When asked what brings about political change, former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan has often been cited as replying, “Events, dear boy. Events.” Looking past its peculiar phrasing and dubious provenance, there is truth here. More than 200 years of rapid population growth can be thought of as an event. The shocking election of Donald Trump was an event. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic scourge was an event. The horrifying murder of George Floyd was an event. All have had profound consequences and have changed the way we view our world.
Mr. Floyd’s murder opened many eyes, mine included, to 400 years of history that I knew about, but didn’t fully understand as a white male born into the upper middle class. While our nation seeks to come to grips with deeply rooted racism, as a population organization, we need to widen the public frame still further when it comes to racial justice. We need to raise awareness that, here in the U.S., women of color have higher rates of unplanned pregnancy than white women. As the only major nation on earth without universal health care, people of color—who tend to earn less—are disproportionately deprived of access to medical services. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, pointed out more than 50 years ago, “There is scarcely anything more tragic in human life than a child who is not wanted.” This is a population issue. It’s also a racial justice issue.
We should also raise up voices from the Global South such as those included in this issue of our magazine. They see a rapidly growing population as an issue of justice, indeed one of survival. Dr. Alex Ezeh points out on page 12, “If the rate of population growth slows down, there will be more resources to invest in each African’s health, education, and opportunity—in other words, in a good life.” Those who claim it’s off limits to talk about the impacts of population growth are ignoring a profoundly damaging fact of modern life. We won’t be silenced.
We can all benefit from a less-crowded world in which every child is planned and has the opportunity to become a healthy, productive citizen. That world is within reach, but won’t just happen. Like racial justice, it requires conscious prolonged effort.
No one can change the past, but a former Population Connection board member observed that if we want a different future, we must change the now. That means breaking down the barriers that prevent women and couples from planning their families. One way or another, we need to chart a better course for our overheated, beleaguered planet.
John R. Bermingham, who died of natural causes in May, at 96, was a pioneer in the best sense of the word. Early on, his love of the outdoors led him west to Colorado. Thrice elected to the State Senate, he wrote the first state law in our nation legalizing abortion some six years before Roe v. Wade.
A tireless advocate and generous donor on behalf of population stabilization, John served on our national board. Meeting with John both during and long after his board tenure was both treat and challenge. A graduate of Yale University and Columbia Law School, a former federal prosecutor, and former Colorado Land Commissioner, he had the sharpest of minds. Into his 80s, he taught courses on sustainability at the University of Denver.
It was an honor to count John as a friend. He was a brilliant, tireless advocate for defending our natural resources and on behalf of inalienable reproductive rights. I will miss the indefatigable intellect which he dedicated to a better, safer, less-crowded world.