Women’s Rights, Population and Climate Change: A Debate

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Should supporters of women’s rights campaign for population reduction? Two very different feminist perspectives …


The articles below were originally published in the Fall 2009 issue of On the Issues: The Progressive Women’s Magazine. They are reproduced here by permission.

  • Betsy Hartmann, author of “The ‘New’ Population Control Craze: Retro, Racist, Wrong Way to Go,” is the director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College. She is the author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control (South End Press, 1995).
  • Laurie Mazur, author of “Population & Environment: A Progressive, Feminist Approach” is the director of the Population Justice Project. She is the editor of A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge (Island Press, 2009)

Climate and Capitalism will soon publish a commentary on some of the issues discussed in this exchange.

UPDATE: see Why ‘Population Justice’ is the Wrong Way to Go.



by Betsy Hartmann

It’s back to the bad old days of the population bomb. That was the title of an alarmist book by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich that appeared in 1968. Hesuggested that world catastrophe would ensue unless women in poor parts of the world were prevented from having too many children.

This fall’s junk mail carried an alarmist appeal from Population Connection, using its former name of Zero Population Growth (ZPG). According to ZPG, you can blame just about everything on population growth, from traffic congestion, overcrowded schools and childhood asthma to poverty, famine and global warming.

Retro racism and sexism are back in vogue, but now with a bit of a faux feminist twist. 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.

Don’t get me wrong. I support the provision of contraception and abortion as a fundamental reproductive right and as part of comprehensive health services. What I’m against is turning family planning into a tool of top-down social engineering. There’s a long and sordid history of population controlprograms violating women’s rights and harming their health. That’s why feminist reformers in the international family planning field have fought hard to make programs responsive to women’s — and men’s — real reproductive and sexual health needs. A world of difference exists between services that treat women as population targets, and those based on a feminist model of respectful, holistic, high-quality care.

Contrary to received wisdom, population control programs remain alive and well. India and China have especially coercive ones, but in many places in the world, from sub-Saharan Africa to public clinics in the U.S., poor women of color are denied real contraceptive choice and targeted with long-acting contraceptives like Depo Provera, despite their substantial health risks, in order to keep birth rates down.

Reality vs. Hype, Overconsumption vs. Numbers

The recent resurgence in overpopulation rhetoric flies in the face of demographic realities. In the last few decades population growth rates have come down all over the world so that the average number of children per woman in the Global South is now 2.75 and predicted to drop to 2.05 by 2050. The so-called population “explosion” is over, though the momentum built into our present numbers means that world population will grow to about nine billion in 2050, after which point it will start to stabilize. The real challenge is to plan for the addition of that three billion people in ways that minimize negative environmental impact. For example, investments in public transport rather than private cars, in cluster housing rather than suburbia, in green energy rather than fossil fuels and nuclear, would do a lot to help a more populated planet.

Dollars, not sense, are driving the population bandwagon. Ironically, the main reason for the resurgence is that we have a new Democratic administration in Washington.

After eight years of George W. Bush’s assault on reproductive and sexual health funding, population agencies see a welcome opportunity to expand international family planning assistance. The trouble is that some, like the influential Population Action International, are strategically deploying fears of overpopulation to win broader support inside and outside Congress. Their main tactic is to blame climate change on population growth so they can promote family planning as the magic bullet.

This kind of messaging is intensifying in advance of the upcoming world climate conference in Copenhagen in December.

These arguments not only threaten to distort family planning, but to derail climate negotiations by weakening U.S. commitment to curbing carbon emissions and inciting the anger of nations in the Global South. Industrialized countries, with only 20 percent of the world’s population, are responsible for 80 percent of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The U.S. is the worst offender.

Overconsumption by the rich has far more to do with global warming than population growth of the poor. The few countries in the world where population growth rates remain high, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, have among the lowest carbon emissions per capita on the planet.

