that roam the seas.

Forty years ago as a student in Paris I could enter Notre Dame cathedral any time of day and find a seat to ponder the 800 year old symphony of stone thrown up as homage to man’s spirit and to the image of God. Last time I was in Paris I had to wait hours on line with thousands of tourists to get in the door.

What happened to our planet? The smart, coherent concept of limiting births stumbled on some retrograde silly customs, nasty tribal competition, religion and politics.

The turning point came in 1994 at the Cairo population conference where the Catholic Church joined an unholy alliance with Islamic fundamentalists and right wing American fundamentalists to block family planning and confuse the public image of birth control with abortion. Instead of a race towards a sane, developing planet, they basically said “let’s have a race to see who can out-populate rival religions and nations.”

We are at the peak growth in population now with 700 million additional people on earth each year according to the UN and World Bank. Some 70 percent of the $10 billion a year spent worldwide on birth control is provided by the countries seeking to limit growth. U.S. aid for family planning is only $451 million while it needs to be more than $3 billion to meet the goals set at the Cairo conference. Population experts say the U.S. Congress is afraid of the anti-abortion lobby even though an extra $3.9 billion in global aid could prevent 22 million abortions.

When family planning became available in the 1970s through U.S. aid programs, Buddhist Thailand rapidly cut its fertility rate from seven kids to two. As a result, the population peaked at about 65 million, most kids get educated and the standard of living has steadily climbed. But in the Philippines, where the Catholic Church opposes all artificial birth control such as condoms, the population doubled to 125 million. Just weeks after he recently became president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino called for more family planning and reportedly was threatened with excommunication.

This opposition to family planning is imposed on poor countries in Latin America and Asia although the Church’s homeland of Italy has the world’s highest rate of birth control use.

Since a 1986 Mexico City conference, the United States has periodically blocked assistance to family planning groups that won’t promise not to tell families with an unwanted pregnancy that abortion is an option. Republicans enforce the ban and Democrats do not. But liberals also bear some blame: many clammed up on keeping population down because they felt the guilt spread by Third World nationalists who argued that family planning aimed to limit the number of black and brown people on earth.

The result is a slowly spreading disaster. Experts say that in theory there is enough food for all – six billion or even nine. It’s just that some people can’t afford it. But the result is that hunger stalks one sixth of the people on earth. And it won’t get better. Aside from food, nine billion people consume vast amounts of water, they produce sewage and garbage and are at risk for diseases such as TB, malaria, dysentery and AIDS all spread in crowded, poor populations.

Some said that when Third World countries got rich and educated they would voluntarily seek to limit family size to two kids. But in much if the world, poverty remains entrenched and high fertility remains a cultural way to prepare for old age as well as a symbol of male power.

These days, with antibiotics and other care, more kids survive. But when they are two and three, there is not enough food. When they are five or six there are not enough places in school. When they are 16 there are no jobs and the land has already been divided into tiny parcels. The good land has been used so the extra children farm the steep hillsides or river banks and coastal area all prone to floods, landslides, erosion. You might think rural life is a rose garden till you see houses built inches apart with stinking pools of urine reeking as you try to sleep and malarial mosquitoes waiting to strike.

So many go to cities and live in crowded tin shanties stretching miles in all directions. Places where you need a penny to use a toilet and where gangs rule and ethnic rivalry lies waiting for an excuse to burst upon the scene as it did in Kenya and Kyrgyzstan and Rwanda and Ivory Coast.

It’s time to rethink what has happened and to bring together the medical, social, economic and anthropological experts from the rich and the developing countries. Bring in the ministers of health and agriculture and development. Invite the priests and imams and rabbis. Let’s ask ourselves if we can take up that heavy load once more and try to speed up the use of family planning and remove the stigma of religious, ethnic, nationalist or racial rivalry and fear.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.