by Katie McKay Bryson
Katie McKay Bryson is Acting Director of Hampshire College’s Population and Development Program. The following are her remarks at the opening session of the From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom conference in Amherst, Massachussetts, on April 13th-15th.
I have the honor and pleasure of working with Betsy Hartmann and Courtney Hooks at the Population and Development program here at Hampshire, and of walking in the footsteps of former PopDev staff — several of whom are here this morning, all of whom I look up to.
For 26 years, PopDev has worked at an intersection of environment, development, anti-militarism, and reproductive freedom. (It’s a busy intersection.) But at the center of our work is the commitment to challenge the conventional belief that population growth is a main force behind social problems, from famine and violent conflict, to ecosystem degradation and even climate change. We strive to bring those conversations back to the structures of global inequality, colonization, and over-consumption that actually drive them.
These are very hard conversations to have. For many folks, this is about our bodies, or the bodies of people we love. For others, it challenges a fundamental understanding of the world to suggest that there are not actually too many people on the planet — but instead an unsustainable, industrially demanding level of consumption by a minority of those people.
A student asked me recently what the number seven billion means — that is, what the global population reaching seven billion means.
My answer was that, while that number may have a lot of meaning for some people, may mean something scary or overwhelming to them personally, it has no inherent meaning itself. That’s because, when you’re talking in terms of consumption, in terms of the actual use or waste of food, water, energy, space, and fuels, you’re not talking about seven billion of the same thing.
People like to tell us sometimes that “overpopulation is just math” — but that’s not true, because in terms of mathematical units, those seven billion people are nowhere near equivalent. In fact, researchers like David Satterthwaite point out that the consumption levels of two actual humans plucked at random from that seven billion may vary from each other by a factor of up to one thousand.
That’s not simple — it’s not just math.
But I’m not here to criticize the people who disagree with me, the people for whom seven billion is a big, scary, and meaningful number. I don’t like to make fun of people for being scared. And if you’re NOT scared, just sure of how you feel — I don’t think I’m going to change your mind.
What I do want to do is try to convince you: this is not the way to build a movement, around this fear of seven billion. This is not strategic. And that if we’re looking for ethical ground to build from, this is not it.
Do I believe that the planet can sustain unchecked exponential population growth? No. I also don’t think that’s what the earth is faced with, if people have access to affordable, culturally competent, unstigmatized, full-spectrum reproductive health care.
That would mean the kind of health care that has been criminalized and disrupted throughout generations of colonization and industrialization. Tell an Indigenous reproductive justice activist or Black traditional midwife when abortion was decriminalized in the US, and they’ll ask you to take a minute and think about when it was made illegal in the first place.
It is not “traditional” for women to be unable to determine when or if they will have children. It is not “traditional” for people to feel shamed, guilty, or afraid for seeking the knowledge and skills of healers in making those determinations.
In the anti-sex, imperialist, misogynist worldview of folks like Thomas Malthus, the 18th century white English clergyman who gave us the idea of unchecked population growth, people were powerless against the forces of reproduction. In that worldview, the fear certainly makes sense — but that doesn’t make it traditional, or true.
So to folks who are tying access to contraceptives and abortion, or women’s education and economic empowerment campaigns, to the need to slow population growth, I say: PLEASE STOP.
Please consider that these goals are good, and powerful, and necessary in their own right. Please recognize that when we tie people’s needs and interests to a goal held for them by other, perhaps more powerful and wealthy, people it ties the campaign to meet their needs to upholding that goal.
Specifically, it ties the value of girls and women’s lives, education and well-being to the beliefs other people have about how many children they should be having, and when.
There is nothing revolutionary about that.
And to my fellow white, middle-class, environmentally committed women activists, who are in increasing numbers seeking praise, recognition, and converts for their personal choice not to procreate, I say with all respect: please, please knock it off.
Yes, I understand that you are trying to acknowledge the importance of consumption; the truth that a child of yours will almost without doubt be a thousand times more costly to the planet than the children of the women usually held hostage to population reduction ideology. And I support and honor you in your choice to be childfree.
But your claims to moral or “green” superiority, your efforts to transform your personal decisions into campaigns pretend an ignorance of the way political power works that rings completely false.
When people with global privilege and power say something is dangerous, unethical, and unsustainable, where is it legislated? Your campaign might convince some of your actual wealthy, white, consumerist counterparts to have fewer children, but what it will definitely do is convince them that other people should be having fewer children.
And when the chance comes to support that goal — in their daily conversations, in choosing which political candidates to support, in deciding how to engage in reproductive politics organizing, or what kind of organizations to give their money to — they will support that goal for the bodies of people of color, poor people, indigenous people, and people in the global south.
For people they do not know, cannot speak for, and whose lives and options they have a disturbingly high level of influence over.
We don’t get to pretend this isn’t the end result of population reduction conversations, campaigns, and policies. It always has been. And when we invoke the language of “overpopulation,” of “too many people,” of “can’t feed em don’t breed em,” these are the stories we are actually invoking. Whether we know it or not. Whether we are honest about it or not. Whether we care or not.
Black, Puerto Rican, and Indigenous women in the United States sterilized without their consent, or sometimes even their knowledge, for generations. Immigrant women targeted in many states by punitive legislation meant to vilify their reproduction. Romani women in Eastern Europe targeted by social workers for sterilization. HIV+ women in Kenya offered cash bribes by US-based non-profits to go on long-term birth control. More than 300,000 Quechua women and men sterilized in Peru at the turn of this century, in a campaign with political support from USAID.
Countless other stories. Personal, painful, life-changing stories.
Teaching those histories, speaking those stories and experiences, recognizing them as something we do not have the right to casually invoke and dismiss — that is the way to build a movement. Building that movement does not stop us from working to reduce the consumption of global elites, counteract climate change, end food insecurity. I honestly believe it will help us.
So I ask you, whether or not we agree about the math or even the ethics, please find a new strategy. Because I want to fight at your side for our shared goals. But I’m just not willing to turn my back on so many people’s lived experiences in order to do it.