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

September 2, 1994

Air Date: September 2, 1994


Cairo Overview

For the third time in 20 years, the United Nations has convened a global summit to discuss what many believe is the world’s most pressing problem: burgeoning population and its connection to human development. The world’s population has grown by more than a billion since the first conference in 1974, but for those attending this year’s conference in Cairo, there’s strong disagreement over what those numbers mean . . . and what should be done to create a sustainable human society. Host Steve Curwood reports. (05:15)

He's Met The Enemy, and it is Us / Alan Durning

Commentator Alan Durning’s image of the population problem changed when he started acquiring stuff for his new baby. (04:30)

Getting Men Into (or out of) the Act

Contraception and family planning has historically been seen as the woman’s responsibility, especially in traditional societies. That’s slowly beginning to change. Host Steve Curwood talks with Cyprian Awiti, director of a family-planning clinic in Nairobi that’s offering vasectomy services to Kenyan men. (04:00)

China's Dilemma / Reese Erlich

Reese Erlich reports from Shanghai about one of the most acute problems in the world’s most populous country: the conflict between the need for land to grow food for its billion-plus people and the pressure to convert much of the same land to industrial and residential use. (06:00)

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
NEWSCASTER: Peter Thomson
REPORTERS: Laney Welch, Scott Shlegel, Reese Ehrlich
GUEST: Cyprian Awiti

(Theme music intro)

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

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

The UN Conference on Population and Development convenes in Cairo. The debate is on the status of women, and the rights and responsibilities of reproduction. Feelings are running high.

SHIVA: There is this continued sense that women not regulated from the outside, by technocrats, doctors, aid people, are biologically exploding. Nothing could be more stupid than to think that women are this cancerous biological system.

CURWOOD: Also, shopping for a new baby brings home the environmental impact of just one new person here in the US.

DURNING: Just getting all this stuff home was a challenge. It would have filled a small moving van. And all that for such a little person.

CURWOOD: Our special series on population continues this week on Living on Earth. First the news.

Environmental News

THOMSON: I'm Peter Thomson with the Living on Earth news. A Department of Energy review has turned up 14 serious nuclear waste storage problems which pose imminent threats to Department workers or the environment. Altogether, a Department spokesman says investigators have found 300 potentially dangerous situations involving highly radioactive plutonium waste at former nuclear weapons plants. The spokesman says bulging and degraded containers are among the most serious problems, particularly the Rocky Flats plant near Denver and a Hanford complex in eastern Washington. The Department says it plans to isolate the most dangerous material immediately, then repackage it in safer containers. The issue of long-term disposal remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, a General Accounting Office report says the Energy Department has little to show for the $23 billion it spent on nuclear waste clean-up over the last 5 years. The report blames Department officials and contractors for being slow to use new clean-up technology. It says promising innovations have been ignored because contractors prefer to stick with established and possibly less effective clean-up techniques. A high level DOE official agreed with the report, and says the Department is trying to convince contractors to try new technologies.

Almost three quarters of a billion pounds of fish were caught, killed, and then thrown away last year by Alaskan fishing boats because they weren't what the boats were trying to catch. A new state report says the amount of fish wasted in Alaskan waters alone would have been enough for 46 million meals. From Kodiak, Alaska, Laney Welch has the story.

WELCH: The report says last year in the Gulf of Alaska and in the Bering Sea, fishermen wasted nearly 17 million pounds of halibut, more than 15 million crabs, and hundreds of millions of pounds of cod, flounder, and other ground fish. Most of the waste, or 94%, was blamed on a fleet of factory trawlers in the Bering Sea, which drag huge nets across the bottom. Much of the fish that's hauled up and killed in the net is the wrong size, sex, or species, and is tossed overboard. Fishermen say there's so much waste because under the current management system, they are forced to rush and catch as much as they can before the quota is reached and fisheries are shut down, often in a matter of weeks. The system also requires that fish taken out of season must be thrown overboard. Some fishing groups and state officials are calling for a program that requires fish that would normally be discarded to be kept and donated to food banks. Others say limiting entry into fisheries, or changes in such things as net dragging practices or mesh size, will result in less waste. For Living on Earth, I'm Lainie Welch in Kodiak, Alaska.

