The ‘New’ Population Control Craze: Retro, Racist, Wrong Way to Go
***by Betsy Hartmann*
[image: On The Issues Magazine - Can We Acknowledge? photo ©2005 Lisa
Kahane, NYC; sculpture ©2005 Janet Goldner, NYC]
Can We Acknowledge? photo ©2005 Lisa Kahane, NYC; sculpture ©2005 Janet
Goldner <>, NYC

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.
He suggested that world
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
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
control <> programs 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
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
population growth so they can promote family planning as the magic
 [image: On The Issues Magazine - All Women; sculpture ©2005 Janet Goldner,
All Women; sculpture ©2005 Janet Goldner <>, NYC

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

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
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
overpopulation claims. Widely cited in the press, a study by two researchers
at Oregon State
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
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.
 [image: On The Issues Magazine - Granary; ©2005 Janet Goldner, NYC]
Granary; ©2005 Janet Goldner <>, NYC

Fortunately, many feminists in the international reproductive health
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,
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
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.

*Betsy Hartmann* is the director of the Population and Development Program
and professor of development studies at Hampshire College. A longstanding
activist in the international women’s health movement, she is the author of
“Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control,”
two political thrillers, and other books and articles about development,
climate change, and security. More information at her