'Population Justice' — The Wrong Way to Go

The combination of population reduction and women’s rights was already
like oil and water. Adding CO2 reductions to the mix only makes things

By Ian Angus

For more than two centuries, the idea that the world’s ills are caused by poor people having too many babies has been remarkably successful at diverting attention from the complex social causes of poverty and injustice.

Forty years ago, Paul Ehrlich’s best-seller The Population Bomb applied the idea to environmental problems:

“The causal chain of deterioration is easily followed to its source. Too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide, multiplying contrails. Inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide – all can be traced easily to too many people.”[1]

Ehrlich’s book convinced many environmentalists, and led to the formation of a variety of groups that focused solely on the supposed evils of overpopulation.

Today, as women’s rights activist Betsy Hartmann warns in a recent article, populationist arguments are back – but now groups such as the US-based Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth) and the UK’s Optimum Population Trust have added a “faux feminist twist” to their attacks on the reproductive rights of Third World women.

“Along with the bad news that women’s fertility is destroying the planet comes the good news that family planning is the solution. In other words, you don’t have to feel guilty about blaming poor women for the world’s problems because you can help them improve their lives by having fewer babies.”[2]

What’s worse, she writes, these arguments aren’t just being promoted by the population zealots in ZPG and OPT:

“In fact, perhaps what is most distressing about the current population control resurgence is how many liberal feminists and progressive media outlets are jumping on board.

“There’s even an attempt by the Sierra Club and others to bring reproductive justice activists into the fold in the name of ‘Population Justice.’ The assumption is that we live in a win-win world where there’s no fundamental contradiction between placing disproportionate blame for the world’s problems on poor women’s fertility and advocating for reproductive rights and health.”

That prompted an outraged reply from Laurie Mazur, the founder of Population Justice and editor of A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge.

“Betsy Hartmann implies that everyone working on population-environment issues is part of a misogynistic plot to bring back ‘population control.’ I’m here to tell you she is wrong.

“I am a lifelong, card-carrying feminist and political progressive. I am passionately committed to sexual and reproductive health and rights, to environmental sustainability, and to closing the inequitable divide between men and women, rich and poor. And I believe that slowing population growth — by ensuring that all people have the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing — will contribute to those ends.”[3]

Mazur is undoubtedly sincere, but in my opinion Hartmann’s criticisms and concern are fully justified.

In this article I focus on some specific problems with the “Population Justice” concept that Mazur defends. I won’t repeat the broader criticisms of the population growth explanation for climate change that I and others have made elsewhere.[4]

A New Conversation?

Mazur presents herself as the voice of reason in the “polarized debate” between population extremists like Paul Ehrlich on one side, and people like Betsy Hartmann, whom she labels “population deniers,” on the other. Mazur calls for a “a new conversation about population and the environment,” with a goal of “slowing population growth” but doing so without coercion, respecting women’s need for reproductive health services and right to make their own choices.

But that’s not a new conversation. For two decades, even the most reactionary population control outfits have given lip service to women’s rights and voluntary birth control – but they still blame poor women’s fertility for environmental problems, and call for reducing the birth rate in the Third World as the sine qua non of any solution.

The anti-immigrant Optimum Population Trust, for example, says that it favors “non-coercive policies to limit and stabilise population growth,” and talks of “empowering women to control their own fertility.” In language similar to Mazur’s, OPT says, “All environmental problems, and notably those arising from climate change, would be easier to solve with a smaller future population.”[5]

The similarities aren’t coincidental. In the early 1990s, liberal feminists associated with the Clinton administration blocked with population control advocates to outvote the Vatican at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. Defeating the religious right was important, but in the process the population controllers learned to hide their views behind feminist vocabulary – and some liberal feminists adopted the “too many babies” ideology. Mazur’s approach reflects the views of the latter group.

Non-Coercive Population Reduction?