THOMSON: The Justice Department has reversed a controversial policy requiring all Federal environmental prosecutions to be cleared by a central office in Washington. The old policy, established under former President Bush, had led to charges that the Department was squashing some environmental cases. Congressional investigators had said that Washington was forcing local prosecutors to go easy on a number of corporate polluters, charges which officials of both the Bush and Clinton Administrations have denied. Attorney General Janet Reno's office says the new policy responds to local prosecutors who want to be able to treat environmental cases the same as most other crimes. A spokesman for one of the strongest critics of the old policy, Michigan Representative John Dingell, says he's encouraged by the change.

Colorado officials are being accused of deliberately underestimating air pollution in Denver in order to avoid tougher clean air regulations. Scott Shlegel has the story.

SHLEGEL: Colorado health officials determine air quality through a combination of computer models and actual measurements at Denver's dirtiest intersections. But a researcher who recently left the department says his superiors ordered staff to favor the data that show lower pollution levels than actual tests indicated. Less pollution means the state could avoid spending hundreds of millions of dollars to enforce mandatory carpooling and other measures. Also, if the state fails to meet EPA standards, it risks losing $300 million in Federal highway funds. The Colorado air pollution director denies that pollution problems are being overlooked, but he says computer models are being updated to make them more accurate. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Shlegel in Boulder, Colorado.

THOMSON: An attempt to save $50 will end up costing a Caribbean cruise line operator half a million dollars in oil dumping fines. The hefty penalty against the owners of the Viking Princess cruise ship caps the first prosecution of oil dumping under the Oil Pollution Prevention Law passed after the Exxon Valdez disaster. The Coast Guard videotaped a 2-and-a-half mile long oil slick which formed behind the ship when it pumped water contaminated with fuel overboard. The cruise line's lawyer admitted in court that properly disposing of the oil would have cost the company only $51.15.

That's the Living on Earth news. I'm Peter Thomson.

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(Theme music up and under)

Cairo Overview

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For the third time in 20 years, the United Nations has convened a global summit to discuss what many believe is the world's most pressing problem: rapidly growing population and its relation to human development. Since the first conference in Bucharest, Romania, in 1974, the world's population has grown from 4 billion to 5-and-a-half billion people. But for those attending this year's conference in Cairo, there's strong disagreement over what those numbers mean. And what should be done to create a sustainable human society. Twenty years ago, Paul Ehrlich's controversial book The Population Bomb was still fresh in the minds of delegates in Bucharest. The book argued that without fast action, humans were headed for disaster, a belief Ehrlich still holds today.

EHRLICH: You can't support many more people on the resources of this planet. There is no doubt at all; one need not be worried in the slightest about whether or not the population explosion will stop. It will stop. The only question that's before us now, and is probably going to be answered in the next 50 years, is whether the population explosion will stop because humanity greatly reduces the birth rate, or whether nature simply comes along and increases the death rate.

CURWOOD: Numbers dominated the early years of the debate. Chilling images, such as a hellish future with one square meter per person, were common. But many people from poor countries, like Indian economist, philosopher, and development expert Amartya Sen, object to what they call this fearful rhetoric.

SEN: I think it's extremely counter-productive. So to move away from that state of panic, to think rationally, reasonably, about the real issues, is very important.

CURWOOD: And the real solutions, many in the developing world began to argue, lie in addressing the most basic needs of the poor.

PITANGUI: The major problem faced by the population of the world today is poverty. Hunger and poverty.

CURWOOD: Brazil's Jacqueline Pitangui says many groups who advocate population control don't realize that poor people have children for their own economic security. And can't simply be viewed as numbers on a chart.

PITANGUI: You do have many northern organizations and governments that look at the population in southern countries with this perspective: they're not real people. They're just targets.

CURWOOD: Many in the developing world argue that family planning will never work unless it's combined with anti-poverty measures. Development, they say, is the best contraceptive. But people like Paul Ehrlich were only partly convinced by the argument for greater equity.

EHRLICH: It would be very silly to do our, all our planning on the basis that we will convert humanity suddenly into a society of saints that will share everything equally. We should be trying to get rid of inequity; it's going to be very, very difficult. But if you did so, we'd still be stuck with the population problem and environmental problems and so on unless we took other steps as well.

CURWOOD: And at the second population conference, in Mexico City in 1984, even direct efforts to reduce population growth ran into trouble. Reagan Administration officials downplayed population as a concern, and they cut funding for family planning programs, especially those including abortion services. By the late 80s, a powerful new force had become highly influential in the population debate: feminists. They rejected any attempts to reduce growth rates by controlling women's bodies. Indian eco-feminist and development analyst Vandana Shiva.

