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`Population Justice' -- Blaming Third World women for global warming

By Ian Angus

January 31, 2010 -- Climate and Capitalism -- For more than two centuries, the idea that the world’s ills are caused by poor people having too many babies has been remarkably successful at diverting attention from the complex social causes of poverty and injustice.

Forty years ago, Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller The Population Bomb applied the idea to environmental problems:

The causal chain of deterioration is easily followed to its source. Too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide, multiplying contrails. Inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide – all can be traced easily to too many people.[1]

Ehrlich’s book convinced many environmentalists, and led to the formation of a variety of groups that focused solely on the supposed evils of overpopulation.

Today, as women’s rights activist Betsy Hartmann warns in a recent article, populationist arguments are back – but now groups such as the US-based Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth) and the UK’s Optimum Population Trust have added a “faux feminist twist” to their attacks on the reproductive rights of Third World women.

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.[2]

What’s worse, she writes, these arguments aren’t just being promoted by the population zealots in ZPG and OPT:

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.

That prompted an outraged reply from Laurie Mazur, the founder of Population Justice and editor of A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge.

Betsy Hartmann implies that everyone working on population-environment issues is part of a misogynistic plot to bring back ‘population control.’ I’m here to tell you she is wrong.

I am a lifelong, card-carrying feminist and political progressive. I am passionately committed to sexual and reproductive health and rights, to environmental sustainability, and to closing the inequitable divide between men and women, rich and poor. And I believe that slowing population growth — by ensuring that all people have the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing — will contribute to those ends.[3]

Mazur is undoubtedly sincere, but in my opinion Hartmann’s criticisms and concern are fully justified.

In this article I focus on some specific problems with the “Population Justice” concept that Mazur defends. I won’t repeat the broader criticisms of the population growth explanation for climate change that I and others have made elsewhere.[4]

A new conversation?

Mazur presents herself as the voice of reason in the “polarised debate” between population extremists like Paul Ehrlich on one side, and people like Betsy Hartmann, whom she labels “population deniers”, on the other. Mazur calls for a “a new conversation about population and the environment”, with a goal of “slowing population growth” but doing so without coercion, respecting women’s need for reproductive health services and right to make their own choices.

But that’s not a new conversation. For two decades, even the most reactionary population control outfits have given lip service to women’s rights and voluntary birth control – but they still blame poor women’s fertility for environmental problems, and call for reducing the birth rate in the Third World as the sine qua non of any solution.

The anti-immigrant Optimum Population Trust, for example, says that it favours “non-coercive policies to limit and stabilise population growth” and talks of “empowering women to control their own fertility”. In language similar to Mazur’s, OPT says, “All environmental problems, and notably those arising from climate change, would be easier to solve with a smaller future population.”[5]

The similarities aren’t coincidental. In the early 1990s, liberal feminists associated with the US Clinton administration blocked with population control advocates to outvote the Vatican at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. Defeating the religious right was important, but in the process the population controllers learned to hide their views behind feminist vocabulary – and some liberal feminists adopted the “too many babies” ideology. Mazur’s approach reflects the views of the latter group.

Non-coercive population reduction?

Mazur tries to distance herself from hardcore populationism by rejecting “coercive population control”. Coercion not only violates women’s rights, she writes, it isn’t necessary. “We now know that the best way to slow population growth is not with top-down ‘population control,’ but by ensuring that all people are able to make real choices about sexuality and reproduction.”

Of course it’s vitally important that women everywhere have the right and power to make real choices, but is a focus on slowing population growth the way to accomplish that? Haven’t decades of experience shown that women’s right to choose is undermined when reproductive health programs are driven by environmental and population concerns?

The line between coercive and non-coercive birth control programs is not easily drawn: programs motivated by overpopulation arguments tend to promote population reduction, regardless of the actual needs of the communities and individuals involved. That’s especially true in the impoverished countries that population programs usually target, where poor women have long been deprived to the power to make choices about many aspects of their lives.

Project staff who believe they are protecting the environment frequently pressure women to accept sterilisation or unsafe long-term contraceptives. Supposedly voluntary programs have included coercive elements such as denying women access to other services if they don’t attend lectures on the importance of having fewer babies, or dividing people into teams that compete for maximum participation in family planning services.[6]

It’s noteworthy that the Optimum Population Trust, despite its proclaimed belief in voluntary programs, also calls for “national tax and benefits systems to provide incentives to parents to have one or two children only”. For the poor, being denied such benefits could very well be a form of coercion.

