Apocalypse when?

A United Nations plan to limit global population growth triggers an acrid war of words

PAUL KAIHLA September 5 1994

Apocalypse when?

A United Nations plan to limit global population growth triggers an acrid war of words

PAUL KAIHLA September 5 1994

Apocalypse when?

A United Nations plan to limit global population growth triggers an acrid war of words


Looking down on Kenya’s crime-ridden Mathare Valley, eight kilometres from downtown Nairobi, a visitor sees a dense mishmash of one-room shacks made from scrap wood, garbage bags and cardboard stretching out in every direction to the horizon. Locals call the vast shantytown “the valley”: a hell’s kitchen of humanity that is a gruesome affront to any standard of individual dignity. Home to perhaps 300,000 Africans—no one knows for sure—“the valley” has no electricity, no running water and no sanitation system. Instead of roads, the shacks are arranged along a desperate maze of rat-infested laneways—strewn with garbage and the feces of children too afraid to use the rickety and highly contaminated pit latrines. During the six-month rainy season, the lanes turn into rivers of mud and sewage.

As incredible as it may sound, thousands of people elect to move to the Kenyan capital’s largest slum each year because it is better than where they were living before. The migrants are mostly members of the Luo tribe. There is no food, or room, for them in their homeland in the province of Nyanza, a four-hour drive west of Nairobi. The farmers there cannot keep up with the country’s average birthrate of 6.3 children per woman—times higher than in Canada. Almost all of the arable land is under cultivation, and as scavengers clear more bushland in search of wood for fuel, once-fertile soil is being ravaged by erosion and cheap but toxic pesticides, many of which are banned in developed countries. Every day, more tattered refugees of hunger and ecological degradation arrive in Nairobi’s Mathare Valley, its chaotic boundaries eating up several square kilometres of bushland each year like a spreading cancer.

What is happening in “the valley,” researchers say, is only a microcosm of what will happen across Latin America, Africa and Asia with increasing ferocity in the coming decades because of surging populations and shrinking resources. Fearing that future, delegates from 180 nations, including Canadian Immigration Minister Sergio Marchi, U.S. Yice-President AÍ Gore and Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, will assemble in Cairo next week for a UN-sponsored global summit on population—to be staged only a few kilometres from the Egyptian capital’s own swollen shantytowns. At the centre of the conference’s agenda is a 20-year, $ 110-billion program to provide women in developing countries with better access to contraception, health care and schooling. But already the plan has unleashed an acrid war of words—pitting the Vatican against the United Nations and Islamic fundamentalists against the secular West.

In the past few weeks, Pope John Paul II and senior Catholic officials around the world have orchestrated an all-out assault on the conference, accusing the United Nations of conspiring to sanction abortion as a means of family planning in the developing world. “We protest,” the Pope declared during a recent general audience in St. Peter’s Square. “We cannot walk towards the future with a project of systematic death of the unborn.” Carrying the fight a step further, a group of Muslim lawyers last week filed suit against the Egyptian government for agreeing to host the conference, saying the forum violates Islamic morals. Elsewhere, critics on both the left and the right have attacked the conference as either too little, too late, or a costly exercise in social engineering that is bound to fail.

Either way, the question of how many people the Earth can support is now at the top of the international agenda. In the next 35 years, even if the current trend of declining fertility rates continues, the United Nations forecasts that the Earth’s population of 5.7 billion will balloon to nearly nine billion. Ninety-five per cent of that growth will take place in the developing world. The upshot, say many experts, is that shantytowns like Nairobi’s Mathare Valley and refugee-producing conflicts like the recent slaughter in Rwanda will proliferate—creating a 21st century of growing anarchy, warfare and disease in which masses of Third World migrants will be scrambling to get inside the protected citadel of the industrialized West.

If those forecasts prove accurate,

Canadians and other citizens of the developed world may face a stark choice: whether to open their borders to millions of new refugees, or to slam the door shut and turn their backs on the spreading misery. The goal of the Cairo conference is to

0 lower the average global birthrate of x 3.3 children per woman to about § two, in which case the world’s popu| lation would peak at about 7.8 bilg lion by the year 2050. já During most of recorded history,

% the world’s population grew by less than one per cent a year, in part

1 because of shorter lives and high infant mortality rates. But with the s advent of modem medicine, agriculture and food distribution, average

life expectancies worldwide have jumped to 66 years now, from 46 in

1950. As a result, the world’s population—which stood at about one

billion in 1800—is now increasing by that number every 10 years.

