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  Environmental Policy Issues

Global Population Growth
(Released March 2001)

 

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Overview

In October 1999, the human population of the world reached 6 billion. Governments, scientific societies, and other organizations reacted with celebrations, but also with concern. The population had doubled in only 40 years, with most of the growth occurring in developing countries. Experts predicted that at the current growth rate of 77 million new people a year, the population would swell to 9 billion by 2050, increasing requirements for food, water, and health care in countries where basic necessities were already scarce.

Improvements in health care have extended life expectancies and reduced infant mortality rates around the globe, allowing the birth rate to outstrip the death rate in most nations. But despite these advances, much of the world's population still lives in poverty, particularly in the developing nations where population growth is most rapid. Malnourishment, lack of clean water, AIDS and other diseases, overcrowding, and inadequate shelter are very real problems for billions of people. In regions like sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, lack of access to family planning services, as well as cultural traditions that emphasize the role of women as child-bearers, make large families the norm.

Developed countries like the U.S. are generally experiencing slow or no population growth. But growth in other nations still affects them. In today's global economy, the balance of people and resources in Asian and African countries has far-reaching effects on the developed nations that are their trading partners. Overpopulation burdens the environment with increasing demands for timber and fossil fuels, driving up the price of the raw materials industrialized nations need to import. And as forested land is cleared to support a growing population, the world loses a vital mechanism for atmospheric regulation: the forests that produce oxygen and absorb carbon from the atmosphere, helping to slow global warming. These dwindling forests represent our greatest weapon against major environmental trends like global climate change -- problems that affect everyone, in developed and developing countries alike.

The relatively stable U.S. population also contributes more pollution and consumes more resources, per person, than the exploding populations of developing nations, so any population changes in the U.S. have a powerful impact on global health. Although the U.S. population is only 4% of the world total, it consumes 25% of the total resources, and produces more carbon dioxide and garbage per person than any other nation. Other industrialized countries also contribute far more per person to environmental problems like climate change, ozone depletion, and overfishing than do developing countries.

Historically, the U.S. attitude toward population growth has varied. From the inception of the international population assistance program in 1965, the U.S. supported efforts to control population growth by providing family planning services and reproductive health information to women around the world. However, domestic debates about abortion began to weaken the long-term support that international population control policy had enjoyed. The Reagan Administration suggested that population growth was a neutral phenomenon, not cause for concern, and took a strong stand against abortion, a service that was provided alongside family planning in many clinics in developing nations. President Reagan cut funding to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which supported family planning programs in more than 70 countries, and to international non-governmental organizations that performed abortions or distributed information about abortion. Claiming that China's one-child-per-family policy was associated with human rights violations, Reagan also revoked grants to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) until the organization could provide assurances that the money was not being used to fund coercive abortions in China. This reversal of policy took place at the Second U.N. International Conference on Population in 1984, and was called the Mexico City Policy.

In 1993, the Clinton Administration, which took a more neutral stance toward abortion, lifted the restrictions and returned federal aid to these organizations. Almost exactly eight years later, in January 2001, President Bush affirmed his anti-abortion convictions by reinstating the Mexico City policy, now also called the global gag rule. According to this rule, foreign organizations that provide abortions or appeal to their governments for abortion rights are denied U.S. funding, even if they reserve U.S. money for family planning services only. U.S. donations to UNFPA were declared off-limits for use in China, and the total donation amount was reduced by the amount UNFPA chose to spend in China. The U.S. remains, however, the single largest donor to population assistance programs. Other industrialized nations joining this effort include Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union countries.

A new CRS Issue Brief, Population Assistance and Family Planning Programs: Issues for Congress (February 2001), chronicles these changes. It also describes an underlying debate that influenced U.S. population assistance policy as to whether a rapidly increasing population spurs its country's economic growth, or impedes that country's ability to raise the standard of living for its inhabitants. Debate also touches upon the issue of abortion, particularly in China, where the one-child-per-family policy implemented in 1979 has placed heavy social and financial pressures on women who become pregnant for the second time.

The population trends of the next few years will have far-reaching consequences. Ultimately, the industrialized and the developing nations of the world must cooperate and share information, resources, and a common vision to solve the problem of population growth.

Written by Heather E. Lindsay.