Running out of room

Robert Gillespie and Pasadena-based Population Communication get the message out around our ever-shrinking world

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 9/2/2010

A Pasadena-based organization with only three staff members and a budget of more than a half-million dollars has been researching, analyzing and developing strategies to deal with one of the largest problems of our time: global overpopulation. 
Founded in 1977 by Robert Gillespie, Population Communication has taken an active role in promoting policies that stabilize global population while encouraging national leaders to do the same by committing to solving this enormous problem.
Since Gillespie founded Population Communication, the world has seen nearly 4 billion people added to the population. This alarming trend has caused all sorts of problems for many countries. For more than 50 years, Gillespie has been working to raise awareness about overpopulation and family planning issues in countries around the world by advising governments, delivering health and family planning services, and using art and entertainment to get the message across.

Pasadena Weekly: Tell me about the work Population Communication does.

Robert Gillespie: We work on a global scale. Our primary countries are Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines and two states in India. We have 10 different kinds of projects. We advise governments and facilitate with the private sector, we deliver maternal and child health and family planning services to help prevent unwanted pregnancies and unintended births, and we create an environment of empowerment from the cradle to the grave to keep women and children alive, to delay adolescent pregnancies and reinforce the value of small families so it’s beneficial to the children themselves, to their parents and the community as a whole. We determine how the marketing, literacy, credit and government systems within a country can reinforce our objectives. I have been advising governments for more than 50 years on maternal and child health and family planning. We take what has been successful not only within the countries, but around the globe and determine how those success stories can be replicated in those countries that I just named, those priority countries. Some of that replication is very exciting. For example, what’s happening in southern India, how it can be used in northern India. There are very successful programs in Iran, where I lived for six years, which can be useful in Pakistan. 

So you see some progress being made in terms of the programs you’re trying to promote?

There have been very successful efforts in countries such as Brazil and Mexico. Some of the aspects of those programs can be useful in the Philippines. Thailand and Indonesia have been very successful. There’s a very close relationship between where both Bangladesh is and Egypt is and where they need to go to basically achieve replacement-size families. The difficult areas are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa as well as northern India and Pakistan. 

Tell me about the film you helped make, “No Vacancy.”

We made it in 2006 and the objective was to go to countries such as southern India, Indonesia, Mexico and Iran and show how what has been successful there can be useful elsewhere in the world. We also went to Ghana, Nigeria, Eastern Europe. We wanted to cover Africa, Latin America and Asia. It does discuss some American family planning issues, for example the abortion divide and immigration issues. But it doesn’t really focus on anything more than the broader brushstrokes of these issues: population, environment, energy and so forth. It focuses more on where it is we can help countries determine what specifically they can do. 

What are some other ways Population Communication uses art to get its message across?

One of the more fun parts of what I do is arrive in a country and organize meetings with motion picture script writers to develop screenplays that focus on both direct and indirect aspects of improving the status of women, saving children’s lives, and all aspects of delivering contraceptive services and health services to make it more acceptable. So, in India, we’ll work with their popular screenwriters and say, “How do you give characters in your films empowerment to overcome the dowry system? Where is it that girls can have equal status with boys? Where is it that urbanization is taking place in a country and how is that beneficial or disorienting both for the immigrants and in the villages?” All kinds of stories. Creating a story about if you’re destroying the environment, you’re destroying your habitat. All these issues are brought to the agenda we have. One of the most fun parts of that particular project is that I work with very exciting and dynamic leaders in these countries and I introduce them to scriptwriters and say, “Here’s a story. Here are these amazing people doing this amazing work. How do we create stories that are archetypes of these people so that people are inspired by what it is that they’re accomplishing at the village level and they can relate to it?” And in each country, the capacity of the entertainment community to utilize what we have done is varied. Some places we’ve actually contracted with script writers, other places we’ve held workshops, other places we’ve given awards programs for those films that have the strongest messages on women’s empowerment and family planning. It’s been a fun project. We communicate population messages to national leaders in these countries through books, reports, publications, one thing or another. We also manufacture medical equipment and distribute it to health providers in the countries. These are our five core projects: communicating population messages to national leaders, developing scripts with population family planning themes, informing and training health providers in these countries to utilize contraceptive procedures, and also the merchandizing and marketing of the small family concept as it relates to cradle to the grave. One of our signature projects is the Statement on Population Stabilization, which 75 heads of governments have signed. It was first presented to the United Nations on its 40th anniversary and later to the Non-Aligned Nations. Now each July 11, which is World Population Day, I work with how we can develop reports from the government agencies and major population centers within the countries on how the statement can actually be turned into action. You need a global event for a project like this to have a focus that allows heads of governments to come together and address something that’s of common interest. 

I asked Bill Ryerson, president of the Population Institute in Washington, DC, and the Population Media Center in Vermont, if he thought the overpopulation problem was going to have devastating effects in our near future and he replied, ‘Oh, yeah, absolutely. When people are told that contraception gives them AIDS and that family planning is a trick, overpopulation is very difficult to solve. The negative effects of overpopulation are inevitable at this point. Infinite growth is not sustainable in a finite universe.’ Is overpopulation an irreversible trend?

Well, as long as people have children and large family sizes. Population momentum is very little understood, not only in the US, but also in the countries that we’re talking about. Even if in Egypt, which had 26 million people in 1960 when I was working there, they will add 32 million more people even if couples have two more children in the next 50 years. In other words, the population is going to double even if they have replacement-size families from what it originally was. So these momentums are huge. India adds 1.5 million people every month. China, with a one-child policy and a total fertility rate of 1.6, adds 524,000 new people every month, and that’s because of these huge momentums. The reason India adds three times as many people a month as China is because there are sections of it, primarily in the north, that haven’t yet achieved replacement-level fertility. What Bill says is absolutely correct. The first billion people on Earth arrived around the year 1800. The second billion came 130 years later in 1930. The third billion arrived when I started working in family planning in 1960. The fourth billion came when I founded Population Communication in the mid-’70s. The fifth billion was just about the time I got the heads of governments to sign the statement in 1987. The sixth billion arrived pretty much at the turn of the century. The seventh billion will arrive next year. These momentums are very difficult to reverse.