SHIVA: There is this continued sense that women not regulated from the outside, by technocrats, doctors, aid people, are biologically exploding. Nothing could be more stupid than to think that women are this cancerous biological system.

CURWOOD: The real cancer, many from the south argue, is the consumptive lifestyle of much of the north. On this point at least, Paul Ehrlich agrees, pointing out that the richest fifth of the world uses nearly three quarters of its resources.

EHRLICH: When people in the south say that it's important that the rich start reducing their numbers and reducing their consumption, they're absolutely correct. On the other hand, the poor have so many people, and they're growing so rapidly, and they have plans for development, that it will be very easy if they don't choose a different path from the one we've come down, for them to even exceed the impact of the rich. So what has to happen is, the rich should start reducing their wasteful consumption, the poor should be doing everything they can do to limit their population growth and start shrinking, because that will help get them out of poverty. But they also ought to be looking at different courses of development.

CURWOOD: In the 20 years since Bucharest, the population debate has grown immensely complex. It's linked to alleviating poverty, reducing consumption, improving the status of women, and providing safe access to effective birth control. Some believe that a comprehensive solution is possible, but that it must come soon. The world's population is heading for 8 billion within 30 years. And depending in part on the outcome of the Cairo process, it could stabilize or go higher still.

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(Music up and under)

He's Met The Enemy, and it is Us

CURWOOD: How many is enough? Or rather, how much for whom? Commentator Alan Durning thought he had the answers but then he thought again.

(The sound of many people marching)

DURNING: This is what I used to picture when I thought about the world's exploding population: Chinese, 8 abreast, marching around the equator. Millions of Chinese marching; billions of them. The world's problem seemed to be just too many people.

(Sounds of marching increase to a deafening, echoing roar, followed by a medical beeping)

DURNING: Then last month, I got a different picture of population growth. It was a grainy, black and white image on a sonogram screen: my son. His eyes pointed toward the scanner like he was looking straight at us, thumb in his mouth, sucking. He'll be born any day now.

(Voice on public address speaker; store sounds; cash register beeps)

DURNING: This month, my picture's changed again. You see, we've been making preparations. We've been shopping. To transport the baby we bought a car seat and a stroller. A friend gave us a baby carrier to wear on your chest called a Snugli. But at a consignment store, we saw a used baby backpack and a baby sling. We bought them both. We bought a nursing pillow, 4 used nursing shirts, new nursing bras and breast pads, plus a book on breast feeding. The book said to buy baby bottles and nipples, and a device called a breast pump so I can help my wife with the midnight feedings. So we did.

We bought a baby comb and baby hair brush, baby soap, shampoo, and hair conditioner. Baby oil, two kinds of baby powder. We bought a bunch of pint-sized washcloths and towels with butterflies on them. And picked up a diaper changing table, with a seat belt and a foam rubber top.

We signed up for cloth diaper service, and bought a diaper pail, diaper bag, half a dozen diaper wraps with velcro fasteners, a huge carton of baby wipes. And we stowed away a 24-pack of disposable diapers just in case. We got a digital baby thermometer, a spring-loaded bouncy baby chair, a stuffed dinosaur, and a heap of child-safe plastic toys. Finally, we got a rocking chair to lull him; half a dozen receiving blankets to swaddle him; a bassinet to bed him down; a double-channel, 2-way, AC/DC baby monitor to hear his cries; a cassette of baby songs to calm him; and, for later, a micro-adjustable, pediatrician-certified, stained oak crib with aquamarine bumpers and a Peter Rabbit quilt.

(Sales slip being electronically tabulated)

DURNING: Oh yeah. We also got a complementary video from a baby formula company on how to survive our first year. Just getting all this stuff home was a challenge. It would have filled a small moving van. And all of it for such a little person.

The World Watch Institute, where I used to work, found we Americans consume our entire body weight in natural resources every day. Resources taken from farms, grasslands, forests, and mines. People in poor countries, where the population is growing fastest, consume a fraction as much as we do. Our kind of consumption explains why industrial countries, with just a quarter of the world's people, use half of the world's grain, fish, and fresh water; three-quarters of its timber, oil, and other fossil fuels; and four-fifths of its steel, aluminum, and synthetic chemicals.

