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

August 19, 1994

Air Date: August 19, 1994


US Teen Pregnancy / Jennifer Ludden

After a decade of being officially unconcerned by global population growth, the US has taken new initiatives to help cut high fertility rates in developing countries. But here at home, we have some very high fertility rates of our own, particularly among teenagers — 6 percent of women and girls in the US between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth each year, a higher rate than in Asia and triple the teen fertility rate in Europe. Jennifer Ludden of member station WBUR in Boston explores the reasons for this, and what makes the difference in communities with low teen birth rates. (08:15)

US Immigration Debate / Betsy Bayha

The impact of new arrivals to the US on the economy and on government spending is already a hot topic. But now the Census Bureau is projecting that immigration will help push the US population up by half, to at least 400 million by the year 2050. That kind of forecast has many who are already here arguing that our environment can’t sustain such growth, and that immigration should be curtailed. Betsy Bayha of member station KQED in San Francisco reports on this increasingly fractious debate. (08:30)

EPA Examines Population Growth

The impact of domestic population growth on the US environment is the focus of a tiny 3-person, 2-year-old office within the EPA. The Future Studies Unit was set up more than 20 years after Congress initially declared population to be a significant factor in environmental policy. The office focuses on possible demographic, technological and economic changes that could affect or result from a surge in US population. Host Steve Curwood talks with the office’s head, David Rejeski. (04:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Joel Southern, Doug Phillips, Jennifer Ludden, Betsy Bayha
GUEST: David Rejeski

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Population growth is the focus of an upcoming world summit in Cairo. The US is adding people faster than any other developed country. One reason: high teen pregnancy rates.

ELLIS: I got on the Pill at age 14, but my father told me that that gave me permission to have sex and took them away from me. But that didn't stop me.

CURWOOD: Immigrants are the fastest growing part of the US population, and some blame them for ecological ills. Others say that's nonsense.

SASSEN: In a country that produces such a large share of the garbage in the world, that has exported environmentally destructive industries, to then put the blame on immigrants seems to me a real displacement.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth. First news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this summary of environmental news. The biggest wildlife refuge in the US might never be opened to oil exploration under a plan being considered by the Clinton Administration. The plan would link Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with two adjoining Canadian parks. From Washington, Joel Southern of Alaska Public Radio reports.

SOUTHERN: A recent memo from a top Interior Department official lists a number of options for the US and Canada to manage the refuge and adjacent parks. These range from sharing scientific information on sensitive wildlife to joint management of the region, which would keep it off limits to oil drilling. Congress rejected efforts to open ANWAR 3 years ago. The memo implies the Administration is considering more protection as a trade-off for ending a 20-year-old ban on exports of Alaska North Slope Oil. The oil industry and the state of Alaska say keeping ANWAR off limits is a bad idea because they consider it to be the last big domestic oilfield. Environmental groups support greater protection for ANWAR, but some say they're not sure they want to trade that for lifting the export ban. They say such a move would increase tanker traffic and other environmental risks in Alaska. For Living on Earth, I'm Joel Southern in Washington.

NUNLEY: The Federal Government has downgraded the status of a key Pacific salmon species from threatened to endangered, and that's likely to lead to tighter controls over some Pacific Northwest rivers. The emergency action followed a season of sparse returns of Snake River Chinook salmon. This year only about 1,000 are expected to make it back to their spawning grounds in Idaho and Oregon. The move is likely to put more pressure on activities which damage the health of the Snake River ecosystem, including hydropower operations, boating, and fishing. It's also expected to force tighter restrictions on logging and grazing near salmon spawning areas. A Federal judge earlier this year ordered river managers to put salmon runs above both hydropower and navigation on their priority list.

Poachers in US national parks are killing thousands of endangered animals every year. That's according to a report in Time magazine, which figures illegal hunting in the US to be a $200 million a year business. The article says endangered species such as eagles and butterflies can fetch as much as $1,000 apiece. A bighorn sheep trophy can bring $10,000 and a bear gallbladder can command $64,000. Despite some recent successes, the article notes that wildlife officials face tough odds. There are only about 7,000 state and Federal wildlife agents patrolling more than 750,000 square miles of park land.

One of the most important links in the global food chain may not be in danger form the thinning ozone layer. Some scientists have feared that increased solar radiation over Antarctica could harm the hordes of plankton which lie at the base of the marine food chain. But a new report published in the journal Nature found that the tiny sea creatures may be protected by Antarctica's extensive ice cover. The study by Australian scientists found that plankton populations have not changed significantly over more than 2 decades of increased ultraviolet radiation. This is Living on Earth.

