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.
THE ‘NEW’ POPULATION CONTROL CRAZE:
RETRO, RACIST, 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.
POPULATION & ENVIRONMENT:
A PROGRESSIVE, FEMINIST APPROACH
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.”