John Seager: Straight Talk about Population

E Magazine talked to John Seager, the recently appointed president and CEO of Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth) a week after World Population Day July 11. Seager is a veteran population activist, having served at Population Connection for nearly a decade. He is also a former Environmental Protection Agency and Congressional aide, serving under seven-term U.S. Representative Peter Kostmayer, who he succeeds at the helm of the 90,000-member Population Connection.

John Seager

E Magazine: Could you enumerate the ways in which our environment is affected by population growth?

John Seager: The best description I"ve heard of is not original to me: Think of a chair with four legs. One leg is environment, the second leg is population, the third leg is population’s impact on the environment and the fourth leg is environment"s impact on the population. It"s a complex and, if you will, interactive relationship. Look, for example, at the question of how many people can the Earth support. It"s been analyzed through a lot of different lenses over the last 400 years, most usefully by Joel Cohen, who wrote a book by that very title. There is no answer when you get right down to it. It depends on the kind of world you want. In terms of resource availability, the best guess that I"ve seen is that the Earth can support one to two billion people, according to the American lifestyle.

Now when I travel around I run into three camps out there. One is the "we"re going to run out of food" camp, another is the "we"re going to run out of water camp," and the third is "we"re going run out of energy first." I respect all of those folks, but my hunch is that the sink is going to get full before the refrigerator gets empty. There was a State Department report released by, of all things, the Bush administration that said that if we continue our unabated use of fossil fuels, the southeastern forests will disappear, the sugar maples will disappear and the alpine meadows will disappear. The impact of climate change is devastating. Even if we were to stop using fossil fuels completely tomorrow—and no one thinks we"re going to do that—glaciers would continue to melt for thousands of years.

This is a highly unusual circumstance. You"d have to go back 70 million years to find a precedent for it on this planet. The impact is extraordinary, and I have to say that I"m not sure even zero population growth gets us to the point where we can address it. But I think we have to look at that as some kind of final goal.

What do you think is the ideal population of the United States?

I think that when you start looking at individual places in the planet you overlook the nature of the global ecosystem. Let me give you a good example: One of the greenest places in terms of sustainability in the United States is the borough of Manhattan. Very few people have cars, you"re crazy to own a car there. I"d be spending as much to park that car as some people do to rent an apartment. Whatever heating and air conditioning people don"t use goes to the people above them and below them. Virtually all the open space is common open space. People take mass transit to work. So although the planet is overcrowded, you"d be hard-pressed to make a case that Manhattan is overcrowded.

You"ve got to look at it globally because that"s the way it works. I was in Aspen, Colorado recently and I was asked "What does the fact that the Earth"s population is going to grow by 70-something million people next year have to do with Aspen?" Well, I said they"re all coming to Aspen, every single one of them. Some by car, but the rest of them are coming in terms of their impact. And maybe it doesn"t matter to the people in Aspen if there"s no more snow—maybe they can repackage the power of the tropical rainforest. The fact is that we"re all in this together and we need to start thinking that way.

You mentioned a case in which sprawl is not connected to population growth but would you agree that population growth is a major component of sprawl?

I"m asked that question a lot and it"s tough to correlate the two. It depends on what you mean by population growth. For example, there"s a great deal of sprawl in southern New Hampshire where I was recently, and they have an immigration problem—people immigrating from Massachusetts. So is it population growth or just moving the pieces around a chess board? I think that sprawl is mostly related to our patterns of consumption, and my hunch is that unless and until we make cities attractive places to raise families—and some are but a lot aren"t—we won"t do anything about sprawl.

If you were to name five things you"d like to see the U.S. do as policy in regards to population growth, what would they be?

The first thing that we could do is return to our position of international leadership rather than international embarrassment on family planning. You know, in 1974 the world held its first international conference on population in Bucharest, and the U.S. was a leader. For a long time we had concerned politicians in this country—and I might add that many of them were Republicans. Richard Nixon had his faults perhaps, but he was a great supporter of family planning. Gerald Ford and even that great “liberal” Barry Goldwater were supporters. There were international family planning conferences in "74, "84 and "94, but there wasn"t any international conference in 2004 because nobody wanted to invite the U.S. It was like inviting crazy Uncle Phil over to Thanksgiving. The U.S. is not in the position where it"s able to contribute positively to dialogue and the funding of these kinds of programs.

We agreed at the 1994 conference in Cairo to put up $2 billion a year as our share of the smaller piece of funding these programs, the larger piece being funded by the poorer countries themselves. We put up 20 cents on the dollar of what we committed, and yet the poorer countries are doing a better job than we are. So that"s the first thing, to stand behind our Cairo commitment and fully fund international family planning and stop being crazy Uncle Phil.

Point two is to look at the issue more broadly. Each year the U.S. government spends about 15 cents out of every $100 of our GDP helping the poorest places on Earth, the developing countries. Norway spends more than 90 cents out of every $100. Instead of being 21st out of the 22 donor nations, we should move to the head of the class. We should lead the world in terms of dealing with the underlying causes of population growth, which are infant mortality and poverty—the fact that a billion people on this planet live on less than a dollar a day. The world is watching us and they know that our deeds do not match our words.

Point three: We need to stop this silly business of supporting abstinence-only in place of comprehensive sex-ed. We would love to see an amendment offered to the effect that all sex education programs in this country have to be medically accurate. That amendment would fail in the House of Representatives because it would mean a death knell for the abstinence-only programs.

Our country, a leader around the world in terms of medical research, is adopting ideas that

are much more typical of the 12th century than the 21st century. We"re being seen around the world as a country that is in deep denial about basic science, whether it"s reproductive science or the science of global warming. It"s an extraordinarily embarrassing situation. Look at Iran as an example. They"re not exactly a liberal bunch, but they decided in 1989 to adopt very positive approaches to dealing with family planning. With good sex education and counseling, the size of the average family decreased from five children per woman in 1999 to 2.5 children today. So these programs work when you"re willing to apply the science.

Would you say that the Bush administration is falsely linking family planning to abortion?

I think there are two issues here. First of all, I personally and we as an organization stand firmly behind the notion of reproductive rights. As far as we"re concerned, those rights can"t be negotiated, adjudicated or legislated, or they are not rights. And it is the right of every woman on this planet to decide freely what happens with her body. It"s not my body, it"s hers and I have no right to say anything about it. In that sense I think they are wrong on both counts, but beyond that they have also done their best to muddy the water and have portrayed their position as being "anti-abortion." In many cases, if you dig deep enough, they are kow-towing to the anti-family-planning people. The people like Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), who once referred to contraceptives on the floor of the house as "baby pesticides." And the 223 members of Congress who just yesterday [July 20] voted against allowing women facing the threat of obstetrical fistula to benefit from support for family planning.

Don"t those family planning policies lead to more abortions?

Absolutely. The fact is that the best way to reduce the level of abortions is to provide good family planning. And yet this administration has contributed to policies which have increased maternal deaths, infant mortality, and abortion. Seems like a curious agenda for any decent person to adopt.

Thanks to Shauna Dineen and Kate Slomkowski for editorial assistance.

CONTACT:Population Connection