(Sounds of highway traffic)

DURNING: So, here's my new picture of the world's population problem. I no longer imagine millions of Chinese marching 8 abreast. I picture a fleet of moving vans. Eighteen-wheelers loaded with the furnishings of American life. Each truck carries the possessions of a single family. Trucks, circling the globe of the equator on a superhighway 3 decks tall and a mile wide.

(Highway traffic increases to a roar, then fades)

CURWOOD: Alan Durning is the Director of the Northwest Environment Watch in Seattle. His commentaries are produced for Living on Earth by Terry Fitzpatrick at the studios of member station KPLU.

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(Music up and under)CURWOOD: What do you think? What puts the planet more at risk? A lot of hungry mouths in poor parts of the world? Or a lot of consumption in the rich parts? Call us at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or try our new e-mail address. That's LOE @ NPR.ORG. Again, that's LOE @ NPR.ORG. Our postal address is Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Transcripts and tapes are $10.

Getting Men Into (or out of) the Act

Population numbers continue to soar around the world, but birth rates are coming down in many countries. In Kenya, for instance, births have fallen from nearly 8 per woman a decade ago to 5-and-a-half today. Still, that's nearly 2 children more than the average Kenyan woman says she would like. More contraception for women is one way to meet this demand, but what about men? One group that's beginning to address this is Nairobi's Population and Health Services Clinic. This private family planning agency used to serve just women, but it's now aggressively promoting voluntary sterilization for men. The program has so far reached mostly older, educated urban men, but its popularity is growing. Director Cyprian Awiti says the clinic decided to target Kenyan men for one very simple reason.

AWITI: In the African context, the man is the head of the family. And the man will definitely decide how many children they want to bring up.

CURWOOD: What are the attitudes and beliefs that have kept family planning agencies in Kenya, indeed in Africa, from addressing the role of men before now?

AWITI: Well, I think before the feeling of people were that family planning was meant for women. That is (A). (B), if the man got married to a woman and they got children, and because of the not very good health facilities in those days, the children could die because of diseases. That is what we call the high child mortality rate. Then it was possible for this person to be able to get another woman to get more children. But at the moment, the health facilities in Kenya has improved. The child mortality rate is low. Economically you cannot be able to bring as many children as you want. So agencies and government have been looking for ways and means of reducing the population growth so that at least they can be able to manage with the resources they have got.

CURWOOD: In working to change attitudes about birth control, getting men to take responsibility for birth control, what work are you doing to change that dynamic in the family, to encourage men to have an equal relationship with their women?

AWITI: First, we are approaching the families to convince these people that days are long gone where the decisions within the house are based on the man alone. This is in the line of the fact that there is the woman's right, human right. We are convincing men that even contribution within the house, the woman is also contributing. So at the end of the day, it is important that both the man and the woman must be seen as decision makers.

CURWOOD: What about the spread of disease, if men aren't using condoms any more? If they're getting sterilized instead?

AWITI: Oh, yeah. I mean, we are encouraging the use of condoms even after vasectomy. Because in Kenya, and I'm sure in other countries, the HIV /AIDS spread is very high. So, we are advising people to stick to their partners, that is one. But of course we know it is not possible. So we are encouraging people to use condoms, even those that have been vasectomized.

CURWOOD: So why bother to get a vasectomy?

AWITI: Condom is not a permanent family planning method.

CURWOOD: What's the most discouraging part of your work?

AWITI: Well, one of the issues that makes us discouraging is that people have not really understood the vasectomy well. It is a new method of family planning in Kenya. We are in the business of changing attitudes. We are in the business also of changing feelings, and in the business of changing the psychological behavior.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us.


CURWOOD: Cyprian Awiti is the Program Director for Population and Health Services in Nairobi, Kenya. Thank you, sir.

AWITI: Thank you very much.

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(Music up and under)

China's Dilemma

CURWOOD: Within the next 10 years, more than half the world's people will live in cities. For some, that urbanization is a positive trend. It's seen as taking pressure off rural agricultural lands. But it also means that farm land near population centers is being consumed at a rapid rate. In New Delhi, India, for example, 50 acres of productive crop land are swallowed by development every day. But it's in China where some predict that the effects of urbanization will first be felt in the food supply. Only a short while ago, China was a nation of farmers. But now, so much of China's farm land is disappearing under its cities that some fear it may not be able to feed itself. We asked reporter Reese Ehrlich to examine China's land crunch. He filed this report from Shanghai.

