The sordid history of population control

I consider population control to be the albatross of the environment movement. It usually stinks, but we just can’t get rid of it. Recently, the Global Population Speak Out (GPSO) is attempting to de-stank discussions of population control and the environment. The premise of the GPSO is:

What if a large number of qualified voices worldwide, many of whom might not have emphasized the topic previously, were to speak out on population all at once? The strength of numbers might help weaken the taboo and bring population to a more prominent position in the global discussion.

Oh, good, let’s talk about it! Too bad that the GPSO webpage utterly fails to acknowledge the nasty history of population control. The onus of population control has fallen almost exclusively on women who are either ethnic minorities or poor. In the past, the excuse for population control wasn’t the environment – it was preventing the undesirables from breeding. This is NOT ancient history. Radical Doula says it better than I can:

There is a long history of this [forced sterilization] in the United States. In the 1970s, it was discovered that hundreds of Mexican-origin women were being unknowingly sterilized at an LA hospital. They were being told the operation was reversible and given forms they couldn’t read (because they were in english) to sign.

These abuses promoted a campaign by a group called CESA (Committee to End Sterilization Abuse), spearheaded by Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias that was able to pass federal guidelines regarding sterilization–requiring forms in the person’s native language, and a waiting period to give consent. Many times these women were being asked if they wanted the procedure while in labor.

Mississippi Appendectomy has a ton of documentation. In fact, the phrase “Mississippi Appendectomy” was popularized by civil right leader Fannie Lou Hamer, who experienced it herself.

Diagnosed with a small uterine tumor in 1961, Ms. Hamer checked into the Sunflower City Hospital to have it removed. Without her knowledge or consent, without any indication of medical necessity, the operating physician took the liberty of performing a complete hysterectomy.

And forced sterilizations continue. In 2007, the Czech Republic was forced to compensate a Gypsy woman sterilized against her will, and hundreds more were probably also sterilized. In 2005, nine mentally disabled women in Canada were compensated for forced sterilizations.

So okay, that’s population control as eugenics. What about population control as environmentalism? Well, it has been just as nasty. Paul Ehrlich, entomologist and author of The Population Bomb advocated “coercion in a good cause.”  As Madhu at Reconciliation Ecology pointed out, Paul Ehrlich’s and David Duke’s (former KKK Grand Wizard) descriptions of Old Delhi in India are near indistinguishable. Can you guess which is which?

Idealistic Youth #1:

“As we crawled through the city, we encountered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming… People, people, people.”

Idealistic Youth #2:

“Small animals were not the only beings in great abundance. So were people. Along one long sidewalk, I saw hundreds of wooden shelves about the size of a refrigerator lying on their sides. Each served as home for at least one person. Even less fortunate souls lay on the grass or in the brown dirt with a tattered blanket serving as their only shelter. Some had only rags to protect themselves from the elements. About a block from the YMCA, an old man grunted as he squatted and defecated in the gutter. A little further on, a bony couple engaged in mechanical sexual intercourse while two children sat beside them, taking little notice of their parents as they played in the dust. Millions in India live out their lives on the public streets awash in the dried mud. There they are born, and there they bathe, eat, sleep, excrete and copulate. As attested by the teeming population, the one thing they seem to do best is breed.”

More recently, the racism has taken on anti-immigrant tones. In 2004, the Sierra Club was nearly taken over of by an anti-immigration faction that campaigned under the guise of controlling population growth.  (Burned by this, the Sierra Club now won’t even use the phrase “population control.”). Just this year in California, a group called Californians for Population Stabilization ran ads “blaming California’s social, economic and environmental problems on undocumented immigrants.” The ads included a stereotypical Latino gang member smirking for police photos and made-up statistics.

Anti-immigration sentiment persists, as nicely illustrated by this history of the population control taboo, linked to off the GPSO webpage. Reading it in order to understand the taboo, I noticed that the authors use a lot of right-wing buzzwords, like “politically incorrect” in quotes and phrases like “dared not risk appearing to be racially insensitive.” Turns out that the first author, Roy Beck, is an anti-immigration activist whose organization, Numbers USA, appears on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s listing of anti-immmigration groups.

