There was a time when I knew everyone in the art world, or at least the downtown scene. Today, that would be absurd, given the exponential rise in the amount of people who are part of it. Of course growth is not limited to the art world. The total world population grew from 4.4 billion to 6 billion between 1980 and 2000, according to the World Bank. In October 2011, we hit 7 billion.
It was during a trip to Avignon last summer, for the city’s annual festival, that these mind-boggling statistics really struck me. There, scientist Stephen Emmott presented “10 Billion” (above), a theatrical lecture that zeros in on the dangerous implications of a world with 10 billion inhabitants. As we multiply, he explained, so too will demands on earth’s land and water. The shift will also exponentially speed up the rate of deforestation and need for energy. Further exacerbating the situation is climate change.
All of this got me wondering not just about the way my own world has changed but also how such staggering population growth has affected people everywhere. To help unpack the topic I approached Barbara Crossette, a former United Nations Bureau Chief at The New York Times and lead author of the 2010 and 2011 World Population Reports for the United Nations Population Fund. We sat down in my studio this past December to discuss these reports and their immediate and long-term implications.
Laurie Anderson: Are you seeing any positive developments that give you hope population can be maintained at a sustainable level?
Barbara Crossette: Today there’s a new report out about how population growth is going down in the United States. Immigrant women are having fewer children. It shows that if you just let women from the developing world have the same rights—or, rather, access—that we have, they make smart decisions.
The whole world population rests on women. You have to start with the woman. And the woman will make her own decisions. If you want to have five or ten children, fine. You can have big families or small families, but you have the family you feel you can afford or feed. In China the one-child policy is already finished—on its way out because the economic conditions end up producing the same effect. If people want an expensive flat in a place like Shanghai, you can’t have more than one child or two.
I was traveling in rural Ethiopia with a health worker and she’d have women jumping out of bushes at her because they didn’t want to be caught seeing her at home. They’d ask “Please, an injection, an injection.” And then the husband, who perhaps has forbidden her to visit a family-planning clinic, doesn’t know, because an injectable contraceptive leaves no evidence.
As a former head of the United Nations Population Division used to say, “Give women the information and the access and they’ll bring fertility down.” This way you’re not using women’s bodies—you’re letting women make the decisions. If it slows down population growth, fine, but that is the side effect. Not the other way around.
LA: How did you become interested in the question of population growth?
BC: Reporting from Asia and at the UN as a New York Times correspondent, I got very interested in development and in women, who represent the key to economic and social development, and almost everything else, including the ability of a community to rebuild after war or a disaster like the Haiti earthquake.
Give the women what they want. Not what you think they need, but what they tell you they want.
When I went to the groundbreaking UN population conference in Cairo in 1994, I was really drawn into the discussion, which put women at the heart of population and development. They were finished talking about birth quotas, enforced by countries like China and India. We were finished talking about using women’s bodies to achieve development. We were now going to say, “The women make all the decisions and whatever else happens, happens.” And what happens is almost always good. But then in the following years, support for family planning diminished. There were many who felt that putting money into family planning was an infringement of cultural norms.
In other words, you go to countries in Africa and the government officials—all men—say, “It’s not our culture. Child marriage here is important to the family. Female genital mutilation is part of our society.” And then you go out to the villages and the women act like, “Where did you get this?” There’s this gap between what is officially coming out of a lot of countries at the UN and what the people no one ever hears think. Women know exactly what they need.
LA: So do you believe that women can change things based on what’s good for them? Regardless of their governments’ official policies?
BC: When we started work on the “World at 7 Billion” report for the UN Population Fund, there was still quite a fight about how much to talk about family planning. I had just come back from a trip all over the world and I said, “It’s what the women want to talk about.” People now see that you can’t step back. Give the women what they want. Not what you think they need, but what they tell you they want. And if it means circumnavigating the governments, and navigating directly within communities or into health systems, fine. As long as programs are never imposed from outside.
Family planning is under attack in the UN and elsewhere. This time, not so much by the feminist organizations that wanted to put women’s rights ahead of their health and bodies. After the last two trips I took to poor countries around the world, I saw that “rights” don’t mean anything to millions and millions of women. At least 225 million women don’t have any access to family planning.
