Population control — the ideology of the green right
“We’re not left or right, we’re green.” That phrase has been repeated ad nauseum by green politicos who think they are being clever, but constant repetition doesn’t make it true. The green movement can’t escape politics — there are eco-socialists and eco-anarchists and eco-liberals and eco-capitalists, and many subdivisions in each current.
A particularly nasty current in the eco-capitalist camp are the eco-racists, people who blame foreigners — especially foreigners with dark skins — for ecological problems.
Fred Pearce, an environmental writer for New Scientist magazine, has several times recently devoted his blog (Fred’s Footprint) to what he calls Green Fascism. He, like everyone else who writes or speaks on environmental issues, is regularly asked: “Should we be trying to stop others having babies, especially people in poor countries with fast-growing populations?”
“I must say I thought this kind of illiberal thinking had been banished from the environmental movement. But it keeps seeping back. When I give public talks on climate change, I am often asked if all the efforts in the rich world won’t be wiped out by rising populations in the poor world.
“Isn’t overpopulation more dangerous than overconsumption? I say no. But the unpalatable truth is that a lot of environmental thinking over the past half century has been underpinned by an unhealthy preoccupation with the breeding propensity of Asians and Africans.
“They were, it was often held, polluting the human gene pool as well as the planet. Such thinking was not fringe: it involved some of the great names of the environment movement. …
“No matter that the average European or North American has carbon emissions 10 times greater than the average Indian or African, somehow it is those pesky breeding foreigners who are really to blame.”
In a second column he added:
“Every time greens stress “over-population” among the poor as an environmental threat, they are denying the much greater threat to global resources from over-consumption among the rich.
“I do not really believe in the idea that the planet has some fixed “carrying capacity”. How many it can sustain depends on how we live on this planet rather than absolute numbers. Mahatma Gandhi wasn’t far wrong when he said there is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”
Pearse’s Green Fascism articles echo important issues that were discussed in more detail by Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The global politics of population control (South End Press, 1995), whom he interviewed for New Scientist in 2003. The interview, headlined “The greening of hate,” is online here (subscription required). The following are excerpts.
What do you think is going on among environmentalists? Is the right wing taking over?
Hartmann: I first realised that the right wing was attempting to penetrate the mainstream environment movement when I sat on a panel at an environmental meeting in the University of Oregon in 1994. Beside me was a professor and environmentalist, Virginia Abernethy of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. She seemed to me to blame immigrants for overpopulating our country and destroying our environment. Some of the audience liked her ideas but I thought they were racist.
I started to investigate and found she wasn’t alone among conservationists. She was a leader of the group called the Carrying Capacity Network, which sounds like a benign environmental organisation but its main campaign is to halt what it calls mass migration to the US. They blame migrants for destroying pristine America. For instance, they blame Mexican migrants for starting fires in national forests near the border. This group has prominent environmental scientists on its advisory board. People like biologist Tom Lovejoy, the green economist Herman Daly and the ecologist David Pimental.
I call this the greening of hate.
It sounds like a conspiracy theory
Hartmann: Well, it seems to me that the anti-immigration movement in the US has a strong green wing. For instance, they formed a group within the Sierra Club — a prominent nature protection organization — trying to push it into a policy of immigration restriction and population reduction. Abernethy has spoken at conferences of the right wing Council of Conservative Citizens. And some of these people are getting funding from groups such as the Pioneer Fund, whose aims, as set out in its charter, are to fund research into genetics and study into “the problems of human race betterment”.
Aren’t these just political games?
Hartmann: It’s more than that. There is an academic journal called Population and Environment, published by Kluwer, which is edited by Kevin MacDonald, an evolutionary psychologist who writes about a Jewish plot to liberalize immigration policies. In 1999, MacDonald appeared in court in Britain to defend the historian and holocaust denier David Irving. The journal’s advisory editorial board includes famous environmental scientists such as Paul Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb, Pimental again, and Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada.
Sitting beside them on the board is J. Philippe Rushton, a psychology professor from the University of Western Ontario in Canada, who has a theory about how black people have small brains, low IQ, large sex organs and high aggression. What are environmental scholars doing getting mixed up with these kinds of people?