When the University of Miami decided to update the air conditioning system on one of its campuses, it took a step back in time. The new air conditioning system will keep people cool using the chemical ammonia. It's a technology that's been around since the Civil War, and is regaining popularity because the process is ozone safe. From Miami, Doug Phillips reports.

PHILLIPS: The heart of the air conditioning system at the University of Miami's Rosensteel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science sits inside a large building which houses a massive series of pumps and holding containers.

(Sound of large fans)

CLASSEN: This evaporator is about three quarters of the way filled with liquid ammonia.

PHILLIPS: Michael Classen, the school's operations manager, says ammonia, which chills under pressure in the evaporator, starts a process that turns water held in 3 20,000-gallon tanks outside this building, into ice. During the day the ice melts, becoming cold water, which is then pumped through a campus-wide cooling system. Back in his office, Classen explains that with ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons being phased out, the school welcomed the chance to design an environmentally friendly air conditioning system.

CLASSEN: There was actually support on the campus to use a product like ammonia as a refrigerant and help show that there are alternatives available that do not harm the environment.

PHILLIPS: But because ammonia is toxic and leaks could be fatal, it takes a separate building to house this air conditioning system, making it impractical for people's homes. For a campus setting, the $1-and-a-half million system is safe. And because the icemaking is done at night, when electricity is cheaper, the school hopes to eventually cut its air conditioning costs in half. For Living on Earth, I'm Doug Phillips in Miami.

NUNLEY: That's this summary of environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under)

US Teen Pregnancy

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Ten billion people by the year 2050. Nearly double today's global population. That's a common projection by population experts, and along with it come dire predictions about the environmental impact of such growth. For over a decade, the US was officially not worried by population. But the Clinton Administration is more concerned, and wants to cut high fertility rates in developing countries. But here at home, we have some very high fertility rates of our own, particularly among teenagers. In the US, 6% of women and girls between ages 15 and 19 give birth each year, the same rate as Ecuador and Rwanda, a higher rate than in Asia. and triple the adolescent rate in Europe. We asked Jennifer Ludden of member station WBUR in Boston to explore the reasons for this, and what makes the difference in communities with low teen birth rates.

(Baby: "Bye bye." Woman: "You have the baby." Baby: "Ba ba." Woman: "Oh, ba ba.")

ELLIS: My name is Betsy Ellis, and I'm 21. And I have 3 children. My daughter's 5, and I have twin boys that are 2."

(Crying child. Woman: "Are you frightened, need help?" Woman: "I love you. I love you." Baby: "Ba ba." Woman: "Kissy kissy.")

LUDDEN: Betsy Ellis laughs nervously. Her large brown eyes look directly at you when she speaks. She says growing up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, no one in her family talked about sex. Except to tell her not to do it.

ELLIS: I got on the Pill at age 14, but my father told me that that gave me permission to have sex and that I shouldn't be on the pill and took them away from me. But that didn't stop me 'cause I was young and I was, you know, I just wanted to be loved like most teenagers.

LUDDEN: Of her first pregnancy, Ellis says she didn't understand, didn't comprehend the details of sex or its consequences. She gave birth and continued in a rocky relationship with her daughter's father. Then, almost on schedule according to the statistics on teen mothers, Ellis became pregnant again.

ELLIS: I wanted a baby. I wanted another baby. My daughter was 3 and she was out of the baby stage, and I guess like I thought that it would bring our relationship closer together if we had another baby.

LUDDEN: Has it?

ELLIS: No. (Brief laugh)

LUDDEN: What's happened?

ELLIS: Um, I just came out of a battered women's shelter. And our relationship's basically ended.

LUDDEN: Betsy Ellis's story is typical. A by-the-book profile of a teenage mother in the United States, a country with the highest adolescent pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates of any developed country. It's estimated a teenager has a baby in the US every 67 seconds. What's more, analyst Jeanne Rosoff of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, says half of all US pregnancies are unplanned.

ROSOFF: In a country in which well over 90% of people are practicing contraception, it's kind of unusual. Clearly, we think we should be practicing contraception and we are, but we're not doing it very well. We do, I think we do it sporadically.

LUDDEN: Rosoff blames this in part on US health care plans, which often don't pay for contraceptives, and on what she calls an inexplicable low tolerance here for birth control. Yet much of the cause is the same that plagues Third World countries with exploding populations. Young American women, say experts, are more likely to have babies when they have less education, few economic opportunities, and little hope for the future.