Often a husband or partner blocks that access, not infrequently with threats. One woman in India told me, “If I come home with those pills, my husband will kill me. He wants more sons. He already beats me if he thinks the food is too cold or too hot or too salty or not salty enough.”
Michelle Bachelet, the head of the new agency UN Women, is working to end domestic violence. What she’s tried to do is focus on what women lack in trying to defend themselves. Access to justice systems is important, because a woman has no recourse to the law in many places and is subject to an enormous amount of domestic violence. It’s a huge problem globally. In places as different as East Timor or Macedonia, domestic violence is still the major civil crime. And it’s almost inevitably a man attacking a woman.
LA: What about education? Are there ways that women can escape cycles of violence and injustice?
BC: They try. And where they get away with it is often in education. But more little boys than girls still go to school. We went to a place called Bhim Nagar, a slum outside Mumbai. When parts of the city were gentrified, many poor people were pushed out, UN officials say. So now they’re in growing slums that used to be middle-class suburbs, and the first thing they try to do is find education for their children. They run into the problem of their husbands saying, “Let the boy go to school. The girl stays home and learns to be a cook and wife and housekeeper.” I met a woman whose son had studied all they way up to the equivalent of a technical college. However, her daughter, she said—and she got tears in her eyes—is going to have the same life she had.
In the same neighborhood, there was a ceremony going on for the betrothal of a 14-year-old girl. It’s against the law in India to marry off a girl under the age of 18, as it is in many parts of the world. But India has more child brides than any other country, and they become mothers early in life. The population continues to grow; it is likely to overtake China as the most populous nation within this decade.
LA: So where will the biggest explosion be?
BC: India’s population is 1.2 billion now. China’s is about 1.3 billion. It hopes to cap it there. But China is pretty much relaxing the one-child policy, and is thinking of officially ending it. So they don’t know what this is going to mean in the long run. What if everyone says, “OK, now I can have a second child”? A lot of them are already doing that by going to Taiwan or Hong Kong.
LA: And what about the ratio of boys to girls? Where is the biggest difference?
BC: The ratio of boys to girls is bad in three big countries in Asia: China, Vietnam, and India. It’s worst in the north of India, where there’s horrendous poverty. The number of girls in many of these places is so low that it has social consequences. You get young men without jobs and without women, and this leads to chaos and political danger. But the south of India is very different.
In the south of India, they educated girls. Three things came together in southern India that are unbelievably coincidental. There, the local Maharajas believed in education for everybody. The Syrian Catholic Church built schools for boys and girls. And then the Communist party, which took over politics for a period of time, had very strong social policies that benefited women. As a result, girls got into school. It was the first part of the country where towns could claim to be 100 percent literate. And so there, you’re going to have a sex ratio at birth that’s normal.
But what’s a problem with India, in particular, is female feticide – aborting a female fetus. It is unacceptable and illegal, but it happens on a large scale. Then there’s also the killing of baby girls. Female feticide is pretty much middle-class, Indian experts say. This is not happening among the poor; they just have to keep bearing children and hope they live. This casts into doubt the spurious argument that we just have to wait until everyone’s middle class and then all of this will sort itself out. Better-off women will have fewer children—but at what cost?
A woman who ran a feminist organization in India told me one thing that stands out for her is bride burning. If a groom’s family doesn’t like an arranged marriage and they want to get rid of the woman, in-laws may set fire to her in the kitchen, or she may commit suicide in a “kitchen fire.”
LA: I never even heard of bride burning. Only witches. But brides?
BC: Thousands of women die that way in India every year. And this comes from official Indian statistics. The woman said to me—this is the worst story she’s ever heard—a husband came home and poured Chivas scotch over his wife and set her on fire. That, to her, was the middle class gone crazy. Women’s rights in India are in very bad shape. There are also “honor killings,” as in Pakistan. There are highly educated women in India, but it’s such a tiny percentage of a huge population; you have hundreds of millions of people in abject poverty. The country has more poor people than any other place in the world.