So how did you get involved in all this?
Hartmann: I was a feminist as a student. I got into development issues, learned Bengali and lived in a village in Bangladesh for a while in the 1970s. That was about the time when Henry Kissinger was calling the country a basket case, and international agencies like the World Bank were coming in and saying that population growth was the biggest problem. They were promoting coercive population control policies such as pressuring women to be sterilized. But I saw how poor people weren’t the main problem. In terms of environmental conservation, the peasants were the best practitioners. But government policies were stacked against them.
In the village where I lived, the largest landlord in the area was the person who got the World Bank aid money. I got involved in the politics of reproductive rights through that experience. I’ve been fighting for over 20 years against population-control programs, but from a feminist, pro-choice perspective.
How can you be pro-choice and anti-population control?
Hartmann: A lot of people find this hard to understand. But for me, family planning is about human rights and women’s health — not population control. It is about freeing women to have the number of children they want, not blaming them for a whole host of social problems.
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Where did the environment come into your thinking on population?
Hartmann: I got concerned that conflicts over resources such as forests and land were being framed so that population pressure was seen as the main culprit. A variety of groups, including foundations that fund population work, were linking population and environment issues directly to national security. This seemed like a dangerous mix, especially when it got tied up with the growing anti-immigrant movement in the US, and maybe now in Europe, too.
But isn’t population pressure a real environmental issue?
Hartmann: It’s more than an issue, it’s an ideology. Ever since colonial times, Westerners have had what I call a degradation narrative. It says that poor peasants having too many children causes population pressures that degrade the environment and cause more poverty. It is the basic story that many Western environmentalists still tell. And it is now being extended to explain not just the loss of rainforests and species, but also migration and violent conflicts round the world.
You say that this degradation narrative is being used to explain foreign policy disasters. How?
Hartmann: From Afghanistan to Gaza to El Salvador to Indonesia to Somalia, some prominent environmentalists have blamed disorder on resource depletion and environmental decay. And foreign policy people have gone along with it. When the slaughter happened in Rwanda in 1994 and the rest of the world stood by and did nothing, we heard a lot about how it was inevitable because of the high population density that was causing land shortages and poverty. Even Timothy Wirth, Clinton’s undersecretary of state for global affairs and widely seen as an environmental good-guy, said it.
But even some of the theorists behind these ideas, such as Thomas Homer-Dixon, a writer on environmental and security issues, have acknowledged it wasn’t really like that. The massacres started where population pressure was least. It was about state-instigated racism, not environmental degradation. It’s not that population is always irrelevant, it is just that it gets overemphasised. Blaming poor peasants for deforestation is like blaming conscripts for wars.
Did this happen in the US?
Hartmann: Yes. In the US we had a great panic in the 1990s about Haitian boat people arriving on our beaches. The degradation story blamed their flight on population pressure that had destroyed their forests and dried up their wells and eroded their soils. I don’t deny that Haiti suffers from widespread environmental problems. But there were a lot of political issues that got conveniently lost, such as the decades of dictatorial rule by the Duvalier family, who were supported by the US, and an immense gap between rich and poor.
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Do average Americans buy these ideas?
Hartmann: I find even well-educated and well-meaning acquaintances have alarming responses on population issues. They believe the poor create their own problems by breeding, and it absolves the rest of us from responsibility. Even some committed feminists will scapegoat poor women’s fertility for the planet’s evils. It is a kind of ideological schizophrenia. Phrases like the population bomb and the population explosion breed racism.
Few Americans know that, on average, woman round the world have less than three children each. They don’t breed like rabbits. And by 2050 a majority of the world’s population will be likely to live in countries with fertility levels below what demographers regard as replacement levels. It all avoids looking at the real issues on our own doorstep — of over-consumption, for instance. On climate change, we hype up fears of rising emissions in “overpopulated” India rather than looking at our own consumption patterns. Better a one-child policy there than a one-car policy here. We don’t understand that communities all over the world can and do live in sustainable relationships with their environments.