IN her address to the opening session of the recent "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway stressed that "poverty, environment, and population can no longer be dealt with - or even thought of - as separate issues."
And yet population, the key link between global environmental protection and sustainable development, was confronted only obliquely by the 178 nations gathered in Brazil.
The "Rio Declaration" says only that "states should ... promote appropriate demographic policies." Agenda 21, the action plan to carry out the broad goals in the declaration, does not mention family planning, nor are there any commitments (financial or otherwise) to controlling population growth.
In fact, the Rio documents are weaker than drafts prepared in pre-summit meetings. "The language is somewhat of a retreat," says Sally Ethelston of the Population Crisis Committee in Washington, one of many nongovernment organizations taking part at the summit. "It was about as mild as it could get."
There are fundamental ideological and religious reasons for this. Developing countries of the South (Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, where most population growth is occurring) resist being blamed for global environmental damage as long as rich Northerners continue to consume far more resources and produce far more pollution on a per-capita basis.
Says Seeiso Liphuko, a senior delegate from Botswana, "We believe that the problems with climate change are caused primarily by those countries with millions of vehicles on the road."
A related attitude has to do with the need to address the grinding poverty that affects 1 billion people as a means of relieving population pressure and hence environmental degradation. "It's all very well talking about population," says Kamal Nath, India's environment minister. "But we can't treat it in isolation without talking about literacy or health."
In sum, says Mark Valentine of the nongovernment summit group United States Citizens Network in San Francisco, "Population highlighted unresolved North-South tensions.... It was a battlefield for North-South perspectives."
Religious attitudes also affected the extent to which the Rio conference could deal with population, particularly because of the concensual nature of the process. "The final documents reflect the tinkering of the Holy See and of those governments that saw fit to collaborate with it," Mr. Valentine says.
Still, the modest results at Rio have moved nations a bit further toward controlling population growth. "People now realize that demographic issues are important when you talk about the environment," Ms. Ethelston says. Women now are recognized as a "major group" in international discussions on environment and development, which means that such population-related concerns as prenatal health care and female literacy take on greater importance.
The next major step in the United Nations process will be the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, likely to be held in Cairo. Meetings to draw up an agenda began last year.
"The idea is to get together and make some sense of all this - to come up with fairly sharp and definite things for action in such areas as family planning, the status of women, nutrition, and education," says Alex Marshall, chief spokesman for the UN Population Fund.
"It's anybody's guess what will actually happen at the conference," he says.
"But we expect a very broad consensus to be arrived at very quickly, although there might be arguments on levels of assistance. There certainly will be on abortion."
"One issue will be the good old United States," adds Mr. Marshall. "What their attitude will be is anybody's guess."
The US record on international population efforts has been mixed in recent years. The US (along with 78 other countries) did sign the 1989 "Amsterdam Declaration," which called for making contraceptives available to 209 million more couples (64 percent) than was the case that year and also set a goal of $9 billion in annual spending for population-related activities by the year 2000.
On the other hand, the Reagan administration in 1986 halted all US contributions to the UN Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation on the grounds that the UN organization encouraged abortion. President Bush has continued this policy, even though as a congressman and ambassador to the UN he was a supporter of family planning.
If it were holding to the goal set in Amsterdam, the US would be spending some $650 million a year on family-planning efforts around the world as part of its foreign aid. Current spending is $250 million (the same as last year). The House foreign-aid bill for 1993 raises that to $330 million, but it also includes what one supporter calls "veto bait": $20 million for the UN Population Fund. The Senate is expected to vote on a similar bill this fall.
But in the end, most advocates agree, limiting population growth goes beyond more money for contraceptives and family planning. It must be seen as both needing more from governments and providing more to those they serve.
"Population does not stabilize through authoritarian `population control.' On the contrary, it emerges naturally through education, health, and welfare policies," said Nafis Sadik, executive director of the UN Population Fund at the Earth Summit in Rio.
"Successful population programs help defeat poverty; they contribute to protect our natural heritage, and to secure sustained and sustainable development with dignity and justice for all."