Mazur tries to distance herself from hardcore populationism by rejecting “coercive population control.” Coercion not only violates women’s rights, she writes, it isn’t necessary. “We now know that the best way to slow population growth is not with top-down ‘population control,’ but by ensuring that all people are able to make real choices about sexuality and reproduction.”

Of course it’s vitally important that women everywhere have the right and power to make real choices, but is a focus on slowing population growth the way to accomplish that? Haven’t decades of experience shown that women’s right to choose is undermined when reproductive health programs are driven by environmental and population concerns?

The line between coercive and non-coercive birth control programs is not easily drawn: programs motivated by overpopulation arguments tend to promote population reduction, regardless of the actual needs of the communities and individuals involved. That’s especially true in the impoverished countries that population programs usually target, where poor women have long been deprived to the power to make choices about many aspects of their lives.

Project staff who believe they are protecting the environment frequently pressure women to accept sterilization or unsafe long-term contraceptives. Supposedly voluntary programs have included coercive elements such as denying women access to other services if they don’t attend lectures on the importance of having fewer babies, or dividing people into teams that compete for maximum participation in family planning services. [6]

It’s noteworthy that Optimum Population Trust, despite its proclaimed belief in voluntary programs, also calls for “national tax and benefits systems to provide incentives to parents to have one or two children only.” For the poor, being denied such benefits could very well be a form of coercion.

A particularly brutal case of hidden coercion occurred in Peru in the late 1990s, when a supposedly voluntary family planning program led to the involuntary sterilization of more than 200,000 indigenous women, while the country’s president was sanctimoniously declaring his government’s support for gender equality and reproductive rights at international women’s conferences. An essay included in Mazur’s own book concludes that this horrendous campaign was a direct result of the program’s focus on reducing Peru’s birthrate. The first lesson of that experience, the authors write, is that “human rights abuses are likely where reproductive health services are seen as a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves.”[7]

That’s an important lesson for anyone who considers promoting family planning as a way to reduce population and greenhouse gas emissions.

Why Third World Women?

Mazur says that she wants to reduce emissions by slowing population growth – but if that’s so, why does her project place so much emphasis on the fertility of the poorest women in the world?

Per capita emission rates in the United States, Canada and Australia are the highest in the world. If more babies equals more emissions, shouldn’t Mazur’s group emphasize population reduction in rich countries, where each avoided birth will have a greater effect than dozens in the global south?

In A Pivotal Moment, Mazur poses that question herself, and gives a strange answer:

“The answer lies in the future. The developing countries are where the lion’s share of population growth will occur, and they are also where development must occur for half of humanity to escape from grinding poverty. The affluent countries can reduce emissions by reducing the vast amounts of waste in our systems of production and consumption. But the developing countries are not likely to raise their standards of living without more intensive use of resources and higher emissions.”

Let’s get this straight. Most emissions come from the developed countries, but they can clean up their act. However, for some reason poor people trying to get out of poverty can’t use low-emission technology, so let’s make sure there are fewer of them.

Instead of dealing with the real problems that exist in the North today, Mazur would have us target poor women in the South because of what they might do in the future.

This makes no sense. Not only do Third World countries have low overall emission rates, but within those countries women are low emitters – and the poorest women produce the lowest levels of all. They are the first and greatest victims of global warming, and they bear the least responsibility for causing it – but Mazur tells us that that their fertility is the problem we should address. It’s difficult to see either feminism or justice in that.

Mazur’s approach directs attention away from the huge ecological debt that rich countries owe to the global South. A central focus for the global climate justice movement is the demand for repayment of that debt, both in financial contributions and through massive transfer of low emissions technology that can enable economic development without promoting climate change. Achieving this won’t be easy – but populationists who start from socially conservative assumptions don’t even consider the possibility of transforming the way the global economy works.

In Hartmann’s words: “Missing from the equation is any notion that people are capable of effecting positive social and environmental change, and that the next generation could make the transition out of fossil fuels.”

