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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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Global warming, food and water crises, even international conflict -- you can trace all these societal and environmental problems to overpopulation. Experts believe that Earth reached its population capacity in the 1980s, meaning we now consume natural resources at a rate much higher than they can be replenished. And of course, as we take away natural resources, we're adding a slew of unnatural, toxic matter into the mix that brings about a host of other problems.

Currently there are just over 6.8 billion people in the world. By mid-century, we're expected to number 9 billion, roughly the equivalent of one-tenth of all humans who have ever walked the planet. Curbing population growth is a logical goal if the human race wishes to ensure its own sustainability -- and that of the other species with whom we share Earth. (Not to mention Earth itself, too.)

Bill Ryerson has dedicated his life to the stabilization of human population numbers at a level that can be sustained by our ecosystem's resources. He is the founder and president of the Population Media Center, a non-profit that seeks to improve the well-being of people by using -- believe it! -- melodramatic soap operas on radio and television throughout the developing world (and soon, the U.S.) to teach listeners and viewers important lessons relating to family planning, reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and environmental preservation, as well as a thing or two about women's and children's rights.

Ryerson and I met recently in San Francisco to discuss the peril our fragile ecosystem faces as a result of our unsustainable growth -- and how we might save us from ourselves.

Daniela Perdomo: Before we get started on the specifics of your work, I was wondering if you could give me some understanding of just how many people listen to the radio, how many people watch TV, how many people own their own TVs -- in other words, what is the reach of media among developing-world populations you are trying to reach?

Bill Ryerson: Of course it varies from country to country and region to region. The place that has the least media coverage is Africa, particularly with regards to television. An example of that is Ethiopia where 4 percent of the population can afford a TV, but even there well over half have radios and listen to them on a regular basis. So it’s a majority of the world’s population that has access to broadcasting. Outside of Africa, which is still dominated by radio, certainly in Latin America and in Asia, television is the dominant medium and it reaches almost everybody. If you look at Vietnam, for example, an excess of 90 percent of the population is watching TV.  I was in Pakistan last week and that is a TV society with maybe two-thirds of the population watching TV on a regular basis. 

DP: Your organization, Population Media Center, uses the Sabido method to reach your target audience. Could you describe forthe laymanwhat the Sabido method is and why you chose this as your driving platform?

BR: When I first heard about the idea of using what Americans call soap operas for trying to achieve global sustainability, I thought it sounded ridiculous because I have never been a big fan of soap operas. The Sabido methodology actually refers to the Latin American version of soap operas, which are telenovelas, which are television novels, and they are quite different from American soap operas because they don’t try to go on for 40 years. They are truly novels with a beginning, middle and an end, and they tend to last two to three years. They are the dominant prime-time format in Latin America and they are very, very popular, as you know.

DP: Yes, they are far better than American soap operas. They are engrossing.

BR: Yes, and they are highly melodramatic -- that is, melodrama as really as the battle of good versus evil. So there are good and bad characters and they are battling it out over some set of issues. Miguel Sabido was a vice president of Mexico’s largest commercial network, Televisa. He oversaw the audience research division and he also was a key producer of some of their prime-time telenovelas. He realized through his research that he was having a huge impact on his audience on things like fashion and so on. He began looking at ways in which he could modify the typical design of the telenovela to systematically provide audiences with information that would improve their lives, while at the same time retaining high ratings. He created a research-based and theory-based approach to the creation of serialized melodramas that has proven over and over again to be highly influential in changing social norms on all kinds of issues. 

One of the theoreticians that he read the writings of is Stanford psychologist Alfred Bandura. He is the world’s authority on role modeling and how role models influence behavior and what makes a parent or a peer of a celebrity more or less influential on the people who are observing them. One of the things Bandura is known for is his work on self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is really the concept that I have the right and the ability to accomplish some task. So if I see an 80-year-old man climbing up a mountain, I may change my own view of whether or not I’m capable of doing that. The role model, if that person is influential and I can look at them and say, yes, I can achieve what that person achieved, can lead me to change my behavior without ever telling me what to do. That is really the concept. 

