Women’s Rights, Population and Climate Change: The Debate Continues

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Should climate activists and feminists support campaigns to slow population growth? Laurie Mazur says that alliance will strengthen the movement. Ian Angus strongly disagrees …


Climate and Capitalism recently published a debate between Betsy Hartmann and Laurie Mazur about campaigns that promote family planning and reproductive health programs as means of slowing population growth and fighting global warming.

We subsequently published a reply to Laurie Mazur in which Ian Angus argued that “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.”

This post continues the debate, with new articles by Laurie Mazur and Ian Angus. We encourage readers to join the discussion, using the Comments feature at the bottom of this page.

  • Laurie Mazur is director of the Population Justice Project. Her book, A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge, was published this year by Island Press.
  • Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism. His book, The Global Fight for Climate Justice: Anticapitalist Responses to Global Warming and Environmental Destruction, is published in North America by Fernwood Publishing, and in Europe by Resistance Books.

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A Reply to Ian Angus

by Laurie Mazur

First, may I suggest that you read my book? With chapters by leading thinkers from the environmental, women’s rights and social justice movements — including Walden Bello, Carmen Barroso, Gordon McGranahan and many others — it offers a wealth of perspectives on the intersection of population dynamics, capitalism and environmental quality.

You and I have many areas of agreement. Most importantly, we agree that capitalism is the driving force behind ecological devastation today. I do not “blame poor women’s fertility for environmental problems.” I argue that consumption in the affluent countries, and — more broadly—globalized, “free market” capitalism, is at the root of the problem. However, I don’t believe that human numbers are irrelevant; slower population growth could make environmental problems easier to solve. Moreover, the best means to slow population growth are all important ends in themselves.

Population, capitalism and carrying capacity

“People are not the cause of ecological devastation,” you write in response to one of the comments on your post. “Capitalism is.”

Must we characterize the problem as either “too many people” or capitalism? In my book, I attempt to show that it is not an either-or. The Marxists and the “populationists,” as you call them, each have valid points. The Marxists are right that capitalism is driving unprecedented and unsustainable environmental destruction. The populationists are right to be concerned about the carrying capacity of ecosystems and of the planet in general.

The limits of carrying capacity are excruciatingly difficult to discern, because resources are distributed so inequitably and used so wastefully. But that does not mean such limits do not exist. And I don’t have to tell you that, for many ecosystems, those limits are near — or have already been surpassed.

There is no single magic bullet that will get us out of the environmental mess we are in. I agree with Wendy, who writes that, “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.” That means weaning ourselves from fossil fuels and cultivating sustainable energy and agriculture. It means replacing the capitalist imperatives of growth and accumulation with a new ethic of justice and sufficiency. And it means doing so against a backdrop of irreversible environmental damage: climate change, species extinction, and resource depletion. I believe these monumental challenges would be easier to surmount with a world population of eight billion, rather than 11 billion.

You take me to task for asserting that:

“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.”

Now, the first part of my statement is hard to argue with. The second part is subject to legitimate debate, which you elude by suggesting that poor people trying to get out of poverty can use “low-emission technologies.” But what are the technologies that will enable everyone on earth to live a decent quality of life without vastly increasing carbon emissions?

There are 6.8 billion people on the planet today, and demographic projections say we’ll get to anywhere from 8 billion to 11 billion by 2050. Let’s use 9 billion, the UN’s medium projection — though it’s far from a sure bet.

Now let’s look at per capita CO2, an imperfect but still useful proxy for other greenhouse gas emissions, and for environmental impact generally. As you know, Americans emit more CO2 per capita than anyone on earth–about 20 tons per person, per year. Europeans emit about half that, and most sub-Saharan Africans come in at a ton or less. Let’s say the US was able to cut its emissions by three quarters, and Europeans cut theirs in half. While we’re at it, let’s have a massive redistribution of wealth and technology, which enables everyone on earth to converge at an emissions level of 5 tons per person, per year — about the level of Mexico today.

Even in this fantastically rosy scenario, with a population of 9 billion and per capita emissions of 5 tons per person, global carbon dioxide emissions would rise to 45 billion tons of CO2 per year — a 50% increase over our current, ruinous level.

In our equitable world scenario, the difference between a world population of 8 billion and one of 11 billion would be about 15 billion tons of CO2 per year — half our current emissions and quite possibly the margin between a manageable climate crisis and catastrophe. In an equitable world, population matters. In fact, the only scenario in which population doesn’t matter (much) is one where the current inequitable divide between rich and poor remains fixed for all time.

A means or an end?

So, yes, I believe that a world population of 8 billion would be better than 11 billion. But I would not have embarked on this project if I thought that the only way to get to 8 billion was by coercing poor women to have fewer children. In fact, as I’ve said, the best means to slow population growth — universal access to family planning and other reproductive health services, educating girls and empowering women, and promoting sustainable, equitable development–are all vitally important ends in and of themselves.

You rightly decry the abuses committed in the name of population control. Half a century ago, general panic about the “population bomb” helped launch the international family planning movement. That movement brought contraception to millions in the developing world, where family planning usage rates grew from less than 10% in the early 1960s to more than 60% today. But it also committed horrible abuses, notably in India and China (where abuses persist today). That, in turn, sparked a revolution in reproductive health, as pioneering feminists essentially took over the family planning movement from within. (Michelle Goldberg tells their story beautifully in The Means of Reproduction.)

Also, in the 1990s, demographers made a game-changing realization: you don’t need to control anyone to slow population growth. Survey data showed that most women in the developing world were having more children than they said they want. So, simply addressing this “unmet need” – by providing reproductive health services that enable women to realize their own fertility goals – would decrease birthrates by as much, or more, than was called for in most countries’ demographic targets.

This shift in thinking enabled feminists and “populationists” to make common cause at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo. You characterize this alliance as a marriage of convenience aimed at defeating the Vatican. But there’s a more important piece of the story: feminists and populationists joined forces because their interests were aligned. If the best way to slow population growth is by ensuring reproductive rights and empowering women, then this is a win-win for both groups. Populationists didn’t just learn “to hide their views behind feminist vocabulary,” as you assert, many (though admittedly not all) truly came to realize that the feminists’ goals were central to their own.

