Grow Up San Diego

by Carolyn Chase


hen will people confront that we either have to grow-up (increase density) or reduce population growth? We'd rather not, thank you very much. It seems impossible to get there from here, but it is a key challenge that our growth-oriented culture must resolve.

While many local and state interest groups are busy being agitated - and rightfully so - over how to accommodate projected population growth in California, let's step back and look at the global picture for a moment.

A whopping 81 million people will be added to the Earth this year. Keep in mind that this is to be considered an "up" statistic. That is to say, the 81 million figure actually represents a decrease in the overall population growth rate to 1.5% annually, as compared to a 2% rate of increase in the early 1960s.

But demographers are quick to point out a phenomenon called population momentum. Even though overall fertility rates have dropped, the number of women reaching their reproductive years has more than doubled. The United Nations State of World Population 1998 report shows that there are more than 1.05 billion people in prime childbearing age (between 15 and 24) and the fate of our population growth rate is, to a large degree, in their hands, heads and bodies.

"We have the largest generation of teenagers in history just entering their reproductive ages," observed Steven Sinding, Director of Population Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation. If world fertility rates were to drop to two births per woman, as the United Nations hopes, world population will reach 9.4 billion by 2050. If the fertility rate does not drop at all, our numbers will near 15 billion and still be going up.

How does this translate locally? Some movers and shakers are now latching on to the part of the SANDAG population forecast that states that some 60% of population growth will be from births not emigration or immigration. Ron Roberts went so far as to interpret the figures to say that 75% of population growth will be from "babies born here."

Maybe this is the good news. We know we can't stop people from moving here from other states as long as the economy is good. We know it's controversial to reduce immigration for many excellent reasons. But contraception and other birth prevention measures are well studied and even popular with most people.

Reducing population growth must mean humanely preventing unwanted births. It is the only ethical and moral choice. If all pregnancies were intentional, the long-term rate of population growth from all sources would decline by about 12 percent.

What can be done to increase prevention?

For the vast majority of peoples, fertility declines as education rises. Fertility also declines as income rises. For 25 years, it's been possible to predict the teen birthrate in the United States with 90 percent accuracy simply from the previous decade's child poverty rate.

Poor nine-year-olds become pregnant eighteen-year-olds. Child poverty is the root cause of teen births, early childbearing in general, and increased childbearing overall. It may not be true that all problems are economic problems, but this one is a good candidate.

What are the biggest obstacles to more educational and economic growth for the young women who need it? Access to affordable reproductive health care services reduces birthrates and increases the chances for girls to succeed in school. But the persistent politicization of the personal has worked against the public good.

Sadly, from 1980 to 1992, federal family-planning outlays, adjusted for inflation, declined by more than 70%. Money supporting research into new contraceptive techniques has also declined and efforts to improve contraceptive methods have come to a virtual standstill.

Almost all health insurers would save money by covering all forms of contraception, yet few do. One policy I think just about everyone should get behind is to insist that insurance cover contraceptives at least as well as Viagra. But our adolescent approach to sex and reproductive politics is well known.

Author and futurist Joanna Macy compares our cultural condition to the adolescent state, before the rite of passage necessary to integrate the awareness of limits into the personality: "We are confronting and integrating into our awareness our collective mortality as a species. We must do that so that we can wake up and assume the rights and responsibilities of planetary adulthood - so we can grow up!"

Grow up physically or grow up mentally, but for heavens sake, let's do grow up!