FOR DECADES, the controversy around contraception and abortion has made it politically easier to speak and organize around air pollution, deforestation, toxic waste and biodiversity than around the issue of population.
As Dennis Meadows writes in "Limits To Growth," "You can always blame any particular problem on something that is not over-population. Nobody ever dies from over-population. They die of famine, disease, war."
Scientists agree that the precise relationship between population and environmental destruction is not fully understood.
We do know, however, that:
* Every year farmers around the world are trying to feed 90 million more people with 24 billion fewer tons of topsoil.
* Desertification from over-grazing and inefficient farming methods is taking 15 million acres of land out of use each year.
* Increasing demand for fresh water has diminished our water supplies by trillions of gallons above and below ground. In several regions of northern China, water tables are falling by 12 feet to 15 feet a year. Parts of Mexico City are sinking as underground aquifers are pumped dry.
* Approximately 1 billion people do not get enough food to function.
* Our species alone co-opts, consumes or eliminates 40 percent of the Earth's basic photosynthetic energy and appropriates two-thirds of the planet's land surface.
There have been populations in the past which collapsed once critical, natural thresholds were exceeded: the unique Planishing civilization on Easter Island in the South Pacific; the pre-Columbian American civilizations of the Mayans, the Mimbres and the Anasazis.
They had the excuse of not knowing. We know.
In early 1992, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London issued an unusual joint report warning that "if current predictions of population growth prove accurate, and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent either irreversible degradation of the environment or continuing poverty for the most of the world."
But I'm also a woman, and I share the concern that a crisis mentality, which is justified and necessary, might cause us to resort to coercive, insensitive fertility-control measures.
Women's health and bodies must not become the sacrificial altars on which demographic targets are callously arrived at. If we have learned one lesson over the past 30 years, it is that the ways that work best to reduce fertility are those that are respectful of women.
We must ensure universal access to family planning by the end of this decade. It is unconscionable in a world with so many going hungry that we aren't doing more to prevent unwanted children from being born. Children have the right to be wanted. But cost has stood in the way.
Even in the United States about 42 percent of the women who want contraception require some assistance to pay for it. We also need new contraceptive choices, such as a safe, effective microbicide that would kill sperm as well as the viruses.
In virtually every country that has been studied, raising the level of women's education leads to declining birth rates.
According to Sharon Camp, formerly with Population Action International, the impact of women's education really becomes strong and consistent at about seven or eight years of formal education. An educated woman will tend to marry an average of four years later, use contraception more effectively, have more self-esteem and empowerment and want more for her children.
The World Bank estimates the cost of closing the gender gap in primary and secondary school education would be about $3.2 billion. The World Bank says: "No other investment would provide higher returns in social and economic development."
The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancies of any country in the industrialized world -- and the rate is rising. In addition to education and reproductive health services, we must work to repeal the rash of state laws that mandate parental consent or notification for teenagers seeking abortions.
Fortunately, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, the U.S. surgeon general, appears ready to guide usquickly in these directions. We must try to get Congress to support her efforts.
Elsewhere, there are family-planning success stories.
The Bangladesh Women's Health Coalition, founded in 1980, operates seven clinics in impoverished rural and urban areas of Bangladesh. By moving away from coercive sterilization and incentive payments, expanding contraceptive choices and improving individual counseling, contraceptive use in the areas served by the Health Coalition has risen as high as 60 percent.
The coalition offers adult literacy classes, savings plans, and loans for income-generating projects. It holds lectures once a week on topics such as nutrition, family planning and legal rights.
Remarkably, the coalition spends considerably less per capita than comparable family planning clinics, many of which are under-utilized. The secret: Quality services attract a large clientele, so fixed costs are spread over large numbers. By providing a mix of services, clients visit for more than one purpose, lowering the cost of each service.
All this in a Muslim country where women have little formal education. We can see in this example that there are ways to address poverty, population and the status of women simultaneously. We don't need to be at odds.
Seventy-five years ago, Colombia's birth rate was among the highest in the world, averaging 6.6 children per family. Today the average is 2.9: cut in half.
One of the major catalysts there is an organization called ProFamilia, which has 48 rural and urban clinics, eight of which, interestingly, only serve men, and include vasectomy services. The clinics offer a range of clinical, surgical and community services as well as training, public education and research.
Currently, the United States spends $429 million annually on population control. This will have to increase to $1.5 billion by the year 2000 if we are to continue our historic role of contributing 30 percent of the U.N.'s population control budget.
But $1.5 billion? How do we get it? From the intelligence community. At the height of the Cold War, the CIA's budget was $15 billion. Now, having utterly failed at predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union, they've been rewarded by an increase to $30 billion.
We need about 3 percent of that to address the real threats to our national security: waves of environmental refugees crossing our borders in hopes of food and jobs, and a shrinking supply of food and water worldwide.
Surveys show that 85 percent to 90 percent of Americans say they are concerned about world population problems. Americans must mobilize to let the Clinton administration know we want funding for family planning, not bloated CIA budgets.
The media must give the population crisis the time and attention it deserves. When thousands of the world's scientists all agree on the severity of the crisis, why do so many in the media still feel that equal time must be given to the very few conservative economists and revisionist environmentalists who disagree?
They've had their day. Their view ruled for the past 12 years and it's been a catastrophe.
This is the defining decade. Whatever we do or don't do, the Earth will survive, life will survive.
It is we who may not be around to participate.
We're smarter than that -- aren't we?
Actress and human-rights activist Jane Fonda and her husband, Ted Turner, are Goodwill Ambassadors to the U.N. Population Fund. This is an excerpt from a speech she gave to the United Nations a year ago in preparation for the Conference on Population and Development, which began yesterday in Cairo, Egypt.