And you fail to appreciate the significance of the Cairo conference, which brought together thousands of women from North and South, and launched a new, rights-based approach to population issues. Academic feminists like Betsy Hartmann sat on the sidelines and criticized the Cairo agreement for not being radical enough, but activist feminists from all over the world embraced it as a groundbreaking affirmation of women’s rights.

The Cairo agenda has not been fully implemented; patriarchy may prove even hardier than capitalism. But it brought real changes in the way family planning programs are run. It is now widely accepted that those programs should be designed to meet the reproductive health needs of their clients, full stop. No more demographic targets. No more rewards for providers who get the most “contraceptive acceptors.” We have a long way to go to make Cairo a reality, and we must always remain vigilant against coercion of any kind, but Cairo produced a seismic shift in the population/family planning movement.

Still, an important question remains: Can family planning programs adhere to Cairo principles if their funding comes from donors who are concerned about population growth? Is it essential that rights-based family planning programs be seen as an end in themselves, or can they also be seen as the means to an end — of slowing population growth? These are legitimate questions that have sparked lively debate in our field.

And there are divergent answers to these questions, even among card-carrying feminists. Some, especially academic feminists like Hartmann, say no. For them, ideological purity is essential; any hint of instrumentality will fatally compromise delivery of reproductive health services.

For others, including many of the women who have devoted their lives to delivering reproductive health care to women in the developing world, who deal on a daily basis with staggering need and woefully inadequate resources — the answer is yes. Those women have worked to increase the resources available for reproductive health–which sometimes means forming alliances with people who are concerned about population growth, national security, the environment and other issues — and they have fought like hell to make those programs as responsive to their clients’ needs as they can be.

You can probably tell which side I’m on. But there is a potential middle ground. Frances Kissling, the founder of Catholics for Choice, seeks to resolve this conflict in a terrific chapter in my book, called “Reconciling Differences.” She concludes, and I agree, that we must make room for both approaches:

“I would suggest that for one set of organizations, whose central goal is achieving women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, there is no reason to include environmentalism or population stabilization advocacy in their agenda. In fact, there are good reasons to avoid these issues. The social transformation needed for women’s reproductive rights to be fully accepted as fundamental human rights is in process, but it is not complete. Some groups must continue to work singlemindedly for that transformation in culture and politics by insisting that women’s rights are an end in themselves and not a means to a better life for children, men and society at large….

“At the same time, there is no need for [sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)] groups to attempt to prohibit all organizations from making links between population, environment, development and reproductive health or to offer blanket public criticism of such efforts as unethical or unfounded. We have become extremely sensitive to the efforts of the right to ignore or subvert evidence and science in service of ideology. We would fall prey to the same dishonesty were we to insist that these links cannot be explored. And to claim that they do not exist at all would be intellectually dishonest.”

Population justice — it’s not just about family planning

Population justice was inspired by the reproductive justice movement, which asks us to examine the inequities of race and class that limit reproductive choice. For example, the legal right to an abortion means little to a woman who can’t afford one. Similarly, the population justice framework looks at the inequities — both economic and gender — that constrain people’s decisions about childbearing and drive rapid population growth.

Several posters have noted the connection between capitalism and population growth. The capitalist growth imperative underlies pronatalist policies that seek to ensure an ever-expanding supply of workers and consumers. At the same time, rapid population growth is a byproduct of the inequity produced by our current economic system. High fertility correlates perfectly with poverty; the poorest families in the poorest countries have the highest fertility rates.

Poverty is a cause of high fertility — where child mortality rates are high and social safety nets are nonexistent, people will have many children to ensure that some survive and to help support parents in their old age. But the reverse is also true — high fertility can exacerbate poverty. More children can mean less food, education and healthcare to go around, perpetuating a cycle of poverty. The best way to break the cycle is to address poverty with equitable development that reduces the need for large families and to make sure that people have the services and information they need to make their own decisions about childbearing.

Gender inequality is also a powerful driver of high fertility. In many parts of the world, girls and women have no alternative to early marriage and frequent childbearing. What does reproductive choice mean to an 11 year-old girl who is married against her will, whose sexual initiation is indistinguishable from rape, and who begins childbearing before her pelvis is fully formed, at great risk to her life and health?

Of course, the core problem is patriarchy, but while we’re working to overturn that, two interventions have been shown to make a dramatic difference in the lives of girls and women: education and reproductive health. Girls’ education subverts patriarchy by increasing the economic value of women’s work outside the home. Reproductive health saves women’s lives: Universal access to family planning and reproductive health services would reduce 70% of maternal deaths worldwide, and nearly half of newborn deaths. And, by enabling women to plan and space childbearing, reproductive health services improve women’s health, educational status and economic well-being. Asoka Bandarage is correct that women’s rights can’t be reduced to reproductive rights, but reproductive rights are a cornerstone of self-determination. Just try exercising your “rights” without being able to control whether you are pregnant.

So, yes, the Population Justice Project calls for universal access to high quality family planning and reproductive health services. But we it’s not just about family planning; we also advocate for girls’ education and women’s empowerment, and for sustainable and equitable development.

Why Third World Women?

You ask why my work emphasizes the fertility of the poorest women in the world. “Shouldn’t Mazur’s group emphasize population reduction in rich countries,” you ask, “where each avoided birth will have a greater effect than dozens in the global South?”

First, I do not advocate “population reduction” anywhere in the world. Barring some catastrophic increase in mortality, world population won’t be reduced anytime soon. Instead I advocate slowing population growth by making sure that all people — North and South–have the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing. This ideal has yet to be fully realized anywhere in the world, but it remains most elusive for poor women in the global South. That’s why I focus on their needs.

Of course, dealing with emissions in the affluent countries is job number one if we are to address climate change. But if the goal is to reduce emissions in the US, say, reducing fertility is not the low-hanging fruit. Our fertility rate is already at 2.1 — replacement level. That’s why the conversation about slowing population growth in the US turns very quickly to an ugly attack on immigration. The fundamental problem is that the US, with just 5% of the world’s population, devours 25% of its resources. Closing the border and targeting immigrants won’t change that.

Don’t give this issue to the Right

Here’s my final point. The population issue isn’t going away. It keeps coming up because we are staring into the abyss and because political efforts to avert disaster are floundering. It keeps coming up because some people are drawn to simplistic answers to complex problems. And it keeps coming up because there is a connection between population growth and environmental devastation, and because slowing population growth is one of many, many things we must do to save ourselves.