A particularly brutal case of hidden coercion occurred in Peru in the late 1990s, when a supposedly voluntary family planning program led to the involuntary sterilisation of more than 200,000 Indigenous women, while the country’s president was sanctimoniously declaring his government’s support for gender equality and reproductive rights at international women’s conferences. An essay included in Mazur’s own book concludes that this horrendous campaign was a direct result of the program’s focus on reducing Peru’s birthrate. The first lesson of that experience, the authors write, is that “human rights abuses are likely where reproductive health services are seen as a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves”.[7]

That’s an important lesson for anyone who considers promoting family planning as a way to reduce population and greenhouse gas emissions.

Why Third World women?

Mazur says that she wants to reduce emissions by slowing population growth – but if that’s so, why does her project place so much emphasis on the fertility of the poorest women in the world?

Per capita emission rates in the United States, Canada and Australia are the highest in the world. If more babies equals more emissions, shouldn’t Mazur’s group emphasise population reduction in rich countries, where each avoided birth will have a greater effect than dozens in the global south?

In A Pivotal Moment, Mazur poses that question herself, and gives a strange answer:

The answer lies in the future. The developing countries are where the lion’s share of population growth will occur, and they are also where development must occur for half of humanity to escape from grinding poverty. The affluent countries can reduce emissions by reducing the vast amounts of waste in our systems of production and consumption. But the developing countries are not likely to raise their standards of living without more intensive use of resources and higher emissions.

Let’s get this straight. Most emissions come from the developed countries, but they can clean up their act. However, for some reason poor people trying to get out of poverty can’t use low-emission technology, so let’s make sure there are fewer of them.

Instead of dealing with the real problems that exist in the global North today, Mazur would have us target poor women in the global South because of what they might do in the future.

This makes no sense. Not only do Third World countries have low overall emission rates, but within those countries women are low emitters – and the poorest women produce the lowest levels of all. They are the first and greatest victims of global warming, and they bear the least responsibility for causing it – but Mazur tells us that that their fertility is the problem we should address. It’s difficult to see either feminism or justice in that.

Mazur’s approach directs attention away from the huge ecological debt that rich countries owe to the global South. A central focus for the global climate justice movement is the demand for repayment of that debt, both in financial contributions and through massive transfer of low-emissions technology that can enable economic development without promoting climate change. Achieving this won’t be easy – but populationists who start from socially conservative assumptions don’t even consider the possibility of transforming the way the global economy works.

In Hartmann’s words: “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.”

The wrong way to go

For the poorest women in the world, winning unrestricted access to high-quality health services, including safe birth control and abortion, would be a huge victory. But linking that campaign to global warming is the wrong way to go.

The name “Population Justice” sounds good, but the project rests on an illusion, on a self-defeating attempt to combine incompatible causes. As the feminist scholar Asoka Bandarage wrote following the 1994 Conference on Population and Development:

As liberal feminist activists form alliances with population control advocates and depend on the latter’s monetary and institutional support, they, too, come to accept the neo-Malthusian position which reduces ‘women’s rights’ to ‘reproductive rights,’ which in turn are equated with ‘population policies’. … [S]ubsuming women’s issues within the neo-Malthusian framework leads to a neglect of the social structural roots of women’s subordination.[8]

The combination of population reduction and women’s rights was already like oil and water. Adding CO2 reductions to the mix only makes things worse, treating the fight for women’s rights as an instrument for achieving technical goals, not as a demand for justice in its own right.

By adapting to populationist prejudices, the Population Justice project is heading down a dangerous road. It is adding a liberal voice to the efforts of bigots and misogynists to blame Third World women for global warming, and by doing so it undermines both women’s rights and the fight against climate change.

My thanks to Lis Angus, Simon Butler and Richard Fidler for their advice and comments on this article.

[Ian Angus is editor of the online journal Climate and Capitalism, where this article first appeared. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. Angus' book The Global Fight for Climate Justice was published by Resistance Books (UK) in 2009, and will be released in North America by Fernwood Publishing in February 2010.]


[1] Paul Ehrlich. The Population Bomb. Ballantyne Books, 1968. pp. 66-67

[2] In what follows, all quotes from Betsy Hartman are from “The ‘New’ Population control Craze: Retro, Racist, Wrong Way to Go”, which was first published in On the Issues.

[3] In what follows, all quotations from Laurie Mazur are from these sources:

[4] For links to some articles on the population debate, see “Why Population Isn’t the Problem.” Climate and Capitalism, December 7, 2009.

[5] OPT news release, August 17 2009. “Tackle Population Growth to Beat Climate Change.”

