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Art review: "Cartoons for Social Change: Political Cartoonists Tackle the Population Problem"

Published August 24, 2005 at 9:50 p.m.

There's nothing funny about overpopulation. Planet Earth's people surplus is linked to poverty, hunger, global warming, depletion of natural resources, the spread of infectious diseases and a host of other dire problems. Every day, according to the Population Reference Bureau, nearly a quarter-million people are added to the roughly 6.4 billion already here.

But you'd never know it to read the mainstream media, where "there's a lot of misinformation about family planning and population going on," according to Bill Ryerson, president of the Shelburne-based Population Media Center. He points to recent articles in such reputable newspapers as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times that suggest we're facing a "birth dearth." Except for slight negative numbers in population growth in Europe and Japan, nothing could be further from the truth.

When it comes to the realities of "too much us," it appears that mainstream media -- and many world leaders -- are sleeping through the alarm. And that's one reason Population Media Center decided to launch the National Population Cartoon Contest last year. "With something humorous, people can deal with a very serious topic sometimes more effectively than anything else," suggests Ryerson. A traveling exhibit comprising 46 entries is on view this month at Burlington's Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts -- a world premiere, thanks to the proximity of the PMC. The images, most of them line drawings in black-and-white, are neatly framed and under glass, but a close look reveals some explosive charges. Ryerson is hoping they will arouse public awareness, one exhibit at a time.

"Cartoons for Social Change: Political Cartoonists Tackle the Population Problem" showcases the best of 188 entries from 2004, including grand-prize winner Clay Bennett of the Christian Science Monitor. His cartoon "Be Fruitful and Multiply ... Now Divide" won him $7000 -- a nice follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize he won in 2002 for editorial cartooning. One of the judges was New Yorker cartoonist and Brookfield resident Ed Koren. He says of Bennett's cartoon, "Visually, it was simple, but it made a direct point." In the two-panel piece, the left side is filled completely with people; on the right is a single bag of groceries.

Some of Bennett's other work is on display here as well, including a single-panel cartoon featuring six thuggish rugby players whose shirts list grim planetary problems such as "species extinction," "fossil fuel dependency" and "pollution." The ball they're kicking around is a miniature Earth.

The artwork here addresses not just the globe's sheer numbers of people, but many of the related outcomes -- sometimes all in a single panel. In a 2001 Gary Markstein cartoon, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the headline is "Bush Finds Weapons of Mass Destruction." In the drawing, the president is stepping off a plane, labeled "Tour of Africa," and is greeted by four bedraggled natives whose shirts read, "Civil War," "Poverty," "HIV/AIDS," and "Infant Mortality."

Atlantic Feature Syndicate cartoonist Mark Parisi took a quirky look at suburban sprawl with his 2000 cartoon, in which a group of animals -- including the cuddly but fictional Pooh -- huddle on a teensy island of woodland surrounded by busy streets.

And speaking of trees, another Clay Bennett work from 2001 tackled the very stuff of publications. The six-panel, colored cartoon illustrates the origins of paper from start -- tree-cutting -- to finish: a bundle of delivered newspapers with the screaming, ironic headline, "Depletion of Forests Denounced."

Since 2004 was the first for the contest, cartoons published over the previous three years were accepted. This year's contest covers September 10, 2004 to September 30, 2005, and entries must have been published in a "reputable," U.S.-based publication. "We'd love to do [a contest] in each country, but we're limited in budget -- and our primary goal is to wake up the American public on the issue. Besides," he adds, "no one panel of judges could be expected to look at cartoons in hundreds of languages."

In English alone, it appears the word "overpopulation" gives editorial cartoonists plenty to draw from.

Thinking, and Acting, Globally

Population Media Center's mission is to help stabilize human population numbers "at a level that can be sustained by the world's natural resources and to lessen the harmful impact of humanity on the Earth's environment," says founder and President Bill Ryerson. His strategy? Soap operas. That is, television and radio programming in which sympathetic characters gradually change their attitudes and behavior with regard to birth control, respect -- and rights -- for women, and other known indicators of family planning and population growth.

This technique of behavior-change communication was developed in Mexico in the 1970s by Miguel Sabido and was found to be extraordinarily effective in pilot programs in his country and beyond. Since its inception in 1998, PMC has established similar programs in 12 countries and has more in development. Four countries were added just this year: Philippines, Jamaica, Niger and Nigeria. Despite the AIDS epidemic in Africa, Ryerson notes, the populations of most countries on that continent are rapidly expanding.

"In Niger, we've just started a project dealing with planned parenthood and child-trafficking issues," says Ryerson. "With an average eight kids per family, the population is set to quadruple between now and 2050 -- it's currently at about 12.8 million. The sub-Saharan country, he notes, already is experiencing a "serious famine."

A Bush administration initiative affecting foreign funding is not helping matters. "For the last four years, the White House has withheld $34 million from the U.N. Population Fund and $18 million from the International Planned Parenthood Federation," Ryerson says. "These actions have had devastating effects on the health of women in developing countries. On top of this, we have learned that the administration is starting to systematically monitor the websites of organizations that carry out federally funded development programs, with the intention of cutting off those that express any view contrary to administration policies."

Ryerson, of course, is by no means the only person concerned. Cornell University scientist David Pimentel has published a series of papers in which he calculates the long-term "carrying capacity" of planet Earth according to current U.S./Europe standards of use and waste. He suggests the globe can support about 2 billion people. We're rapidly approaching 6.5 billion. "There's no way," says Ryerson, "we can take that population to a Western lifestyle equivalent without facing ecological collapse."

Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences in this country and the Royal Society of London have jointly issued a proclamation that global population must be stabilized as soon as possible in order to avoid catastrophic consequences.

Asked how he sleeps at night, facing such serious issues by day, Ryerson is stoic. "Like a nurse in a hospital, you get used to the fact that you're dealing with a very scary topic. You just deal with it."

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is a cofounder and the Art Editor of Seven Days. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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