(Music with voice-over: "In this 26 months, a lot of changes have taken place. In the past 2 years...")

EHRLICH: Chinese government officials proudly show this promotional video on a big screen TV, hoping to attract foreign investors to a new industrial park across from the old center of Shanghai. This once sleepy farming community now bustles with earth movers and backhoes, constructing freeways, office skyscrapers, and luxury housing. This scene is repeated throughout eastern China as the country struggles to provide jobs and housing for its 1.2 billion people. The Chinese agricultural ministry says on net, China loses about 67,000 acres of farm land each year to industrialization. Zhang Hong Yu is head of research for the Agricultural Ministry. He says the government is concerned about the loss, and wants to make sure China can feed itself.

YU: (Speaks in Chinese)
TRANSLATOR: We have a very straight policy on controlling and stabilizing the total area of farm land in China. Our country must not have less than 250 million acres of farm land. That's our target. True, some farm land is given to industry, but we continuously cultivate new crop land. We have also succeeded in increasing the yield on existing arable land. China will still be able to feed itself well into the next century.

EHRLICH: US officials here agree with the Chinese. John O'Connell is the agricultural counselor for the US Embassy in Beijing. He frequently travels to rural areas in the interior of China, and says seeing only the east coast cities can be misleading.

O'CONNELL: Around the fast-growing east coast cities, there is a lot of acreage being taken out of agricultural production and being put into factories or residential units and other uses. And it's leaving agriculture permanently. But if you look at the total acreage in China, it's a fairly insignificant amount.

EHRLICH: But other observers are more concerned about the ability of the world's most populous country to feed itself. Lester Brown is President of the Washington-based World Watch Institute and editor of a new book on population and food supply. He says China is losing far more crop land than the government admits. Some of the most productive land is in the fastest growing industrial regions.

BROWN: Most of the people and the crop land are concentrated in a strip about 1,000 miles wide along the eastern and southern coasts. This is where industrialization of necessity will take place. So it means that the competition between industry and agriculture for land will be intense. China will not be able to feed itself in the years to come. Indeed, there is a good possibility that they will develop a large grain deficit in the years ahead.

EHRLICH: Many US analysts don't share that dire prediction, but some are worried about longer-run problems. Chinese farmers have increased land productivity largely through the heavy use of chemical inputs. One soon-to-be-published US study found that pesticide use per acre in China's east coast regions is about 10 times the world average. US agriculture attaché John O'Connell.

O'CONNELL: Right now the Chinese farmer's getting a relatively high yield from his efforts, but the use of fertilizers and chemical inputs such as pesticides is extremely high. And in my opinion, I'm not sure that this is sustainable for the long run.

EHRLICH: Chinese agriculture officials say they are also worried about overloading the land with chemicals in an effort to squeeze out more food. So China is experimenting with some innovative combinations of modern and traditional Chinese methods.

(Sounds of scraping)

EHRLICH: In Chenzhen township near Shanghai, farmers are busy digging and chipping bricks to construct a new building. Pan Hui Ching says that the size of her collective farm has shrunk 40% as the town industrialized. But it hasn't significantly affected production.

CHING: (Speaks in Chinese)
TRANSLATOR: The yield is almost the same as before. Now we grow vegetables in hothouses year-round. In the past, we grew ordinary vegetables. But now we grow high quality specialty vegetables. We do use chemical fertilizer, but we use traditional Chinese herbs to kill pests and bats. This kind of herbs don't harm people's health.

EHRLICH: It remains to be seen whether these kinds of techniques can be applied to other crops, particularly grain. But even squeezing more food out of less land through chemical or natural methods might not keep China self-sufficient. According to Chinese statistics, absolute production of grain has steadily risen since the late 1980s, but per capita production has fallen slightly. That's because despite successful population control efforts, the country still must feed some 24 million new mouths each year. If the trend of less farm land and more people continues, China may have to buy more grain on the world market. That could mean tighter supplies and higher prices for the rest of the world. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Ehrlich in Shanghai.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson and directed by Deborah Stavro. Our coordinating producer is George Homsy, our associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our production team includes Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, and Colleen Singer Coxe. Our engineer in the WBUR studios is Louie Cronin. Michael Aharon composed our theme.

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

(Theme music up and under)

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