AS the world gears up for a once-a-decade United Nations conference on population in Cairo this September, activists in the United States are focusing on the issue as key to protecting the environment.
National environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the National Audubon Society are beefing up their population efforts in anticipation of the Cairo meeting. New grass-roots groups are emerging at the state and local level as well. They are encouraged by the Clinton administration's increased funding for international family planning.
But just as it did at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, population is proving to be highly controversial.
Among the hot-button subjects it touches on:
* The question of whether the highly populous third world or the highly affluent industrial nations are more to blame for pollution and declining natural resources.
* The balance between population-control programs and economic aid for developing countries.
* The importance of increasing health services for women and their children.
* The role immigration policies play in encouraging high population growth rates.
For environmental activists - hundreds of whom gathered at the University of Oregon School of Law last weekend - all of these issues raise tough questions about traditionally liberal values involving class, race, culture, and gender.
``A lot of people just don't have the courage to face these issues,'' says David Durham, founder of Carrying Capacity Network, a research and advocacy group pushing for greater controls on population growth.
But for some, it's not a matter of courage but of intent and results. Some non-white and non-Western activists see population control efforts as inherently racist or elitist. Some feminists see population programs as coercive of women, as they have been in such countries as China and India.
``This is something that has to be faced,'' says Ric Oberlink, executive director of Californians for Population Stabilization.
While population traditionally has been seen as a ``global'' issue to be dealt with internationally, many experts now say it has to be addressed nationally and even locally - and in the US as much as in, say, Bangladesh.
``The fact is,'' says Mr. Durham, ``the United States is exploding in population growth.'' While the US fertility rate (number of children per woman) had dropped to 1.8 in the mid-1980s, it began to rise again and now stands at about 2.1. This seemingly small increase means the country's population (moving upward by 1.1 percent a year) could rise from 258 million today to nearly 400 million by the middle of the next century.
A big portion of this annual increase is immigration - legal and illegal - which is about 1.5 million people a year. Dealing with recently liberalized immigration laws, says Cornell University professor Vernon Briggs, is ``very controversial, very sensitive, and enormously important.''
The problem, says Vanderbilt University anthropologist Virginia Abernathy, is that ``when we send signs of wealth and opportunity, inappropriate foreign aid, and an open-arms immigration policy we promote the wrong behavior ... encouraging people to discount the signals from their own environment.''
While the traditional view is that improved economic well-being (in the form of foreign aid, perhaps) brings down population growth rates, there is historical evidence that the reverse can also be true.
``People have more children when they expect their situation to get better,'' says professor Abernathy. ``They have fewer children when they have a sense of limits.''
Just as controversial is the economic cost of immigration. Florida Governor Lawton Chiles (D) this week released a report showing that state and local governments there are spending $884 million a year on health care, education, prisons, and other public services for an estimated 345,000 illegal aliens.
Rice University economist Donald Huddle last year reported that legal and illegal migrants across the United States were costing all levels of government $45 billion a year more than the taxes such migrants paid.
But if environmental activists are to focus on US consumerism and a population growth rate twice the rest of the industrialized world, then the politically touchy subject of immigration cannot be ignored.
The official name of the Cairo meeting of nations is the United Nations Conference on Population and Development. This means that questions of economic equity and foreign aid are sure to be raised, as they were at the UN Conference on Environment and Development two years ago in Brazil. This time, however, delegates will not be able to ignore population - the crucial link between the two - as they did for the most part at the Earth Summit.