In 2007, when I worked for a Ghanaian daily newspaper, I broke a story that 30 percent of the country's maternal childbirth mortalities were actually botched abortions. Like many women throughout the world, denied access to safe surgical abortions, they resorted to backroom quacks with dubious equipment. They are among the 70,000 women who die each year from complications from illegal abortions.
From their graves these women can thank senator Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Junior and Stephen Harper. After Roe v. Wade, Helms figured if he couldn't control American women he'd take his anti-choice show on the road, pushing through an amendment banning US funding for overseas abortions.
As Julia Whitty points out in her recent Mother Jones feature, Reagan upped the ante by banning funding for any family planning groups that even discuss abortions. Clinton rescinded and Dubya reinstated the rule. Now our own prime minister has pulled funding for overseas abortion and contraception.
Family planning agencies throughout the global south have had to severely restrict programming. The UN estimates that Dubya's actions drove up fertility rates between 15 and 35 percent in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Arab world and Asia.
This is how foreign aid works. Rich people in rich countries make the decisions, and their ideological biases destroy real lives far away. It is anti-people and anti-environment.
Despite how over-population hurts the planet, environmentalists have shied away from the issue because population control has its own ideological dark side. Social Darwinists, eugenicists and anti-immigrant KKK leftovers have all argued for controlling populations they don't like. And while human birth rates have gone from nearly five children per woman 60 years ago to fewer than three per woman today, no one can forget China's brutal methodology.
When environmentalists get population conscious someone inevitably retorts, "One American uses the resources of 23 Indians!" It's true, and if that one American's children have children who have children, their collective environmental impact is 55 times more than an Indian family over the generations. That's because Americans live longer and consume more.
So even the patchouli-sniffingest North Americans are planet wreckers if they reproduce. Despite the complexity that went into that calculation, the thinking behind it is simplistic. In the international development game of consumer catch-up, with populations growing fastest in the south, everyone's carbon footprint is increasing. We 6.8 billion humans are now consuming as if we had an Earth-and-a-half. The planet can't sustain this many people consuming this much.
It's fair to say that rich nations are doing the most damage, and that we're exporting our environmental problems. We're over-producing our food, landfilling half of it, dumping it in poor countries and importing high-impact raw materials and cheap manufactured goods from cash-hungry countries. But the solution isn't to turn every other country into a sparsely populated gluttony-fest either.
To avoid mass starvation, Canadians must reduce our resource consumption and change the international development power game. Canada and the US are generous with their investments in mega-dams, superhighways and mechanized mass agriculture (complete with pesticides and genetic modification). But their mega-food projects don't feed the hungry. They just grow our population further out of control, while millions still starve and we all pull further away from sustainability.
Globalized big agriculture is eroding topsoil at a rate 10 times higher than it can be replenished. We're losing six million hectares of agricultural land a year. More than a third of the planet's land is at risk of desertification, affecting 850 million people.
Meanwhile, small charities in the south and north are making a real impact on reproduction. Instead of controlling women, they are investing in them with entrepreneurial micro-loans and opportunities for education.
When girls go to school the family is necessarily kept smaller to allow for that expense, and girls learn about family planning. They, in turn, have smaller families of their own and experience greater wealth---but still nowhere near the excessive wealth that is making North Americans fat (literally and figuratively).
From Canada's perspective, the core solution is twofold: 1) Pull international development money out of mega projects and re-focus on families and communities with an ecological lens; and 2) Re-localize our own economies.