[6] James Oldham. “Rethinking the Link: A Critical Review of Population-Environment Programs.” February 2006.

[7] Susana Chávez Alvarado with Jacqueline Nolley Echegaray. “Going to Extremes: Population Politics and Reproductive Rights in Peru.” in Mazur, A Pivotal Moment, pp. 292-299

[8] Asoka Bandarage. Women, Population and Global Crisis: A Political-Economic Analysis. Zed Books, London, 1997. p. 7


“population issue” is a red herring

I have argued in the article above and elsewhere, is that the “population issue” is a red herring,’

How can it possibly be a red herring? More and more of our flora and fauna are disappearing;water is becoming scarce;land is being degraded; poverty-matched by maternal and child morbidity-continues unabated. No anti-capitalist movement can ever hope to succeed without an effective population policy.

We need to tackle the whole concept of unlimited growth and an integral part of this challenge must be our ever-increasing numbers.To concentrate solely on the reduction of GDP is to adopt an ostrich ‘flat earth’ mentality.

Again-this is not about too many poor people-it is about all of us.

I think that overpopulation

I think that overpopulation is a serious problem, but I say the only moral solution is to make the Third World more like the First so that they have the same low or negative population growth as developed nations.
In my opinion we must:
Reduce the infant and child mortality rate so that parents no longer have large families to ensure enough survive. Introducing old age pensions world wide will make this work better since the poor won't be afraid of starving in their old age if they don't have enough children to look after them.
Give women better education and career prospects so childbirth is put off
Increase the real income of the world's poorest people and eliminate child labour so that parents don't have large families for the free labour or income children can bring

There may be a temporary population boom when the child mortality rate is cut, and to minimise this and "echo booms" repressive policies might be necessary as an emergency measure, but in the long term the solution to overpopulation is prosperity not oppression.

I know that the age crisis would be a worry, but with modern technologies it's not like having a larger proportion of the population unproductive is a huge problem, and with the internet old people can easily work from home to their personal schedule if necessary(I might be a little glib here, but this age crisis issue is just an afterthought)

Addressing the cause, not assigning the blame

That “The idea that the world’s ills are caused by … people having too many babies” has been successful is not remarkable at all. It is due to the fact that this idea is fundamentally correct.

Increase in human population, other things being equal, must result in increase in human impact on the environment. Yes, that increase can be countered by a reduction in the impact per capita, either through a reduction in the average standard of living or the application of more efficient technology. However, the former is not occurring globally, and countries containing much of the global population (including India and China) have made it clear they are not going to sacrifice their rise from poverty to achieve it. Further, the development and widespread roll-out of beneficial technology is hugely expensive, and the recent recession is making the necessary funding even less available. It does not take much thought to realise that reducing population has to be a (in fact, the) major component of any effective approach to preventing ecological disaster.

I left out the word “poor” from your quoted statement. It should not be there. That’s because the problem is too much total fertility, not too much poor people’s fertility.

But where do we need to focus now on reducing fertility? In many richer countries, it is already below replacement level. Moreover, in these countries behavioural change to reduce individual impact is already becoming an accepted ethic. In other words, although further fertility reduction is possible there, the trend is already in the right direction.

However, in poorer countries, fertility is frequently still very high. And, there, average per-capita impact is rising, often fast. As a result, it is these countries, where individual impact is indeed often low now, that the major increase in global impact is going to occur if current trends continue. So, clearly, it is there that population growth reversal efforts should be focused.

This is not “placing disproportionate blame … on poor women’s fertility”. It is recognition that this fertility is now the major cause of the problem. Your failure to differentiate between blame and cause is a major weakness in your argument.

Another questionable mindset is revealed by your persistent use of “population control” and “birth control”, when those such as OPT tend to use “population reduction” and “contraception” to emphasise the need to preserve choice. You are alleging and assuming coercion that is not part of their campaigns, apparently merely to blacken their image. You are also using guilt by association, by implying that the unfortunate Peru campaign is typical of, and endorsed by, those who wish to address population, when it is neither. And you say “even the most reactionary population control outfits have given lip service to women’s rights and voluntary birth control”. Why are those who wish to reduce population by definition reactionary; why are their professed views lip service and not genuine? Apparently, only because they disagree with you.

Finally, you say that “The line between coercive and non-coercive birth control programs is not easy drawn”. Yes, it is. A coercive program is one that decreases a person’s options. One that offers financial or other support to a woman who reduces her fertility is not coercive, as that woman retains the alternative of giving birth as before. It is only when she is penalised by choosing the latter, through deprivation of freedom, benefits, etc., that coercion occurs.

