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The Seattle Times

Seven Billion Souls and Counting: the Perils of an Overpopulated Planet

The dangers are many — from food shortages to climate change and fears of resulting social tensions and economic crises.

WASHINGTON — The population of Planet Earth is now projected to pass the 7 billion mark this October — up from just 2.5 billion in 1950. One study shows that if today's explosive birthrates in developing nations continue, the African continent alone, by the end of this century, could have 15 billion people — more than twice the population of the world today.

This won't happen. As populations age and urbanize, today's fertility rates — in many poor nations an average of five, even six children for every woman — are bound to recede.

But the speed of the decline depends significantly on whether women have access to family planning and contraception services. Plus legalized abortion. Unwanted pregnancies and abortions are actually declining in countries that have made abortion legal, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Yet it notes that 70,000 women around the world die each year from illegal, often seriously botched abortions.

A closely related issue: food for our expanding billions of people. Popular "Malthusian" concerns — how many people the globe can sustain — were put to rest by the fabled Green Revolution that flowered from the 1960s onward, bringing dramatic gains in new corn, wheat and rice varieties, huge new irrigation systems, synthetic fertilizers and pesticide use.

But more crop gains — especially gains to match the world's population growth — may be seriously limited. "The great agricultural system that feeds the human race is in trouble," Justin Gillis reports in a New York Times roundup of global food issues. A special point of concern: Demand for production of four crucial staples — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — has begun to outstrip production. Some grains more than doubled in cost in 2007 and again in the most recent price spikes.

Why is this occurring? Check your newspaper — recent weather disasters, from fires in Arizona, heat-scorched harvest loss in Russia, deep drought in Australia to record-setting floods in Pakistan and right now in North America. Plus melting glaciers and rising tornado, typhoon and hurricane threats. Add to that fresh indication that the rising carbon-dioxide levels of a warming climate will not, as many scientists had projected, necessarily act as a plant fertilizer and help raise yields.

But the world's population plays a major role too. In 1960, the Population Press reports, there were 1.2 acres of good cropland for each person in the world. Today that figure has shrunk to half an acre per person — in China a quarter acre, a decline compounded by soil degradation.

Nothing in human or natural life is infinite: One day world population must and will stop expanding. Yet there's remarkably little U.S. or global discussion of the perils in today's rising world population — to food, to climate, and in fomenting social tensions and economic crises.

The Copenhagen summit, for example, produced no mention of population issues. British broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough suggests there's a "bizarre taboo" around population, as if it's "not PC, possibly even racist to mention it."

And in U.S. politics, the debate (and apparent new Republican orthodoxy) focuses on "right to life" anti-abortion politics as if population issues were virtually nonexistent. The House of Representatives in February actually voted to reinstate the so-called "gag rule" — denying foreign organizations receiving U.S. family-planning assistance the right to use their own non-U.S. funds to advocate for, or provide information and referrals for, legal abortions.

First imposed by President Reagan in 1984, the gag rule was rescinded by President Clinton, reinstated by President George W. Bush in 2001, then lifted by President Obama when he took office. When it's in effect, vast numbers of women worldwide are denied community-based reproductive-health counseling, resulting in dangerous abortions by untrained providers.

On top of that, there's now strong Republican pressure to cut deeply into the core federal budget allocations for international family planning and reproductive health — at $615 million a year, a tiny fraction of what we spend for our foreign wars.

The United States has its population challenges at home — building the infrastructure, from schools to roads to food supply — for a predicted 100 million more people by 2040. Preparing for an expanded nation, including a proposed national infrastructure bank, needs to be accelerated — right now.

Locally, there are sparks of good news — inventive new ways to build metropolitan economies, reduce regional carbon emissions, cope with schooling and social issues — topics I often cover in this column.

But there's an alarming possibility: that our best community efforts may be stopgaps, even canceled out, until national policy turns from denial to engagement on the pressing global issues of global population, food and climate change — the very basics of life on Earth.

Neal Peirce

Columnist Neal Peirce is chairman of the Citistates Group, a network of journalists and speakers who believe that successful metropolitan regions are today's key to economic competitiveness and sustainable communities.

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