View Comments

Population Alarmism Is Dangerous

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on the Population Factor

Betsy Hartmann, September 19, 2011

CREDIT: Christian Guthier (CC).

We are currently witnessing a resurgence of population alarmism. Powerful population and environment advocacy organizations primarily in the United States and United Kingdom are spreading the word in the media, and in advocacy and policy circles, that reducing population growth in the Global South is key to addressing climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, and even political instability.

In part, this is a calculated strategy to increase support for international family planning assistance in the face of the continuing conservative assault on reproductive rights. But playing with fear, like playing with fire, is dangerous.

Ironically, this resurgence comes at a time when family size has fallen to a global average of 2.45 children and is projected to fall to two or less in the next decades. The main reason why global population is projected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, and possibly 10 billion by 2100 (a high projection that is disputed by demographers), is that currently there exists a large cohort of young people of reproductive age. High fertility, however, persists in only a few countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, because of deep class and gender inequalities and the failure of elites to invest in education, health care, and other social services, including high-quality family planning.

Population alarmism threatens to erode the progress made since the 1994 Cairo conference in moving the family planning field away from top-down and coercive population control programs toward a focus on reproductive health and rights.

In many countries, programs are still biased against poor women, who often receive disrespectful, bad quality services and are denied real contraceptive choice. When the message that controlling fertility is not only a demographic but an environmental mandate filters down to already prejudiced providers, it will only make services worse.

A troubling sign is that the U.S. Agency for International Development is considering reintroducing incentives, including compensation payments for sterilization, into family planning programs (see "The Return of Population Control: Incentives, Targets and the Backlash against Cairo"). Calls to empower women through family planning also ring hollow when the deeper causes of poverty and gender discrimination are ignored in favor of silver-bullet solutions.

The impact of population alarmism on the environmental movement is equally problematic. The relationship between population and the environment is complex. For example, high population density can have both positive and negative environmental impacts depending on the context. Instead of lumping all people into the term "population," one must always ask which people are harming the environment and why. Focusing on women's fertility diverts our attention from the role of industrial agriculture, extractive industries, luxury consumption, and militarism in causing environmental degradation.

It also prevents effective action on the climate front. The contribution of greenhouse gas emissions of one person varies by a factor of 1,000 depending on his or her consumption level, and it is mostly nations with very low or slow-growing emissions that have high population growth rates (see "The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change").

Today, the biggest barrier to an effective international climate policy is the failure of the Global North, in particular the United States, to agree to a significant reduction in carbon emissions. Pinning the blame on overpopulation in the Global South plays into the politics of climate denial.

In this era of climate change, the real challenge is to fundamentally transform inefficient, inequitable, and environmentally harmful systems of resource production, consumption, and distribution in order to sustainably accommodate a population of over 9 billion in 2050. We need renewable energy not stale ideologies. And rather than a top-down demographic imperative to reduce birth rates, advancing reproductive health and rights should be the ends, and means, of international family planning programs.


Creative Commons License
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Please read our usage policy.

Read More: Agriculture, Aid, Culture, Development, Economy, Environment, Ethics, Gender, Health, Human Rights, Poverty, Science, Sustainability, War, United Kingdom, United States, Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East

blog comments powered by Disqus

Site Search

Global Research Engine

This search includes our Core Network partners.

Join Our Mailing Lists

The Journal