Lately, it’s coming up a lot. Jonathon Porritt, the British environmental advisor, set off a firestorm last year when he said it was “irresponsible” for British couples to have more than two children. In The World Without Us, environmental journalist Alan Weissman calls for a global “one child per human mother policy.”

These and many others would take us straight back to “population control.” At the other end of the spectrum, people like you and Betsy Hartmann have declared population growth an untouchable issue. But here’s the problem: if there is no left/progressive voice on this issue, environmentalists and others who are legitimately concerned about population growth will be driven into the arms of the neo-Malthusians.

I propose a third option. Let’s have a real conversation about population growth that embraces the insights of Marxists, feminists, environmentalists and demographers. Let’s explore the issue with nuance and honesty. And let’s try to parlay the new interest in human numbers into renewed commitment to the Cairo agenda — and to reproductive rights, health and justice for all.

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A Reply to Laurie Mazur

by Ian Angus

Thank you for your reply. Open and frank debate can only strengthen the fight for progressive change.

As you say, we have many areas of agreement. In particular, we both believe that women everywhere should have the right to choose if, when and how often to have children, without any form of coercion. We agree that to ensure the right to choose, high quality health services should be universally available.

But we disagree profoundly about your efforts to link that objective to a campaign for slower population growth. Your website makes your approach clear: “By making sure that all people are able to make real choices about childbearing, we can slow population growth and reduce human impact on the environment.” In my opinion, connecting those issues undermines both women’s rights and the fight against climate change.

That connection would only be appropriate if:

  • “Too many people” is a valid explanation for ecological problems in general and climate change in particular;
  • Linking reproductive health to population/environment issues doesn’t undermine women’s rights.

This article first addresses those two questionable assumptions, then considers your argument that progressives must support slower population growth in order to prevent the right from monopolizing the issue.

Is overpopulation the problem?

I have indeed read your book, and as I did so, I was struck by the contrast between the lobbyists and partisans who assert confidently that population growth is an urgent issue, and the actual scientists, who are far more cautious.

For example, Joel Cohen, head of the Laboratory of Populations at the Rockefeller University and Columbia University, poses a dozen questions, all related to the nature of our social order, that must be addressed by anyone who tries to “quantify human carrying capacity or a sustainable human population size.” He concludes:

“Because no estimates of human carrying capacity have explicitly addressed the questions raised above, taking into account the diversity of views about their answers in different societies and cultures, no scientific estimates of sustainable human population size can be said to exist.” ( p. 34. emphasis added)

If that’s the case, then there is no science behind calls for “optimum population” or even “slower growth.” Before we deal with numbers, we must resolve a host of social and economic questions, in theory and in practice.

Brian O’Neill, who also has an article in your book, is one of the very few climate scientists who has actually studied correlations between population size and greenhouse gas emissions. He concludes that “slowing population growth could make a contribution to solving the climate-change problem,” but he carefully qualifies even that limited conclusion. Some examples:

“while population size is a driver of greenhouse gas emissions, it is not necessarily the most important driver. Increases in GDP also were found to have a roughly proportional effect on emissions, and technology effects were equally important.” (p. 84)

“slower population growth alone is no guarantee of lower emissions; other factors, notably energy use, can easily outweigh the positive impact of slower growth.” (p. 86)

“In general, lower population growth is associated with — but cannot guarantee — lower emissions.” (p. 90)

What’s more, he concludes that slower population growth will have little effect on emissions until the second half of the century. It’s hard to see that as a justification for putting population at the top of an activist agenda today. As you write in your Introduction, “we have less than a decade left to head off catastrophic climate change.”

The weakness of O’Neill’s conclusions is particularly noteworthy because his computer modeling approach “employs a neoclassical economic growth model, the PET (population-environment-technology) model, of the type that is commonly used in the energy and emissions scenario field.” (p. 87)

Translation: his models assume that capitalist economic growth will continue unabated and they assume that population growth is a driver of that growth. They exclude any possibility of significant social and economic change. Since his economic assumptions embody the very populationist ideas he’s supposed to be testing, the only surprising thing about his conclusions is that they are so weak.

One day, when we have broad agreement on the answers to all of Joel Cohen’s questions, and when we have eliminated the gross waste, destruction and inequities of capitalism, we may be able to measure the earth’s carrying capacity scientifically. If so, humanity may then decide to consciously limit its numbers. Since the birth rate is already below replacement levels in much of the world, that probably won’t be a difficult task.

But today, science provides no support for a populationist program.

Allying with the population establishment

You write that at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, “feminists and populationists joined forces because their interests were aligned. If the best way to slow population growth is by ensuring reproductive rights and empowering women, then this is a win-win for both groups.”

You charge that “academic feminists like Betsy Hartmann … sat on the sidelines criticized the Cairo agreement for not being radical enough,” while “activist feminists from all over the world embraced it as a groundbreaking affirmation of women’s rights.”

In addition to being a cheap shot – Betsy Hartmann’s credentials as a feminist activist need no defense – that’s also a gross oversimplification of the debate. Far from being a conflict between activists and ultraleft abstentionists, it is a debate over whether allying with the population establishment helps or harms the movement for women’s right to choose.

That question was central to my previous article, but instead of replying, you attack a straw woman: “Some, especially academic feminists like Hartmann, say no. For them, ideological purity is essential; any hint of instrumentality will fatally compromise delivery of reproductive health services.”

But the debate has never been about “ideological purity” – it’s about practical results and coercion. The population establishment isn’t a neutral force: it has a specific political agenda, and when it provides funds, it wants to see results. As Amara Perez writes in her contribution to the evocatively-title book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded:

“The reality is foundations are ultimately interested in the packaging and production of success stories, measurable outcomes, and the use of infrastructure and capacity-building systems. As non-profit organizations that rely on foundation money, we must embrace and engage in the organizing market. This resembles a business model in that the consumers are foundations to which organizations offer to sell their political work for a grant. … Over time, funding trends actually come to influence our work, priorities, and direction as we struggle to remain competitive and funded in the movement market.” (pp. 92-3)

This is not an abstract issue. Family planning programs that raise government and foundation money by promising to reduce the birth rate will face demands for measurable results – and those that want to keep their grants will find themselves pressured to shift from offering reproductive choices to pressuring women to make the “right” choices.

