17 Responses

  1. Sheila Malone February 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm |

    Reply to PhilW and TMP

    Both PhilW and TMP want to keep women’s rights (including the right to control their own fertility) separate from population and development issues. But the reason why the Cairo conference agreed on an integrated approach is that this seems to work best for women, society and planet.

    I must stress first that the Cairo Consensus did not advocate population controls, since these violate women’s rights. It recognised, however, that just making contraception available did not adequately answer women’s needs either. In both North and South many women reported that cultural, religious, and family traditions were difficult to overcome. In some African countries, for instance, religious propaganda condemns family planning as an assault on African fertility and culture and as aimed at stopping black African women from having babies. So a minefield of contested rights and traditions had to be negotiated.

    This also applied to girl’s and women’s lack of education, which kept them isolated and lacking in aspirations. In fact, education was found to be as significant a factor as poverty reduction in improving women’s status and prospects and in equipping them to make decisions about when and how many children to have. So Cairo’s Action Plans also include education as a high priority. But, again, this was a contested area.

    Also, as the ecological crisis deepens, great importance was given to sustainability, as opposed to the old growth models. Women in poor countries are only too aware that they are in the front line of a looming catastrophe. And many are aware that ever-expanding families are exacerbating it.

    In this respect what has happened in Bangladesh could be a pointer to the future. Here the government decided to back family planning provision in the 1980s, despite conservative traditions of early marriage and large families. A new generation of young women has taken advantage of the services and gotten themselves education and jobs, instead of a lifetime of childbearing and rearing. Furthermore, the resultant rapid drop in average fertility rates from 5 to 3 children per woman looks set to be permanent. In fact, it is predicted to continue downwards, as many young women are saying they will never go back to the old ways. This is easing pressure in a very densely populated and ecologically stressed country.

    At the same time, the skills and imagination of newly educated women are contributing to solving economic, social, and ecological problems. So, women’s empowerment in all spheres benefits themselves as well as the wider society and the planet.

    However, there is no discussion in TMP of how and why this integrated approach arose. Instead, there is the quite shocking accusation that supporters of the Cairo Consensus “have learned to say ‘population stabilisation’ instead of ‘population control’ and that ‘purely verbal shifts have not changed their underlying assumption that the world’s major problems are caused by poor women having too many babies’”. I am utterly perplexed by this misunderstanding of the whole meaning of Cairo.

    Lastly, all I can say about Ian’s encounter with the reactionaries is that you reap what you sow. If you mix up their ideas with those of Alan (and myself), this mistake may well come back to haunt you, as here. This is a problem of TMP’s own making.

    Sheila Malone.

  2. Sheila Malone February 1, 2012 at 12:39 pm |

    Just a response to PhilW and Jane.

    In his reply to my comments on Too Many People?, I believe Phil gets entangled in some of the misunderstandings within the book itself around population reduction and control, and inequalities in North and South.

    I am certainly critical of TMP’s inadequate coverage of women’s struggles. But I don’t think this is because the authors ‘ do not see population reduction as part of the fight against climate change’ – as Phil implies. Also, I certainly refer to women’s own linkage of population and development. But I do not conclude from this that ‘Population control is part of the solution to the ecological crisis’. In fact, I have never, anywhere, advocated either population reduction or control and it is wrong to mix me up with those who do.

    Phil’s third paragraph touches on another confused debate about sustainability and inequality. He suggests a need to focus on the rich North, because here we have much larger carbon emissions and carbon footprints than in the poorer South. So discussing rapid population growth in the South is unfair to poor women and, as this view puts it, ‘targets’ them.

    I agree with the need to reduce emissions in the North as a priority. At the same time, I explain that UN-funded centres in the South are run by women themselves, and are in answer to expressed but hitherto unmet needs for reproductive health and family planning, for education and work and for a safe and clean environment. What is the problem in supporting them?

    The other problem with not addressing the South [as TMP and Phil advocate] is that this only works if these countries remain poor- something neither they themselves nor we would want. However, development along the same lines as the capitalist North is leading to social and ecological crises in countries like China and India. China is now the highest carbon emitter globally, with an average footprint approaching that of France. So, we obviously need an alternative, non-capitalist development model in both North and South. But within this, and until we get there, the number of footprints matter as well as their size. Over 11bn [the highest UN prediction for 2050] all still aspiring to live like Americans, would overwhelm our already resource-stretched planet.

    In her comment Jane makes the point that women may have large families for economic reasons. This has certainly been true at various times in both North and South. In 18th and 19th century Britain, children were seen as labour and security, especially in the cottage industries. However, it was also true that each little pair of hands that made the spinning wheels hum was also another mouth to feed.