While the steep rise in the world’s population in the last half of the 20th century has brought calls for zero, or even negative, population growth, many conservative economists insist that there is no crisis over the Earth’s ability to support the expected increase. Nicknamed

“cornucopians,” they argue that the international market will always find a substitute product or a new technology to circumvent shortages of particular resources. A case in point is copper: in the 1970s, some environmentalists predicted that the metal would be in short supply in the 1990s. Instead, there is a glut of copper and prices have plummeted because fibre-optic cable and plastic piping have replaced copper in many uses.

As for crowded slums and food shortages in the developing world, the cornucopians point out that couples tend to have fewer children as their incomes rise. Economist Michael Walker of the Fraser Institute, a conservative Vancouver think-tank, says that the key is to increase the productivity of farmers like those in Kenya’s Nyanza province. That can be accomplished, he says, by protecting property rights so that farmers can take out loans and invest in tools and crops. Walker adds that the UN should concentrate on restructuring developing countries along tree-market lines rather than spending money on family planning and health services. “Fancy having a conference on how you’re going to manipulate millions of people into having fewer babies,” Walker says mockingly.

“State intervention does not work.”

But while the general optimism of the cornucopians is comforting, it conflicts with the rough consensus emerging among most demographers, scientists and policy analysts involved in population and resource research. Their view is that a high percentage of the planet’s peoples are doomed to live with poverty and violence unless population growth is dramatically reduced. That was the conclusion of a yearlong study by researchers at Cornell University’s department of ecology and systematics. Interestingly, their report, released in February, does not point to the depletion of nonrenewable resources like oil as the problem. Rather, they say, the Earth’s biosphere can only | produce enough renewable resources— 3 food, fresh water and fish—to sustain two § billion people at a standard of living equal | to that in Europe. «

Another study by Cornell’s David Pi“ mentel, a professor of insect ecology and agricultural sciences, and Nobel-winning physicist Henry W.

Kendall draws on statistics from the United Nations’

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Pimentel and Kendall state that even if the United Nations’ population target of 7.8 billion were met, world food production would have to triple in the next 55 years for every inhabitant to have an adequate diet. That prospect is at best remote, they add, because less than half of the Earth’s land is suitable for agriculture, and almost all of that is already exploited. Moreover, many of the benefits of the Green Revolution, which boosted crop yields with irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides, have already been realized— along with such unwelcome side-effects as nutrient depletion, pollution and water shortages.

Two long-term environmental problems, largely created by the industrialized countries, could also lower crop yields: increased ultraviolet radiation due to the thinning ozone layer and reduced precipitation because of global warming. Said Pimentel: “While the number of mouths to feed has increased, grain production has actually been declining since 1981.”

A Vatican official warned that the Cairo conference could spark ‘the most disastrous massacre in history’

According to yet another study, released on Aug. 13 by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, the solutions invoked by cornucopians are unlikely to stave off disaster. While Western countries helped avert large-scale famines in nations like India in the 1960s with Green Revolution aid programs, there is no new biotechnology or high-yield seed currently in development that will significantly boost world grain harvests. At the same time, marine biologists at the FAO report that all 17 of the world’s major ocean fisheries are being fished at, or beyond, capacity. Nine of them are in decline or have been shut down—as in the case of Canada’s Atlantic cod fishery.

Perhaps the most provocative research on the consequences of the looming gap between resources and population is being done by Thomas Homer-Dixon, head of the University of Toronto’s Peace and Conflict Studies program (page 18). Homer-Dixon foresees a 21st century in which overpopulation, unequal distribution of wealth and environmental degradation combine to produce tribal warfare, mass migrations and the breakup of countries around the globe “with a speed, complexity

and magnitude unprecedented in history.” That bleak scenario may not be farfetched in a world where more than one billion people already go hungry and about two billion lack basics like running water or electricity. In a speech in Washington in July, senior Clinton adviser Tim Wirth, citing Homer-Dixon’s findings, said that recent upheavals in Haiti, Mexico and Rwanda were all examples of “scarcity-conflicts.” Declared Wirth: “These conflicts could intensify and widen as ever-growing populations compete for an ever-dwindling supply of land, fuel and water.”