(Sounds of traffic, a bell tolling)

LUDDEN: This church bell tolls every hour in Haverhill, a largely white, working class community north of Boston, where about half the residents are Catholic. Here, unemployment runs above the state average while incomes lag behind. Fewer than one third of residents complete college. And every year, 80 of every 1,000 women in the area have a baby, a rate close to that in some developing countries where population growth is considered dangerously high.

(Office noises, a phone ringing. Woman 1: "Um, that's about the IUDs, okay?" Woman 2: "Okay." Woman 1: "So, kind of look at all that, and ...")

LUDDEN: Lorraine Christensen sends another patient home with information on contraceptives. The women's center here at Haverhill's Hale Hospital was strictly OB-GYN. But 2 years ago it added family planning because, Christensen says, many women were returning with repeat pregnancies, citing the same reasons as teens.

CHRISTENSEN: It's that need to be accepted. It's that changing of partners, or maybe this guy will come in, and he told me he wants me to have a baby. I don't really want to have a baby, but he told me that he'll be here for me. Well often, even before the pregnancy is even done with, this guy's gone out the door. Or maybe I'll see the same father's name pop up on 2 or 3 different women.

LUDDEN: Christensen talks of a culture of increasing acceptance of teen mothers, in which young motherhood is repeated generation after generation, and pregnant students, even in middle schools, are revered by peers. She sees women routinely ignore the economic dependence that comes with teen motherhood, and instead glorify the independence and control over their lives they believe they will gain.

CHRISTENSEN: It's a way of getting their own apartments. It's cool to have a boyfriend come and visit you at your apartment, you know, and things like that. They look past all the taking care of the baby and all that responsibility and everything, and they look at, let's see now, what will this bring me that's different and bring attention to me?

(Sounds of traffic)

LUDDEN: The city of Newton, Massachusetts is an hour south of Haverhill by car, and a world away in attitude. Full of upwardly-mobile white-collar families, it boasts the lowest birth rate in the state, despite having no public family planning center and little sex education in the schools.

(Background activity at Newton-Wellesley Hospital)

LUDDEN: At Newton-Wellesley Hospital, the largest OB-GYN provider here, department chief James Beresford says typically, the women he sees put off having children until their careers are established. Those seeking contraceptives, he says, are well-informed.

BERESFORD: I think in Newton population, they probably researched it and they come in and say well I think this is the one for me, and you usually agree with them because they're usually right.

LUDDEN: What Newton also has that Haverhill lacks are teenagers with a solid sense of control over their future. Nineteen-year-old Alexandra Zane takes the Pill faithfully and says she's not ready to be a mother.

ZANE: My goals are basically just to, for school, really, to be educated. Part of me wants to go to med school, so, I mean, my long-term goals are just to be successful. I mean I want to do everything, you know? (Laughs) So --

LUDDEN: If it's cool to have a baby in Haverhill, it's definitely not in Newton, according to Zane. She and a friend recently baby-sat another friend's 3-year-old daughter.

ZANE: My friend and I took the little girl to Dunkin Donuts. We ran into a girl who we knew at school. And the girl thought that it was one of ours. And the attitude that we got was unbelievable. The looks, you know, the staring, the: "Oh! So is this yours?"

LUDDEN: The kind of attitudes that prevail in Newton may be more the exception than the rule. The average teen birth rate in the US is closer to that of Haverhill. For many organizers of the Cairo Conference on Population and Development, the key to bringing birth rates down in the developing world is to give women better opportunities for education and economic development. In the US, much of the focus is more narrow: increasing access to contraception, and forcing men to take responsibility for their sexual behavior and for out-of-wedlock children. Yet increasingly, here as in the Third World, experts say the key to fewer unplanned pregnancies is what they call empowerment: expanding opportunities for women. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Ludden in Boston.

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(Music up and under)

US Immigration Debate

CURWOOD: Despite our high rate of teen births, the biggest contributor to domestic population growth is immigration. The Census Bureau projects that immigrants will help the US population grow from 260 million today to 400 million by the year 2050. The impact of new arrivals on the economy and on government spending is already a hot topic. But now, some descendants of previous immigrants are fighting immigration because of environmental concerns. Betsy Bayha of member station KQED in San Francisco reports.

(Traffic sounds)

BAYHA: Traffic jams. Suburban sprawl. Water wars. The effects of population growth are taking a substantial toll on California's environment. Twenty years ago the state population was less than 20 million. Today it's 32 million and rising. Last year, more people actually moved out of California than moved in from the rest of the US, but that loss was more than offset by more than 319,000 immigrants from outside the country. In recent years California has absorbed more immigrants than any other state, putting it at the leading edge of the anti-immigration movement.