    This was a poverty and high fertility trap, in some ways similar to that in the poorer countries today. For instance, in the slums of today’s megacities, large and entire families are often employed in similar types of cottage industry. And there is the same pressure for child labour, and the same trap. Getting out of it involves addressing all the aspects of development – poverty reduction, education and jobs, social and ecological sustainability – but linking them to women’s [and children’s] specific interests, such as their well-being, and not just the economic dictates. We should remember how this approach empowered women in the North, as well as celebrate what they are now doing in the South.

    So refusing early marriage or combating exclusion from school because of accidental pregnancy can challenge oppressive norms of state religion and clan. In struggling for their own specific interests, women can also become agents of wider change.

    Finally, Phil’s point about traditional socialist demands such as 24 hour child care is an interesting one. But these no more say to women ‘Have more babies’ than family planning clinics say to them’ Have fewer babies’. They are both simply about enabling women to make their own choices and be provided for either way. So I support both.

    Sheila Malone

  3. Corey Little January 24, 2012 at 7:50 am |


    Please take a look at the programs PAI or Pathfinder and consider what they are actually doing in the world. They are helping empower women and subverting male domination, helping provide the reproductive health-services eco-socialists claim to support and meanwhile, no doubt, are helping to avert unwanted pregnancy and slowing down population growth, which in the long term can only be a net benefit to non-human species.

    Its a multi-polar world and the menu of initiatives to combat climate change and ecological destruction are manifold, not monolithic.

    I am beginning to wonder if ecosocialists are just another bunch of old guys… combating the ghosts of Erhlich and Malthus, while a new generation of progressives, more sensitized to the needs of people around the world, ignores you and actually gets some good stuff done in the world while you grasp at straws via a vis the revolution that never occurred and try to paint good people doing good work as some sort of regressive force (just as Thornett has documented).

    Until you can point to what harm PAI, Pathfinder and other organizations like them are doing in the world, (other than offending your ideology and serving as a punching bag for your frustrated attempts to create the revolution), I think you’ve lost the debate.

    In any case, you’ve probably realized by now, no one at PAI or Pathfinder are going to stop with their best efforts because ecosocialists like to use rhetoric like “persuading poor people to have fewer babies” or “blaming babies”.

    Seriously? If I was forced to over-simplify the issues to such a degree, misrepresent my opponents and sensationalize my rhetoric so starkly I would wonder if in fact, I might just be plain wrong.

    You can cry and moan and leave your counter-argument on this blog I suppose; meanwhile, today the organizations listed above will be a force for good in the world. Again.

  4. Jeff White January 24, 2012 at 2:08 am |

    What I find singularly inane and offensive is the idea that persuading poor people to have fewer babies is in any way an effective strategy for combating climate change and ecological destruction.

    We know what the real causes of environmental destruction are. Blaming babies lets the real culprits off the hook.

  5. Corey Little January 23, 2012 at 9:46 am |

    Ian’s defense is not true. Time and again, organizations like Population Action International promote everything Ian says he agrees with — but because they are also partly grounded in the idea that slowing down and stabilizing human population via human rights enhancing methods would be a net plus for the long term ecological health of the planet, they are found to be ideologically stinky to ecosocialists, which is both singularly inane and offensive to the people who benefit from the work PAI does. This habit of actively denying the co-benefits of family planning and women’s empowerment to both the women themselves and the long term health of planet and people should be condemned roundly by anyone with a shred of common sense and congratulations to Alan Thornett. Hopefully the iron fists of socialists infighting do not remove him from his position with the Socialist Resistance.

  6. Alan Thornett January 19, 2012 at 10:59 am |

    A re-joiner to Ian Angus and Simon Butler

    Just a comment on Ian Angus and Simon’s claim that I have distorted some of the things they say, since this was not my intention. Having re-read Too Many People?, however, I find it difficult to draw any other conclusions—though the book is not consistent on some of the issues involved. I have tried, therefore, to respond to the main lines of what is said. In the end, however, some of these things are a matter of judgment and other readers will have to draw their own conclusions.

    First the issue of whether the authors are seeking to close down the discussion on population, as I implied, or open it up as they claim. I am aware that the comrades are very keen to disseminate their particular views on the subject far and wide. But I still fail to see how throwing the charge of Malthusianism (even in a slightly modified form), in a highly intimidating way, as is the case in the book, at others in the debate, including those who reject everything Malthus stood for, is the way to promote a discussion. We have to get beyond the 19th century debates and name calling to the dialogue which is taking place today.

    The authors protest that it was not their intention to include socialists or progressive contributors to the debate in their charge of Malthusianism, but that’s not that way the book reads.

    The views I hold, for example, as an ecosocialist: that population increase could be slowed and eventually stabilised by measures which are entirely progressive in and of themselves—the eradication of poverty, the empowerment of women though the provision of education and family planning and countering religious, conservative, and patriarchal pressures for example—are specifically characterised as Malthusian. The precise term used in this case is “populationism lite”. And since populationism, in the author’s definition, is neo-Malthusianism the meaning could hardly be clearer.