The wrong way to go

For the poorest women in the world, winning unrestricted access to high quality health services, including safe birth control and abortion, would be a huge victory. But linking that campaign to global warming is the wrong way to go.

The name “Population Justice” sounds good, but the project rests on an illusion, on a self-defeating attempt to combine incompatible causes. As the feminist scholar Asoka Bandarage wrote following the 1994 Conference on Population and Development:

“As liberal feminist activists form alliances with population control advocates and depend on the latter’s monetary and institutional support, they, too, come to accept the neo-Malthusian position which reduces ‘women’s rights’ to ‘reproductive rights,’ which in turn are equated with ‘population policies’. … [S]ubsuming women’s issues within the neo-Malthusian framework leads to a neglect of the social structural roots of women’s subordination.”[8]

The combination of population reduction and women’s rights was already like oil and water. Adding CO2 reductions to the mix only makes things worse, treating the fight for women’s rights as an instrument for achieving technical goals, not as a demand for justice in its own right.

By adapting to populationist prejudices, the Population Justice project is heading down a dangerous road. It is adding a liberal voice to the efforts of bigots and misogynists to blame Third World women for global warming, and by doing so it undermines both women’s rights and the fight against climate change.

My thanks to Lis Angus, Simon Butler and Richard Fidler for their advice and comments on this article.
Ian Angus is editor of the online journal Climate and Capitalism. His book The Global Fight for Climate Justice was published by Resistance Books (UK) in 2009, and will be released in North America by Fernwood Publishing in February 2010.


[1] Paul Ehrlich. The Population Bomb. Ballantyne Books, 1968. pp 66-67

[2] In what follows, all quotes from Betsy Hartman are from “The ‘New’ Population control Craze: Retro, Racist, Wrong Way to Go” which was first published in On the Issues.

[3] In what follows, all quotations from Laurie Mazur are from these sources:

[4] For links to some articles on the population debate, see “Why Population Isn’t the Problem.” Climate and Capitalism, December 7, 2009.

[5] OPT News Release, August 17 2009. “Tackle Population Growth to Beat Climate Change.”

[6] James Oldham. “Rethinking the Link: A Critical Review of Population-Environment Programs.” February 2006.

[7] Susana Chávez Alvarado with Jacqueline Nolley Echegaray. “Going to Extremes: Population Politics and Reproductive Rights in Peru.” in Mazur, A Pivotal Moment, pp. 292-299

[8] Asoka Bandarage. Women, Population and Global Crisis: A Political-Economic Analysis. Zed Books, London, 1997. p. 7

Posted in Climate Justice, Population

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Phil Ward
6 years 2 months ago
I’m not quite sure where Brendan is coming from. On reading his contribution, I thought that he’s really arguing that capitalism cannot sustain the current world population and that socialism could, something with which I entirely agree and tried to argue in my two articles on population control (on this site). But he then writes the paragraph above (in Jeff White’s post) about population “rationalising itself” under socialism, where the social, emotional (and material) drivers for having more than one child would (should?) not exist. Jeff then says that these conditions would encourage “rational reproductive behaviour”. I wonder if “reproductive behaviour” can ever be rational? In any case, I don’t think Jeff and Brendan need to be concerned about population under socialism. We don’t know what the “carrying capacity” of the earth would be under socialism, except that it will be a lot greater than that which exists under present conditions. We can show the ways in which capitalism reduces the earth’s “carrying capacity” and how socialism can reduce the material demands made of the earth (including through collective living arrangements, which would also change relationships between people: http://climateandcapitalism.com/?p=459). Population control could never have comparably large effects.
Jeff White
6 years 2 months ago

Brendan wrote:

“Perhaps if we lived in a world where people felt sure that if they had only one child it would survive and flourish, maybe if we lived in a world where women did not feel socially incomplete without children, maybe if we lived in a world on which childhood was a time of self-discovery and wonder, rather than either hard labour or hard consumption, population would rationalise itself.”