It turns out that where women are offered non-coercive programs, as in Iran, they willingly reduce their fertility. I can see no way that this conflicts with the improvement of women’s position.

I can also see no way we are going to avoid continuing and increasing significant environmental degradation without there being fewer people. I would much rather see that reduction happen voluntarily.

We know the solution to this problem ...

... because all of the rich countries have accidentally run it.

It's good perinatal health care and more education for girls.

It even works if it's run deliberately; some of the Indian states and Iran have done it.

And yes, it's probably incompatible with anything like pure capitalism.

Climate & Capitalism: Do Consumers Cause Climate Change?

February 20, 2010


Readers of Climate & Capitalism debate the causes of damaging economic expansion. Do “more consumers” mean “more pollution”?

By Ian Angus

One of the most contentious debates among green activists concerns the responsibility of individual consumers for promoting greenhouse gas emissions and thus climate change.

In addition to the obvious question of whether changing individual behavior is an effective way to fight climate change, this issue is also a key factor in the debate on the relationship between climate change and population growth.

The claim that consumer behavior causes emissions growth is frequently made by advocates of population restriction: in essence, they argue that more people cause more emissions, so reducing the population will reduce emissions. A very similar argument is used to argue for limiting immigration to rich counties: immigrants, it is said, will adopt high-emission lifestyles, and so accelerate global warming.

Most ecosocialists would reply that individual consumers have very little control over greenhouse gas emissions, that consumption patterns are driven by an irrational system of production, not vice versa.

These issues have been discussed in several recent Climate and Capitalism articles:

C&C readers who are interested in this important issue should check out the Comments following those articles. While the quality of individual contributions varies, the discussion as a whole provides valuable insight into the thinking on both sides of the “individual consumer responsibility” debate.

I found the following exchange particularly interesting, so I’m reproducing excerpts here, to make it easier to find and follow. The comments appear in full after “Women’s Rights, Population and Climate Change,” in which Betsy Hartmann and Laurie Mazur debated the population issue.

Jeff White:

“Very revealing is Mazur’s observation that it would be ‘easier to provide a good life – at less environmental cost – for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people.’ Implicit in this is a faulty assumption that poverty and environmental degradation are a function of population levels. Back in 1975, when world population was only 4 billion people, was it ‘easier’ to provide a good life, at less environmental cost, to the majority of the world’s people than it is today, when we have nearly 7 billion? Obviously not.

“The reason is that poverty and climate change are socio-political, not biological problems. Under a system of globalized capitalism, it doesn’t matter how many people there are on the planet; reduce the world to a billion inhabitants and there would still be unsustainable ecological destruction and enormous economic, racial, and gender inequality.”

Laurie Mazur:

“I do argue that that it would be ‘easier to provide a good life – at less environmental cost – for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people.’ But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think any of this is easy. Nor do I assume that that poverty and environmental degradation are a function of population levels. See, for example, my recent blog on Haiti:

“I certainly do not believe that a smaller world population is a panacea; it would not by itself usher in a new era of sustainability and equity. Nor am I naive enough to believe that slowing population growth is ALL we must do. Challenging the petro-military-corporate-industrial complex is the first order of business if we hope to survive as a species. This challenge is every bit as daunting as it was in 1975, the year Jeff White references.

“But other things have changed since 1975. The atmosphere is now full. We have surpassed the atmospheric concentration of CO2 that would preserve a habitable planet for current and future generations.

“Against that backdrop, consider the challenge of raising the standard of living of the half of humanity that now lives on less than $2 a day. We can hope that developing countries will steer a different course than the one we’ve followed, and ‘leapfrog’ over the most environmentally destructive technologies. But almost any scenario that accounts for economic growth in the developing countries means a vast increase in carbon emissions.

“China, for example, has per capita emissions that are much lower than those of the US or UK, but it has a lot more capitas. That’s one reason why China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.

“Indeed, the only scenario in which population size doesn’t matter for CO2 emissions is one in which the current inequitable divide between rich and poor countries remains fixed for all time. At best, that scenario is unrealistic. At worst, it is cruel beyond imagining.”

Jeff White:

“Laurie Mazur commits the fallacy, common among the population fetishists, of presenting per capita emissions statistics as the primary driver of climate change. She says:

‘China, for example, has per capita emissions that are much lower than those of the US or UK, but it has a lot more capitas. That’s one reason why China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.’

“It starts with mathematical sleight-of-hand. Representing a country’s total emissions as simply the sum of all the per capita emissions helps to create the false impression that total emissions are a direct function of population.