    They also object to my point that a basic theme of the book is that the size of the human population of the planet is not, in itself, a threat to its ecology. Again it is hard to read the book any other way—despite various statements to the contrary.
    In fact you get roundly characterised as a ‘populationist’ if you as much as consider the issue of population one factor of many as far as the ecology of the planet is concerned. You are accused of being one of the ‘big is bad’ brigade—presumably as opposed to either the ‘big is good’ or the ‘size is irrelevant’ brigade. The quotation the authors use from Joel Kovel’s introduction to refute this point is out of kilter with the main line of the book.

    The authors accept (the UN figures) that the human population is likely to reach somewhere between 8bn and 11bn by 2050, and could well continue expanding until the end of this century—though, as they rightly say, long-term populations predictions are notoriously unreliable. They still argue, however, that even to suggest that such expansion could have negative implications for the ecology of the planet is to ‘play the numbers game’, engage in ‘simplistic number slinging’ or to create ‘a reactionary diversion’. Even the precautionary theory would call for more than that.

    I agree with the authors that the relationship between the human population and the ecology of the planet is a complex one. There are huge disparities in carbon footprints across the globe and total population figures are far from the only factor involved. Today the populations of the global south with the highest birth rates have the smallest carbon footprint. But to imply that it is therefore of little consequence whether the population of the planet reaches 8bn or 11bn by 2050, or whether it continues to grow until the end of the century or not is a departure from reality.

    In any case populations which today have a low impact because they are forced to live in poverty and deprivation rightly aspire to change their situation and will hopefully do so. In fact some of the countries which have the lowest carbon footprint today have the highest economic growth rates.

    The authors argue that there is little problem in feeding such numbers if food production and distribution is rationally organised. And they might be right—though climate change itself is increasingly disrupting growing patterns and destroying agricultural land. It is not just the food supply which is involved, however. It is the overall impact of the human population on the planet: climate change, water, energy, waste disposal, pollution, bio-diversity, and the impact on global ecosystems.

    The authors did not to respond to my point that the book is essentially gender neutral on the overall issue of population. Women (whose central role in the issue of population is clear enough) come into the book mainly in the debate as to whether and under what circumstances they should be the recipients (or not as the case may be) of family planning services—not as actors in their own lives. They are not seen as the active agency of change which they represent in this field. Women not only need the ability to control their own fertility but they have historically demanded it and fought for it.

    I accept that the authors are in general terms in favour of the women having access to family planning facilities—there are indeed passages to this effect in the book. But there is a crucial contradiction in the position they present since they are opposed to such provision if one of its effects would be to reduce the birthrate. Yet the provision of family planning services always reduces the birthrate—that’s what they are for.

    Their rationale for this contradiction hangs on their contention that the provision of family planning services, particularly in third world countries, can be usurped by reactionary forces and turned into something compulsory and authoritarian rather than voluntary. It makes such provision of such services, they say, dangerously vulnerable to ‘unintended consequences’.

    This again treats women as a passive factor by assuming that they would simply allow the right to choose to be subverted in that way. The right to control their own fertility is something women have long demanded and fought for, and continue to do so today—including in those parts of the world with the highest birthrates. This fight has always included the fight against reactionary measures such as compulsory sterilisation.

    In any case there are many progressive policies which can be turned into reactionary measures if reactionary forces can get away with it. This could happen with the campaign against climate change if it suited the ruling elites to do so. Some very nasty authoritarian measures could be brought in under the guise of saving the planet from climate change. This does not mean we should not fight to stop climate change. It means that we should warn against such measures and oppose them if they come up.

    In any case opposing family planning services in third world countries today on this basis that they would be a slippery slope to authoritarian solutions would not make such authoritarian measures less likely if the ruling elites turn in that direction.

    The authors refused to accept that the provision of family planning services to women who currently do not have access to them is a win-win situation. It gives women the right to control their own fertility, to have the family size which is right for them, eliminates unwanted pregnancies, and at the same time exerts a downward pressure on the birthrate. One is not dependent on the other but both are progressive and desirable.

    This is not to say that such measures, or reducing the birthrate, are the answer to the environmental crisis, of course not. That will require a massive programme for renewable energy and energy conservation. It will require a serious challenge to the capitalist mode of production and consumption. But the stabilisation of the global population would make the task a lot easier than it would otherwise be.

    Alan Thornett 19th January 2012

  7. shelia malone January 13, 2012 at 11:38 am |

    In my first article on population (SR 57), I tried to take a different approach from the old polemics around Malthusianism and population controls by calling it ‘Population growth is a feminist issue’. I still think the key to the issue is women’s empowerment. However ‘Too Many People?’ seems much more in the old mould.

