THE connection between overpopulation and environmental degradation is becoming a prominent factor in efforts to increase family planning around the world. This is happening at several levels: within international agencies like the United Nations, among environmental groups now making it a top priority, and on Capitol Hill.
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs was scheduled yesterday to mark up its foreign aid bill, which includes funds for international family planning legislation. [See related story].
While man's impact on nature has long been felt locally, the worldwide effect of steady growth in population and development is becoming increasingly evident in light of deforestation, species loss, and global warming.
For example, the clearing of forests for firewood in Nepal caused erosion and siltation that in turn created small islands where rivers emptied into the sea. Land-starved peasants in Bangladesh (where 110 million people live in an area the size of Wisconsin) crowded onto these islands, which put them in the direct path of cyclones.
Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute says ``profoundly disturbing'' population trends mean the per capita availability of key resources will shrink ``at an unprecedented rate'' during the 1990s: grain land by 15 percent, irrigated land by 11 percent, forest land by 19 percent, and grazing land by 18 percent. World grain output per capita already has dropped 4 percent since the mid-1980s.
Werner Fornos, president of the Population Institute, points out that 70 percent of all families in the developing world depend on wood for fuel. Many of the communities that rely on fuelwood as a primary energy source are overcutting forest land, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Nancy Wallace, director of the Sierra Club's international population program, points to the direct connection between deforestation, wood burning (both linked to overpopulation), and global warming. Wood burning, for example, releases two of the four major ``greenhouse'' gases - carbon dioxide and methane - into the atmosphere. Forests left growing, on the other hand, absorb carbon dioxide.
``The quality of human life is inseparable from the quality of the environment,'' Nafis Sardik, director of the UN Population Fund, said in releasing the agency's 1990 report. ``And we cannot solve the environmental crisis without solving the population crisis.''
``The current percent increases [in population] may seem innocuous, but the added billions can bring disaster,'' warns Nathan Keyfitz, who heads the population program for the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. ``The tree cutting and other demands on the environment are not related to [birthrate] but to the population, and the relation to population is not linear or proportional, but much more than proportional, once a resource has become scarce.''
``The time in which the chain can be broken is limited,'' he writes in ``Preserving the Global Environment,'' published this year by the American Assembly at Columbia University and the World Resources Institute.
The world population today is 5.3 billion people. The annual rate of increase slowed to 1.7 percent by the mid 1980s, but edged up again toward the end of the decade. Experts figure the population will stabilize at 9.3 billion by the end of the next century - but only if voluntary means of contraception are made widely available and birth rates drop to replacement levels (an average of 2.1 children per couple).
If not, the population could triple. There are 1.4 billion people under age 15 in Latin America, Africa, and Asia excluding Japan. The number of reproductive-age couples in such countries will go up about 18 million per year through the 1990s.
Today, only about half the women in developing countries have access to modern contraception; 30 percent not counting China. Meeting at a UN-sponsored conference in Amsterdam two years ago, 79 countries (including the US) drew up a blueprint for stabilizing population growth that would increase contraception availability to 75 percent. Fulfilling the ``Amsterdam Declaration'' would mean raising world spending on family planning assistance from $3.2 billion a year to $10.5 billion. This is equal to 4 per cent of average foreign aid from developed countries (which only Norway now spends).
At present, the US dedicates 2.2 percent of its foreign aid to population programs. Under pressure from right-to-life groups, the Reagan administration in 1984 cut off US support for the UN Population Fund. It was alleged that the organization at least indirectly lent support to abortions in China. The Bush administration has kept that ban.
But the Bush White House also budgeted a 24 percent rise in other forms of international population assistance for 1992, which Nancy Wallace of the Sierra Club calls ``a major increase given the current fiscal climate.'' This brings the total to $308 million, which is still only about half what the US would be spending under the Amsterdam Declaration.
Conservative groups - many of which oppose not just abortion but family planning in general - have attacked environmental groups that have joined the call for population control. The irony here is that failure to provide means of contraception leads to an increase in abortion in much of the world. Environmental group leaders shrug off this criticism and are hopeful that the current momentum in their direction continues.
``I feel quite confident that this will be dealt with,'' says Ms. Wallace. ``The question is, will we do it soon enough to maintain a reasonable quality of life and a healthy ecosystem? Or will we lose the basis for our economic survival?''