Interview: Roger-Mark De Souza

Washington, DC’s Woodrow Wilson Center is noted for bringing together scholars and high-level policy makers in a way that gets results. At the center, Roger-Mark De Souza the Environmental Change and Security Program, among other responsibilities. He organizes multidisciplinary forums, research, and educational efforts on the intersection of population, the environment, and public health not only in Washington but around the world. Previously, De Souza was a vice president at Population Action International and directed programs at the Sierra Club and the Population Reference Bureau. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman recently spoke with him in his office in Washington, DC…

EarthTalk: In the 1970s some environmentalists predicted that a growing population would lead to devastation, but that has not happened. How concerned should environmentalists be about population and why?

De Souza: I think it’s a very good question. We know that in the ‘70s there were dire predictions with regard to population and in particular population growth. I think those catastrophic predictions haven’t happen exactly as was predicted because there’s been a more sophisticated understanding of population dynamics, which is moving beyond just population growth to look at issues like people’s rights to determine how many children they would like to have, which was agreed to in an international agreement called the Cairo agenda that recognized that individuals have a right to decide how many children they would like to have and that’s voluntary. So as a result we have seen that fertility decisions and reproductive health rights have emerged as a key intervention that environmentalists and others are supporting. So they’re not just looking at population growth but recognizing that helping individuals get access to services that allow them to determine how many children they’d like to have has a good impact on the environment and is providing an opportunity and a space for these couples to be innovative in coming up solutions dealing with environmental challenges.

E: Great, so you don’t need heavy-handed mandates; you can let people do it voluntarily and still help the planet.

De Souza: Yes.

E: Okay. And in fact in many affluent countries like Western European and Japan we see a shrinking population. But many developing countries have a population increasing, sometimes quite a bit. So what are the major factors causing the differences?

De Souza: I think some of the major factors causing the differences between developed and developing countries with regard to fertility levels has to do with access to services, access to reproductive health services, that tend to be easier in developed countries. As a result, women and men are able to better determine how many children they would like to have and realize that number. In developing countries there is less access to reproductive health services and at the same time, because of a lack of social net or social systems to provide support for families, many people would like to have children as an additional insurance, or a means of support to work in the fields or as they get older, so that the children are available to help them. I think one final factor is looking at maternal mortality rates. So if a family expects that they may get pregnant and may lose a child, they anticipate having more children who will survive to adulthood. So they tend to have more children to accommodate for bad health services.

E: Okay, so urbanization, education, and health services all play a role here.

De Souza: Yes, I think, and as we know the world is becoming increasingly urban. More than 50% of the world is now urban. So urbanization and looking at health service delivery in urban areas, as those areas become increasingly congested, is also becoming increasingly important.

E: Great. You just covered some of this, but what are the best ways of encouraging human population to grow more manageably and how is the Environmental Change and Security Program working to encourage these?

De Souza: I think some of the best ways to encourage populations to grow at a good pace is to give people access to services that allow them to determine how many children they would like to have, investing in health systems, and providing innovative solutions that allow people to integrate reproductive health service delivery with environmental management. So we at the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center have been documenting innovative ways that communities combine reproductive health services with food security programming, integrated coastal resource management, and conservation work. And these practices have been very cost effective, have helped conserve the environment, have helped increase livelihoods and have helped people determine and realize their desired fertility rates. So we document these lessons through public conversations, through research projects, through documentary films, and through engaging policy makers both in the United States and overseas, including developing and developed countries.

E: So it’s a whole plethora of methods all integrated and working together. Can you talk about the impact of population on resilience, for instance in reacting to environmental crises?

De Souza: I think resilience is a new buzzword that we’re hearing. And our general understanding is that it refers to abilities to anticipate disruptions that are tied to climate change impacts, plan for those disruptions, and learn from them. So in terms of looking at population dynamics, we know that resilience programming helps improve the well being and the livelihoods at the individual level, at the level of community. But when you have a population that’s growing and concentrated in urban areas you need to pay attention to population dynamics and think about how you develop innovative solutions to integrate population with resilience progamming. Otherwise, resilience planning and programs will not be successful.

E: And then one other key factor is the role of women and education in population that’s talked about a lot. So can you say a little more about that?

De Souza: I think it’s really important to think about investing in girls’ education. Research has shown that the return on investment for girls’ education is quite quick and we know that it produces results. Girls that go to school, particularly that go to secondary school, tend to be more productive and engaged in their communities. They tend to be more economically engaged, they’re able to delay fertility choices, and they tend to be leaders in their community and serve as an example. We also know that when disasters occur, such as climate disruptions or flooding, that women, who tend to be the caregivers of their families, those women who are more educated tend to be able to better respond to these disasters. So it has very much short-term and long-term implications for environmental sustainabilty and well being of these individual women, their families, and the communities.

E: Great, so women’s rights, community rights, health, welfare and the environment all come together around the issue of population.

De Souza: Yes, I think population is an important issue that brings together dimensions around rights, livelihoods, economic possibilities, and conservation.

E: Thank you very much!

De Souza: Thank you.