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A Portrait of Overpopulation On a Personal and Global Canvas

THE best thing about George Moffett's book ``Critical Masses: The Global Population Challenge,'' is that he resists the temptation to pretend that population growth is a simple matter. He's bucking a long policy trend, which has lurched from one simplistic theory to another.

Shortly after World War II, when death rates started plummeting in what were then called the ``underdeveloped countries,'' the wealthy nations began to be concerned in an organized way about population growth. The concern was based partly on abstract compassion for the burgeoning hordes, partly on ecological worries, partly on security considerations. Those hordes live in places that supply us with metals, oil, timber - places where political stability is important to us.

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Whatever the causes for the concern, a simple solution emerged. The folks having all those babies must not know any better. Give them contraceptives.

So international family-planning programs were born. To some extent, they worked. The poorest women in the most isolated places began to hear the astounding ideas that they might choose the time and number of their pregnancies.

The women chose, however, to have many pregnancies. They needed children to work in the household, to tend the animals, to send to the city to earn money, to provide old-age support. Given the mean economics of their lives, children were one of the few forms of wealth available to them.

Eventually the international community caught on and came up with a new theory. These people need development. Build dams and roads and electric plants and factories. That lasted a few decades. Global population continued to soar upward, eating up, almost literally, whatever development did occur.

Another theory emerged: Focus on women. Give them education and jobs and power. Involve them as equal and dignified partners in the process of development. This women's agenda was the breakthrough of the recently concluded World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Like the previous breakthroughs - the commitments to family planning and development - it is an essential part of the answer. But not all of the answer. Even family planning, development, and women's empowerment together do not make up the full or final solution to the population problem.

Moffett, a reporter for this newspaper, has covered the population issue for years, and he knows it is a messy, fascinating, profoundly human topic. He avoids oversimplicities - but he also manages not to get swamped in complexities.

``Critical Masses'' is a remarkably balanced book, balanced not only in keeping an equilibrium among the hot-button issues (abortion, Malthusianism, the pope), but balanced between population as a global issue versus a personal one. Moffett goes back and forth from the particular to the general, from policy to the lives of real people. Amazingly he loses neither himself nor his reader in the process.

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He covers the territory from the history of the Roman Catholic Church's position on contraception to the ups and downs of United States policy (and why Catholic president John Kennedy was the first to allow official funding for family planning). He looks at the arguments about how many people the earth can feed and at the economics of family planning.

But then he introduces us to Guadelupe of Mexico City, who used an intrauterine device after her first child and got a tubal ligation after her second. (``I'm still a Catholic,'' she says. ``But birth control is a whole different issue.'') And to a doctor who works at the population problem, not with theory or with international meetings, but with daily attendance at a Cairo family-planning clinic.

Though Moffett recognizes and describes the desperation of the poor, the limits of the planet, and the multiple motivations behind the decision to conceive and deliver a child, he is neither confused nor discouraged about the challenge of stabilizing the population. ``[P]opulation growth is one of the few solvable problems in an otherwise complicated world,'' he writes. ``Rapid population growth is no longer a problem looking for a solution but a solution looking for resources.''

Moffett refuses to get sucked into the running debate among program proponents competing for those too-scarce resources - the debate about whether family planning or development or women's rights is the One True Key to slowing population growth. He credits them all. He also runs a subtle thread throughout his book (the impatient among us would say too subtle) pointing to the still-missing part of the package. Call it thoroughgoing economic justice. Call it plain human compassion. Moffett doesn't call it anything or let loose any polemics about its absence.

But his point comes through, especially in his epilogue when he draws the last of his individual portraits, of a street kid in Mexico City named Juan. Juan sleeps under a tarp in an abandoned fruit cart. He runs errands for merchants to get a little food. He gets beaten by the police; he gets high sniffing glue; he has no future.

``In a sense, this book is about Juan,'' Moffett writes. ``He is a reminder of what happens when population growth outstrips economic performance.... [I]f population growth is not curtailed at a faster pace there will be many more like him. The tragedy of that possibility is demonstrated by Juan's life. It is expressed more poignantly in the bright, engaging smile that, despite his circumstances, Juan managed to bestow on a passing stranger from a faraway place. Such sparks of life should be better tended by the world community.''

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