If you have societies in which, for example, girls are denied education but are instead married off at puberty to older men in polygamous relationships and are not given the right to determine how many children to have and so on, changing the attitudes and behavior of the men as well as the women can be done through this strategy, by creating characters who in addition to the positive and the negative characters who are battling it out, these transitional characters start out in the middle of the road and are representative of segments of the audience. They sort through the conflicting advice they get from the positive and the negative characters and figure out who is right, and they evolve into positive role models for the audience, both demonstrating how to overcome the obstacles to change in that society and showing the benefits of their new behavior. 

In the Sabido methodology, the negative characters always suffer the consequences of their behavior. So in a period of a couple of years the audience learns what they might not otherwise learn in a lifetime through the school of hard knocks. We have gotten thousands and thousands of letters from people thanking us for having addressed various issues in our programs, now in 24 countries around the world, because it helped them to avoid the mistakes that they saw the negative characters falling into -- characters who are so much like people in their society. 

DP: Do your shows play in prime-time slots?

BR: Yes.

DP: So you really do reach a lot of people. Can you give a tangible example of the effect PMC's programming has had?

BR: In Brazil, we have a project in Rio that works with the writers at TV Globo [the country's largest television station] that monitors the impact and the content of their programs. So, for example, there was a program we developed called "Páginas da Vida," "Pages of Life," that contained a teenage pregnancy and parenthood storyline. We set up research at the Planned Parenthood affiliate, Benfam, to ask women at the clinics during the time of that telenovela why they were there.  Thirty-six percent of the women at the family planning clinics were there because of that program. 

DP: Because they heard about this kind of clinic in the show?

BR: Yes, exactly, and they did not want to fall into the trap and the poverty and all the health problems that this teenage mother had fallen into. So they learned from that and they went to family planning. 

DP: That's amazing. But here's a question. Is there any danger of romanticizing the kinds of problems presented in a soap opera because it’s so melodramatic and the actors are so good-looking and people want to be like them?  Would people almost want to have the same problems?

BR: When people identify with a negative character, we call this the Archie Bunker effect. We actually measure this. It is a very, very small percentage because we are very careful to create the negative characters as extremely horrible. So it’s highly unlikely people would be attracted to emulate them, and they are not attractive as characters. They are pretty evil people.

DP: Even if you depict, for example, teenagers having unprotected sex, they’re bad characters? They’re not the heroes of the story?

BR: Exactly. Another important thing to recognize, particularly in Africa where we are working, and are doing radio serials -- kind of like the 1930s radio serials in the U.S. You’re not seeing the character, you’re just hearing their voice and learning about their behaviors through the dialogue.

Let me give you an example -- a Tanzanian radio serial which was on public broadcasting, it was on Radio Tanzania.  One of the negative characters was an alcoholic truck driver with a girlfriend at every truck stop and a subservient wife waiting at home.  His name is Mkwaju. Tunu, his wife, figured him out during the serial and told him she had heard about the AIDS epidemic -- this was 1993 -- and said that when he was home he was going to have to use condoms. She made that happen.  She went on to become an entrepreneur and found her own business and she became a role model for female empowerment. 

In the meantime, you’ve already figured out that Mkwaju became sick. A huge audience, maybe 50 to 80 percent of the adult population, with more men in the audience than women, found out Mkwaju had made a fatal mistake. Now, the men had been very attracted to Mkwaju because he was having a lot of the good time, but when he started dying from AIDS, which he did during the serial, there was a massive self-reported change in behavior. Of the audience members, 82 percent of them in a survey at the end of the two years said they had changed their behavior to avoid HIV infection. The most common change they said they had made was reduction in the number of sexual partners. The second most common change was condom use. 