Serious environmental scholars have taken the population and climate change connection to task, but unfortunately a misogynist pseudo-science has been developed to bolster overpopulation claims. Widely cited in the press, a study by two researchers at Oregon State University blames women’s childbearing for creating a long-term “carbon legacy.” Not only is the individual woman responsible for her own children’s emissions, but for her genetic offspring’s emissions far into the future. 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.

A second study to hit the press is by a population control outfit in the UK, Optimum Population Trust (OPT),whose agenda includes immigration restriction. OPT sponsored a graduate student at the London School of Economics to undertake a simplistic cost/benefit analysis that purports to show that it’s cheaper to reduce carbon emissions by investing in family planning than in alternative technologies. Although the student’s summer project was not supervised by an official faculty member, the press has billed it as a study by the prestigious LSE, lending it false legitimacy. Writing on RH RealityCheck, Karen Hardee and Kathleen Mogelgaard of Population Action International endorse the report’s findings without even a blink of a critical eye.

Feminists Need to Rethink Blaming

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.

Fortunately, many feminists in the international reproductive health field understand that contradiction because they see its negative consequences play out on the policy and program level. They spoke out strongly against linking reproductive health to population control at the recent NGO Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Development in Berlin. And within the U.S. women of color activists working on reproductive justice and environmental justice are coming together to critique population control and find a much more progressive common ground than “population justice.” As Loretta Ross, National Director of SisterSong, writes, both reproductive justice and environmental justice movements share “an understanding of the complexity and intersectionality of issues that include not only the right to have, or not have children, but the right to raise our children in healthy and safe communities.”

If there’s one lesson to be learned from the current moment, it’s that we have to remain ever vigilant about population control messaging. In the future, population rhetoric will shift from the environment to other areas, such as national security. Population agencies have long found it useful to deploy narratives about population growth breeding terrorism to grab media attention and appeal to conservatives in Congress. Women, especially in the Middle East, supposedly produce “youth bulges” of angry young men who then go on to become suicide bombers and terrorists. Already, prominent people in the population field are claiming that Afghanistan’s problems are primarily driven by rapid population growth and that family planning should be a vital part of U.S. strategy there.

Along with vigilance, there needs to be a major effort to re-educate people about population, development and environment concerns. Many Americans fall prey to overpopulation rhetoric because it’s all they’ve ever been taught. Unlike Europe, there is virtually no education about international development in U.S. schools, and many environmental studies textbooks repeat myths and employ racist images of starving, Third World people overshooting the carrying capacity of the environment. (For alternative educational tools, see Population In Perspective and Stop the Blame.)

Addressing these issues also means challenging the peculiar brand of American capitalist individualism that continually shifts the burden for economic, social and environmental breakdown from powerful corporations and militarism onto the shoulders of individuals, especially poor people of color. I, for one, am getting tired of reading about individual carbon footprints. Sure, it’s vitally important for well-off people to reduce their energy consumption, but how about the heavy carbon bootprints of the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial complex? They are grinding us all into the ground.



by Laurie Mazur

In “The ‘New’ Population Control Craze: Retro, Racist, Wrong Way to Go,” 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.

I’m not alone. Over the last couple of years, I have helped bring together feminists, environmentalists, and reproductive health activists to develop an approach to population and environment issues that is grounded in human rights and social justice. Our efforts culminated in a new book, A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge.

We also helped launch a new campus movement. The “population justice” effort is a partnership of the Sierra Club, the International Women’s Health Coalition, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and others. Our goals are to increase U.S. funding for family planning and reproductive health; to provide comprehensive sexuality education in the U.S.; and to pass the Global Poverty Act and implement the Millennium Development Goals. Population control is not on the agenda.

There are many, many points on which Betsy Hartmann and I are in complete agreement. For example, I agree that the relationship between population dynamics and environmental is best viewed through the prism of inequity. It is the affluent countries’ unsustainable systems of production and consumption — not population growth in the Global South — that have caused most of the environmental crises we face.

