William N. Ryerson William N. Ryerson, 10/28/2011 [Archive]

At 7 Billion, Contraception For Pollyanna

At 7 Billion, Contraception for Pollyanna

By William Ryerson

Some people think that daily global population growth of 227,000 people is a wonderful thing. For them, asking our planet to support 1.59 million more people every week is a reasonable request.

Many do not. In light of alarming trends like ocean acidification, the ongoing human-caused loss of biodiversity and sky-rocketing food and commodity prices, rights-based efforts to slow down and halt population growth as soon as possible seem like better ideas. As we race past the 7 billion threshold on Halloween, it's time to talk about this issue.

One root of disagreement can be traced to the 20th century, when global population increased from 1.6 billion to over 6 billion. Despite this rapid growth, and two world wars, exponential leaps in human longevity and living standards were achieved. Many believed that human progress would never be slowed by resource limitations.

The tragically flawed views offered at the time by major institutions are revealing.

In 1999, when population passed 6 billion, the International Energy Agency said that oil - if things went badly - might rise to $28 per barrel by 2020. Today, it is around $94 per barrel.In the same year, the International Food Policy Research Institute forecast that food prices would stay near their historical lows through 2010 and would then keep falling. Food prices are now near all time highs and are contributing to civil unrest globally. In 1998, the Director of Bread for the World, Richard Hoehn, declared hunger would be eliminated in 15 years.Today, 1 billion are undernourished and can't afford to buy sufficient food.

The growth promoters have constantly said we could handle more people while improving living standards and protecting the environment. They were wrong.

When highly-credentialed agencies and individuals keep saying that rapid population growth is not a challenge to Earth's well-being, it is not surprising that governments and philanthropies listen and take their money elsewhere. Funding for family planning information and services has been reduced significantly since the 1994 Cairo conference on population. Beyond morally failing the women of the world, this has caused unplanned and unwanted childbearing and a terrible toll on health.

To help solve the population challenge and avoid more human suffering, funding for family planning information and services needs to increase dramatically. Entertainment-education programs, like radio and televisions soap operas, are particularly powerful in modeling daughter education, child spacing, and family planning use to mass audiences.

For example, in Ethiopia, one radio soap opera attracted half the population of the country.As the fictional characters wrestled with birth control topics during the course of the story, there was a 133% increase in the number of Ethiopians who began to use family planning themselves.Not because they were forced to, but because they wanted to.

Also, many activists lament that there are 215 million women globally who don't want a pregnancy within the next two years but aren't using contraception. Less well known is that unscientific fears of side effects, male opposition and religious intolerance are the main reasons for their non-use. Traditions of large family size are also a challenge. In Nigeria, for example, the average ideal number of children among married women is 7 and for married men, 9. In turn, knowledge of contraceptive methods is high: 90% among men and 72% among women, but use by married women hovers around 10%.

Neither the human community, nor the planet, benefits from misguided reassurances that population issues are not in need of attention. History proves that such Pollyanna thinking does not help, but rather hinders, progress.

William Ryerson is President of Population Institute and Population Media Center.He can be reached at ryerson@populationmedia.org.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.



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