    I agree with the authors that the main cause of social and ecological un-sustainability and inequality is capitalism (although not discounting pre-capitalist systems too). But I also see rapid population growth as a factor exacerbating already existing problems.

    Historically promoted and encouraged by capitalism and its ideologues (because it means more producers, consumers, warriors, believers), high birth rates have nevertheless brought high costs socially and ecologically and have been especially damaging for women – who have mostly struggled against them to control and limit their fertility.

    Maybe some overkill in the Marx/Malthus debates has deterred future Marxists from paying much attention to population. However, when they have taken it up, it has often been one-sidedly, not fully recognising the impact of population policies socially and ecologically [Brenner] In addition they often want to keep women’s rights separate from both demographic and development issues.

    This seems to be TMP’s approach. This means that when they explain the ‘demographic transition’ it is presented as happening more or less automatically. For instance, poverty reduction is seen as necessarily and always resulting in lower fertility rates. Hence ‘development is the best contraceptive’.

    This ignores high birth rates in some wealthy countries (Saudi Arabia), or the continued above replacement level in the USA. Secondly, and pertinently, their one-sidedness leaves out the important role of women’s own struggles in gaining the reproductive rights and resources which have ensured the big drop in fertility levels in the North. Nor do we hear much of women’s movements around these issues in the global South.

    In many countries in the South agriculture and industry has been geared to export and to benefit only local elites. This has created huge social and ecological problems. Nevertheless, women often remain under great pressure from state, religion, culture and clan to have more and more children. This exacerbates existing problems, as rapidly growing families are forced to degrade their own environments to get food, water and fuel just to survive.

    A better understanding of this situation might have led Ian and Simon to a more sympathetic view of the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and the Action Plan resulting from it. This was not a top-down programme, imposed from outside and harking back to coercive population controls, as they imply. On the contrary, Cairo was a response to what women themselves were asking for. As I discuss in my review of Laurie Mazur’s ‘A pivotal Moment’ its approach enabled women to set up centres where they could meet together, discuss and decide on their own needs and aspirations and those of their communities (and out of earshot of sometimes hostile partners)

    Here constant childbearing and rearing was seen by most women as exhausting and as restricting their and their children’s educational and job prospects. So they wanted the rights and means to control their own fertility. In addition gaining skills and a different future through something like small-scale organic farming and trading was seen as a way out from a poverty and high fertility trap, as well as beneficial to the wider community [and the planet!].

    In other words, women themselves linked the issues of population and development.

    I don’t disagree with Ian and Simon’s and their co-thinkers advocacy of ‘a woman’s right to choose’, nor with the sentiments behind the current ‘ecological justice is the best contraceptive’ [Vandana Shiva]. But in some ways bolder but equally pertinent were the old National Abortion Campaign in Britain’s ‘Every child a wanted child’ and ‘Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate’.

    This approach linked women’s individual needs and rights to the wider social issues. But, whichever approach you support, people usually need resources, skills and information to realize their wants and aspirations. These the Cairo programs provided. They are what I would call population policies which empower women. If either international bodies or national governments promote them, then I support this – as have women in countries as varied as Bangladesh and Philipines. Here many women’s wellbeing, status and prospects have greatly improved, as well the birth rate decreasing.

    So, I agree with TMP on the need for an alternative development model to capitalism, one that is socially and ecologically sustainable and just. But this must also address and integrate women’s specific needs, interests and wishes. We can then work out something which is good for women, good for our communities, our societies and good for our planet!

    Sheila Malone 13 January 2012

  8. prianikoff January 10, 2012 at 2:53 pm |

    Hey, don’t have a split over this.
    The “Optimum Population Trust” doesn’t appear to be like the BNP, or anything. Not that they’re exactly a bunch of socialists either…

  9. Jeff White January 9, 2012 at 4:01 pm |

    Thornett’s review is not presented by SR as a “public discussion”. Nor is there any opposing viewpoint presented or promised in the future.

    Alan Thornett is a member of the Executive Bureau of the Fourth International and a long-time leading member of Socialist Resistance, the British Section of the Fourth International. To suggest that his review is merely a contribution to a discussion is to ignore the fact that Thornett is a leading member of the organization and the International, and carries a considerable degree of authority with the readers of Socialist Resistance (if nobody else).

  10. Jeff White January 9, 2012 at 11:44 am |

    I was frankly appalled that the British comrades of Socialist Resistance would publish this review. As comrade Jane Kelly points out in the comments below the review, it does not represent the views of the majority of the organization. Why then would they publish it?

    Sadly, it has also provided fodder for the British Optimum Population Trust. The populationist group has picked up the review and put it on their website. Don’t hold your breath waiting for them to publish Ian’s and Simon’s reply.

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