Caring Capacity

We’ve written about overpopulation many times in these pages because we think it is a profoundly important environmental issue. Yet it’s one that the green movement largely ignores, primarily for fear of alienating a public that may associate family planning with abortion or see attempts to curb immigration as racist.

Population is a complicated issue. Unlike efforts to mandate recycling or set fuel-efficiency standards, where laws and regulations can be put into place, there are no clear "action items" that will have near-term impact on slowing human population growth.

Nonetheless, we can’t afford to be in denial about this issue: The sheer numbers of people added to the planet each year easily roll back any per capita progress made by conservation measures.

©Jerry Russell

In the United States today, population grows mainly because of immigration. Without immigration, population in the U.S. would actually stabilize or decline. In much of the developing world, however, birth rates continue to soar well above the replacement level of two children per couple, and population grows well beyond the "carrying capacity" of these impoverished countries.

I stand with those who feel that overpopulation cannot be addressed solely within the United States. Emphasis on U.S. immigration alone only sends a message to the world that America only cares about Americans. Immigration is a symptom of dire conditions elsewhere well before it becomes a cause of relatively minor inconvenience here. Grinding, hopeless poverty creates the desperate situations that compel people to leave their beloved homelands to seek refuge here and elsewhere.

Family planning aid should be a vital part of our outreach to the world. Instead of simply patrolling our borders, we should be providing desperately needed birth control assistance, especially in poor countries where it is priced out of reach of many people.

Unfortunately, although an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that population growth is a serious contributor to Third World economic problems, and a very strong majority supports U.S. family planning aid, the Bush administration, simplistically linking family planning to abortion, was quick to roll-back Clinton-era efforts already in place. The administration rescinded $34 million appropriated by Congress for United Nations family planning efforts in China, and halted condom shipments to nearly 30 developing countries, including some with high rates of AIDS. The silly irony is that, despite the administration’s supposed concern for unborn babies, withholding family planning aid will only lead to more abortions and, in the process, cause many women’s deaths in back alleys.

Family planning aid—making birth control available, educating women, and encouraging men to take an active role—is where the emphasis needs to be. If anti-immigration activists would recognize that immigration impacts here are merely microcosms of population impacts anywhere, and address population growth and movement at its roots, I think the charges of racism will go away and we might just begin to make some progress for all of humanity.