Population & Environment: a Progressive, Feminist Approach

Population & 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. (See Betsy Hartmann article here)

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 book, A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge.

We also helped launch a new campus movement. The “population justice” effort is a partnership of the Sierra Club, the International Women’s Health Coalition, the Feminist Majority Foundation, and others. 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.

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 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 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. From acidifying oceans to depleted aquifers, the natural systems we depend upon are nearing “tipping points,” beyond which they may not recover.

The United Nations Development Program says that for the world’s most marginalized citizens, the consequences of environmental crises “could be apocalyptic.” Women 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.

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. This is especially true for climate change: an analysis by Brian O’Neill at the National Center for Atmospheric Research 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.

The last two decades have seen a seismic shift in thinking about population issues. Feminist reformers fought for—and won—a groundbreaking international agreement on population 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.

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 it could easily go the other way. As the connection between population growth and the environment becomes clear, we are hearing more unacceptable calls for “population control.” For example, a book by an environmental journalist proposes a mandatory “one child per human mother” policy.

How should we respond to these dangerous proposals—as feminists, as people who care about the environment and human well-being?

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.