For Marylander at meeting in Egypt, population is no problem


CAIRO, Egypt -- They are the naysayers, the lonely jousters of conventional wisdom, and they came to the world conference on population problems to say there is no population problem.

James A. Miller of Frederick, Md., is an old soldier in their ranks. This weekend, he stood in the hallways of the conference center, touting his newspaper that warned: "At stake: the future of humanity."

"Amazing as it may seem, the entire population of the world can be housed in the U.S. state of Texas," the newspaper proclaimed. "Is the world bursting at the seams? No. This is utter nonsense."

Mr. Miller's bald head swiveled like a falcon on the lookout. His thick black glasses focused on another possible convert.

"Here," he insisted, directing the 24-page tract -- which he named the "Cairo Examiner" -- into the hands of an unsuspecting delegate. "Take a look. Read it. See what you think. Then come back and talk to me."

Later, on a chair on the side of the hallway, Mr. Miller launched into an explanation of why the whole theory of the international conference -- that the world's population is growing too fast and too big -- is bunk. Bunk engineered as a plot, he added.

"It's a nefarious scheme of the United Nations and the World Health Organization and International Planned Parenthood and our own U.S. government to control the world population," he said.

If he were interested in assassinations, he would put the Warren Commission in on the crime. But he is interested in population. A self-described physicist and mathematician, Mr. Miller, 58, said vaguely that he used to work for IBM and the National Bureau of Standards, and was a commodities broker at one time.

Now, he helps run an organization called the Population Research Institute to spread what he sees as the truth. It has a Baltimore address, "but that's just a mail drop," said Mr. Miller. "We work out of Gaithersburg."

Its regular publications are thick with figures, many of them from official U.N. and U.S. reports, arguing that birth rates are declining, population is or soon will be at a peak, and, anyhow, man will figure out how to live on this planet no matter how many of us there are.

"We don't think the world is going down the tube," he said. He added, "The U.S. doesn't want to bother with too many people . . . , so it's scaring the bejabbers out of them" with threats of overcrowding.

He says the plot is to foster abortion, contraceptives and population control. Mr. Miller and many of his colleagues are allied with the abortion opponents at the convention. His newspaper touts the ideal: a 1950s photo of "a traditional Western family" -- smartly dressed parents and eight beaming children.

Near him in the hallway stands Robert L. Sassone, a Santa Ana, Calif., physicist, lawyer, and consultant on U.S. government projects he darkly intimates are top secret: "You don't need to know," he dismisses questions.

He hands out his own paperback book, "Handbook on Population," which he says proves there is no threat from hTC overcrowding, pollution, global warming or the shrinking ozone layer. He says he thinks President Clinton is plotting to become a Peter the Great of immorality.

"He's advancing the forces that believe the Christian traditional morality is not suitable for the modern world," said Mr. Sassone.

Mr. Miller, Mr. Sassone and their colleagues are the gadflies of demography. They are the science buffs in high school who mastered their homework and delighted in knowing more than the teacher. Today, they are the ones at public meetings who ask questions filled with facts and figures and make the audience groan.

"We love this stuff, the numbers crunching," said Mr. Miller, in a staccato that showed his New York origins. He grinned. His shirt pocket was stuffed with pens. His socks were white. "I can't sit by when a phony stat goes by, can't leave it unmolested. I have to knock its head off."

The officials at the conference would like to dismiss Mr. Miller and this crowd as voodoo scientists.

"Their questions, and the way they are phrased, are problematic," says the chief U.N. demographer at the conference, Joseph Chamie.

The problem is, they just may be right. Mr. Miller and the others often use the same figures as the United Nations, but arrive at different conclusions, conclusions that may be just as valid as any others.

For example, a virtual slogan at the conference is that the world's population will double in about 55 years, climbing to an unimaginable 12 billion people from the current 5.6 billion.

But that is based on a "high variant" estimate of population growth. The United Nations also publishes a "low variant" that it concedes is also quite possible. It shows population leveling off at 8 billion around the year 2040, then starting to decline.

Long-range population estimates have been notoriously wrong, usually on the high side, said Mr. Sassone. Indeed, fertility rates are falling globally, and some countries -- such as Italy -- already have more deaths than births, U.N. figures show.

What of the warnings that the growing population will bring lethal pollution and exhaustion of food and energy supplies? There is no real evidence that the Earth -- with the help of technology -- cannot support twice as many people, said Mr. Miller. Most social measures, such as mortality and literacy and nutrition rates, have shown steady improvement, he said.

"Thank God Almighty that there are people trying to improve conditions, rather than saying all we can do is abort, sterilize, Depo-Provera, whatever," he said. "Man, with the ultimate resource of his brain, will make it through.

"There's an angle of racism here," he argued. "How the hell does it look to the Third World to have Western white men telling them how many children to have?"

That most of the Third World is clamoring for birth control assistance does not faze Mr. Miller. It just means they haven't gotten his word yet, he said, as he ambled off in search of another convert.

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