As I pointed out in my previous reply to you, experience with family planning in Third World countries shows that programs motivated by a desire to cut population tend to use coercive measures, regardless of the desires of their supporters. I cited James Oldham’s study of Reproductive Health/Family Planning (RH/FP) programs in Africa and Latin America, which concludes:

“When NGOs arrive with predetermined agendas, the danger is that these will be imposed on local communities. As long as a Malthusian narrative is part of the program vision, such a narrative is likely to be communicated to, and potentially imposed upon, target communities. …

“Organizations promoting the funding and provision of RH/FP services in the global south should refrain from using environmental and population arguments to promote their goals. The distortions of Malthusian arguments cannot be justified simply because they are effective in winning partners or funding; they need to be replaced with rights-based arguments in favor of making RH/FP available to all women.” (Rethinking the Link: A Critical Review of Population-Environment Programs. pp. 3, 5)

In your own book, Susana Chavez Alvarado and Jacqueline Nolley Echegaray describe how a supposedly voluntary program to slow population growth in Peru in the late 1990s led to the involuntary sterilization of hundreds of thousands of indigenous women. Like Oldham, they conclude that the first lesson of that experience 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.” (p. 298.)

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

Leaving population to the right?

You conclude with an appeal: “Don’t give this issue to the right.”

“people like you and Betsy Hartmann have declared population growth an untouchable issue. But here’s the problem: if there is no left/progressive voice on this issue, environmentalists and others who are legitimately concerned about population growth will be driven into the arms of the neo-Malthusians.”

But the real danger is that liberal environmentalists and feminists will strengthen the right by lending credibility to reactionary arguments. When you adopt the argument that population growth causes global warming, you endorse the strongest argument the right has against the social and economic changes that are really needed to stop climate change and environmental destruction.

What’s more, no matter how sincere you may be, promoting birth control as a means of slowing climate change opens the door to the very coercive measures you oppose. If we only have a decade to stop climate change, shouldn’t we be reducing population drastically right now? How can we justify voluntary programs that won’t be effective for decades?

The “don’t give this issue to the right” argument is a slippery slope. Simon Butler and I recently wrote an article for the Australian newspaper Green Left Weekly, opposing proposals by some environmentalists to limit immigration. A reader responded that our opposition to restrictions on immigration “isolates the left from the majority, and leaves the door wide open for right-wing organizations to tap into their discontent.”

If “don’t leave it to the right” were a valid argument, then neither you nor we would have an effective response to that. But since we don’t think that progressives should try to win support by using right wing arguments, we replied: “Immigration is only one of many issues on which socialists are a minority in Australia today. We deal with this not by abandoning our principles, but by working hard to win the majority to our side.”

The same response applies to your “don’t leave it to the right” argument. If environmentalists and others believe that population growth is causing climate change, then our responsibility is to show them why that’s wrong, not to adapt to their errors.

(My thanks to Simon Butler for his advice and comments on this article.)


  • Ms.Estrada Claudio–I hear and respect your concerns about the Cairo document; any UN document that wins the approval of 180 countries is bound to be compromised and flawed. Still, I think that document–thanks to your work and that of so many women around the world–represents a sea change in thinking about family planning and reproductive health.
    And I understand your concern about the re-emergence of a demographic rationale for family planning/reproductive health programs. I must reiterate that I believe that such programs should only serve the needs of clients; slowing population growth should never be part of their mandate. The question is whether concern about population growth might mobilize donor resources for those programs. You make it clear that, in the Philippines, at least, it would not. Of course I defer to your judgment.
    But here in the United States, the political situation is different. I believe that the environmental community–if constructively engaged–could help steer resources to family planning and reproductive health. In any case, environmentalists are taking up population issues again, and they must be educated about the nuances of the issue and the importance of rights-based solutions.

  • I have some objections to Mazur’s position.

    First, what happened in Cairo and the work of feminists there is misrepresented as she keeps referring to it to support her position. Let me say that I was in Cairo and worked on some of the UN meetings in New York lading up to Cairo. I was there mostly on the sponsorship of IWHC.

    But my awakening to the issues that led me to be in Cairo in 1994 began with, among other things, reading Betsy Hartmann’s book. Many of us in what was then called the Third World felt Hartmann’s book reflected our realities clearly. There were many feminists other than those in the IWHC who were there during the preparations for Cairo, the debates leading up to it and the long struggle to interpret and implement the Cairo document in ways consistent with women’s rights. Betsy has been one of those feminists. I might also point out that the ICPD Program adopted in Cairo has many, many faults, In the victory celebrations in Cairo after it was passed, I already said then, that its value would be seen only if the women’s movement, including the critical voices left out in the process, would carry the positive aspects of Cairo forward and squelch its huge negative aspects.

    Mazur refers to Goldberg’s book. I have met Goldberg and have spent some time with her, more recently in the Berlin Conference assessing ICPD at its 15th year. I like her. Goldberg spoke (and has spoken) as a “journalist” in the conferences where we have run into each other. She does not claim to have written the definitive book on Cairo. I have never mentioned to her that I think she seems to be too star struck with the activists of my generation and especially the activists of the IWHC. , I do not know her well but I got he impression that her ability to admire is both her vice and her virtue.

    But for me, the issue of what Cairo means and how it was won, is not really about personalities of the historical subject/s and the historian. In the Berlin conference, I was suddenly called in to sit in a panel because Adrienne Germaine of IWHC could not come due to illness. The panel was indeed about looking back at Cairo. I stated what I just stated now, that Cairo was not won by some united women’s movement. It fractured the women’s movement. For those of us who proceeded to engage the UN, the radical criticisms and voices (yes, those voices like Betsy’s) steeled us against the Vatican/conservative/patriarchal/big government/big pharma onslaught. Our debates had matured us into understanding what to fight for. In Berlin 20 years after I appealed yet again not to stifle those radical voices. There is a left and a right even within the feminist movements and I am frightened that as we face ICPD =20 the need to assess both the document, the UNFPA and the big foundations that have given rise to it—the field is being narrowed by exclusionist discourses of who “owns” Cairo and what the people who disagree with it represent. Many of us were there, we fought for it, made our political compromises and have had to live with it since. I disagree with so much of it but have spent the last 15 years working to see some of its provisions implemented in the Philippines.