And we do face environmental crises. Human-induced climate change is threatening the very habitability of our planet. From acidifying oceans to depleted aquifers, the natural systems we depend upon are nearing “tipping points,” beyond which they may not recover.

The United Nations Development Program says that for the world’s most marginalized citizens, the consequences of environmental crises “could be apocalyptic.” Women are on the front lines of the crisis — walking farther to collect water, working harder to coax crops from dry soil, coping with plagues of drought, flood and disease.

Against that backdrop, consider our demographic future. World population now stands at 6.8 billion. While the rate of growth has slowed in most parts of the world, our numbers still increase by 75 million to 80 million every year, the numerical equivalent of adding another U.S. to the world every four years or so. A certain amount of future growth is inevitable, but choices made today will determine whether world population reaches anywhere between 8 billion and 11 billion by the middle of the century.

If we take seriously the need to protect the planet and distribute its resources more equitably, it becomes clear that it would be easier to provide a good life — at less environmental cost—for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people. This is especially true for climate change: an analysis by Brian O’Neill at the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimates that stabilizing world population at 8 billion, rather than 9 billion or more, would eliminate one billion tons of CO2 per year by 2050 — as much as completely ending deforestation.

Of course, slowing population growth is not all we must do. Continued reliance on fossil fuels could easily overwhelm any carbon emission reductions from slower growth. Still, slowing population growth is part of what we must do to avert catastrophic climate change.

Does that justify a new program of coercive population control? Absolutely not.

The last two decades have seen a seismic shift in thinking about population issues. Feminist reformers fought for—and won—a groundbreaking international agreement on population at a 1994 UN meeting in Cairo. The Cairo agreement says that the best way to achieve a sustainable world is by making sure that all people can make real choices about childbearing. That means access to voluntary family planning and other reproductive-health information and services. It means education and employment opportunities, especially for women. And it means tackling the deep inequities — gender and economic — that limit choices for many. It is possible that growing concern about climate change and other environmental issues could help mobilize funds for sexual and reproductive health and rights, women’s empowerment and other elements of the Cairo agreement.

But I agree with Hartmann that it could easily go the other way. As the connection between population growth and the environment becomes clear, we are hearing more unacceptable calls for “population control.” For example, a book by an environmental journalist proposes a mandatory “one child per human mother” policy.

How should we respond to these dangerous proposals — as feminists, as people who care about the environment and human well-being?

We can acknowledge that slowing population growth is one of many things we can do to build a sustainable, equitable future. And — most importantly — we can fight for population policies that are firmly grounded in human rights and social justice.

Please post comments on this subject at
“Why ‘Population Justice’ is the Wrong Way to Go.”


  • A very complex subject made even more so by the desparity of cultural activities and environmental needs over a multi varied range of climatic conditions.We need more heat in our northern climes farthest away from the equator and so fuel reliance is greater.We also have some of the most fertile lands in the temperate regions.Each country has it’s own level of environmental footprinting.The more biodiversive land and sea areas ,the larger the number of people it can sustain.This figure of density of population should reflect and be an indicator of the supply of the resources of nature that can be indefinitely regenerate themselves without becoming depleted of degraded. With the U.K. WE ARE OVER POPULATED BY 2.4 X .We can only sustain a pop’ on an environmental footprint basis of 30 million,we are currently at 66 million,bearing in mind that our border controls don’t know who comes in and out,a ‘pilot’ scheme ? England has the highest pop’ density of any E.U. country at 400 people per square kilometer.The average of the E.U. is 117 per.km2, we import 60 % of our food ,89% of our fruit ! this in a ultra green land with no deserts we have to be able to feed ourselves.Food production increases in volume at an arithematical rate , population increases geometrically.There is no way we can feed ourselves at this rate.This is manifestly so in the Horn of Africa,Australia etc.Changing climatic conditions will dictate as to how many people the land can sustain.Malthus’s ideas are still valid ,but the increase in expertise in medical areas have negated the ‘natural’ depletion by old methods,wars still happen and help to keep numbers lower.China’s policy may appear draconian, but indicates a realistic knowledge of sustainability needs,and a saving of half a billion lives since 1977.Because global warming doesn’t really have a brain we have to negate the effects of an inbalance of our activities,not controlled by nature,as soon as possible.The artic ice is diminishing by 30 %,but if the antartic ice melts,as it is doing,millions will perish in the small Pacific and Indian ocean islands,we here will also be cut back if the gulf stream position moves by the desalnification of the Atlantic,or even terminates,we will be in a era of permanent cold and will , with the rest of Europe,need more and more fuel just to survive.Most of the world’s population lives by the coastal regions and so are most vunerable to climatic change,as witnessed in Japan, Australia Tiawan etc..If the antartic melts the seas will rise by an extent that will flood most of all the coastal regions.