We weren’t able to verify the claims of the numbers of sexual partners, but we got the condom-distribution data broken down by district. In the districts that did not hear the program but got all the other programs about HIV/AIDS, there was a 16 percent increase in condom distribution. While in the broadcast areas of the Sabido-style serial drama, there was a 153 percent increase in condom distribution. There is a similar differential between family-planning use, a zero percent change in the control area where they didn’t hear the program, a 32 percent increase in the broadcast areas. I got the minister of health to have health-care workers ask new family-planning adopters why they had come in, and 41 percent of them named the program by name.  Just to be sure it wasn’t something else going on with the control area, we then ran the program in its entirety in that region and we in fact then experienced an even bigger increase in family planning adoption there in a place where there had been zero change the previous two years when they didn’t hear the program.  At the ministry of health clinics, 41 percent again named the program as the reason they had come in. 

DP: A lot of people are out there trying to affect change in behavior throughout the world. Some things work, some things don’t. Could you tell me a little bit about why you honed in on the Sabido method over other approaches?

BR: Oh, yes. But the quick answer to your question is that per capita behavior change this is the most cost-effective approach that I have found anywhere in the world. For example, in the Tanzania project we were just talking about, the cost per person who adopted family planning was 32 cents. The cost per person to change behavior to avoid HIV infection was 8 cents. When you can save lives at 8 cents a person, it is worth doing something. 

When I have looked at other strategies, at even cheaper programs like public service announcements, health messages, two-episode dramas, 10-episode dramas, they’re not nearly as effective because they haven’t allowed the time to attract an audience, to make them fall in love with the characters, and then to move them with baby steps in a way that doesn’t create backlash. They can’t measure the kinds of dramatic changes that we can over a two-year period, even with repeated efforts at telling people what is in their interest, in part because they are not as entertaining. 

High entertainment value obviously attracts an audience, and if you’re just doing intellectual blah, blah, blah, people don’t remember it as well. But when there is a highly emotional element, when you are emotionally involved in something, you remember it far longer. The reason for this is emotional involvement enhances memory.  It’s kind of crazy that our school systems just do intellectual blah, blah and hope the students will remember it. An emotional program with changes in the life fortune of characters that you are in love with is something that causes audience members to remember the rest of their lives the lessons they have learned from those characters. That is part of the reason why this approach is so effective.

DP: Thirty-two cents, 8 cents. That sounds very cost-effective but are you taking into consideration everything that it takes to produce, say, a two-year soap opera in Tanzania?

BR: Yes. Including the research.

DP: Does everyone who works on these projects get paid?

BR:Some of our trainers work pro bono but for the most part when we’re taking people’s time in a developing country setting, we are paying them for their time. In our case we don’t send ex-pats into any country. All of our projects are run by country nationals. We hire the best writers in the country. We get people from the drama department of the university in the capital city or from the national theater. We hire actors who know how to do radio or, in the case of TV, TV acting. We train them with trainers from other developing countries who have used this methodology successfully, including Miguel Sabido who we have had do training in a number of countries.

DP: So there is really a lot to be said about the in-culture, in-language approach, as opposed to an American guy coming in telling people in other countries how to plan for their families.

BR: Yes. Now, who would I be to go and tell the women of an African country they should try to emulate Gloria Steinem? If I did that, I would be thrown out on my tail. 

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. 

Now, because of the recession that may have been partly triggered by that spike in oil prices, the demand for oil and the cost of food rather has come back down.  But we face a very serious threat to global food security if, and I think when, oil starts to go into long-term decline as it has in most other countries in Saudi Arabia. When production goes into decline in the face of expanding demand, economists can tell us the price of oil is going to go way up. If it goes up maybe twice what it was two years ago, the cost of food will be so high that, even if it’s available on the world market, the billion people living on a dollar or less a day may not be able to buy enough food to survive. If we have a billion people starving at once, and if you can’t buy food, starvation occurs within weeks. This is something the World Food Program has never dealt with. They have dealt with a drought here or a famine there, but this kind of event could change the planet in terms of the way we see life unfolding. 

