When I was born in 1938, I may well have been the two- billionth person born on the planet. It took only thirty years for the world’s population to grow by more than 50 percent to more than 3 billion. I started taking notice when Silent Spring was published, revealing the serious environmental concerns relating to this rapid population growth. Subsequently, many of us began reading and learning about the profound demographic and environmental challenges facing humanity.
I became convinced of the importance of this issue when I read The Population Bomb, by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. The Ehrlichs deserve credit for opening my eyes and capturing the public’s attention about the rapid pace of population growth. They also raised our collective awareness about the pressure that human needs and numbers put on the ecological systems we depend on for life – the oceans, freshwater, soils, and the atmosphere.
|There are 215 million women around the world who wish to prevent pregnancy, but lack access to quality contraceptives, education, information, or services. This number has devastating implications – complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death of women in their reproductive years, killing an average of 1,000 women per day. That number is just plain unacceptable in this day and age.
At about the same time, my dear friend Jacques Cousteau was emerging as one of the world’s most respected conservationists. Captain Cousteau was a citizen of the world – a voice for the oceans and other planetary resources. He, too, cautioned that rapid population growth, pollution, and poverty were powerful forces that the nations of the world should work together to address. When I start to feel overwhelmed by the problems facing our global society, I’m reminded of Captain Cousteau’s sound advice. He once told me, “Ted, it could be that these problems can’t be solved, but what can people of good conscience do but keep trying until the very end?”
These influences and my own ongoing research led me to believe that population growth and preservation of the Earth’s environment deserved to be considered as one of the most significant threats to human survival.
I’ve been committed to women’s rights, maternal health, and population growth issues for a long time, and today, I am more concerned than ever about the huge unmet need for voluntary family planning. There are 215 million women around the world who wish to prevent pregnancy, but lack access to quality contraceptives, education, information, or services. This number has devastating implications – complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death of women in their reproductive years, killing an average of 1,000 women per day. That number is just plain unacceptable in this day and age.
When I was chairman of Turner Broadcasting, we attempted to reflect these concerns as part of our effort to make the most important news and issues available to people all around the world twenty-four hours a day. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, Turner Broadcasting units created award-winning series like “Earth Matters,” “People Count,” and the animated adventure series “Captain Planet,” which was broadcast in more than 100 countries. Some questioned why we were airing programming on the environment, development, reproductive health, and population, but we were confident the issues warranted the coverage and the quality of the productions warranted airing.
We were especially proud of our coverage of the major UN conferences of the 1990s – on the environment, women, population, and social development. I have always believed in the United Nations as a platform for peace and global problem-solving, and those conferences represented the UN at its best – bringing together governments, business, and non-governmental organizations to address the great challenges facing humanity.
At the Turner Foundation, where all of my children are Trustees, we strive to reflect a comprehensive approach in both our business endeavors and our philanthropic initiatives. In our work to help stabilize population, encourage development, and address our environmental challenges, we believe it is our job to do whatever we can to leave the Earth in a better state for future generations.
At the United Nations Foundation (UNF), population, women, and health have been at the forefront of our work from the outset. We have worked with other foundations and the UN to address the needs of adolescent girls and women. UNF’s Universal Access Project works to help mobilize resources for international family planning and reproductive health efforts. We are committed to this work because we know that family planning benefits mothers, families, and communities, and helps children survive. Experience has taught us that coercive practices such as the one-child policy are a violation of human rights.
In addition to the implications for child health and survival, I believe that access to family planning is essential to achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. This includes healthier women and families, allowing women to pursue education and income- generating activities, food and resource security, and environmental sustainability.
In the years since I first read The Population Bomb, important progress has been made in understanding and responding to the world’s major demographic and development challenges. Fertility rates have declined, millions of people have been lifted from poverty, and women’s rights are expanding. So, we’re doing some things right, but much more remains to be done. We need to stabilize the population, encourage family planning, stop global warming and the decline of key ecosystems, and achieve a more just and equitable world for all the world’s people, including, and especially, the world’s women.
The scale and significance of the world’s challenges can seem overwhelming. But I am an optimist, inspired by the work of the United Nations, the United Nations Foundation, the Turner Foundation, and many others. The most precious gift we can give our world’s young people is to teach them how to sustain a healthy, safe, and prosperous planet. Their future is in our hands now, but soon, it will be in theirs.