For that reason, says Wirth, population stabilization is at the top of Clinton’s foreign agenda. One irony is that the West is now working to lower population growth rates in the Third World that largely resulted from the introduction of Western medicine and technology. In pursuit of reduced birthrates, an overriding objective of the UN Cairo conference will be to improve the status of women in developing countries. Among the goals is universal primary education by the year 2000. In Kenya, for example, the average woman has less than two years of schooling and female illiteracy stands at 40 per cent. Historically, as women attain higher levels of education, they fare better in the job market, marry later and have fewer children. In Canada, the average woman had about four children in the late 1950s compared with fewer than two today.

The United Nations also wants to distribute contraceptives more widely and teach women that spacing out pregnancies lowers health risks. Yet in many African cultures, there are powerful obstacles to family planning. In rural areas, men often want large families as a testament to virility, or as insurance that they will be cared for in their old age—and wives invariably oblige. Tadeus Deressie, 33, an East African merchant who spent several years in an Ethiopian shantytown, says that sex is often one of the few forms of recreation available to poor people. “There’s not much else to do after dark when there’s no electricity and the wood fires bum out.”

The United Nations says that programs such as one in northwestern Cameroon can help to transform male attitudes. There, the country’s health ministry selected 69 “male opinion leaders,” including tribal healers, and convinced them to distribute condoms and spermicides. According to a United Nations report, “More than half of those who were not using a modern family^ planning method at the outset I had begun to do so by the end § of the project.” z

To the Vatican, those efforts g are not only misguided but im| moral. Roman Catholic doc| trine approves of natural meth| ods of birth control—abstinence | during ovulation—but bans 1/1 the use of any artificial form of contraception as well as abortion. Although it does not actively promote abortion as a form of family planning, the Cairo document calls on governments to “evaluate and review laws and policies on abortion so that they take into account the commitment to women’s health . . . rather than relying on criminal codes or punitive measures.” Church officials interpret the document as legitimizing abortion. And in July, the head of the Vatican’s Council for the Family, Alfonso Cardinal López Trujillo, predicted that the Cairo conference would lead to “the most disastrous massacre in history” if it did not call for an outright ban on abortion.

Frances Kissling, a papal critic and director of the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice, states: “The Vatican is saying that the Cairo document is an example of the northern plague of individualism and consumerism, and that it wants to protect these simpler, pastoral people of the south from being infected by these diseases.” She adds: “Its opposition to this conference is absolutely unconscionable in the face of massive poverty and limited resources. The Pope’s stance would condemn millions more people to misery and death.”

Population politics, meanwhile, have made strange bedfellows. Some black activists in the United States, and Islamic fundamentalists in Arab countries, have joined the attack against the Cairo conference, calling it, among other things, an attempt to westernize the developing world. “These family-planning policies are designed to hold off the decreasing proportion of white people in the world at the expense of black people,” declares Conrad Worrill, a professor of history and edu-

cation at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and head of the National Black United Front. “This is a campaign of cultural genocide by the West.” That view is echoed by a group of African Catholic bishops who published a letter in Zimbabwe, last month insisting that it was wrong for rich nations to deprive poor families of the right to have children: “On the contrary, the duty of the rich is to create an economically secure climate and future for the disadvantaged.”

Cornell’s Pimentel, on the other hand, says the Cairo blueprint does not go far enough. He and other researchers say that the goal should be to reduce the world’s population, not just slow its growth. If each couple had an average of 1.5 children, he says, the Earth would have two billion people by the year 2100—an ideal number given the planet’s resources. To meet that target, Pimentel endorses coercive measures such as those practised in China, where couples are heavily fined—or sterilized—if they have more than one, or in some cases two, children. Said Pimentel: “Countries in places like Africa have to ask themselves: ‘Do we want to live with our numbers in a sound manner, or are we going to let nature take care of our numbers?’ ”

Nature has rebelled against rising populations before. In the 14th century, famine, war and disease wiped out as many as 45 million people, or close to half of Europe’s population at the end of 300 years of explosive growth. In the modem world, mobility has sometimes allowed people to dodge similar catastrophes, as when more than a million Irish emigrated to North America during the 1840s potato famines. In the 21st century, the choice may be to open the West’s doors to countless millions of new refugees from places like Nairobi’s Mathare Valley—or to spend billions of dollars to avert what experts say could be a global crisis of unprecedented magnitude.