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Nonprofit CEO lectures about population issues

By Suzanne Schatz
On December 3, 2012

John Seager, President and CEO of Population Connection, lectured about population control last Tuesday during Prof. Charles Chester's "ENVS 2A: Fundamentals of Environmental Challenges" class.

Seager discussed the roots of population growth and change that can help mitigate related problems, such as scarce resources and climate change.

Seager explained that the organization's name is appropriate because the issue of population growth is connected to everything, including poverty, women's rights, the economy, the environment, global justice and civil unrest.

Seager said he strongly believes in the right to privacy, which Justice Louis D. Brandeis is known for writing about and pioneering in an 1890 Harvard Law Review article. Seager followed this principle, saying the decision regarding "how many children to have is one of the most private, personal decisions anyone can ever make, and I don't think anyone, anywhere has the right to tell you what to do. Ever."

He went on to discuss the roots of population growth, and said the number of children women had in the United States dropped significantly during the 1960s and 1970s, because women put more thought into deciding how many children to have. At that time, women increasingly wanted to ensure they were in stable situations before having children. He credited the decreased birth rate to the increasing number of women going to college, the invention of transformative technology such as the birth control pill, and changes in law and culture.

Looking further back in history, Seager stated that the advent of modern public health and sanitation systems caused most of the population growth in America after the 1800s because it allowed more children to survive.

However, he said today natural population growth is happening in many undeveloped countries in some of the poorest places on Earth. "This isn't just about a lot of numbers on a spreadsheet, this is about seven billion people, each of whom has their own story and their own trajectory of their lives," he said.

Seager said that the number of people the Earth can support depends on quality of life. For example, because producing animal protein uses more resources than producing plant protein, the Earth could only support about five billion people if everyone followed the meat-heavy American diet. Conversely, the Earth could support up to 40 billion people if everyone had the lifestyle of those living in the poorest regions of east Africa.

He said changes such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea, the highest extinction rate in millions of years and climate change are caused by human population and human consumption.
"Resources create limits," he added. He stated that one out of every 10 people in the world face some level of water scarcity, even though we are not currently running out of fresh water. He then posed the hypothetical question of how you would get water from the Great Lakes to places like Africa, and how they would afford it.

Speaking about plans to reduce population growth and its related problems, Seager asked, "Is our plan, 'well [Africa will] just stay really poor, and we'll bring our emissions down over time ... and we won't have to worry about them because they're just going to stay mired in poverty?' I don't think that's a very smart plan."

Seager praised Iran's and Mexico's approaches to reducing population growth. Iran has increased women's education and increased the availability of contraception, although some of its leaders are currently trying to reverse this. Iran requires citizens to take a family planning course before getting married, and its religious leaders promote the tranquility of smaller families. Similarly, Mexico has introduced a literacy program, family planning program and sex education. As a result, Iran has reduced the average number of children women have from 6.5 in 1985 to 2.3 today, and Mexico has reduced it from 6.8 in 1970 to 2.3 today.

"Within your working lifetime we can achieve global population stabilization through voluntary means," Seager said.

According to the Population Connection's website, it works to achieve population stabilization through providing affordable birth control to women around the world who want it, educating people about unsustainable population growth and working with the government on family planning policy.

When asked what college students can do to help the issue of population growth, Seager said, "population growth relates to every single discipline that anybody here at Brandeis is studying ... whether it's the sciences, or history, or international relations, or sociology, or anthropology, they all relate to population. My goal here is to get students, as they proceed with whatever they're studying, to at least think about how it connects to human population growth, and as they get into their careers ... [to] consider putting it on the short list of issues that [they] pay attention to." 

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