Is talking about overpopulation and the environment really a taboo? Both Emmett Duffy and Rick MacPherson posted yesterday on the population control “elephant in the room.” Rick in particular wrote about his struggle to broach this topic in the context of coral reef conservation.
I think that this topic is so hard to discuss because it 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 of color. Historically, white women have had to fight for the right to limit their fertility, while women of color have had to fight for the right to be fertile.
Just last week, the Hampshire College Population and Development Program recently released a multimedia presentation (available as a free download) called “Stop the Blame: Population Control Imagery (1933-2008).” Though I don’t agree with much of the commentary – the author seems to think that overpopulation problems don’t exist at all – it is a damning indictment of the use of people of color, particularly South Asians and Africans, as the literal poster children of overpopulation. I lost count of the number of posters that used crowded Indian street scenes or Indian mothers with babies to illustrate how These People Must Be Stopped. (As Madhu pointed out a while ago, what IS it about Delhi? Why doesn’t anyone use pictures of Times Square to illustrate crowding?) And there were also many, many disembodied brown pregnant bellies. As the author, Binta Jeffers, says:
Photographs of pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding are framed as proof of social malaise. Depicting pregnant women of color as evidence of population crisis reinforces racist assumptions about reproductive choices in the global South and the United States. A visual logic emerges– fertility and birth are crises which should be prevented.
My last blog post on this lead to a phone discussion with John Feeney, the organizer of the Global Population Speak Out. I have great respect for John – it shows real class to call up a random blogger up in order to have a polite argument. I do agree with him that talking about human population shouldn’t be verboten, and I appreciate that he added an explicite repudiation of past abuses in the GPSO’s goals. But he saw this repudiation as a “disclaimer” and I see it as inextricably linked to any discussion of population control, particularly with historically disadvantaged and abused populations.
As I wrote in my last post, the best way to reduce population growth is by empowering women. (Check out this data from the Population Reference Bureau.). And access to affordable contraception is critical to that goal. But focusing on contraception alone is not helpful – as Jeffers says:
We need to ensure that resources directed towards women’s empowerment and reproductive health are really providing the services women want and are not part of a narrow, target-driven population agenda.
Environmentalists that speak out on population control without a knowledge of its history risk their messages getting stuck in a big pasty fog of white privilege. If environmentalists want to be good allies and include diverse viewpoints, I think we need to move beyond Depo Provera and find a way to define women’s empowerment as a key environmental issue.
Thanks to Other Miriam (or am I the Other Miriam?) at Feministing for pointing me to Stop the Blame.