LA: You mentioned the influences of the church and the Communist party on the education of women. Where do you think change comes from?
BC: Fortunately, it comes increasingly from within societies. First, there is the environmental issue. Women in rural villages around the world can tell you “My mother walked an hour for water, I walked two hours, and my daughter’s going to walk three or four hours just looking for fresh water.” The land gets degraded.
A leading demographer at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University told me that in northern Ethiopia, where the land can be very barren, families only have a little bit of overworked land. So if the family, say, has four sons and has to divide the land by four, they’re already in trouble. Essentially this demographer said, we have “not enough land.” It’s not “too many people”—they don’t use that terminology. “Not enough land for the people we have.” The added problem is outsiders: Saudis, Chinese and Indians are coming in and buying up land because they’re already thinking about the future of their food production needs. The Ethiopians whose land is being taken don’t have that luxury. So the environmental pressures are felt very much at the local level. In Ethiopia, this leads to illegal emigration from Ethiopia into Saudi Arabia and Yemen. And these people are treated horribly when they get into the Gulf area.
Then there’s the migration to the cities. There are lots of farmer suicides in India because they can no longer manage. Once they get in the urban areas, they see other things; for example, they want their children to go to school. Urbanization is a kind of contraceptive, I was told. When people move into urban areas, they see that you can’t have large families if you have one room, or two rooms at the most. Every mother wants her children to eat, so she knows she has to play a role in keeping her family manageable.
“As many children as God will give me,” I heard someone say in in a family clinic in Brazil. And the person sitting next to her said, “Or as many as you can feed.”
LA: In the United States people worry a lot about the environment, global warming, militarism and other big issues. But the population explosion just doesn’t seem to be on our radar like these other things. Why do you think that is?
There are lots of ways to measure prosperity and they don’t always involve the GNP.
BC: People are careful not to talk too much about exploding populations in the U.S. because statistics will show that a lot of it is in immigrant families. So that might suggest another reason to be anti-immigrant. But, if these new figures that are beginning to come out are showing that immigrant families are having fewer children in the U.S., this is indicative of the fact that once you get into a society where—at least on paper—you have access to all of these services for women’s reproductive health, as well as a slightly higher income, a better place to live and hope for your children, you begin to adapt to the family norm of other middle-class Americans of European descent. And choices remain if you want to have a big family, or if you feel that contraception is not right, since many of the immigrants from Latin America are Catholics and some of them are conservative.
LA: How do you see United States’ role in addressing the issue of population explosion?
BC: In a global context, it really is shocking because the U.S. is using up so many global resources proportionally. Our population takes much more than other populations that are larger. So outside the U.S. there is resentment, certainly in poor countries, about the amount consumed by industrial nations, particularly the U.S.
LA: In the midst of all your study of the population explosion what sticks out as something that is not getting addressed?
BC: There is no single UN agency that deals with aging. And hearing that Europeans or the Iranians or the Russians are going to have more babies… What does aging do to global population and resources? And why would we be in love with growth? It’s become ingrained in our thinking that you have to always get richer or better, or the country has to be more prosperous. There are lots of ways to measure prosperity and they don’t always involve the GNP.
Big employers, who want really cheap labor, often push pro-immigration policies as a way to import cheap labor. Then there are good-hearted people who believe that everyone should have the right to come to the U.S. (My mother was a refugee from Europe; everybody’s family has somebody who was an immigrant.) That melds with the fat cats who want to staff their factories—here or in poor densely populated countries like Bangladesh—with people who are going to be paid a quarter of what an American worker would get. It’s very complicated, but I think it’s a fascinating time for population studies. Because statistics are getting better and people are seeing how bad endless growth is going to be by 2050. That’s what I got out of the year I worked on “The World at 7 Billion.”
LA: When I was born there were only about two billion people in the world. So when I think about how many things have changed in my lifetime, the tripling of the population is maybe the thing that affects all the other developments the most significantly. I’m hoping population becomes something Americans can begin to address in a bigger way. Thanks for all your wonderful work and for talking to me today.
This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by Guernica.