  • You are responsible for your actions, manufacturers are responsible for theirs. It isn’t either or. The creation of one “Wizzo Plastic Tat” is caused by your decision to buy one: you are responsible. You wouldn’t have made that decision if it wasn’t for the manufacturer’s nifty advertising campaign: they are responsible.

    Responsibility means that you can take credit and blame for the consequences. It isn’t automatically bad by any means. If you use a “Wizzo plastic tat” to enliven the day of a bored child, then that is a good consequence (and credit can be taken by both you and the manufacturer). However, creating it and shipping it creates emissions, and blame should be accepted by both you and the manufacturer. In making the decision you should balance the good and bad consequences of the different choices available. If you are extremly poor, and are forced to make poor ecological choices to stay alive, most people are going to understand. This is an odd example, though, as most poor people have small ecological impacts because they consume so little.

    Your point about lack of information is a legitimate problem. But if you don’t know the consequences of your actions, and you do not take the time to find out what they are, then you are being negligent, and you are still responsible. This problem is being resolved though exactly the kind of consumer pressure you consider so ineffective: manufacturers are starting to print carbon footprints on their products. This makes it much easier to consider ecological factors in deciding which refrigerator you are going to buy.

    You are not responsible for an action if you did not have any choice about it. If a woman is raped, has no access to medical services, and has a child, she is not responsible. She did not make a decision, it was something that happened to her. If a woman’s husband refuses to allow the use of contraception, and requires that she has sex with him, and she has a child, then she is not responsible. However, if anybody (woman or man) chooses to have a child, and that is a free choice then they are responsible for all the forseeable consequences, good and bad, of that decision, as with any other decision.

    Jeff – it has been a pleasure to debate with you, but this thread is becoming dangerously long, so I am going to sign off. Best wishes, Alex.

  • Ah, yes, “taking responsibility.” Who could possibly be against that?

    You say that when I buy a product I’m “responsible” for the environmental damage caused by the manufacturer in making another product just like it to sell to the next consumer. But since the environmental damage is the foreseeable consequence of the manufacturer’s actions, isn’t he the one “responsible” for it? Am I twisting his arm to make another climate-destroying widget to sell to the next guy?

    It’s the foreseeable consequence of the manufacturer’s actions that people will buy his product; thus, by your “principle” the manufacturer is “responsible”. Why does that make the consumer “responsible” also? Who’s in charge of the manufacturing process, anyway?

    Your “Wizzo Plastic Tat” example is actually an attempt to reverse causation. The manufacturer chooses the raw materials, the manufacturer designs the product and assembles the production technology, the manufacturer makes the product, the manufacturer does the environmental damage, the manufacturer creates demand for the product, the manufacturer does not disclose to every consumer the environmental cost of making the product, and yet the consumer is “responsible”?

    What does responsibility mean? Does it mean “fault”? Is it my fault as a consumer, who needs to use paper clips, if the manufacturers of paper clips pollute the planet with their factories?

