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Annual Public Lectures Series > Fred Meyerson

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 13-17, 2005

PS_Meyerson.jpg - 24265 Bytes

Population Growth: The Forgotten Environmental Crisis
Fred Meyerson, Ph.D., J.D., Georgetown University
Summary of comments from June 14

When considering problems affecting the environment, few consider pregnancy and family size to be contributing factors. Yet as Fred Meyerson, an ecologist and demographer, pointed out in his lecture, human fertility has a greater impact than many realize. Global population continues to grow by more than 70 million per year.

Despite an impression by many people that the population within the United States is stable or falling and that a "birth dearth" may be looming, Meyerson points to the opposite as true. The American population has been steadily rising for decades and will continue to do so in the future. In fact, the 1990s alone saw the U.S. population increase by 33 million people, and it is projected to rise from 296 million to 420 million by 2050, as a result of rising fertility, immigration, and life expectancy.

Meyerson was also quick to point out that there is great variability in population growth both among and within developed and developing countries. One result is that it is certain that all countries will follow the trend toward low birth rates that has been documented in Europe.

In order to illuminate the connection between population increase and environmental destruction, Meyerson illustrated a case study done in Peten, Guatemala, home to the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Maps of the countryside viewed in 1950 depict a land that was virtually all tropical forest. Yet by 1985, nearly one third of the forest cover was lost, and by 1999 a mere 40 percent of the forest remained, despite the creation of the reserve and its buffer zones to protect the forest and its biodiversity. This came during a period (from 1960 to 2000) when the human population of the Peten was growing by nine percent each year.

According to Meyerson's analysis, there is a close correlation between increasing population density and deforestation. On average, in Peten, for each person added to the population of the Peten, four to seven hectares (9 to 15 acres) of forest have been lost.

Meyerson suggests that a contributing factor to overpopulation is lack of access to family planning among women, especially among those in developing countries, and more specifically, rural areas. Meyerson, who serves on the board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, cited many obstacles preventing women from obtaining reproductive health services and education, including paucity of funds, bureaucratic intervention and religious fundamentalism.

Yet as Meyerson subsequently detailed, family planning is inexpensive to fund and has the potential to combat deforestation. Calculating family planning costs to be about $20-$30 per couple per year in the Peten, Meyerson estimated that it would effectively cost only $29-$51 to preserve each hectare of forest, by providing women with access to voluntary family planning.

Unwanted pregnancies are not a symptom solely of developing countries, but are also seen within developed countries like the U.S. Meyerson said that almost half the pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, and half of those unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. This is as much as ten times greater than the rates experienced in many European countries.

Meyerson also touched upon the relationship between population growth and greenhouse gas emissions. According to him, per capita emissions have remained almost constant since 1970, both globally and in the United States. Therefore the 50 percent rise in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in the last 35 years correlates very closely with population growth.

Drawing his lecture to a close, Meyerson addressed the way in which population growth has led to environmental issues being placed at the bottom of the political agenda. He points out that as the number of people in a country increases, housing starts and employment needs are driven up, leading to rapid construction and increases in consumption just to meet the needs of the growing population. However, this national economic growth may mask the fact that very little progress is made on an individual level (such as average wages and income, which have fallen recently in America). Moreover, amid the social and political pressures associated with this rapid growth, environmental protection may unfortunately be left aside.

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December 4, 2007