Very true, Brendan. That’s why it’s not so far-fetched to suggest that radically changing our relationships to each other and to nature is a prerequisite to encouraging rational reproductive behaviour. That means getting rid of capitalism.

6 years 2 months ago
6 years 2 months ago

“Unsustainable human population growth is the primary underlying factor driving the current decline and mass extinction of other life on Earth.”Centre for Biological Diversity.

Biologists talk of a 6th mass extinction-driven by humans; we cannot ignore this.

6 years 2 months ago

That said, there is enough food for everyone right now. So says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

And intensive, permaculture + hightech, for the people not for profit style farming can produce even more, more nutrient rich food, without the fossil fuels.

I see no reason why this population is unsustainable per se, it is the rate of its grow th that is, and the lavish demands of advanced capitalis consumerism that is, and these two things are only relevant under capitalism.

6 years 2 months ago
Ian, I have been a fan of your work for some time now, ever since I attended th very useful talk you gave in my home town of Adelaide Australia last year, so knowing the profound work you have done, on the food crisi, climate change and in helping to buld a basic outline of what it is to be an ecosocialist, I know you must be laughing at the absurd insults being slung at you in some of these posts. This being said, however, if capitalism is part of the reason that population is over the carrying capacity, it might be that “people” and “capitalism” cannot be kept categorically seperate. After all, “capitalism” is too broad an umbrella of phenomena to be in itself a direct cause, the basic economic dynamic takes on concrete effects only through mediate occurrences – hence a specific type of population dynamic could in itself becaused by capitalism. There has to be sense in the idea that it is not possible to simply say “capitalism is the problem”, and leave people out of the question. Just because, and nor can it be true that an ecosocialist system will necessarily provide the economic basis to… Read more »
Stephen Darley
6 years 2 months ago

Leaving out the more cynical proponents for the moment, Population Reduction is the ‘deus-ex-machina’ of well-meaning liberal environmentalists that enables them to set aside all that messy, distasteful, ‘hard’ stuff about corporate dominance, capitalism and neo-colonialism (and also coincidently doesn’t challenge their own class interests). Throw in a few nods to population control in the developed world (but without any reference to the disparity in means there as opposed to the economic and physical coercion readily available in the developing world), and you can stand self-righteously on the platform of ‘population justice’! What a crock. Bottom line is, capitalism is driven by production not consumption. Increasing the divorce and family break-up rate is a far more effective driver of demand than population increase in the developed world – but capitalism’s social disfunction pushes that up quite well without any need to manipulate it.

Jeff White
6 years 2 months ago

“If ever there was a measure of the green movement’s confusion, it is that so many environmentalists honestly believe that by soberly intoning that there are just ‘too many people’ they somehow cut across all the moral and political agonies of globalization, of rising human migrations, mass extinctions, atmospheric instability and all the rest of it. In fact, ‘overpopulation’ explains none of these things, and as long as we cling to it we remain the confused citizens of an incomprehensible world.”
– Tom Athanasiou in “Green Romantics”,
The Nation, May 1, 1995.

6 years 2 months ago

At the risk of sounding ‘trite’!!…

Why are “we” looking at birth rates to reduce population? Babies and children use far less resources than… oh, let “us” say 50+ year olds.

I say the CUT-OFF-AGE should be 50 years. Well, maybe 55.

Speak Out Now and Join the Crusade for Population Reduction!!

6 years 2 months ago
Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) ‘ I agree that “reduction of GDP” won’t solve them, but neither will “reduction of people, because both “solutions” ignore the real problem — an economic and social system that treats the earth as a free source of resources and a free sewer’. To reverse the ecological and social meltdown facing us we need to address every aspect of humanity’s massive assault upon the earth’s resources:if ecosocialism is to have any chance of success-(and I do think that democratic socialism is the best form of governance)- a population policy must be included in the remedy. Imagine the UK with 70 million plus in the not-too-distant future: what kind of ecosocialsim would provide for a decent standard of living while at the same time protecting what little remained of the open countryside and conserving shrinking numbers of wild… Read more »
6 years 2 months ago

Capitalism does not exist without people. Nor does Socialism. There is nothing inherent in Socialism that would keep human population within carrying capacity, even under full production for use.