So how does this connect to GPSO?  GPSO says again and again on their website “there exists today a taboo of sorts against public discussion of the population issue” but they never say why. I’ll hazard a guess – it’s a taboo because those who advocate for population control are so often racist. If GPSO wants to lead a global conversation on population control that includes everyone – not just middle class white people – they’ve got to acknowledge population control’s sordid history and explicitly repudiate it.

But I’ll do believe that human population is a factor in environmental decline. And I do want to talk about it. In fact, I’ll call my plan “feminism.”  Check out the data (from Population Reference Bureau):

So no need to fear the population issue taboo. Just add a dollop of legal rights, add some education, throw in some job training and childcare and voila! The birthrate drops!


12 Responses to The sordid history of population control

  1. anna says:

    doing a little happy dance over here to celebrate your triumphant wisdom. when do we take over the world and fix shit?

  2. Love the happy dance! But I have too many incriminating photos from college to run for office. 🙂

  3. Madhu says:

    Thank you for articulating your annoyance with this albatross so well – and for linking to my own blog post on the parallels between Ehrlich and Duke.

    While the Sierra Club may have learnt its lesson, and is now avoiding the term “population control”, I don’t think many environmentalists have thought through these issues. I keep seeing this albatross appearing in forums such as Ecolog-L (the listserv of the Ecological Society of America) where a number of people are pushing the society to articulate and advocate a coherent policy position. The discussion has come up again over the past couple of weeks in anticipation of the new administration in this country. And people keep bringing up the population control issue.

    I therefore think we have to keep pushing back, and I’m glad someone is reading these posts so we are not just howling in the wind. I got very little immediate reaction to my post, and only just noticed via technorati that you had linked to it! I guess its a good thing these ideas can remain available on these interwebs for people to stumble upon.

    And now I may have another blog to add to my rss reader! 🙂

  4. Rick Shea says:


    It is not racist or misanthropic to try to protect the environment and our children’s natural heritage. Yet that is typically the knee-jerk response to those who point out environmental reasons for halting human population growth. Those reasons cited include the current human-caused “Sixth Great Extinction,” collapse of ocean fish stocks and other sea life, emissions and pollution affecting our oceans and our weather, soil exhaustion and continued loss of arable land to concrete and asphalt, and water shortages.

    The two factors that drive population growth in many developed countries, including Canada, are immigration and the natural population increase.

    Immigrants do not generally come to Canada to keep the same standard of living as in their country of origin. Using William Rees’ “ecological footprint” concept, the vast majority of immigrants to Canada who adopt close to an average Canadian standard of living will magnify their ecological footprint many times over (data available on request). As an example, an immigrant from India will increase his or her ecological footprint by almost seven hundred percent. Of the countries not listed, only a very few have an ecological footprint close to that of Canada. Again, the vast majority of immigrants from other countries magnify their footprint significantly when they move to Canada. South of the border, a report by the Centre for Immigrant Studies ( established that, on average, each immigrant quadrupled his or her GHG emissions upon arrival to the United States. Canadian figures are comparable, that is, GHG emissions are more than five times the global average.

    It is important to note that the ecological footprint of Canadians extends far beyond our borders, to include the pollution and waste in countries which produce our goods for us, the loss of biodiversity in countries where forest and natural areas are converted to agricultural production for the food we eat, further depletion of ocean fish stocks, and the numerous other ways Canadians have an impact on this planet.

    These are facts. They do not assign blame to immigrants. Indeed, if there is any blame to be assigned for this enormous impact on the environment, it should be laid at the feet of Canadian politicians and the business lobby, who actively promote even more immigration to Canada while claiming that we are working to reduce our consumption and our emissions.

    The other contributing factor to our population growth is of course the domestic birthrate. Each newborn goes from essentially a zero footprint to a measurable amount in the short span of a delivery, and the footprint increases to one hundred percent over the course of a few decades. But if we only had to deal with the domestic birthrate, the Canadian population would in fact be declining, so this would not be so much of an issue.