MEHLMAN: Largely as a result of immigration, the United States is on an exploding population track.

BAYHA: Ira Mehlman is the California spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, one of the largest and most controversial groups calling for reductions in immigration.

MEHLMAN: The Census Bureau in 1993 projected that by the year 2050, the population in this country will reach 392 million people, and that almost all of that growth will be as a result of immigration that took place after 1990. In other words, immigrants and subsequent children that are born here. That's a track that I don't believe most Americans really want to be on.

BAYHA: FAIR's emphasis on immigration grew out of the population control movement of the 1960s and 70s. A number of other environmental groups are now starting to take on the immigration question as well.

ABERNETHY: The message is simply this: when we have more people, there is more pressure on the natural environment, both in resource use and also in terms of pollution.

BAYHA: Virginia Abernethy, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, is a leading thinker on population and the environment. She says the environmental consequences of population growth are particularly acute in the United States.

ABERNETHY: Every person, conservationists among us, add our little bit of pollution to the environment. Every time we drive a car, every time we open a packaged good. Every time we eat a fruit which has been grown with mechanized agriculture and transported to us with a truck or even a train, we are adding our bit to the pollution. And that is a function of population size.

BAYHA: Abernethy says whether they're immigrants or native-born, more people demand more resources like fossil fuels, and aggravate problems like urban sprawl. But, she says, immigrants pose the greatest threat because they are the fastest-growing segment of the US population. Nationwide, FAIR's Ira Mehlman says the US is absorbing new immigrants equal to the population of San Francisco every 6 months.

MEHLMAN: Think about the city of San Francisco. How many schools does it require to educate kids? How many teachers? How much health care is required? How many jobs? How much infrastructure? What kind of stress does the city of San Francisco place on the environment? How much water is consumed? How much other resources are concerned?

SASSEN: To put this much weight on immigration in a country that produces such a large share of the garbage in the world, a country that has had policies in its economy that have been devastating to the environment, that has exported environmentally destructive industries, I repeat: to then put the blame on immigrants seems to me a real displacement.

BAYHA: Saskia Sassen is a professor of urban planning at Columbia University in New York. She says the immigration debate ignores the root causes of our environmental problems: namely, our disproportionate levels of consumption. For instance, the US accounts for only 6% of the global population, yet we consume 35% of the world's energy resources.

(Drumming and cymbals)

BAYHA: The immigration debate has hit a particularly raw nerve among ethnic minorities and groups like the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. At a recent APEN event, Deputy State Attorney General Clifford Lee, a Chinese-American, spoke out about his concerns.

LEE: Immigrant bashing is now no longer the domain of people like Patrick Buchanan or the Federation for American Immigration Reform,
FAIR. We have seen unfortunate anti-immigrant positions from people as diverse as Governor Pete Wilson and to senators in the State of California. The newest participants, though, to this xenophobia, have been a small but growing group of environmentalists. Anti-immigrant forces in this country are using the environmental cause as a stalking horse for nativism and xenophobia.

BAYHA: Lee calls the immigration debate "the dark side of the environmental movement." Adding fuel to the fire is an increasingly intolerant public. An initiative on this fall's California ballot would deny education, health care, and other basic services to illegal immigrants; and the state's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, who faces a tough re-election bid, is using the immigration debate as the centerpiece of his campaign. One of his television ads used grainy black and white footage of Mexicans illegally crossing the border. Critics described it as inflammatory.

COMMERCIAL VOICE-OVER: They keep coming. Two million illegal immigrants in California. The Federal Government won't stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them. Governor Pete Wilson sent the National Guard to help the border patrol, but that's not all. ...

ANTHONY: I think if these were white children coming across the border, I think we'd have a totally different picture. I think the people would say oh, gee they're immigrants, they're having a hard time. Why don't we open our arms to them?

BAYHA: That's Carl Anthony, president of San Francisco's Earth Island Institute, and one of the founders of the Environmental Justice movement. He says turning immigrants into scapegoats isn't going to solve our environmental problems. Even if immigration stopped today, Anthony says, we would still have to deal with the environmental consequences of using a disproportionate share of the world's resources.

ANTHONY: If we have a situation in which 35% of the world's resources are being consumed by 6% of the population, we think that maybe 35% of the world's population ought to be living here to help consume those resources.

