Population and the environment: A progressive, feminist approach
In “The ‘New’ Population Control Craze: Retro, Racist, Wrong Way to Go,” 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.
I’m not alone. Over the last couple of years, I have helped bring together feminists, environmentalists, and reproductive health activists to develop an approach to population and environment issues that is grounded in human rights and social justice. Our efforts culminated in a new contributed volume, A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge, published by Island Press in October.
We also helped launch a new campus movement. The “population justice” effort that Hartmann maligns is a partnership of the Sierra Club, the International Women’s Health Coalition, Advocates for Youth, Americans for Informed Democracy, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., the Feminist Majority Foundation, and Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom. Our goals are to increase U.S. funding for family planning and reproductive health; to provide comprehensive sexuality education in the U.S.; and to pass the Global Poverty Act and implement the Millennium Development Goals. Population control is not on the agenda.
Now, there are many, many points on which Betsy Hartmann and I are in complete agreement. For example, I agree that the relationship between population dynamics and environmental quality is complex, and that it is best viewed through the prism of inequity. It is the affluent countries’ unsustainable systems of production and consumption—not population growth in the global South—that have caused climate change and most of the environmental crises we face.
And we do face environmental crises. Human-induced climate change is threatening the very habitability of our planet. And it’s not just the climate: From acidifying oceans to depleted aquifers, the natural systems we depend upon are nearing “tipping points,” beyond which they may not recover.
It is the very people Hartmann seeks to protect who will suffer the most. The United Nations Development Program says that for the world’s most marginalized citizens, the consequences of climate change and other environmental crises “could be apocalyptic.” Women, who comprise the majority of the world’s poor, are on the front lines of the crisis—walking farther to collect water, working harder to coax crops from dry soil, coping with plagues of drought, flood and disease.
Against that backdrop, consider our demographic future. World population now stands at 6.8 billion. While the rate of growth has slowed in most parts of the world, our numbers still increase by 75 million to 80 million every year, the numerical equivalent of adding another U.S. to the world every four years or so. A certain amount of future growth is inevitable, but choices made today will determine whether world population reaches anywhere between 8 billion and 11 billion by the middle of the century.
So, what happens if we add another 4 billion people—each with an inalienable right to food, water, and the makings of a good life—to our very stressed planet? Almost all of that growth will take place in the developing countries, which is also where rapid development must occur so that the 3 billion people who now live on less than $2 a day can escape from poverty.
For us in the affluent countries, the problem is overconsumption—our bankrupt economic system devours natural resources, yet fails to meet human needs. For people in the developing world, the problem is underconsumption; that same economic system fosters poverty and inequity that deprives people of the resources they need to survive. So we need to consume less, they need to consume more, and we all need to consume differently—to find ways to meet human needs without destroying the natural systems that sustain life.
If we take seriously the need to protect the planet and distribute its resources more equitably, it becomes clear that it would be easier to provide a good life—at less environmental cost—for 8 billion rather than 11 billion people. Indeed, the only scenario in which population growth doesn’t matter for the environment is one where the current divide between rich and poor remains fixed for all time. Surely we agree that such a scenario is cruel beyond imagining.
The most sophisticated science on population and the environment accounts for low-income countries’ need to develop. Take climate change, for example. An analysis of climate studies by Brian O’Neill at the National Center for Atmospheric Research shows that when you consider the future trajectory of carbon emissions, population size matters—a lot. O’Neill estimates that stabilizing world population at 8 billion, rather than 9 billion or more, would eliminate one billion tons of CO2 per year by 2050– as much as completely ending deforestation.
Of course, slowing population growth is not all we must do. Continued reliance on fossil fuels could easily overwhelm any carbon emission reductions from slower growth. Still, slowing population growth is part of what we must do to avert catastrophic climate change.
Does that justify a new program of coercive population control? Absolutely not. Population control is not the solution to climate change. It’s not even the solution to slowing population growth.
And no one from the mainstream reproductive health and rights movement is making that claim. As Hartmann acknowledges, over the last two decades feminist reformers shifted the focus of international family planning programs from an emphasis on meeting demographic targets to meeting individual needs for sexual and reproductive health. Those reformers also fought for—and won—a groundbreaking international agreement on population issues at a 1994 UN meeting in Cairo.
The Cairo agreement says that the best way to achieve a sustainable world is by making sure that all people can make real choices about childbearing. That means access to voluntary family planning and other reproductive-health information and services. It means education and employment opportunities, especially for women. And it means tackling the deep inequities—gender and economic—that limit choices for many.
The Cairo agreement helped transform the culture of the international family planning movement. But its ambitious agenda has not been fully realized, for lack of funding and political will. Now we have a chance to change that. For the first time in nearly a decade, we have a President—and a Secretary of State—who are sympathetic to our cause. It is possible that growing concern about climate change and other environmental issues could help mobilize funds for sexual and reproductive health and rights, women’s empowerment and other elements of the Cairo agreement.
But I agree with Hartmann that the debate could easily take us in a different direction. As the connection between population growth and the environment becomes clear, we are hearing more calls for “population control.” For example, a book by an environmental journalist proposes a mandatory “one child per human mother” policy. And there have been less overtly coercive, but still deeply troubling proposals—for example, for a “carbon tax” on families that choose to have more than two children.
How should we respond to these dangerous proposals—as feminists, as people who care about the environment and human well-being?
Not by pretending that human numbers are irrelevant to environmental sustainability. And not by labeling anyone who talks about population a “misogynist,” a “racist,” or “faux-feminist.”
Instead, we can engage constructively in the emerging public conversation about population and the environment—and bring to it our voices, our values, our lived experience. We can acknowledge that slowing population growth is one of many things we can do to build a sustainable, equitable future. And—most importantly—we can fight for population policies that are firmly grounded in human rights and social justice.