Experts Discuss "World in the Balance"
On April 8, the Environmental Change and Security Project hosted a preview screening of stories from NOVA's Earth Day episode "World in the Balance," which will premiere on April 20 from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings to confirm date and time). The screening was followed by a panel discussion with Paula S. Apsell, senior executive producer of NOVA; Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute; Joel E. Cohen of Rockefeller University and Columbia University; Shanti Conly, senior technical advisor in the Office of HIV-AIDS at USAID; and Linda Harrar, executive producer of "World in the Balance."
"World in the Balance"
"World in the Balance" is the latest episode of PBS' award-winning science series NOVA. The first hour of the program, "The People Paradox," explores population dynamics in developing countries and examines the aging of industrialized societies. In the second half, "China Revs Up" documents the environmental impact of rising affluence. The program describes some of the most important environmental issues facing our world, and features commentary by noted experts such as Allen Hammond of World Resources Institute and panelist Lester Brown.
Warning that the world's population of six billion is projected to reach nine billion by 2050, the program begins with India, which threatens to surpass China as the world's most populous nation, even though India's average fertility rate has dropped from six children per couple to three. However, the birthrate in India's northern states remains high—the population could double by 2050—due to the interplay of complex social factors. For example, traditional family structures dictate that parents are cared for by their sons, not their daughters; as long as child mortality rates remain high, families may have more children to increase the chances that a son will survive to support them in their old age. Reducing the fertility rate thus requires a multi-pronged approach: not only providing family planning services, but also increasing child survival rates and opportunities for women to support themselves.
In contrast, birth rates in the industrialized nations of Japan and the United States are declining and the population aging; Japan now has more citizens over 60 years old than under 20. While the United States' fertility rate is also decreasing, over one million immigrants enter the country each year, helping to replace the population and producing an economically vibrant workforce. But this success comes at a price: an American child will consume and pollute more over a lifetime than 30 children born in India today.
In the second half of the program, "China Revs Up" looks at the booming economy of the world's most populous nation, and at a problem possibly more dangerous than population growth: affluence. As the economic engine revs, China may become the world's worst polluter; if its appetite for cars continues to grow, China's CO2 emissions could match those of the United States by 2030. As the program remarks, "we export our lifestyle and China is one of our best customers."
A Malthus for Water
"We forget how dependent we are on water, and what I think we need today is a Malthus for water," declared Lester Brown after the screening, noting that Malthus'1798 work "An Essay on the Principle of Population" indelibly linked population growth to pressure on food supplies in the public consciousness. "It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of food. Each day, we as individuals drink about four liters of water, but the food we consume requires 2,000 liters to produce." He warned that "a future of water shortages will be a future of food shortages."
According to Brown, falling water tables and rising temperatures have reduced the rate of food production. For example, China's grain harvest has dropped by 70 million tons in the last five years (more than Canada's annual harvest), and it has been covering that decline by drawing down its stocks. Brown predicted that China "within the next year or two will be turning to the world market for more grain than it has ever imported. And when it does it's going to have to come to the United States….[and compete] with U.S. consumers for food, driving up our food prices."
Population Talking Points
After praising the program as "moving, compelling, beautiful, stirring, inspiring, and challenging," Joel Cohen outlined four points on population: first, the number of people is going to increase, reaching nine billion by 2050. Second, he noted that "on a global basis, the population will be growing more slowly...but it's not clear yet whether [the rate of increase] will drop to zero." Third, as a consequence of decreasing population, "around 2000 [was] the last time in human history that the young will outnumber the old." Lastly, he pointed out that almost all of the additional three billion people will live in cities, increasing the population's rate of urbanization from approximately one-half to two-thirds. Faced with these facts, Cohen said he was "neither optimistic nor pessimistic," commenting that "if we pay attention to all the relevant factors and are creative and determined, we can make it in a reasonably good form to the other side of the century."
"Complexity—that's the word that came to mind as I watched this film," began Shanti Conly. Although initially "a little agitated because I felt [the program] was portraying this polarized view of the developed and developing world," she was reassured when it delved into the demographic diversity within India by looking at the differences between the northern and southern regions. Conly remarked that "it's difficult to make those global arguments we made 40 years ago," as population has become a country-specific or regional issue. Praising the film's powerful portrayal of demographic complexity, she claimed that "ultimately it is not just about numbers; it is about the self-determination of individual women" and the incredibly complex interplay of social, economic, and demographic factors that shape their decisions. "But I'm an optimist—a cautious optimist," said Conly, who believes "in this strong powerful desire of individual women to control their fertility because they know it leads to better lives for themselves and their children."
