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Use a Condom, Save a Polar Bear? Not That Simple

Many factors besides human overpopulation contribute to our environmental crises.
 
 
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The condom box is eye-catching, complete with snarling megafauna illustrated in Lisa Frank-level brightness. There's even a polar bear ringtone to download, presumably for help getting in the mood. The Center for Biological Diversity's Endangered Species Condoms campaign, intended to connect species extinction to human reproduction, combines humor, sex, and a sense of environmentally-conscious urgency that’s hard not to like.

Unless, of course, you think they’re wrong.

Not about the importance of biological diversity, or about the impact of human choices and behavior on extinction rates, but about what exactly is driving the overconsumption of resources that endangers these species.

The Center for Biological Diversity has a simple answer to that question – just look inside the box. “Human overpopulation is destroying land, water, and wildlife habitat at an unparalleled rate, causing a massive planetary extinction crisis.” The appealing simplicity of the overpopulation theory has made it the go-to explanation for a hundred years of human crises, from war and poverty to hunger and, most recently,  climate change. The problem with this answer is that it leaps over any understanding of unequal consumption rates or complex global power dynamics, and settles in the position that it’s just  too many bodies, stupid.

To attribute environmental degradation primarily to the number of humans on the planet ignores points like these, from the  PopDev fact sheet  10 Reasons to Rethink Overpopulation:

  • One fifth of the world’s population is responsible for 80% of atmospheric CO2. In other words, where one person in the U.S. “contributes” 20 tons of emissions per year, a person in Bangladesh is responsible for only 0.2 tons.
     
  • The richest fifth of humanity uses 66 times the resources consumed by the poorest fifth. In the 1990s, 225 people controlled a combined wealth equivalent to the annual income of 47% of the world’s population.

Habitat (used by communities who coexist with animals, as well as the big cats and polar bears) is destroyed in the commercial hunger for resources that feeds consumption. But since consumption is in no way equally distributed across the world’s population, population control will not solve the environmental problems we face as a planet.

The Endangered Species Condom campaign, now distributing welcome prophylactics in all fifty states, can be seen as just a catchy way of promoting healthy sex while reminding people to care about the planet. But it’s also promoting and popularizing a belief system – one that has legitimized coercive population control policies in vulnerable communities and the  global South, and that continues to let corporations, wealthy consumers, and heavily  militarized nations off the hook for their hugely disproportionate use of resources, while laying blame on the backs of women deemed to have too many children.

The Center for Biological Diversity  recognizes the complex effects of the global economy on resource use in some of their written materials, but those complexities are lost in a campaign that says reproduction = extinction, period. Give us condoms – and safe, accessible reproductive healthcare, everywhere! – but don’t equate the choice to have safer sex with the belief that humans should be prevented from reproducing. When we follow that logic downstream to its  political conclusion, what we find are  restrictions on women’s fertility, fear-based  stereotypes and symbols, and the misdiagnosis of a critical environmental problem.

The fact that it’s easier in the U.S. to make a case for further policing of people’s reproductive freedom then to criticize consumerism and consumption doesn’t make embracing that tactic the right choice. Instead, perhaps we could work toward an environmental movement that builds international solidarity, recognizes the importance of gender justice, and addresses the real causes of pollution, resource depletion and species extinction.

 
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