Environment

Rebuttal to Chris Hedges: Stop the Tired Overpopulation Hysteria

Raising alarms about overpopulation distracts us from the real environmental tasks at hand and legitimizes top-down punitive policies that hurt women.

Is it any coincidence that just as the U.S. government is finally getting serious again about environmental regulation and climate change, there is an upsurge of overpopulation hysteria? Malthus is riding again on the dark horses of the apocalypse. Unless we start curbing birth rates now, preferably by voluntary means but through more coercive measures if necessary, we will breed ourselves to extinction. This is the message of a recent lead story on AlterNet by Chris Hedges (March 11, 2009). Last month a Global Population Speak Out campaign aimed to spread similar fears throughout the media. The population bomb is back in vogue.

And it's time we diffused it. Raising alarms about overpopulation distracts us from the real environmental tasks at hand. It also undermines the provision of good quality, voluntary family planning services, instead legitimizing top-down punitive policies that hurt women.

Today's population alarmists are stuck back in the 1960s when high rates of population growth made it look as if the world was experiencing a population explosion. But much has changed since then. While world population is projected to increase from 6.7 billion today to about 9 billion in 2050, the rate of growth has slowed considerably. The average number of children born to a woman in the Global South is now 2.75, and the UN predicts this figure will drop to 2.05 by 2050.

Moreover, the few countries that still have relatively high birth rates, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, have the least impact on environmental factors such as global warming. From 1950-2000, the entire continent of Africa was responsible for only 2.5% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. Though it is impossible to predict exactly what world population will look like further in the future, most demographers agree we are on the path toward population stabilization with families all across the globe having two children or less. In fact, demographers tend to be more concerned these days about declining population growth and population aging than they are about too many people.

In addition to ignoring the numbers, the focus on overpopulation obscures the ways different economic and political systems perpetuate poverty, inequality and environmental degradation. It places the blame on the people with the least amount of resources and power rather than on corrupt governments and rich elites. The biggest security threat facing the world right now is the economic crisis, caused by a small coterie of greedy financiers and lax governments, ours in particular.

The population controllers also have blinders on their eyes when they attribute the cutting down of forests, the polluting of water supplies, and the extinction of species to too many poor people, rather than the unchecked power of large corporations to monopolize resources and ravage the land. Missing from the picture is the question of technological choice: for example, reducing the population of automobiles and investing in public transport worldwide would do much more to curtail climate change than imposing limits on family size.

The industrialized countries, with only 20 percent of the world's population, are responsible for 80 percent of the accumulated carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere. The U.S. is the worst offender. Serious climate policy here should focus on a strategy to drastically reduce carbon emissions through some kind of carbon capping system, investments in alternative energy and public transport, energy-saving retrofitting of existing buildings, and lifestyle changes that move away from the profligate waste of American consumer capitalism. From town halls to Washington's corridors of power, vigorous democratic debate needs to happen about which policies are the most effective and equitable. We need practical solutions, not histrionic fear-mongering about overpopulation. Moreover, as the U.S. finally prepares to enter climate negotiations on the international stage, we should not alienate the Global South and shirk our responsibility by pointing the finger at population growth.

A final word of caution. Women's health activists, in the U.S. and around the world, have fought long and hard for the right to safe, voluntary birth control and abortion services. Pitted against them are not only religious fundamentalists who would deny them access to contraception, but those who are prepared to sacrifice reproductive rights, and human rights, on the altar of population control. We know full well what happens when women's fertility becomes the object of draconian top-down social engineering as it has in China and was in the dark days of eugenics in the U.S. when thousands were involuntarily sterilized. The war on population always has been, and will continue to be, a war on women's bodies.

Malthusian environmentalists need to get off their high horses and get down to the gritty green work of making effective and equitable environment and climate policy. It's so much easier to plead the apocalypse and call for population control than to enter the political fray. By fomenting overpopulation fears, they are threatening to steer the environmental movement wildly off course and to seriously erode women's reproductive rights.

Betsy Hartmann is the Director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College and a longstanding activist in the international women’s health movement. Her books include Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, A Quiet Violence: View from a Bangladesh Village, and the recent political thriller, Deadly Election.