    Or does “responsibility” imply that I have a choice as a consumer to buy products whose manufacture does not harm the environment? Is it my responsibility to know the energy budget and environmental impact of every manufacturer and every product in the marketplace? Do I really have a choice? Am I “responsible” for the CO2 emissions or nuclear waste that result from my decision to turn on a light switch, on the grounds that I could just as easily sit and curse the darkness?

    The idea that we can shop our way to a sustainable future is based on at least three false assumptions:

    1. That the solution to the current crisis lies in everyone’s deciding to buy good commodities instead of bad ones.

    This is false because it fails to take into consideration the environmental destruction caused by other things besides consumer goods – for example, the manufacture of weaponry and other commodities for the military, and their use in wars; the generation of electricity; and the building of public and corporate infrastructure, like bridges and office towers.

    2. That everyone can afford to choose one commodity over another, regardless of price.

    This is false because the vast majority of the world’s population is poor, and is compelled to buy the buy the cheapest paper clips available, even if they are made of plastic.

    3. That the commodity marketplace already contains the solutions to our problems if only we were willing to buy the right commodities.

    This is false because truly sustainable modes of producing consumer goods is beyond the capability of capitalism today. There are no truly “green” products being mass-produced in factories. Buying a Prius and switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs is not actually a solution to the ecological crisis; both of those products, and all the other “green” products on the market have negative environmental impacts.

    Read what pioneer environmentalist Barry Commoner had to say about the Illusion of Consumer Sovereignty.


    You go to the store to buy a refrigerator. You and the storekeeper have no idea how the thing was delivered from the factory. It could have come by railroad or truck. If it comes by truck, it causes four times as much pollution as if it came by railroad, because the fuel efficiency is four times lower. But what am I going to do, go into the store and say, “Listen, I’m an ecologist. I must have a refrigerator delivered by railroad”?

    Then there is your concept of putting women in a position to take “responsibility for childbirth decisions.” Is the present “overpopulation problem” the result of women not taking responsibility for their childbirth decisions? When have women ever been able to escape such responsibility? It’s not as if all the responsibility has hitherto fallen on men.

    The idea of holding women responsible for the presumed planetary ecological consequences of giving birth to children is unfair, impractical, and downright bizarre.

  • The starting point for me is that we are all responsible for the forseeable consequences of our actions. If I choose to heat my house by burning gas in a gas boiler, a forseeable consequence of my action is that there will be a certain amount of carbon dioxide emissions. If instead I pay my next door neighbour to burn the gas for me, and pipe hot water round my house, I don’t suddenly get a free pass. My decision to purchase hot water directly leads to the same emissions.

    Switching from electricity to plastic goods doesn’t get us out of trouble either. If we don’t buy the manufacturer’s goods, they won’t make as many next time. The “marginal effect” (as economists like to say) of buying a plastic doll is that one more plastic doll gets manufactured. The fact that the doll you cause to be made probably isn’t the doll you end up with is immaterial.

    Of course, if I produce goods or provide a service, then I need to take responsibility for the consequences of my actions in that respect too. This is more complicted, though. For example, if I start making paper clips (a commodity item with a stable demand), then other manufacturers will ultimately have to reduce their production by a corresponding amount. The effect of my action is that I make more paperclips, everyone else makes fewer paperclips, and the overall number of paperclips stays about the same. However, if I start making fabulous “Wizzo Plastic Tat” and I run a marketing campaign creating demand and start a world-wide craze for my product, then I have to take responsibility for the mountain of products that my actions have resulted in – and the vast amount of emissions that would not otherwise have been created. Similarly, if I fail to properly inform my customers about the consequences of buying my products, then I have to take responsibility for the resulting increase in emissions. That doesn’t let my customers off the hook though – they still have to take responsiblity for their actions.

    I think that Laurie’s basic point is that giving women power and eduction puts them in a position to take responsibility for the consequences of their childbirth decisions – and that will naturally lead to a fall in population, and hence to a fall in emissions. I can’t fault the logic, and it absolutely is not equivalent to the opposite – removing women’s power to take childbirth decisions through population control.

