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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Six Billion Babies

Air Date: Week of

On October twelfth, the world's population is projected to reach six billion. The marker is drawing lots of attention from the media and environmental groups. But Joni Seager, a member of the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment, says all the hype is focused in the wrong direction.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In case you haven't noticed the media blitz, the Day of Six Billion is upon us. October twelfth is the day the United Nations Population Fund says the number of people on the planet will hit six billion. That's more than double what it was in 1960, and many groups are using the milestone as an urgent call to action. The world, they say, cannot sustain this rate of population growth. But others say focusing on numbers alone is alarmist, and ignores social and political factors in calculating the impact of overpopulation on the environment. Among them is Joni Seager, a professor of geography at the University of Vermont, and member of the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment. She says population growth isn't as simple as the Day of Six Billion promoters make it sound.

SEAGER: I think it's disingenuous to argue that there is a one-to-one correlation between environmental distress and population growth. One hundred lentil-eating, bicycle-riding, solar-powered people are going to put less pressure on the environment than one hundred beef-eating, car-driving, fossil fuel-using people.

CURWOOD: So, do you think we even need to be concerned about population growth?

SEAGER: Well, you know, I think we do, but -- it would be on my agenda, but very low on my agenda. Well below, for example, militaries. Militaries are probably the most destructive cluster of institutions that wreak havoc, both at a local and global scale. The industrial fossil fuel-powered economy; poverty and the gap between rich and poor; the consumption habits of the affluent: all those things are on my list well ahead of population growth as environmental concerns.

CURWOOD: Well, let's say, and I think it really does look like it will be the case, that decreasing the birth rate remains a priority for the international community. How would you go about this?

SEAGER: We know that the only way to bring population growth rates down is to improve the status of women. That is, we need to focus on women's rights, reproductive rights, improving women's education, improving women's sexual rights, challenging norms of unhindered male sexual access to women, and the violence that often attends to that.

CURWOOD: Let's say someone was skeptical of you, though, Joni Seager, and said, "Wait a second. What do you mean, women's rights to reduce population?"

SEAGER: Well, in fact it's not just Joni Seager who is saying this. It's not just me who is saying this. The Cairo Conference on Population in 1994 that brought together the world's governments and many NGOs in fact have now committed themselves to improving the status of women and women's rights, as a means of stabilizing population growth rates.

CURWOOD: Let's go back to the environment here. The link between population growth and environmental degradation is being thrown around a lot in this debate, usually as a sort of fundamental truth.

SEAGER: Mm hm.

CURWOOD: So, if environmental activists are calling for a reduction in population, and feminists are calling for an end to population control, do you feel a tension between feminism and environmentalism?

SEAGER: Well, of course, many feminists are environmentalists and vice-versa, and I would count myself among that group. But, I think there is a tension between a feminist analysis of environmental problems and a mainstream environmental analysis of environmental problems. On the population issue, yes, there has been a divide between the two communities. A feminist analysis is one that says: Let's re-frame the problem, and therefore the solutions. Let's look at some of the other issues that are putting pressures on the environment, and let's start working on those first, rather than thinking that the first and last resort is to manipulate women's bodies -- that is, after all, what population control does -- as a simple solution to environmental problems.

CURWOOD: What's the failure in the analysis that the environmental movement is using?

SEAGER: I think that environmental groups have done tremendous work in some areas, and yet have pulled their punches when it comes to the large institutional structures that really are causing significant global environmental deterioration.

CURWOOD: Do you think we can continue growing at our current rate and maintain a sustainable planet?

SEAGER: I think we can, only if we alter our, as it were, lifestyle. If we re-imagine and re-vision our communities, our economies, our political structure, and the levels of equality and inequality in a society. We cannot maintain the current population growth rate and environmental sustainability unless we re-imagine those things.

CURWOOD: Joni Seager is professor of geography at the University of Vermont and a member of the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment. Thanks for taking the time with us today.

SEAGER: Hey, Steve, it's been my pleasure.



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