10,000,000,000 times 50 equals 50 time 10,000,000,000.

What will happen is both production for use and reduction in human population. Inevitably. The Earth cannot sustain the present human population, even absent a perpetual growth philosophy.

A thousand years from now humans will be fewer and will consume less per capita. Or we will be extinct.

6 years 2 months ago


I see from your history you are a blues man. I am a music aficionado and musician as well… currently in a Neil Young cover band, which is great fun. If you played an instrument, I wonder what sort of jam you and I would have given our only apparent disagreement:

Progressive measures designed to achieve voluntary human population stabilization are a net positive to efforts at ecological remediation, gender equity and long term (measured in millenia) sustainable living scenarios with the planet — and are more in line with the subversion of eco-destructive capitalism than is inattention to rapid population growth (world population has grown by 328,000 since I made my first comment 36 hours ago).

If that thought really caused you to hit a sour note I would be surprised.

6 years 2 months ago

‘My view, which I have argued in the article above and elsewhere, is that the “population issue” is a red herring,’

How can it possibly be a red herring? More and more of our flora and fauna are disappearing;water is becoming scarce;land is being degraded; poverty-matched by maternal and child morbidity-continues unabated.

No anti-capitalist movement can ever hope to succeed without an effective population policy.

As Joe says, we need to tackle the whole concept of unlimited growth and an integral part of this challenge must be our ever-increasing numbers.To concentrate solely on the reduction of GDP is to adopt an ostrich ‘flat earth’ mentality.

I live in the UK, which as you know, has enthusiastically embraced free-market ideology- more’s the pity- and now has the fastest rate of population increase in many years.

Again-this is not about too many poor people-it is about all of us.

6 years 2 months ago


Fair enough, it is your blog after all. But, while trying your verbal jujitsu (“won’t ask even though I already did”) you didn’t ever answer my question… which isn’t silly at all. I think your projecting.

I am comfortable being associated with the general positions of the fellows you name, along with the ecologists, scientists and ordinary citizens (you know, those pesky proletariats) participating in the Global Population Speak Out.

And just for the record, I am not against “uncontrolled growth”. I am against “growth”. Note the period.

Best regards.

6 years 2 months ago

I would like you to answer Joe Bish’s legimate question. People like you are why I am no longer a leftist. All you are really interested in is sounding morally self-rightous. Adrian was totally spot-on you need a basic education in the science of Human Ecology. I recommend starting with Willam Catton’s classic “Overshoot”. But, then I am sure you don’t care to become better informed. It is my belief that leftist such as yourself view “green issues” in much the same manner as a pimp views his prostitutes as something you can get something out of. Oh, by the way I am visiting from: http://www.energybulletin.net

6 years 2 months ago


Just remember it is your label, “Malthusian”, not ours.

What do you think of this?


Why as a professed soldier against capitalism do you end up on the same side of the population issue as the US Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Real Estate Association, etc?

Rather curious don’t you think?

6 years 2 months ago

I think perhaps Mr. Angus should do a little research into the Earth’s biological carrying capacity and the concept of overshoot.

In that context, overpopulation is not a question of “blaming poor people,” nor is endorsing a woman’s right to choose how many children she would like to have part of some whacko liberal agenda. Rather it’s a question of how many members of a given species a habitat can support. From this perspective, even “the North” is overpopulated.

This does not at all mean that access to family planning should be used as a blunt instrument of social control. Free to choose means exactly that: to choose to have no children or ten. The real point is being free to choose. Nor are the arguments that a) the earth is overpopulated; and b. the global economy should change in order to promote eco-justice along with CO2 control mutually exclusive. Either/or arguments tend to inhibit real problem-solving.