  • Alex, it’s wrong to focus on the consumption rather than the production of goods. If I buy things made out of plastic or packaged in plastic, and consume those goods, my consumption does not create greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, the emissions associated with the goods have already been created by the manufacturer, before I ever get my hands on the product. They properly belong to the manufacturer’s carbon footprint, not mine.

    I do not personally have any control or influence over the manufacturing process or the packaging of goods. If manufacturers are profligate with fossil fuels and use carbon-intensive production methods, then the responsibility lies with them, not me.

    This is what the population-control “leftists” fail to understand. By making environmental issues all about consumption rather than production, they simplistically jump to the conclusion that the environment can be saved by having fewer people around to consume manufactured goods. In other words, they completely let the manufacturers off the hook.

    They also swallow the fallacy of “consumer democracy” – the idea that we as consumers can “vote with our wallets” to force manufacturers into ecologically sustainable modes of production. It’s a fallacy born of a quasi-religious belief in the power of the marketplace to solve all problems, thereby avoiding the messy necessity to actually take political action to bring about the systemic, revolutionary social and economic change that will be required to allow humanity to live in harmony with nature.

  • It is true that per-capita carbon emissions of each country are not a measure of personal responsibility for climate change. A measure that does attempt to represent that is a carbon “footprint”. A person’s carbon footprint is the total carbon emissions caused by all of the goods and services they consume. Under this measure responsibility for Canada’s cement industry would not be heaped onto Jeff’s total, but rather the totals of the ultimate customers of that industry.

    The problem with this measure for Jeff’s repost to Laurie, is that while Canadians lose personal responsibility for their Cement industry, they gain personal responsibility for the carbon footprint of all the plastic tat that they buy that has been manufactured for them and shipped to them from overseas. If Canadian habits are anything like British ones (I am from the UK), then that is a hefty responsibility indeed. If half the population of Canada disappeared, then a lot less plastic tat would be made, and Canada’s carbon footprint would be dramatically reduced (not by half, to be sure, but a significant reduction nonetheless).

    My personal view is that we need to take responsibility for the consequences of our own actions. Carbon footprints help show us the environmental consequences of buying goods and services. They could also show us the envirionmental consequences of starting a family. Clearly there are many other extremely important things to consider, but they can be part of the decision. What is wrong with that?

  • Laurie Mazur commits the fallacy, common among the population fetishists, of presenting per capita emissions statistics as the primary driver of climate change. She says:

    “China, for example, has per capita emissions that are much lower than those of the US or UK, but it has a lot more capitas. That’s one reason why China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.”

    It starts with mathematical sleight-of-hand. Representing a country’s total emissions as simply the sum of all the per capita emissions helps to create the false impression that total emissions are a direct function of population. The fallacy lies in the fact that the total emissions must be known before you can calculate the per capita emissions. First you take the total emissions and divide by total population to get a per capita figure; to then multiply that figure by the total population is merely to reverse the calculation back to the original number you started with – total national emissions! It’s these total emissions that are the primary data; per capita figures are derived from the total, not the other way around.

    Per capita figures are statistical artifacts that tell us the ratio of a country’s total emissions to its population. But they don’t tell us about individual contributions to the country’s total emissions. For example, if I tell you that Canada’s annual per capita emissions are 23 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, it doesn’t tell you how much of that 23 tonnes I, as an average Canadian, am personally responsible for. It includes, for example, “my” per capita shares of the emissions caused by the mining of the tar sands in Alberta, the manufacture of cement in Quebec, and the industrialized livestock production in Ontario – none of which I have any personal control over.

    If half the population of Canada suddenly disappeared, my per capita share of emissions, and that of every other remaining Canadian, would increase dramatically overnight, without any change being made in my – or anyone else’s – personal levels of carbon consumption. The population fetishists would realize their fondest wish (a dramatic reduction in population levels) while per capita emission levels would soar! What could demonstrate more clearly that per capita statistics tell us nothing about “overpopulation”?

