clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

POPULATION PLANNERS ALSO AIM FOR POLITICAL STABILITY AROUND GLOBE

"We have met the enemy," Pogo once famously declared in his comic strip, "and he is us."

"Us vs. ourselves" is the lineup again at next week's population conference in Cairo, Egypt. Delegates from 155-plus nations will debate ways to reduce human fertility and keep our numbers, now 5.7 billion, from doubling in the next half century.But behind the talk of birth rates, condoms and adolescent sex, beyond Vatican pronouncements on abortion, lie realities that are more "us vs. them" - realities disguised in the sometimes uneasy cooperation between South and North, have-nots and haves, the fertile and the less so.

The simple, riveting fact is that 96 percent of the population growth to be "controlled" is in the South, in the developing nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Explosive growth in the Nigerias, Mexicos and Bangladeshes of the world could alter the 21st century's political order - and even its simple law and order - in unpredictable ways.

Nightmare scenarios are capturing some high-level imaginations in Washington. President Clinton's, for one.

In a recent speech, the president said he had been "gripped" by an Atlantic Monthly article, "The Coming Anarchy," in which veteran foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan prophesies a 21st century in which overpopulated nations of the South are consumed in hunger, crime, tribalism and disease.

"You could visualize a world," Clinton said, "in which a few million of us live in such opulence we could all be starring on nighttime soaps. And the rest of us look like we're in one of those Mel Gibson `Road Warrior' movies."

Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth, Clinton's point man on population, frames it in terms of "stability."

"We have an interest in maintaining some modicum of political stability around the world," Wirth said in an interview. "And if populations grow so dramatically that there are millions of young people with no stake in what goes on in their society, that is an invitation to . . . a kind of anarchy."

Wirth cites as examples two neighborhood concerns of the United States:

Haiti's population of 7 million is projected to double in just 18 years. "Where are those 14 million Haitians going to go?" he asked. "What are they going to do?"

And in Mexico, overpopulation of the limited farm lands of Chiapas state has contributed to a peasant uprising that is unsettling America's southern neighbor.

The leaders of developing nations generally accept the need for family planning; they can visualize disaster as easily as Clinton. But suspicions of ulterior motives never lurk far beneath the surface.

One Islamic organization, commenting on the Cairo conference, warns darkly that "those of Christian-European heritage" are trying "to limit the number of `brown' babies through imposition of Western concepts of family planning."

Plots against brown babies would be hard to prove. But the need to balance populations against food and land in the overcrowded South is obvious, and that's why America is giving away condoms and other contraceptives across the developing world.

Still, by design or not, the population planners may also be fending off a 21st-century challenge to today's dominant Northern states.

By the year 2025, demographers project, the North's share of world population is likely to have declined from 33 percent in the immediate post-World War II years to 17 percent.

How long could the old "Western allies" cling to their late 20th-century status quo in a turbulent world in which Nigeria is more populous than the United States, Algeria is bigger than France, Vietnam than Japan?

Japan, in fact, recently announced a 10-fold increase in foreign aid for family planning. Germany and Britain are expanding their programs as well, and the draft plan promoted by the Clinton administration at the Cairo conference calls for quadrupling international support for family planning.

The North, it seems, has decided that in the Pogo's swamp of the 21st century, the enemy may, indeed, be "us" - but especially those of us who live down where productivity rates stay low and fertility rates high.