DP: Perhaps we'll go the way of the dinosaurs?

BR: There are non-linearities that exist in the way in which the environment may treat us as people that it is hosting. Ecologists have been worrying about this for a long time. Perhaps the biggest threat is our continued elimination of biodiversity. If you would have visited this planet three billion years ago you would not have survived probably two minutes because there was no oxygen to breath. There was poisonous water. There was no clean water to drink. There was nothing to eat. It was just a chemical cauldron. 

Over billions of years life has evolved and we now have a complex web of life. One of the things ecologists can’t tell you is exactly how much we can deplete it before the whole system collapses. But clearly if you are swimming in the Gulf of Mexico right now you would think we have already gone back to a chemical cauldron. That is a reflection of how desperate we are. We have gotten all the easy oil there is to get. Now we are drilling 5,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, high-risk operations trying to get the last bits of oil. That is an indication that we don’t have anything nearly as inexpensive to replace oil in terms of solar and wind. Yes, they are there, and yes if we count the cost of polluting the environment and making the whole Gulf of Mexico uninhabitable, solar is a whole lot cheaper. But in terms of right now what we are paying for oil our whole system is dependent on a lot of cheap oil. 

The increase from one billion to almost seven billion people on the planet has occurred since the discovery of oil. When oil disappears -- and most experts think it will disappear, maybe not disappear but start go into decline, within the next decade -- the international energy association says they think it will start in 2020 and other experts think it will start now or has already started, then our way of life is clearly threatened. But the expanding human numbers and the demand for food has meant that we have continued to cut down wilderness forests, threatened the existence of many, many species. The extinction rate is way, way up from what has been a normal level. At some point this will lead to very serious ramifications. All of these things are driven in part by the number of consumers and driven by the per-capita rates of consumption, which of course vary all over the planet. 

DP: Could you speak to overpopulation's effect on conflict issues?

BR: I was in Pakistan [in May] when the bombings occurred at two mosques in Lahore. Thankfully I was in Karachi at the time. The people I was meeting with said part of the issue of terrorism is a population-related issue. Why? Because in high-population growth countries people are spending all of their money on food, housing and clothing. They have nothing left over to save. That means there is no capital formation. That means businesses can’t expand. Therefore, there is no growth in employment. So you have a rapid growth in the number of people trying to enter the labor force and no jobs.

That means you have in urban centers like Karachi and Islamabad and hundreds and thousands of unemployed men walking around angry and very concerned as to how they are going to survive. Guess what? In a society like that they are great prospects for recruiting into terrorism because they have nothing to lose. In fact studies done by Population Action International have shown that in very youthful, fast-growing population countries, which almost all have very stagnant economies as a result of the high growth, that there are much higher rates of civil and international conflict than in countries that have stopped growing, where the population is aging and where people are able to save money and have strong economies.

DP: You're flying to L.A. today, where you're working on a PMC show for a U.S. audience. Could you tell me more about it?

BR: We're developing a project to serve the Hispanic population. Great Hispanic talent are devoting some of their time to helping us do this program. Certainly one strong possibility is it will air on the Internet because there are so many barriers to entry when it comes to getting something on cable or on a network [here in the U.S.], though it is too early in the process to know.  In the meantime we are going to address, among other things, the issues of teenage pregnancy prevention and obesity prevention among Latino populations, and it’s based on research we commissioned a couple of years ago in the Los Angeles area. It will be a program that will be available to anybody worldwide if we do it online.

DP: Will it be in English or Spanish?

BR: It will be in Spanglish. It will reflect the way in which Latino teens speak to each other. So it will be mostly English with a little Spanish salted in. 

DP: Speaking to the audience, as usual.  

Daniela Perdomo is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet. Follow Daniela on Twitter. Write her at danielaalternet [at] gmail [dot] com.