“The fallacy lies in the fact that the total emissions must be known before you can calculate the per capita emissions. First you take the total emissions and divide by total population to get a per capita figure; to then multiply that figure by the total population is merely to reverse the calculation back to the original number you started with – total national emissions! It’s these total emissions that are the primary data; per capita figures are derived from the total, not the other way around.

“Per capita figures are statistical artifacts that tell us the ratio of a country’s total emissions to its population. But they don’t tell us about individual contributions to the country’s total emissions. For example, if I tell you that Canada’s annual per capita emissions are 23 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, it doesn’t tell you how much of that 23 tonnes I, as an average Canadian, am personally responsible for. It includes, for example, ‘my’ per capita shares of the emissions caused by the mining of the tar sands in Alberta, the manufacture of cement in Quebec, and the industrialized livestock production in Ontario – none of which I have any personal control over.

“If half the population of Canada suddenly disappeared, my per capita share of emissions, and that of every other remaining Canadian, would increase dramatically overnight, without any change being made in my – or anyone else’s – personal levels of carbon consumption. The population fetishists would realize their fondest wish (a dramatic reduction in population levels) while per capita emission levels would soar! What could demonstrate more clearly that per capita statistics tell us nothing about ‘overpopulation’?

“Canada’s per capita emissions are among the worst in the world. Does that mean Canada is suffering from overpopulation? On the contrary; Canada is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, with about 3.3 people per square kilometre. Moreover, the current fertility rate of 1.66 babies per woman is far below the replacement rate of 2.1. Without immigration our population would decline. When it comes to carbon emissions and overconsumption, Canada’s problem is capitalism, not too many people.

“Mazur also makes the error of assuming that raising the standard of living of the half of humanity that now lives on less than $2 a day necessarily involves unsustainable forms of economic activity and growth. It doesn’t, unless you also assume that there is no alternative to profit-driven, capitalist modes of production.

“In fact, the whole population control movement is predicated on an inability to imagine a sustainable alternative to capitalist waste, greed, and exploitation. It seeks to find biological solutions to economic and political problems.”

Alex Haughey:

“It is true that per-capita carbon emissions of each country are not a measure of personal responsibility for climate change. A measure that does attempt to represent that is a carbon ‘footprint.’ A person’s carbon footprint is the total carbon emissions caused by all of the goods and services they consume. Under this measure responsibility for Canada’s cement industry would not be heaped onto Jeff’s total, but rather the totals of the ultimate customers of that industry.

“The problem with this measure for Jeff’s repost to Laurie, is that while Canadians lose personal responsibility for their Cement industry, they gain personal responsibility for the carbon footprint of all the plastic tat that they buy that has been manufactured for them and shipped to them from overseas. If Canadian habits are anything like British ones (I am from the UK), then that is a hefty responsibility indeed.

“If half the population of Canada disappeared, then a lot less plastic tat would be made, and Canada’s carbon footprint would be dramatically reduced (not by half, to be sure, but a significant reduction nonetheless).

“My personal view is that we need to take responsibility for the consequences of our own actions. Carbon footprints help show us the environmental consequences of buying goods and services. They could also show us the environmental consequences of starting a family. Clearly there are many other extremely important things to consider, but they can be part of the decision. What is wrong with that?”

Jeff White:

“Alex, it’s wrong to focus on the consumption rather than the production of goods. If I buy things made out of plastic or packaged in plastic, and consume those goods, my consumption does not create greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, the emissions associated with the goods have already been created by the manufacturer, before I ever get my hands on the product. They properly belong to the manufacturer’s carbon footprint, not mine.

“I do not personally have any control or influence over the manufacturing process or the packaging of goods. If manufacturers are profligate with fossil fuels and use carbon-intensive production methods, then the responsibility lies with them, not me.

“This is what the population-control ‘leftists’ fail to understand. By making environmental issues all about consumption rather than production, they simplistically jump to the conclusion that the environment can be saved by having fewer people around to consume manufactured goods. In other words, they completely let the manufacturers off the hook.

“They also swallow the fallacy of ‘consumer democracy’ – the idea that we as consumers can ‘vote with our wallets’ to force manufacturers into ecologically sustainable modes of production. It’s a fallacy born of a quasi-religious belief in the power of the marketplace to solve all problems, thereby avoiding the messy necessity to actually take political action to bring about the systemic, revolutionary social and economic change that will be required to allow humanity to live in harmony with nature.”

women are not to blame

women are not to blame

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