    It is because of my pre and post Cairo work with poor communities that I see the danger in mixing up objectives in the delivery of health services. A human rights approach shows me that health services must be only about ensuring healthy outcomes. It cannot be about any other objective no matter how in synch with health that objective is made to appear. The idea of connecting this objectives is where the discussion gets academic. Put anything but service to women in the heads of our tired, over-worked, poorly trained and therefore racist, elitist and sexist health professionals— and you open up the Pandora’s box of abuse. Mazur’s proposition that making the link between family planning, population growth and the environment is logical on paper but not in the health system in the Philippines.

    Lastly I would like to object also to the argument, “don’t leave it to the right”. My organization, Likhaan, was the first secretariat and is now the current secretariat of a broad coalition that is fighting a (now) 9 year battle to get a reproductive health bill passed despite fanatical opposition from the Catholic Church. That coalition has organizations in it that believe in linking population and environment to reproductive health. we have rejected this analysis. Our “purist” position has strengthened the alliance and has kept it from accepting bribes, compromises and reformulations that would have made our proposed legislation worthless. It has also shifted the discourse of our allies closer to our own.

  • Some reflections on climate change and ‘overpopulation’:

    The climate solution requires turning away from fossil fuel dependence. Human population numbers offer no useful pointers toward changes and policies that might facilitate a transition towards structurally different, non-fossil energy, transport, agricultural and consumption regimes. Handing out condoms and other contraceptives will not counter massive fossil fuel use, particularly in industrialised countries. Reducing the number of births will not dent the massive annual subsidies that oil companies receive in tax breaks, estimated at over $100 billion.

    It is not surprising, however, that a worsening climate situation is increasingly attributed not to continued fossil fuel extraction but to too many people. Whenever global environmental crises, Third World poverty or world hunger are at issue, whenever conflict, migration or economic growth are discussed, economists, demographers, planners, corporate financiers and political pundits (at least in the Global North) frequently invoke overpopulation.

    Over 200 years ago, at a time of immense social, political and economic upheaval and deprivation in England triggered by the enclosure of common lands and forests on which peasant livelihoods depended, free market economist Thomas Malthus wrote a story about how nature and humans interact. The punch line was his mathematical analogy for the disparity between human and food increases. Harnessing politics to mathematics, he provided a spuriously neutral set of arguments for promoting a new political correctness – one that denied the shared rights of everyone to subsistence, sanctioning instead the rights of the “deserving” over the “undeserving”, with the market as arbiter of entitlements. This is the essence of the overpopulation argument.

    Today, a range of industries use the same argument to colonise the future for their particular interests and to privatise commonally-held goods. In climate debates, the talk is of teeming Chinese and Indians causing whole cities to be lost to flooding through their greenhouse gas emissions – unless polluting companies are granted property rights in the atmosphere through carbon-trading schemes and carbon offsets. These are the tools of the main official approach to the climate crisis that aims to build a global carbon market worth trillions of dollars.

    Carbon trading continues to give incentives to polluting industries to delay structural change and to continue extracting fossil fuels. Carbon offsets wind up increasing fossil fuel emissions rather than compensating for them and reinforcing fossil fuel dependence. In the process, land, water and air on which many communities depend continue to be usurped.

    Two centuries ago, Malthus was compelled to admit that his mathematical and geometric series of increases in food and humans were not observable in any society. He acknowledged that his “power of number” was just an image – an admission demographers have since confirmed. And for over 200 years, his theory and arguments – that it is the number of people that cause resource scarcity – have been refuted endlessly by demonstrations that any problem attributed to human numbers can more convincingly be explained by social inequality, or that the statistical correlation is ambiguous.

    Overpopulation arguments and the policies based on them persist, however, because of the ideological advantages they offer to powerful political and economic interests to minimise redistribution, to restrict social rights, and to advance and legitimise their goals.

    Indeed, Malthus’s greatest achievement was to obscure the roots of poverty, inequality and environmental deterioration. The “war-room” mentality generated by predictions of scarcity-driven apocalypse has always diverted attention away from the awkward social and environmental history of discredited policies and projects.

    In climate change debates, overpopulation arguments serve to delay making structural changes in North and South away from the extraction and use of fossil fuels; to explain the failure of carbon markets to tackle the problem; to justify increased and multiple interventions in the countries deemed to hold the surplus people; and to excuse those interventions when they cause further environmental degradation, migration or conflict.

    In sum, the climate solution requires turning away from fossil fuel dependence. Human population numbers offer no useful pointers toward changes and policies that might facilitate this.

    Further reading:

    “Climate Change and ‘Overpopulation’: Some reflections”




  • I believe the links between climate change, population and feminism is an issue for the left but perhaps is slightly different way then is represented here.
    There is broad consensus that climate change is a by product of capitalism.
    I would also argue that despite assertions to the contrary I have not seen any evidence that anyone has argued for a one to correlation between population growth and climate change.
    I suspect that there would also be agreement that sees climate change as a symptom of far deeper underlying problems.
    I would make the following observations. Population growth strengthens the capitalist hold over labour. (Marx made the same observation in the Grundisse) Population growth also increases the number of consumers and hence makes the problem of addressing climate change more problematical.
    Amyarta Sen has consistently argued that poverty is one of the causes of population growth – children become a sort of self managed superannuation fund – it is therefore no accident that there seems to be a positive correlation between poverty and population growth.
    Empowering women in under developed countries will not lead to an immediate reduction population – it did not do so in the North so why would the South be any different? However, it will in time. I will leave it to the women in this discussion to either validate or contradict my assertion that the notion that women universally see motherhood as a goal is largely a male myth. I would suggest that the anthropoligical evidence is that in those cultures where women had genuine control over their fertility (South American Indigenous societies) populatiion tended to be remarkably stable. (It helped that they had ready access to the plants that induced abortions.)
    With respect to migration a point that is rarely discussed is the morality of countries in the North to encourage the best and brightest talents from the south to migrate. Health professionals and the like are sorely needed in the developing world. hence another progressive argument for eliminating poverty – reduce or eliminate poverty and you remove some of the incentives to migrate.
    With regard to the question of the earth’s carrying capacity I believe that question will never be satisfactorily answered. There was nothing wrong with the basic premise on which Malthus based his theory the problem has always been that we cannot assume that the future will resemble the past. However, what we can argue for is economic models such as those been experimented with in transition towns or even better the one that has been operating in Mondragon since 1948.
    Finally I agree that the question cannot be left to the right – this is incdeed one of the reasons why on the whole I confine my concerns about population growth to fora such as these – in a broader forum it would simply be used as evidence that we need to return to ‘family’ values.
    However, developing a coherent consistent position will take a great deal of brain pain.

