For the past 15 years I've chosen the issue of our world's population as my activism focus. This has led to leadership in Population Connection (formerly ZPG - Zero Population Growth) as well as activities on behalf of other groups such as the Population Media Center, VHEMT, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the Sierra Club. I have led lobbying trips to Washington, DC and State Capitols in Oregon and Washington, sent a slew of letters to editors and kept up an e-mail list for the topic with about 300 subscribers (ask me if you'd like to join) for the past 12 years.
With all of the talk about climate change and how we're doomed, you'd think that there would be more mention in traditional media about the root cause of increased amounts of carbon in our atmosphere - population growth. Instead, this topic is mostly taboo, though it's mention is increasing - for instance, Al Gore does talk about it in "An Inconvenient Truth". But still, most politicians and journalists would prefer to talk about how this band-aid (wind power) or that fix (green building) will get us back to greenhouse gas levels of the 1990s. Don't get me wrong - wind power, green building, planting trees, and the million other efforts we can make to reduce carbon are all good and important. But if we continue to grow at 75 million people a year (current growth rate) we'll increase beyond our current level of 6.7 billion to who knows how high? The UN has predicted that we'll level off at 9-12 billion - but who wants to live in such a crowded world, and with everyone on the planet wishing for an existence like we have in the US - cars, eating meat, and wearing a different pair of shoes each day... we have to take population growth seriously. The UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) is one organization that takes this issue seriously and I hope someday they're as well-known as UNICEF.
Last week I flew to Washington, DC for the organization, Americans for UNFPA to lobby for more funding for the UNFPA. The UNFPA provides services to women and families in some of the least developed countries around the world. The places with the highest levels of un-met needs for contraception and reproductive healthcare. Places where many women die in childbirth because giving birth is still unsafe. During the Bush years, the US contribution to the UNFPA was $34 million, but though congress repeatedly allocated this money, Bush refused to send it on, and so our contribution for the past 8 years has been 0. This year we were asking for $50 million (this was listed in the Appropriations bill that has already passed the House and is now before the Senate). Interestingly, there was an amendment (Wicker) which would have affected future UNFPA funding which came up for a vote while we were visiting our Senators - which was, luckily, defeated 35-65. Our other "ask" was for $65 million for the 2010 budget. This was the first time of my 8 visits to lobby on Capitol Hill where something I was lobbying about was being decided that day - very exciting. During a lunch with Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey (NY) who has been a huge supporter of womens' rights, we learned that the amendment had been defeated, and it was a rousing moment for everyone in the room.
I got to meet Will White who is the new Senior Advisor to Oregon Democrat Senator Jeff Merkley. Will agreed that our issue is important and assured me that Senator Merkley would most likely support these levels of funding. After working on the Merkley campaign in 2008 (voting party, fundraiser, phone-banking, and a Merkley-pumpkin-carving party with friends) it felt fantastic to walk into his office. Though his staff is crammed into some space in the basement for now, I took pride in knowing that I, and so many others, worked hard to defeat the previous incumbant 2-term Republican schmuck from Oregon and replace him with a progressive Democrat. I look forward to great things coming from Senator Merkley and his staff.
Next up I met with staff from Oregon Democrat Senator Wyden's office - Ben Widness (Legislative Aide) and Mary Polce-Lynch, Ph.D. who is an APA/AAAS Fellow. Senator Wyden has always supported UNFPA funding, so mostly our visit to his office was to thank him for his votes and support in the past and to let him know of our request for 2010 funding. Again, we met supporters on our issue. I also went on three other Senate visits of which 2 were a little less welcoming - Ohio Republican Senator Voinovich's office (Pro-Life, retiring in 2010), NC Republican Richard Burr (foe of choice and other related issues) - my sense is that a lot of Republicans are basically against contraception, not just reproductive healthcare. I also visited NC Democrat Senator Kay Hagen's office which was a great visit. So, my ask to you is this: please find your Senator and Congressperson's contact information and write them a short note asking for $65 million to be included in the 2010 budget for the UNFPA. And, if you're feeling inspired, please become a friend and/or donate $ to the organization Americans for UNFPA. They ran a great lobby day, and are doing important work to make the world a better place.
Washington, DC really feels different to me on this visit. It's almost as if the wicked witch is gone (ding, dong the wicked witch - which old witch? the wicked witch...). Talking to staffers of the Republican Senators who do not have much powwer in DC right now was a very different experience from how things stood when they held the White House and could count on Bush to veto, well, almost everything in the end - but most things progressive, all during his term. I stood for a while in front of the White House and sent President Barack Obama positive energy - gave he and his family the thumbs up and waved. Just standing there felt different. Being in the House and Senate buildings felt different. The airport felt different. It's as if a sea change is going on - and though I missed the inauguration, I am so glad I got to visit the city during the early days of the Obama administration. Just waking up to the forward progress printed in the daily Washington Post (am so pissed that I can't get a subscription here in Portland...) was refreshing. And, I met a friend who works for a Executive Dept. agency and his tales of how his agency has been holding on for 8 years and now is so relieved at the positive change - was also refreshing.
If you get a chance to visit DC anytime soon, I would recommend it - and going to lobby for a day gives you a great feeling of empowerment and participation - some direction on what to see, and a chance to effect change in our world.