6 years 2 months ago

For anyone interested, here a few more very worthwhile articles on this subject:

“Are there too many people?: Population, Hunger, and Environmental Degradation” by Chris Williams

“The greening of hate” an interview with Betsy Hartmann

“Malthus’ ‘Essay on Population’ at 200: a Marxian view” by John Bellamy Foster

6 years 2 months ago
Among the problems with this article is that is starts off with and sticks to an erroneous premise — that a focus on overpopulation means some exclusive focus on the poor. The great majority of population activists, Ehrlich and Bartlett among them, point to the US’s population problem as one of the worst. Example: http://jclahr.com/bartlett/reflections.html Quote: “Echoing a view expressed earlier by the Ehrlichs (Ehrlich 1992), Bartlett points out that because of the high per capita consumption of resources in the U.S., we in the U.S. have the world’s worst population problem! (Bartlett 1997)” The fact is that nearly all countries on Earth are deeply into overshoot of human carrying capacity. http://growthmadness.org/2007/10/31/six-steps-to-getting-the-global-ecological-crisis/ Overshoot must always be followed by a return to lower numbers. The more deeply into overshoot the population, the more likely that return will take the form of a crash. In our case, many of the victims first and hardest hit will be those people in the world’s poorest nations. Avoiding the population issue is to dismiss their lives. Nearly all countries must come down in numbers and a focus on the US is a fine place to start. A focus on the wealthy is fine too. But… Read more »
6 years 2 months ago

No Tim, your wrong. I dedicated my life to world peace and environmental protection, and contrary to the misguided preaching of the original article, stabilizing and gradually reducing our planet’s human population is central to both.

I come to be an advocate of women reproductive liberty through that lense, and need to make no apology for that. If you want to apply sinister motives to the discourse and action I promote and work on everyday by slinging about euphemisms of “population control”, that’s your business.

Saying that a person can not advocate for women’s issues because they come to the fight via environmentalism is like saying a socialist can not be allowed to vote for a Democrat to defeat a right-wing candidate.

6 years 2 months ago
Thanks for filling all that comment space up with the names of all those countries. That really helps a lot. Because in conditions of imperial-capitalist domination by, of course, benign moral and ‘progressive’ forces like the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations, and the US government, there is no better way to check a country’s political and moral pulse than by consulting their heads of state. Come on. Are you shitting me? Many of the leaders of those countries you rattle off WOULD NOT BE the heads of state of those countries if they didn’t give the answer to questions that the imperialist-capitalist countries and institutions demanded that they gave. You also claim, against any acknowledgment of that thing a lot of us call reality, that: “It is disingenuous to claim that the rich are trying to coerce the poor nations on population issues.” Have you ever heard of John D. Rockefeller? How about Bill Gates? How about reality? See Sharon Smith’s article here: http://dissidentvoice.org/2008/05/1975/ “After World War Two, population control agencies set their sights overseas. In the 1960s, the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, heavily funded by the Rockefellers alongside the U.S. government, played a key role in a… Read more »
6 years 3 months ago
I find a tragic humor in those who purport to be fighting “destructive capitalism” and can not find the synaptical fortitude to see how utterly dependent globalized capital is on perpetual population growth. So now we are left (excuse the pun), after this article to ignore population as an ecological issue whatsoever. Brilliant. Even better, since the liberal left can not approach the problem without falling from its moral certitude, it is left to bigots and mysogynists to enjoy carte blanche on the issue. Truly brilliant! I agree Laurie drops the ball on population in the developed north, but that’s a different issue altogether. Meanwhile, this article’s broad-based quill — dipped in tar feather potion — once again repeats the lie that this is a north vs. south issue: It is disingenuous to claim that the rich are trying to coerce the poor nations on population issues. In fact, they are not responding to the affirmed needs of the poor. The following countries are part of either the South Commission or Partners in Population and Development: Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mexico, Colombia, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, China, India, Pakistan, Uganda, Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Guyana, Ivory Ciast, Jamaica, Kuwait, Malaysia,… Read more »