    Canada’s per capita emissions are among the worst in the world. Does that mean Canada is suffering from overpopulation? On the contrary; Canada is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with about 3.3 people per square kilometre. Moreover, the current fertility rate of 1.66 babies per woman is far below the replacement rate of 2.1. Without immigration our population would decline. When it comes to carbon emissions and overconsumption, Canada’s problem is capitalism, not too many people.

    Mazur also makes the error of assuming that raising the standard of living of the half of humanity that now lives on less than $2 a day necessarily involves unsustainable forms of economic activity and growth. It doesn’t, unless you also assume that there is no alternative to profit-driven, capitalist modes of production.

    In fact, the whole population control movement is predicated on an inability to imagine a sustainable alternative to capitalist waste, greed, and exploitation. It seeks to find biological solutions to economic and political problems.

  • “Population control” and “slowing population growth” are not the same thing. I advocate efforts to secure reproductive rights–to provide family planning and reproductive health services; to educate girls and empower women; and to address poverty and social inequity that limit people’s choices, including reproductive choices. These efforts would have the effect of slowing population growth, but that is not synonymous with “population control,” which is generally understood as coercive, top-down programs to encourage or compel people to have fewer children. See the difference?

    I do argue that that it would be “easier to provide a good life — at less environmental cost — for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people.” But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of this is easy. Nor do I assume that that poverty and environmental degradation are a function of population levels. See, for example, my recent blog on Haiti: http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2010/01/20/is-haiti-overpopulated

    I certainly do not believe that a smaller world population is a panacea; it would not by itself usher in a new era of sustainability and equity. Nor am I naive enough to believe that slowing population growth is ALL we must do. Challenging the petro-military-corporate-industrial complex is the first order of business if we hope to survive as a species. This challenge is every bit as daunting as it was in 1975, the year Jeff White references.

    But other things have changed since 1975. The atmosphere is now full. We have surpassed the atmospheric concentration of CO2 that would preserve a habitable planet for current and future generations.
    Against that backdrop, consider the challenge of raising the standard of living of the half of humanity that now lives on less than $2 a day. We can hope that developing countries will steer a different course than the one we’ve followed, and “leapfrog” over the most environmentally destructive technologies. But almost any scenario that accounts for economic growth in the developing countries means a vast increase in carbon emissions.

    China, for example, has per capita emissions that are much lower than those of the US or UK, but it has a lot more capitas. That’s one reason why China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.

    Indeed, the only scenario in which population size doesn’t matter for CO2 emissions is one in which the current inequitable divide between rich and poor countries remains fixed for all time. At best, that scenario is unrealistic. At worst, it is cruel beyond imagining.

  • Jeff is right, except that I doubt global warming is the problem its cracked up to be — dependence on fossil fuels is, however, and indeed may help pave the way to World War III. More people means not just more mouths to feed but more hands to craft and more minds to think.

  • Laurie Mazur says she isn’t in favour of “population control” but she wants to slow down population growth. It sounds like the same thing to me. Hartmann argues against population control as a social and political strategy to alleviate climate change and poverty – the very strategy that Mazur supports. Mazur says she’s against “coercive” population control, but that is no answer to Hartmann, whose arguments’ validity does not depend on the assumption of coercion against individual women to have fewer babies.

    Very revealing is Mazur’s observation that it would be “easier to provide a good life — at less environmental cost — for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people.” Implicit in this is a faulty assumption that poverty and environmental degradation are a function of population levels. Back in 1975, when world population was only 4 billion people, was it “easier” to provide a good life, at less environmental cost, to the majority of the world’s people than it is today, when we have nearly 7 billion? Obviously not.

    The reason is that poverty and climate change are socio-political, not biological problems. Under a system of globalized capitalism, it doesn’t matter how many people there are on the planet; reduce the world to a billion inhabitants and there would still be unsustainable ecological destruction and enormous economic, racial, and gender inequality.