Earth's unheard message

The most frustrating thing in Washington, perhaps, is to have a Message and not to have an audience. I spent two days last week observing representatives of 60 organizations gathered at the "Leadership Conference on Population, Resources and the Environment." Their groups have membership of 5 million people -- and they have a Message. Will anybody listen? I am doubtful, for a time anyway. Later on? That's another matter. They are anxious and determined. More than that, they are now organized. The trouble is, they are worrying about the future. Washington, you see, is almost exclusively interested in the present.

The word that the gas guzzler was doomed didn't get through to Detroit in time to avoid a critical national problem. That was noted by Russell W. Peterson, former governor of Delaware, who gave the keynote address here. He described a cartoon somebody sent him. It showed a white hunter saying to an Indian:

"What buffalo shortage? Give me the scouts and the guns and I'll get you all the buffalo you want!"

The Message of these 60 organizations is a lot more serious than that of the buffalo and the gas guzzlers. It deals with the resources of the whole Earth. They say these are giving out, that the environment is suffering, and that in a very short time (forgive me for being personal, but in about the time it takes my new granddaughter, Helen, to reach 20) we will be in trouble.

Experience shows that most adults can't get worked up much more over th future of the Earth for themselvles, but if it is put to them in terms of their children they fire up. How will tormorrow's world look under these conditions: each year the US adds more than two million people (plus maybe a half million more illegal immigrants); each year the world adds 75 million. When Herbert Hoover was President world population was only 2 billion. (It had taken all of history until 1930 to reach the first billion, and 100 more years to add the second billion.) Now we are adding a fifth billion in just 10 years. By the time my granddaughter reaches 20, according to the new study, world population will be about 6.35 billion. The accelerating pressure of population on planetary reserves is going to be severe. This isn't just academic theory, either; here is what Jimmy Carter said in his solemn farewell address a fortnight ago:

"There are real and growing dangers to our simple and most precious possessions: the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land which sustains us. the rapid depletion of irreplaceable minerals, the erosion of topsoil, the destruction of beauty, the blight of pollution, the demands of increasing billions of people, all combine to create problems which are easy to observe and predict but difficult to resolve. If we do not act, the world of the year 2000 will be much less able to sustain life than it is now."

Chilling words. One problem is that a large proportion of the expanded population will be in the have-not countries; that's where 90 percent of the poorest and hungriest will be concentrated. Fortunately, even there, the rate of population increase is moderating. But a third of the world's population could be malnourished by the end of the century.

America is well off, buy many an acre of prime farmland that used to grow its 100 bushels is now a parking lot -- its last crop asphalt. The country is losing 3 million acres a year to cement or buildings.

The new Environmental Conference wants the public to be cognizant of what's happening. It urges Washington to "declare a national policy of coordinated planning toward the goal of population stabilization." It wants to toughen and enforce the immigration laws, to alert government agencies, and to institute programs designed to promote global equilibrium. The earnest delegates want to get the nation's attention. Who knows? Perhaps they w ill.

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