  • You state your position succinctly: “focusing on population growth harms both the fight for women’s rights and the fight against climate change.”
    I will try to do the same: Focusing on population growth could have either positive or negative impacts on women’s rights and the fight against climate change; it’s up to us to determine which it will be.
    Historically, focusing on population growth has had mixed results for women’s rights. Yes, there have been horrible abuses. But concern about population growth also mobilized massive resources for international family planning programs, which on the whole have been enormously beneficial for women–especially since the sea change that took place in Cairo.
    And there is strong evidence that slowing population growth could make a modest, but not insignificant, contribution to mitigating climate change.
    We can work to ensure that the growing concern about population growth has a positive impact by: insisting that all family planning/reproductive health programs meet the highest standards of quality, informed consent and respect for human rights; and by presenting a nuanced, scientifically accurate view of the role of population growth in environmental degradation.

  • Laurie, I don’t know what else Climate & Capitalism could do to give your views the “fair hearing” that you say is missing. We have published two articles by you, one of them longer than our normal editorial limit. We have encouraged an open discussion, and none of the comments posted by you or by others who support your perspective have been censored in any way.

    I’m disappointed that you consider honest and open disagreement to be “mean spirited.” I have never questioned your commitment to women’s rights, and I admire the dedication and enthusiasm you bring to that cause. I have never suggested that you are “the enemy,” and I agree that we need to “find common ground and work together toward our shared goals.”

    But giving a “fair hearing” and finding “common ground” isn’t the same as ignoring or burying real differences. Saying that both sides “have valid points” doesn’t resolve the debate, it evades it.

    Everything I have written in this debate has stressed one central point: that focusing on population growth harms both the fight for women’s rights and the fight against climate change. That’s not a side issue that can be set aside or ignored. If significant forces in these important movements are heading down a wrong road, then they must be redirected.

    That’s why this debate is important, and why we need to express our disagreements as clearly and accurately as possible.

  • Phil says rightly: – “While Contraction and Convergence may apply for the (possibly) 30 years in which this reduction to zero must take place, it certainly can’t be on the basis of 5 tonnes per head, more like one tonne, if that.”

    Here is a C&C resource that includes adoption of C&C by Optimum Population Trust: –

    An animation of how C&C was [mis]handled at COP-15 is available on request. It was tabled; it is just that the rate of convergence on the global per capita average was prescribed by those who tabled it and [predictably] this ‘prescription’ back-fired.

    aubrey.meyer [at] btinternet.com

  • This is with reference to the characterisation of ICPD as some sort of watershed, paradigm shift etc. As is well known history is written by the powerful, the lions, never the lambs. And it suits instituions of the First World – including the population control lobby, the World Bank and the WTO and their poodle academics – to characterise Cairo thus.

    I have referred to it – as a Third World academic — as partly the outcome of “the marriage of multinational feminisms with international debt”.

    We see the resurrection of population bomb talk despite Cairo, and climate change is one means for this.

  • Laurie Mazur replies:

    My hopes for a fair hearing on this site are diminishing, but there are a few points I must make.

    First, Ian Angus presents Brian O’Neill’s findings as though they contradict my thesis. In fact, they are my thesis. I believe that slowing population growth would make a modest but not insignificant contribution to mitigating climate change. The scale of that contribution does not warrant a return to coercive population control, nor does it call for “putting population at the top of an activist agenda” on climate issues. It does, however, provide yet another rationale for supporting the chronically neglected Cairo agenda on reproductive rights and health.

    I have come to this conclusion after nearly two decades of working in this field. As the former director of an organization devoted to leveraging private and public funds for reproductive rights and health, I am acutely aware of the perils of fundraising among foundations and governments for whom women’s rights and health may not be the foremost priority. But I continue to press for more funding—and work to steer those funds in the right direction—for the same reason John Dillinger robbed banks: because that’s where the money is. If you have another idea about where we could raise the tens of billions of dollars needed to provide reproductive health services to the world’s women, I’d like to hear it.

    Consider this: more than half a million women die of pregnancy complications each year—one woman every minute of every day. About 70% of those women would be alive today if they had access to family planning and other reproductive health services. But despite the huge—and growing–need for these services, funding is on the decline: Between 1995 and 2004, donor assistance worldwide to international family planning dropped by almost $300 million.

    For most activists working to close that funding gap, the question of making alliances is not an academic one. The International Family Planning Coalition, which works to increase US funding for family planning and reproductive health worldwide, embraces a very diverse array of organizations: religious groups; organizations concerned with reproductive health, women’s rights, environmental protection; human rights; and yes, even population growth. You may continue to debate whether such alliances are acceptable, but more pragmatic activists know that this movement needs all the friends it can get—as long as they abide by the Cairo agenda.

    Finally, Mr. Angus, I must comment on the mean-spirited tone of your attacks on my work. Despite faint praise for my “sincerity,” you seem determined to present my ideas in the worst possible light—sometimes distorting them beyond recognition. Am I really the enemy? We have identified many important areas of agreement: a conviction that capitalism is driving environmental destruction; deep concern about the worsening environmental crisis; a firm commitment to women’s rights and health. Perhaps, rather than parsing our differences so vigorously, it would be more productive to find common ground and work together toward our shared goals.

  • Laurie Mazur quotes a recent comment of mine and I repeat it: we cannot tackle the environmental catastrophe awaiting us if we do not consider every consequence of human activities.

    As Paul writes, a 6th mass extinction is underway:arguments about socialism versus capitalism won’t solve this-and I write as a supporter of steady-state economics.

    I don’t want to live in a world where most flora and fauna are driven to extinction,apart from a few carefully managed and ‘commodified’ reserves.
    There has been a lot of talk about rights here: what about responsibilities?

