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Aspen Ideas and how to really talk about population growth


This was my first time attending the annual Aspen Ideas Festival, and what a week it was! Suffice it to say, my head still hurts from all the information I took in from some of the country’s top thinkers and doers. From the polarization of U.S. politics to the Supreme Court’s health care decision and education, people are genuinely looking for answers and talking about ways to best tackle today’s pressing issues.

The Aspen Institute, especially its Global Health and Development program, should be congratulated for including a conference theme called “Our Planet: Seven Billion and Counting.” Putting population issues front and center is rarely done these days, and the fact that the festival devoted a week of sessions to this topic is encouraging for those concerned about the intersection of population growth, the environment and women’s rights.

Peggy Clark with Aspen Global Health and Development has an excellent grasp of the issues and brought in some top-notch people to talk about population and women’s rights. Her program has done much in the past year to underscore the importance of reproductive health as a human right and a key to sustainable development.

That said, despite best intentions, the population piece was only partially included in most of the sessions. The two best were “The Politics of Sex” and “Sustainability Redux,” about which more can be read here. And Dennis Dimick, executive editor for the environment at National Geographic, gave a good overview of the “Population Challenge” session, linking the issues of population growth and resource scarcity, based on the magazine’s recent yearlong focus on a world of 7 billion. Encouragingly, he mentioned the importance of educating girls and noted the “Girl Effect,” a video on how supporting girls is a main solution to overcoming social problems.

However, other sessions seemed to miss the point of stabilizing population growth. One session titled, “The Role of Business in Addressing the Nine Billion,” was a one-on-one talk with Doug McMillon, president and CEO of Walmart International.

Most people who are very concerned about the environment and a planet headed toward 9 billion people by 2050 would probably not expect a Walmart exec to be keynoting such a discussion. While McMillon never said so, it is my belief that Walmart wants very much to reach 9 billion, because to them, that represents 9 billion consumers. Companies want to increase profits and customers, not decrease them. Even though Walmart understands the impacts of an unsustainable world, especially resource scarcity, it probably doesn’t necessarily equate that with fewer people. It just wants to have more shoppers.

The very next day was another one-on-one session, this time with Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co. His topic was “The Earth in 2050: What Is the Stress Nexus of Food, Energy and Water?” Most of the time was spent talking about Shell’s pending drilling for oil off the coast of Alaska. Little was said about population and the human impact on food, energy and water resources, despite the title.

This is not to say the private sector shouldn’t be involved in population growth issues. Its input and innovation is crucial, too, and the best solutions will involve all sectors. For the Aspen Ideas Festival, though, a little more balance with grassroots organizations would have been more effective.

The voices of those who are “on the ground” working directly with women and their families to improve lives need to be heard. There are amazing women and men working tirelessly to build healthy families, communities and environments all over the world, in developing and developed countries. Many of them have the ideas and inspiration that more people need to hear. Blue Ventures, PHE Ethiopia Consortium and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee are just a few that come to mind.

And if the Aspen Ideas Festival really wants the heavy hitters, Melinda Gates, Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Kavita Ramdas are doing exceptional work. Ramdas just penned a compelling article on why we should be talking about sex and contraception and why this is important for society and the environment; her efforts should be brought to the attention of the festival organizers.

Given the often-pervasive reluctance to address the nexus of population, the environment and reproductive rights, I’m thrilled that the words “seven billion” made it onto the schedule at all. Despite the above concerns, kudos to the Aspen Institute for bringing it into the discussion. Population affects almost everything, as more than one festival participant told me. People get it and want to know how to talk about the issue. A few less words from corporate America and a few more from global activists would be a start, and maybe, just maybe, that will be on the agenda in 2013.

You can view selected population sessions from the Aspen Ideas Festival on its website.

bay citizen

3 Comments on "Aspen Ideas and how to really talk about population growth"

  1. BillT on Fri, 27th Jul 2012 1:43 am 

    Do you ever notice that these ‘do good’ conferences are ALWAYS held at some posh resort? Never in say, Bangladesh where they would get a first hand view of reality. Or even Manila where they could cross the street and see shanty towns in sight of posh condos. They waste your money eating fancy dinners and staying in 5 star hotels to discuss the ‘problems of the poor’. Hypocrites all!!

  2. DC on Fri, 27th Jul 2012 11:29 am 

    I think the title gives it away no? The Ideas ‘Festival’? Festive is not what I would call the situation we are in, and will be. They make it sound like a party. And for the, lily-liberal white amerikan hobby doomers, they seem to have assembled, maybe it is.

    Pretty funny to hear this write thinks Wall-mart ‘ understands the impacts of an unsustainable world’. What Wall-mart is he talking about? The WM I know about runs diesel trucks, hauling shoddy, toxic crud 24/7/365 and destroys local businesses and communities. I have no doubt they all clapped politely too at the Wall-mart dudes talk at the end …

    As for Bill Gates trophy wife being a ‘heavy’ hitter, says a lot about the sheltered myopic world this bunch lives in……

  3. Kenz300 on Fri, 27th Jul 2012 12:08 pm 

    Business pursues growth at all costs.
    More products, more customers, more profits…. until the collapse.
    The finite planet is coming head to head with the worlds endless population growth. This will only lead to more poverty suffering and despair.

    Access to family planning services needs to be available to all that want it.

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