BAYHA: In addition to consumption patterns, Anthony says the debate over immigration and the environment should look at what's pushing immigrants across our borders. In many cases, he says, it's our own economic policies abroad which encourage export agriculture and industrialization at the expense of traditional economies. Anthony says we have to reevaluate our role in the developing world. And on that point, at least , Virginia Abernethy agrees. But there's precious little room for both sides to explore that common ground, and as the volume of the rhetoric increases, the opportunity for an honest debate about the issues may be lost. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club have stayed out of the fray, at least in public. But within the ranks a bitter debate over immigration has raged for the past 2 years. Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope says he would like the club to embrace the middle-ground, a call for combining immigration curbs with reduced consumption and new economic policies abroad. But he doesn't think that's possible.

POPE: When anybody pops up their head and dares to articulate a middle ground, they get their head chopped off and handed to them on a platter. Both sides of this debate seem more comfortable with a polarized debate.

BAYHA: And with a polarized debate, it will be hard to find solutions to the population puzzle, those complex, long-term, structural solutions that can't be summed up in a catch phrase and for now, at least, aren't being heard above the din of the debate. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha reporting.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: What do you think? Should we tighten immigration to protect the environment? Give us a call on our listener comment line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

EPA Examines Population Growth

CURWOOD: Even though the government projects there will be 150 million more Americans in another half century, little has been done to plan for that kind of growth. The issues go far beyond sheer numbers. Where will people live? What kinds of communities will they create? What kind of impact will nearly a half a billion US citizens have on our environment? Government planners have barely begun to address these questions. The effort, such as it is, is being spearheaded by a 2-year-old office of just 3 people tucked away inside the EPA. It's called the Future Studies Unit. David Rejeski heads it. He says the debate over how we'll get to a sustainable future of 400 million is only just beginning.

REJESKI: One of the views is that we, if we simply create more wealth, that we simply buy better technologies and we can clean things up. There are other people that really believe that we need fundamental technological transformations, that we really need a very different energy production system in this country that uses more renewables, and really increases the efficiency of our energy use. The third group actually would tell you that there is a need for, in a sense, social transformation; this gets at the whole issue of whether we want to create regional economies by using local products and local services. I think that that's certainly one thing that needs to be looked at.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering how much trouble we face from this population growth and demographic change. We are at the highest end of industrialized nations of population growth. Doesn't this push us into the category of living dangerously?

REJESKI: You have to define dangerously. I think there are some people who believe that we can, in essence, think our way out of the problem with technologies, and I think that that - I happen to be a great optimist about technologies. But one of the things I think we can count on is that technologies always have unintended effects. And if you just look at the Clean Air Act Amendments, which have mandated about a 2% penetration of electric vehicles in California, those cars presently use about 16 to 18 batteries per car. And if you run the projections out in a very simple way, you end up with about 52 million batteries that you've got to deal with by about 2015. So you may be cleaning up the air, in a sense, but you may be creating a solid waste mess. So this is the kind of thing that you're going to get into, unless you have an integrated approach to technology assessment and environmental assessment. And quite often the two are separated.

CURWOOD: Technology might help. It might hurt us. And I'm wondering if looking at the consumer side of the equation, the consumption of these things, would help us. Do you think so?

REJESKI: Oh, definitely. I think there's a lot to be done in that area. There was an interesting study that was done in Germany about the environmental impacts of a simple cup of yogurt. Strawberries were coming from Poland, the glass from Belgium, the label from the Netherlands. And they came up with a total of about 5,000 miles that trucks had driven on highways around Europe just to assemble the pieces for this one simple product. And every time you pick up that you're in a sense moving enormous amounts of materials enormous distances. So a lot of times we don't simply know what the environmental impacts are of consumption of very, very simple materials.

CURWOOD: What do you think we should do to respond to our population growth responsibly over the next 50 years?

REJESKI: I think the first thing we need to do is to basically get a lot more information. We don't have much that we can really base good national policy or even regional policies on. We tend to isolate demographers quite often from the policy makers. But we need to get them at the same table with economists and sociologists, engineers and scientists, so that they bring the data to the table and they raise their hands and ask the right questions. I think the issue is not quantitative growth; we need to get away from that. It's really qualitative development.

CURWOOD: David Rejeski is head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Future Studies Unit. He joined us from Washington. Thank you, sir.

REJESKI: Thank you.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. Our coordinating producer is George Homsy, our associate producer is Kim Motylewski, and our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Jan Nunley, Jessika Bella Mura, Julia Madeson, and Colleen Singer Coxe. Our engineer at the WBUR Studios is Laurie Azaria. Michael Aharon composed our theme.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, recorded at the studios of WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Major support for Living on Earth comes from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to protect the global environment; the National Science Foundation; the Pew Charitable Trusts; and all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside. Additional support comes from the Great Lakes Protection Fund.

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