    As a member of the much-maligned OPT, I should like to stress my support for full female emancipation the world over;for a change to the grotesque growth-based capitalist system which prevails today; for proper consideration of the interests of the living world of which we are a part and on which we depend.

    Recently I have written articles on the legacy of Indian family planning programmes and steady-state economics for the OPT and I remain convinced that population growth must be addressed,along with climate change,species loss,resource shortage and social and political conflict.

  • Where does one start? Is this really a debate within the left? How utterly dismal that we think we have no choice but to make these kinds of links. Still more dismal that in 2010, feminists like Mazur continue to cast this “colonial gaze” on “poor third world women” assuming for them that they have no control over childbirth and if only “modern, efficient contraception” was available they would all be taking it.

    Go find out from the clinics in Nigeria and see what an uphill task they are having persuading many women, including many of the professional providers of these contraceptives, and then talk about the difference between “real choice” and coercion. I suppose it never crossed Mazur’s mind that “poor third world women” might have a different and perfectly valid perception of what constitutes good health, acceptable contraceptive methods and the good life. Thank God for their resilience in the face of this onslaught.

    My fear is that the onslaught will succeed in turning them away from their healthy perceptions and only when it is too late again, now start talking about reviving those perceptions – like in the milk formula v. breast feeding campaign. Why can’t we start from their perceptions and priorities and find solutions to global problems. No matter how well meaning, we need to rethink this – “I know whats best for you” attitude and the Western capitalist path as progress and the only path, that underlies Mazurs’ reasoning and replace it with genuine engagement and collaboration to find new solutions.

    Why leave it to the “experts” and the “right” or believe that we cant beat them and must join them? We might learn something from those women who Mazur reduces to statistics and manipulable objects. And I ask you – where are the men in all this in the face of HIV/AIDS and safer forms of contraception for them.

    These are the exact same issues that arose in Cairo and the prelude to Cairo within the women’s movement. Obviously Mazur is blissfully unaware of or helping to erase the real and ever present dissent from the liberal position that fell in well with and not surprisingly got the ears of the powerful governments and interest groups at that time and now!

    Can we please have a break from these kinds of justificatory arguments and focus on women as real human beings and active agents, not numbers or statistics or breeders. It is Mazur who needs to move away from academic (read abstract theoretical musings) and ground her suggestions for progress in real people’s lives, taking their views and agency seriously. This is something which we can all learn from the experience of organising in the women’s movement in the 1980s and 1990’s.

    Toun Ilumoka

  • Paul said:
    “We are going up to nine billion humans – far more than this planet can reasonably sustain”

    That’s not true. There is currently enough for everyone on the planet to have what they need in an ecologically sustainable way. As the late Chris Harman wrote in his ‘People’s History of the World’:
    “So dangerous were the consequences by the end of the 20th century that there was a tendency for people to turn their back on all science and all technology. Yet without the technologies of the last century there would be no way to feed the world’s population, let alone free them from the ravages of hunger and overwork that have been most people’s lot since the rise of class society. There was a parallel tendency for people to adopt one argument of that old reactionary Malthus, and to insist the re were simply too many people – or, at least, that there would be by the time the world’s population had doubled in 30 or 40 years. Yet the eightfold growth in humanity’s numbers since Malthus’s time was matched by a more than eightfold increase in its food supply. If people went hungry in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, it was a result not of an absolute shortage of food, but of its distribution along class lines.
    The problem for humanity is not technology or human numbers as such, but how existing society determines people’s use of the technology. Crudely the world can easily sustain twice its present population. It cannot, however, sustain ever greater numbers of internal combustion engines, each pumping out kilograms of carbon dioxide a day in the interests of the profitability requirements of giant oil and motor firms. Once humanity covers the globe in such numbers the precondition of its continuing survival is the planned employment of technology to meet real human needs, rather than its subordination to the blind accumulation of competing capitals.”

    Paul said:
    “I’m sure this can be done if people are sensible. But as well know, they are not, so it is likely that the worst case scenarios will unfold: mass famine and totalitarian repression. But I hope not.”

    Actually, for most of human history, we have lived in classless egalitarian societies. The future is unwritten and there is no reason why we cannot build a decent democratic, classless, and ecologically sustainable society again. Not one reason. There are many obstacles for sure. But, as much as dominant ruling class and cynical thinking insists otherwise, alternatives are possible and the future is up for grabs. The slogan of the last few decades is true that another world is possible. The rise of class societies is only a recent development in our human story. The current brutal class system we live under, capitalism, has only been in existence for a very short time in the scheme of things. It can be done away with. At the end of your comment, you say you hope these horrible things you predict do not come true. That leads me to suspect that, despite your cynical view of humanity and your skepticism that we can change the world for the better, there exists within you some hope that we can. Hold on to that.

  • It’s not an either/or scenario. We are going up to nine billion humans – far more than this planet can reasonably sustain, even if everyone lives as a good socialist and within their means. We are in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction, but this extinction is caused by one species: us. Every human that is born displaces another species, and displaces future generations of humans who need the same finite resource. But how we go about population control is an important matter. It should not be done in a mandatory or racist manner, practicing eugenics (obviously) but voluntarily and through education. We also need to get rid of excess cars, cows, big houses, airplanes, coal factories, nuclear power plants and many other items that use of the same finite resources. That is where the structural changes need to occur. A computer uses up water and energy too: get rid of computers before you get rid of living, breathing beings (human or animal). The whole discussion brings up the term “environmental fascism” (coined by Tom Regan): killing individuals for an environmental good. This is not acceptable. The whole discussion is academic when you consider that peak oil will limit our numbers for us: industrial agriculture depends on cheap oil. That is running out, as we all know. That mean food prices will rise and people will starve. Malthus’ predictions will come true in this century. It would have been far more humane to voluntarily limit numbers in a civil and sane society than to get to this point – but that is the point we’re at now – due in large part to capitalism. It’s not really a debate of population control versus getting rid of capitalism, so much as doing both in a sane and sensible fashion that takes into account human rights at the same time. I’m sure this can be done if people are sensible. But as well know, they are not, so it is likely that the worst case scenarios will unfold: mass famine and totalitarian repression. But I hope not.