Asked if family planning's successes have reduced the sense of urgency, Joel Cohen described what he called "the most important event in all of human demographic history": in 1965-70, the rate of growth peaked at 2.1 percent, and then declined to about 1.3 percent per year. Cohen explained that "people in the developing world realized that more of their children were surviving and began to have access to the means of lowering their fertility." However, he cautioned that the United Nations' median projections assume a continuing fall in fertility:
That won't happen by magic….If we don't provide the means we won't see the decline in fertility that some people treat as automatic…We need better contraceptives; if you have used any contraceptives lately, they are not so terrific. There is a lot of work left to be done to make reproductive choice a reasonable kind of choice.
Shanti Conly followed with the observation that "we haven't celebrated our successes enough….Organized family planning programs have played a huge role" in reducing the rate of population growth, but "we need to continue to publicize that, and the need for continued investments." Asked whether HIV/AIDS workers could build on the knowledge gathered by family planning programs, Conly noted that "the HIV community is beginning to understand that you have to be talking about contraception" to encourage prevention or to combat mother-to-child transmission. However, the "very separate administration of the programs is still a challenge that needs to be overcome."
Technology and Tradition
An audience member asked how technology might address population and resource demands. Lester Brown commented that despite technological advances that tripled food production in the last half-century, "we still have not achieved a humane balance between food and people for the world as a whole." Water could benefit from institutional and technological innovations similar to those that improved food productivity, but "we don't even have a way of thinking about water productivity and measuring it…we don't have the institutions and the mindsets yet in place and we don't have a full appreciation of the scale and dimension of the problem."
Another questioner inquired about approaches to family planning in countries with strong religious traditions. Brown replied that individual religions take a wide range of positions, noting the contrasting attitudes towards family planning in Catholic countries like Italy and the Philippines. Shanti Conly opined that "religion itself is rarely a barrier; sometimes it is organized religious hierarchies or politicians using religion to oppose family planning." She recommended working with religious leaders at the community level; for example, she conducted seminars for religious leaders in Bangladesh, using phrases in the Koran like "take care of your wife's and children's health" to promote family planning. When she first worked in Bangladesh, the women would say they wanted as many children "as God gives us…if God gives them to us, we will take them," but more recent surveys indicate that "most of them will tell you they want two or three children; in a span of generation those attitudes have changed and women are much more conscious of their ability to control their fertility."
Paula Aspell cautioned that "programs like this can be very depressing and very hopeless or they can be kind of Pollyanna-ish. It's really hard to get to the complexity of the issue and at the same time leave the viewer with some sense that there is some solution." She praised the "World in the Balance" team for focusing on individual people making decisions about their lives. "You are carried along on these human stories and that propels you to understand the larger philosophical, demographic, and policy implications." Linda Harrar said the team took this approach because "Americans want to know about the success stories; they want to know that these problems can be approached and not to be overwhelmed by how daunting these challenges seem."
Balancing the Water Books
An audience member wondered if population projections take into account other global dynamics, like climate change. Lester Brown said that while previous societies simply moved on to the next fishery or forest as they depleted them, "now we discover that the adult fish population has been reduced by about 90 percent from a half-century ago, and the same thing is happening with forests…eventually there won't be any forests to go to." Turning to water, he declared that water scarcities "are now crossing international boundaries via the international grain train," as countries take irrigation water from farmers to serve cities, and import grain instead. "If you import a ton of grain you've imported the equivalent of 1,000 tons of water. Grain has become the currency with which countries balance their water books."
Brown closed the session by warning: "We may be facing a wake-up call. We may now be, for the first time, seeing environmental trends that have global economic consequences…rising food prices will probably be the global economic indicator of the relationship between us and the earth's natural systems and resources."
Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, Sprint, and Microsoft. Additional funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers. Major funding for "World in the Balance" is provided by Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and The Annenberg Foundation. NOVA is presented on PBS by WGBH Boston.