Bewildered, we stared at the June issue of Mother Jones. In capital letters splayed the width of the cover, the magazine asked, WHO’S TO BLAME FOR THE POPULATION CRISIS? Cartoons of three white people (the pope, a young woman, and Uncle Sam) played speak-no-evil next to the sunny subscript: “…and the surprisingly pleasant solutions: girl power; cell phones; less work, more play.”
Was Mother Jones really joining recent attempts to rebrand the ongoing political conversation about overpopulation as fresh, sexy, and above all disconnected from its embarrassing legacy of coercive fertility control programs, historically borne out on the bodies of poor people and people of color? Sure enough, the editors’ note and subsequent 20-page article (“The Last Taboo”) claimed repeatedly that there’s been an ominous “pact” or “conspiracy” of silence regarding the topic of human population – implying that their magazine was boldly breaking through a barrier of others’ failing nerves.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. The theory that human population (which the UN projects will continue to grow until 2050 before stabilizing at roughly 9 billion) is chiefly or solely responsible for climate change, resource depletion, hunger, and poverty is actually so endemically widespread that it’s part of our cultural philosophy. This theory is taught as fact in social studies and biology textbooks, it is referenced like a drumbeat in news stories, by anti-immigration activists, and by some mainstream environmental groups. The fact that Mother Jones’ editors claim not to have heard it mentioned in 35 years leaves us believing that they accept this theory so fully as not to notice it flashing before their eyes.
The problems with an aggressively consumerist society complaining that the most pressing issue is the number of people alive, rather than the rate at which a small number of wealthy nations and elites consume and discard resources, are too numerous to list here. Let us address just one, since it is access to food that arises most often as a justification in the article. Being hungry, even starving, is not the result of too many people trying to get at too little food (or, as “Last Taboo” author Julia Whitty puts it, that “some of us are literally siphoning the flesh and blood from the rest of us”). Global food production has consistently outpaced population growth. People go hungry because they don’t have land to grow food, or money to buy it. Complex economic and political structures with deep colonial roots create the context for global famine and food insecurity – leading one to wonder how the author feels comfortable stating baldly that “The root cause of India’s dwindling resources and escalating pollution is the same: the continued exponential growth of humankind.”
In an article thick with references to economists and Nobel laureates, one source who is both is strikingly absent: Amartya Sen, whose book Poverty and Famines offers a very different history of resource management and hunger in India. Would Whitty’s conclusions be the same had she included, for instance, the story of the Bengal Famine of 1943, triggered not by absolute food scarcity, but by rising food prices resulting from the British wartime construction effort? As it is, readers unfamiliar with these histories are left with an understanding of India’s economic and political realities gravely lacking in context.
The heart of Whitty’s article is her theory that microcredit programs are “the best 21st century contraceptive,” because the children of women who receive microloans will be “fed better in childhood, they will grow taller and live longer. Better educated, they will have fewer children, whom they will also educate and who will marry later, also to bear fewer, taller, plumper, longer-living offspring.”
It is worth noting, in the shadow of her glowingly one-sided exploration of microcredit, that such programs vary enormously in their benefits to women (as a recent New York Times exposé on some programs’ exorbitant interest rates illuminated). This is not a simple panacea for poverty and powerlessness. Moreover, the idea that women will act in a way others have determined to be rational and predictable if we just educate and empower them correctly is disturbing.
Equal access to education, equal respect and compensation in the many spheres of labor, and universal access to affordable, safe, voluntary reproductive healthcare (including contraception and abortion) are goals of the utmost importance. To link the inherent value of these projects to an assumption that women educated and employed within a Westernized social model will want fewer children and thus have fewer children is to make the success of these projects dangerously contingent on women behaving this way. Whitty’s solution – that women will voluntarily have few or no babies if we just help them understand that human reproduction destroys the environment, starves people, and dooms the planet – neglects to consider that there may be something a little coercive about social stigma.
In saying that reducing human population is as vital as reducing consumption, Whitty offers yet another escape route to wealthy global citizens hoping to carbon-barter our way out of communal responsibility. This usually takes the form of substituting isolated decisions about what to buy for engaging in broad-based community action; for disciples of the overpopulation theory, it often leads to talking about one’s own childlessness as a moral victory that less enlightened (m)others lack. As one online commenter at the Mother Jones article said, “So even though I am an unrepentant consumer and carnivorous beast with an addiction to petrol consumption, I am still less of a burden on the planet than the frugal vegan Prius pilot with two rug rats. Ha Ha, who would have thought! I would end tax breaks for breeders and tax children instead. We don’t need to encourage breeding.”
While MoJo isn’t necessarily responsible for the conclusions of their readers, there’s no denying that their message is virtue through the refusal to propagate. It’s delivered by comparing children over and over to economic choices. Whitty quotes an analysis of the “environmental price tag of a baby,” instructing readers that “the ecological costs of that child and her children far outweigh even the combined energy-saving choices from all a mother’s other good decisions, like buying a fuel-efficient car, recycling, using energy-saving appliances and lightbulbs.” (Every parent in the article has a female pronoun, apparently because the author agrees with the study’s statistician that to acknowledge what can in this context only be called the complicity of a father, or two fathers, or a second mother, is “computationally prohibitive.”)
It seems bizarre that a publication whose very title evokes a history of radical social justice organizing would advocate this increasingly popular mainstream view of children’s worth – not to mention the reduction of an individual’s ability to affect climate change to a set of consumer choices. True, it is much easier to calculate the environmental price tag on one’s choice to buy a Prius. It would surely be “computationally prohibitive” to ask what the potential power of that child would be if her engagement went further than her wallet. If she became a farmer like her mother, working in a pasture-rotational agricultural model that replenishes depleted soil. Or if she grew up to build and maintain bicycles in her community, circumventing that Prius entirely. Or if her family lived intergenerationally, or shared a multi-family building. Or if she became an activist working to diminish the freedom with which her country permitted their military, corporations, and global economic interests to damage planetary sustainability.
This potential in our children and ourselves for change should be nourished, not ignored. There are crucial questions being asked, among them why it is always easier to advocate for fertility reductions than for a critical approach to globalized economic and agriculture systems, an unchecked military-industrial complex, and isolated mass overconsumption (the answer to which may not be “buy different stuff”). Claiming not to have heard those who have been asking these questions doesn’t get you off the hook – particularly when you’ve assumed the mantle of smart, fearless truth-telling.