  • Current discussion of “population” usually means discussion of population size. But as materialists we have to look at our population as relevant to our metabolism with the rest of nature and our relations with each other, part of existence as a species. From that perspective, “population” has a number of aspects:

    1. population size, as giving a minimum demand on the resources and the threshold sizes for different activities. For instance in the USA today there is a minimum size for a city to support a symphony orchestra or an epidemic of measles.(Yes, I know that the thresholds are themselves socially formed).

    2. Population density. This is not the same as People/Area because we are distributed unevenly. Five kids sharing a bed are crowded even if the beds are 5 kilometers apart. Effective density is how crowded most of us live and what happens under crowding.

    3. Rate of population growth or contraction, since the growth of production per capita is the growth rate of production minus the growth rate of population.This is especially important for third world countries.The growth rate is more sensitive to the age at reproduction that to the total number of children.

    4. Age distribution. A low birth rate and a low death rate guarantees an older population. This is creating labor shortages along with capitalist surplus population (unemployment), immigration and anti-immigrant oppression and outsourcing.In the long run it will require the restructuring of work.

    5. The division of women’s labor between production and reproduction is a major element in the position of women in society.

    6. An increase in productivity along with a decrease in consumption does not necessarily lead to unemployment as it does under capitalism: how about a shorter work day?

    7. Changes in birth rates in relation to the state of the economy give rise to fluctuations in numbers and baby booms, with alternating wage rates, too many and then too few teachers, etc. Any planning has to consider fluctuations in the demographic variables.

    None of these factors always affect the other parts of the system in the same direction (linearly) but they are always relevant.My suggestion is that instead of debating “population”, we include population processes in any analysis of social relations.

  • The biggest obstacle we face in changing attitudes toward overpopulation is economists. Since the field of economics was branded “the dismal science” after Malthus’ theory, economists have been adamant that they would never again consider the subject of overpopulation and continue to insist that man is ingenious enough to overcome any obstacle to further growth. Even worse, economists insist that population growth is vital to economic growth. This is why world leaders continue to ignore population growth in the face of mounting challenges like peak oil, global warming and a whole host of other environmental and resource issues.

    But because they are blind to population growth, there’s one obstacle they haven’t considered: the finiteness of space available on earth. The very act of using space more efficiently creates a problem for which there is no solution: it inevitably begins to drive down per capita consumption and, consequently, per capita employment, leading to rising unemployment and poverty.

    If you‘re interested in learning more about this important new economic theory, then I invite you to visit my web site at http://PeteMurphy.wordpress.com.

    Pete Murphy
    Author, “Five Short Blasts”

  • Laurie Mazur agrees “that capitalism is the driving force behind ecological devastation today.” The Marxists, she says, “are right that capitalism is driving unprecedented and unsustainable environmental destruction.”

    Surely then, she must agree that replacing capitalism is the only way to bring a halt to this environmental crisis. If so, where does slowing population growth enter the picture as part of the solution? Mazur never explains this. She simply states as an article of faith: “[b]I believe[/b] these monumental challenges would be easier to surmount with a world population of eight billion, rather than 11 billion” (my emphasis).

    It’s not immediately apparent to me how it would be easier for 8 billion people to meet the challenges she refers to than for 11 billion to do so. If there is a scientific or historical reason for her belief that population numbers affect the degree of difficulty of eliminating capitalism, Mazur does not present one. Indeed, if it were easier with fewer people, then it would be even easier with the present world population of 6.8 billion, and easier still with the population of 2 billion we had in the 1930s.

    And yet, neither the monumental challenges Mazur mentions nor the challenge of replacing capitalism itself have ever been shown to be any less monumental with fewer people around to try to meet them. Nor has anyone ever elaborated a theoretical basis for the idea that population reduction is an essential step towards eliminating capitalism. The latter goal wasn’t even on the radar of the Cairo conference.

    And I’m sorry, but it’s just not acceptable to respond to criticism by saying that limiting population growth is not the only thing we have to do. That doesn’t even begin to explain why limiting population growth should be a strategy (much less a [i]major[/i] one) for ridding the planet of the scourge of capitalism in the first place.

    Mazur’s position would make more sense, in fact, if she were to assert that capitalism-driven environmental destruction [b]cannot ever be stopped[/b] and that all the people of the world can hope to do is try as best they can to prolong the planet’s death-agony by having fewer children: Give up on trying to steer clear of the iceberg; just make sure you don’t overload the lifeboats.

  • Ian Angus’s reply quotes Brian O’Neill as saying that “slowing population growth is no guarantee of lower emissions”. That is absolutely right, as population growth has been slowing for forty years, and GHG emissions have more than doubled in that time, despite a lowering of “carbon intensity” in the economy.

    Laurie Mazur claims that she does not “advocate population reduction”, to which I might suggest “why not”, as that must surely be the conclusion that needs to be drawn from her arguments about the connection between population and climate change (“(GHG emissions per person) X (number of people) = (total GHG emissions): therefore reducing number of people will reduce total GHG emissions”). This is an equation that Laurie Mazur uses explicitly – see the paragraphs just above the su-head “A means or an end”.

    There is no automatic connection between reproductive rights and lower birth rates, as Fred Pearce points out in his new book “Peoplequake: Mass migration, ageing nations and the coming population crash” (interestingly different title in the US). The Scandinavian countries have higher birth rates than those in Southern Europe, because they have better childcare facilities (Fred Pearce also argues that the men are less sexist), making it easier for women to work and raise a family. I’m afraid I support women’s reproductive rights, even if they lead to a higher birth rate. What would be the position of the “population justice” movement?

    On the figures that Laurie Mazur uses for emissions, sort-of paraphrasing the Contraction and Convergence aproach: The difficulty here is that, essentially US emissions don’t need to be reduced to 25% of their current rate, they need to drop to (net)zero as must everywhere else, according to what many people consider to be the best-grounded studies of climate forcing by GHGs and black carbon (James Hansen: see his book “Storms of my Grandchildren”). While Contraction and Convergence may apply for the (possibly) 30 years in which this reduction to zero must take place, it certainly can’t be on the basis of 5 tonnes per head, more like one tonne, if that.

    How to get to zero? I’m not sure – perhaps I should make a study of it – but it is much more an issue of social and poltical change than technology.