    We are often told that conservation and reduction in consumption is the solution, and therefore population growth is not an issue. But those who truly understand exponential growth realize that conservation by itself will not solve our current environmental problems. The claim by some is that we can easily reduce our per capita consumption by thirty percent. What those making that claim won’t add is that only thirty-five years of growth at our current rate will take us right back to the same total consumption level, accompanied by further loss of species, impact on food stocks, loss of local wildlife and natural areas – in short, there will be no overall reduction in consumption, and our environmental problems will be even more serious. The environment doesn’t care about per capita consumption. Only total consumption.

    What those making the claim about a thirty percent reduction also won’t add is that, according to Rees’ model, Canadians would have to reduce per capita consumption by more than seventy percent to be even close to a sustainable global level. And we have to reduce by even more as population continues to grow. Our economy and apparent prosperity are really an artificial bubble we have created by using up resources and the natural world in a manner that will impoverish future generations, not only in other countries, but even right here in Canada.

    Finally, what do we make of the argument that Canada has an obligation to accept immigrants and refugees? Unfortunately, it appears as though we have reached a point where our obligation to the environment, to our own children, and perhaps even to the survival of our civilization are the trump cards. Promoting even more population growth in Canada will exacerbate the numerous problems we already face at home, have an enormous negative impact on the planet, and in general lead us even farther away from a sustainable life.

    No, the people pointing out these facts and calling for change are not racists, or misanthropes. They in fact are the only ones who seem to care about the future of our planet, and our children. They are the sane and civilized voices in a world obsessed with growth.

    Rick Shea, November 6/08

  5. Rick Shea says:

    In response to Miriam’s comment that the GPSO webpage “utterly fails to acknowledge the nasty history of population control(,)” here is a direct quotation from the GPSO page.

    “1. One of the historical roots of the taboo involves understandable concern about some past human rights abuses carried out in the name of “population control.” (There were reports in the mid-1970s, for example, of forced sterilizations in some states in India.)

    Many of the roots, however, reflect disingenuous, sometimes politically motivated distortions leading, for example, to denials of the population-environment link. In all cases the result has been a deliberate suppression of discussion of this crucial environmental issue. We urge instead open, intellectually honest discussion, repudiating abuses and asserting our respect for human rights.”

    Although this may not be explicit enough for some, it most certainly does acknowledge the abuses and nasty history.

  6. The quotation you found was added to the GPSO website in response to my post, following a polite debate I had with the GPSO organizer, John Feeney. At the time of writing there was no such acknowledgment.

    Mr. Feeney and I still disagree on some of the fundamentals, but he convinced me that he counted support for women’s rights as a legit method of population control, and I think that I convinced him that he had no hope of spreading his message to historically abused populations without explicitly repudiating coercive measures.

  7. Rick Shea says:

    It’s a good thing then that we’re all open-minded, and receptive to reasonable discussion and input. I for one am glad to see that comment at the GPSO website, and I expect that many among the growing list of participants will speak out against the abuses too.

  8. […] is inextricably entwined with racism and coercion. In a more extensive post a couple months ago, I outlined the unpleasant history of population control movements and detailed how they have fallen disproportionately on poor women […]

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hi. I am doing a sociology report at my college (Mohawk College for the Arts) on the factors of overpopulation. they include womens issues, as well as religios ideologies and (the lack of) shared resources). I am at the very beginning stages of this report. I have found your website of particular importance. Do you know when human numbers first became a concern?
    Thankyou for your time.

  10. testowe says:

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  11. Kurt Buser says:

    I discovered your blog site on google and check a few of your early posts. Continue to keep up the good operation. I just additional up your RSS feed to my MSN News Reader. Seeking forward to reading more from you later on!…

  12. […] here are a few words for you: coercion, eugenics, racism. Miriam Goldstein writes a good brief introduction to the nasty history of population control efforts. Our all-too-recent history is full of forced […]

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