Twenty Years After ICPD, Population Connection Member James Gilliland Reflects on His Legacy of Leadership

JSG, GC at USDA, 1994September 2014 marked the twentieth anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo—a milestone in the history of population and development. Eleven thousand delegates from 197 countries attended. For the first time, the global community placed equality and the empowerment of women at the forefront of a plan for action toward achieving universal human rights, reducing poverty, and stabilizing world population.

The ICPD’s ambitious agenda targeted the eight Millennium Development Goals, which over the past decade have driven governments and international NGOs to take bold steps toward meeting the needs of the world’s poorest. Population Connection supporter James Gilliland was there as a delegate in 1994.

Gilliland practiced law for more than 30 years, after graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School, where he was selected as the outstanding graduate of his class. He served for four years as a naval officer in the Pacific, including two years as the chief defense counsel for the principal Navy-Marine General Court Martial system for the Far East.

Upon his return to Tennessee, he joined the firm Glankler Brown, where he developed an expertise in agribusiness and the international cotton and grain trade. He was actively involved as the industry grew and became increasingly productive, serving larger populations and using land more efficiently to produce more crops.

In 1993, Gilliland’s work caught the attention of the White House, and President Clinton nominated him to serve as general counsel for the United States Department of Agriculture. After his Senate confirmation, he served for nearly five years as the nation’s senior lawyer, with a staff of 300. He addressed the many matters in the department’s jurisdiction, including rural development and agriculture, food safety and inspection, food assistance to the needy, and the nation’s forests, together with all manner of conflicts ranging from the “spotted owl case,” which closed down timber harvesting in the Pacific Northwest, to trade matters under the Uruguay Round and NAFTA.

Recognizing that a key risk to sustainability was rampant population growth, Gilliland volunteered to lead the department’s delegation to ICPD. He was adamant then, and still is today, in his belief that the world’s unsustainable patterns of consumption and population growth are rapidly depleting natural resources and causing environmental degradation, while reinforcing the social inequity and poverty that leads to conflict and bloodshed.

Gilliland joined Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth and Vice President Al Gore in Cairo in representing the United States at the conference. Gilliland was, he said, “fairly pleased with the meetings,” where they convened with world leaders to discuss their common objective “to address the relentless increase of population, which was threatening our sustainability.” The meeting really mattered, he felt, “since sustainability is only possible if we all work together to make it happen.”

As for his outlook on our food security prospects for the future, Gilliland observed, “Agriculture has changed greatly in my lifetime. We get greater productivity for less input … that’s the good news. But our ever-growing population is on track to outrun our capacity to produce food and sustain ourselves. As the population marches on to higher numbers, by 2050 it will be very difficult to produce enough food and have enough water to sustain us as a people. I’m not sure that we can.”

Gilliland isn’t muted about his concerns. He wrote in an opinion piece published in Memphis’s Commercial Appeal in September:

Tahrir Square. Tunisia. Libya. Iraq. Syria. Before them, Somalia, South Sudan. Failed states. What did they have in common? A particular religion? No. A similar form of government? No. A common objective? No.

But crowded, overwhelmed cities, yes. And poverty, civil unrest, declining per-capita food production, shrinking water supplies, lack of education, subjugation of women, yes, all yes.

What has happened since the 1994 conference has been almost predictable. Where populations have inexorably expanded and their environments have been increasingly debased, add in visions of a better life and the mixture explodes. In the disruption that follows we see angry, jobless, violent young men in the streets in vast numbers, all too often seeking a fix to the mayhem they are creating in the name of extremist religions.

His prescription?

Education, cooperation, empowerment of women, better health, and an opportunity to make choices for a better life—these are the critical elements needed to swing the needle back toward a sustainable world.

Common sense says that government support for family planning should be a no-brainer.

We thank James Gilliland for embracing common sense, for his role in addressing the critical—and related—issues of population growth and agricultural improvements, and for his support of Population Connection.

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