Speak out on overpopulation, but know the history first

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.


13 Responses to Speak out on overpopulation, but know the history first

  1. tell it, sister! you’re certainly preaching to the choir and no argument here! the fastest path to a population solution IS the global empowerment of women (not just access to affordable contraception, but education, equity, giving women voice and vote, etc etc.) fuck cultural relativism!!

    one of the most abhorrent aspects of the cult of mother theresa in india has been the admission by former nuns in her service that her minion were explicitly instructed to provide care and feeding to the poor, but NEVER provide empowerment (education mostly) of women…

    still, i find it interesting in my experience that the push-back on talking about overpopulation in the scientific/environmental community seems to be equally weighted across men and women…

  2. anna says:

    way off topic, i know and apologize, but shit – that link. glad i stopped using depo-provera. frightening to think that even with all the obsessive research i did prior to getting any shots (this would be in 2000, i think), i wasn’t able to turn up anything regarding either its history or its dangers.

  3. DNLee says:

    here, here. I think the subject must be discussed, but it’s hard to get through because of all of the nasty baggage. Empowering women and men is best.
    Even in wealthy nations like the US, having more children than one can afford (no matter how much you love them) can present some hardships for the children and the parents. Being able to safely discuss the pros and cons of family size for the individual is a great place to start.

  4. Rick – I didn’t know that about Mother Theresa – that’s terrible. It’s been my experience that scientists (male and female) don’t know much about the history of population control beyond China and Ehrlich, but know that it’s somehow bad to talk about. I prescribe a healthy dose of old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising.

    anna – I’m dubious about the cancer links, but the osteoporosis thing is very real and very nasty. My doctor strongly warned against it for that reason (which makes forcing it on poor women extra bad). But I wouldn’t worry now – just get your calcium and I bet you’ll be fine.

    DN – ARRRRR! *ahem* Yes, exactly! And in the US, lowering barriers to obtaining birth control is pretty important, too.

  5. miriam said:
    It’s been my experience that scientists (male and female) don’t know much about the history of population control beyond China and Ehrlich, but know that it’s somehow bad to talk about.

    i think the bad examples of human population planning in part explains the reticence in talking about overpopulation in the scientific community… i think it’s also the memories of galton, lysenko, and bad 50’s representations of “mad scientists bent on purifying the human race” that in part informs the “hands-off” approach to population discussions…

    but in many, many discussions now with scientific colleagues over the years about this issue, there’s also some deep belief systems that science should in fact not have anything to say about reproductive behavior… i’ve had heated arguments with fellow scientists (men and women) that proscriptive recommendations of that nature should be left to religious authorities and philosophers… why is science so eager to shed it’s (what i consider) responsibility to issues that impact the sustainability of the biosphere?

    reproductive issues and recommendations should be left to religious authority?!

    to quote rabbi hillel: oy vey!

  6. Along with oy vey (which was all Hillel could probably say in Yiddish since he was Babylonian and Yiddish wouldn’t be invented for another thousand years) Hillel also said “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” Apt advice for how to talk about human carrying capacity. 🙂

  7. Emmett says:

    Hi Miriam. You’re right that “this topic is so hard to discuss because it is inextricably entwined with racism and coercion.” That is no doubt (part of) what has kept us from having a constructive discussion about this for so long. But it assuredly needs discussion — and action.

    Just for the record, I would remind all readers that the GPSO website, which started this thread, does NOT show images of crowds in Delhi or anywhere else, and DOES recommend empowerment of women (and others) as a key recommendation for constructive solution of this problem. I encourage everyone to visit the GPSO site and use whatever materials you find useful there in getting the broad issue of overpopulation onto the table and into the discussion.

    I think it’s worth stepping back a bit to get some perspective: allowing a collapse of the global life support system, which is not at all out of the question in the next century or so, would be far and away the most catastrophic human rights violation in history, and would make all the other things we’re talking about here moot.

