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Strange But True: How Soap Operas Might Save Us From Overpopulation

Earth reached its human capacity in the 1980s. Our planet is in crisis, and Bill Ryerson is using media to change behaviors that contribute to global overpopulation.

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So we and the local writing teams and the ministry of communication, agree on what are the policies of the government and of the UN agreements to which the country is a signatory. If a country is a signatory to some of those, it gives us a policy basis on which to move forward. We choose a focus and the writers then create something to move the audience, not from A to Z, but from A to maybe E, because you’re not going to solve all the problems in, say, the Sudan with one soap opera. You can’t move people a huge distance in a short period of time, but you can measure the change and do so scientifically.

For example, in Sudan, we developed a program where the major emphasis had to do with female genital mutilation and ending the practice of FGM. At the baseline, 28 percent of the adult population thought FGM was a bad idea. The majority thought it was just fine. But in the post-broadcast survey, 65 percent of the population thought the practice should be abandoned. So it was clearly a huge shift. 

DP: Let's step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Let's talk about population growth.  Why is it the cause you've committed your life to?

BR:I’ve been involved in the population field for over 40 years. It is, from the standpoint of most ecologists, one of the key driving issues related to sustainability.  Sustainability is the bottom-line issue, whether you are talking about health or, say, the welfare of other species. Whether the planet is operating in a sustainable way is of critical concern. The warming of the climate and the things we are experiencing now with regard to climate crisis are clear indications that what we have going on is not sustainable. 

Here in the Bay Area there is an organization called Global Footprint. They have created a way of describing human activity on the planet in terms of sustainability.  What they have determined is our ecological footprint is 40 percent over what is sustainable. Sometime in the 1980s we were at 100 percent of the capacity of the planet to renew resources as we were using then. Now we are using resources at 140 percent of what is possible. It means we are taking resources out of the bank, so to speak, and not replacing them. One of the key resources we are doing this with is water.  The top three grain-producing countries of the world are India, China and the United States. All three are using underground fresh water aquifers for irrigation, as well as using river water for irrigation. 

In India, the water table is sinking by 10 feet a year because they are pumping out the water at twice the rate of replacement by rain water. That is clearly not sustainable. As water becomes economically more and more difficult to reach or just disappears, large areas of farmland in India are turning into desert. Farmers are giving up farming. So the overuse of water to support the green revolution crops that indeed had brought us 30 years of leeway to try to get population stabilized are now starting to disappear. With the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas, the regular flow of the rivers in India and China are also threatened. Even now the Yellow River doesn’t reach the ocean two-thirds of the year because China is using it all for irrigation. 

So it is clear that expanding human numbers and expanding demand for food is something that has its limits. Clearly eating lower down on the food chain, eating more grain and fruit as opposed to eating meat, will make the food go further. But just on the issue of food and water, we have a very serious problem facing us in the immediate future. 

On top of this, Al Bartlett of the University of Colorado at Boulder described modern agriculture as the process of turning oil into food. When you think about it, cheap oil is a key element in fertilizers and pesticides and in planting, harvesting, transportation to market, refrigeration, packaging, distribution to supermarkets and taking it home and serving it -- there are elements of oil or petroleum products in all of those activities. You can calculate the oil component of the price of food.  We witnessed the impact of this when oil reached an all-time peak two years ago.  The price of grain and of both rice and wheat tripled and quadrupled on the world market and there were food riots all over the developing world.