The Population Distraction Undermines Good Work & Real Solutions

In an August article about a video developed by the Center for Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Human Overpopulation campaign, we observed that raising public anxiety over ‘overpopulation’ is trendy once again — and clearly well-funded by rich donors. Little did we know that the fall’s outpouring of first world handwringing had barely begun.

Soon afterward, the UN chose October 31 as the official date to recognize the world’s living population reaching seven billion – a none too subtle connection of the number itself to all things chilling and ominous. It was a gift to the makers of soundbites everywhere, and they ran with it.

The brouhaha itself had many authors – but none more committed to portraying the population distraction as a progressive cause than the CBD campaign. And they were rewarded for it: The New York Times lauded the group for “virtually alone … breaking the taboo by directly tying population growth to environmental problems,” an effort other environmental groups have apparently avoided because they were “wary of getting caught up in the bruising politics of reproductive health.”

The very idea that there’s been a taboo around tying population growth to environmental problems says a lot about who’s talking. For historically targeted communities, including poor women of color in the US as well as the Global South, coercive pressure toward long-term contraception or forced sterilization never disappeared – even as the political justifications shifted.

And this is why the CBD campaign, with its colorful condom boxes and self-congratulatory talk of taboos, is so dangerous.

It’s dangerous for the communities who are consistently the targets of increased social fears about overpopulation, and it’s dangerous for the hard-won fertile ground that lies between reproductive justice organizers and groups trying to mobilize for climate justice.

CBD’s Executive Director Kierán Suckling responded to our article by pointing out the excellent work CBD does, including challenging environmentally destructive corporations like Monsanto – and, we would add, challenging the unparalleled environmental destruction wreaked by the US military. Given CBD’s progressive focus in other areas, why does it insist on undermining its own good work by taking up this problematic crusade?

There are good people doing good work at CBD, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t invest untold resources in propaganda designed to create gender and race panic about overpopulation killing the planet, and then claim you are equally committed to social justice. Like it or not, Malthusianism is a conservative belief system that serves the interests of the rich and powerful by scape-goating the poor.

Kierán would like us to believe it’s sound “ecological theory” to overlook the fact that it’s not human numbers but the consumption of wealthy nations and individuals that requires immediate reduction. Each time the planet’s biggest consumers are told that poor women’s fertility shares even equal blame with their own actions, we lose momentum toward solving environmental crises. To build a movement that can grow beyond apocalyptic panic, we need a rigorous political ecology that does not lump all humans into one big destructive category. We need to ask which people and what systems of production, consumption and distribution are harming the environment and why – and also which are helping.

We need to understand the complex interactions between different groups of people, their environments, and the property regimes that determine control over natural resources. The study of population is not just about population growth, but age structure, gender composition, density, migration, and more. This political ecology approach is not some “old school wing of post-Marxism.” It’s transformational, and has deeply influenced the study of biodiversity by a new generation of conservation biologists.

At a moment when our political energies should be going toward building a broad, accountable, and effective movement for climate justice, CBD’s overpopulation campaign reinforces white privilege in mainstream environmentalism, and alienates people of color who have valid reasons not to trust that movement, despite their vital interest in addressing climate change.

History matters. For over a hundred years, ‘overpopulation’ has justified the violation of the reproductive and human rights of people of color through eugenics and population control programs. In the U.S., African Americans, Native Americans, and Puerto Ricans have suffered the most from forced sterilization and other forms of reproductive oppression. In the Global South, population control programs funded through international aid agencies have similarly targeted poor communities of color.

CBD claims its campaign is groundbreaking because it avoids scapegoating poor communities of color directly by targeting middle- and upper-class U.S. college students with their condoms. Regardless of the personal reproductive decisions those students may make because of the popular campaign, its most potent effects will in fact ripple outwards, as those young people assume positions of political, social, and corporate power and use the worldview CBD helped build to design policy and decide how to vote.

Drumming up fears of overpopulation plays directly into the hands of nativist groups who use the same tactics to target immigrants as the main cause of environmental degradation – undermining hard work being done by CBD’s own staff in support of immigrant rights.

It also comes perilously close to greenwashing – placing an expensive video, mainly funded by an advertiser, in Times Square; distributing condoms as gimmicky commodities that do nothing to educate people about the real reasons for the extinction of other species, much less encourage actual sexual health. At a time when community-based nonprofits are fighting for their lives, couldn’t all this money spent promoting population fears be put to better use?

Kierán points out that CBD does a lot more than our program. Yep! PopDev has three people on staff, while CBD has more than sixty around the country. Still, for 25 years we have been doing our activist best to help forge a compelling political vision connecting reproductive and environmental justice. We believe broad collaboration is the way forward for climate justice; not a retreat into population alarmism.

We welcome those who share this vision, including many on the staff of CBD, to attend our Climate Crossroads Institute within the annual reproductive justice activism conference at HampshireCollege in April. Blogs can only say so much, let’s get together and find our common ground.

This article by Katie McKay Bryson and Betsy Hartmann was originally published at Climate and Capitalism on November 23, 2011. Read our coverage of recent population alarmism on condom boxes and magazine covers, and check out the blog’s complete Population Control & Eugenics archive.

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