  8. Hi Emmett,

    Thanks for stopping by! I agree that catastrophic global failure is bad for women and other living things, and that’s exactly why it’s important to not taint the message with poorly handled race and coercion issues. Effective outreach on family planning means that people can’t think that you’re secretly plotting their deportation or elimination. (Don’t have time to find a specific example now, but this conversation in the feminist community has frequently gone horribly wrong.)

    Also, my previous post on the GPSO notes that some of their sources are anti-immigrant groups listed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s site. Maybe this is too close of a focus on a very big issue, but how can the environmental message reach diverse communities with giant stumbling blocks like this in the way?

  9. Baka Karasu says:

    While it is important to acknowledge history and past abuses, those of race and gender included, and do what is possible to prevent them in the future, that is no excuse for lengthy dialogues, exploratory groups, “more research” or other such circular indulgences that lead nowhere near effective action. We are simply out of time for such niceties.

    We’ve already exceeded global carrying capacity. We are now in “overshoot”. (Visualize a car sailing smoothly, but quite temporarily, through the air after having been driven off of a cliff.)

    Global population is nearing 7 billion. Different theorists using different methods seem to end up agreeing that global carrying capacity is probably about roughly 2 billion. (This assumes some level of social justice and a moderate, low by US standards, standard of living. More is possible if you accept a cattle car / Matrix-esque “life”.)

    In any case, we will get to that much-lower-than-7-billion number the hard way (wars, famine, disease, and their accompanying losses of environmental quality, freedom, and social justice) OR the less hard way (immediately and drastically reducing our population voluntarily). Yes, all of us, yes, everywhere. There is no scenario anywhere in which population growth is a “good thing” long term.

    Yes a drop in population would cause problems, but none of those problems are as big as the problems, suffering, and environmental collapse that is certain to occur if we don’t.

    I disagree with any argument that there is some “right to reproduce”. If there is any “right to reproduce” it’s in the concept that one has the freedom to nurture a child or children and form some sort of family. Biological reproduction is not necessary to do that and there are many in need of this sort of nurturing. Just as my right to swing my fist stops at your nose, there is also no right to reproduce if (as is true now for all of us everywhere) doing so assures greater suffering for more people now and into the future.

    This is a global issue with local and nation-state consequences. For example, immigration is a consequence of overpopulation, not a cause of it. Likewise, global climate change and the collapse of ocean fisheries are not impressed by national boundaries.

    No technological / “alternative energy” options have the capacity or can be ramped up fast enough to avoid major global calamity. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t do them. Aggressively shifting to alternative energy is necessary, just not sufficient. That is also true of education and female empowerment.

    For more comprehensive analysis of all this I suggest

    Bandura etc.

    Albert Bartlett on the exponential function as it relates to population and oil:

    Approaching the Limits essays http://www.paulchefurka.ca

    Bruce Sundquist on environmental impact of overpopulation http://home.alltel.net/bsundquist1/

    How Many People Should The Earth Support? http://www.ecofuture.org/pop/rpts/mccluney_maxpop.html

    More On Carrying Capacity

  10. Emmett says:

    I am reluctant to get caught up in a continuing thread about this, but am really curious: can you point out for me which “source” at GPSO is an anti-immigrant group? I have not been able to decipher where this comes from.

    And while we are all being progressive and fighting for people’s rights, does anyone other than me find it disturbing to casually compare Paul Ehrlich to a KKK member using carefully trimmed out-of-context comments?

    Come on people.

  11. Emmett – I was referring to this history, linked to from here. 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.

  12. Ali says:

    This is not the time to confuse what is necessary for human survival with racism and sexism. who the HELL cares about any of that when the entire future of the earth is called into question? humans are way less important than the earth, no matter what we’ve been brought up to think. it’s a damn shame that people can’t recognize that and it’s even worse that we’re not doing anything to save ourselves, and more importantly, to save the earth. get off your high horses where you just blame other people for shit, and make a difference. and that’s all i have to say.

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