DifferenTakes #40: 10 Reasons to Rethink 'Overpopulation' Print E-mail

 

10 Reasons to Rethink 'Overpopulation'

A Publication of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College , No. 40, Fall 2006

Fears of overpopulation are pervasive in American society. From an early age we are taught that the world is overpopulated and that population pressure is responsible for poverty, hunger, environmental degradation and even political insecurity. If we don’t get population growth under control now, the argument goes, our future is in danger.

Conventional wisdom, however, is not always wise.  Placing the blame on population obscures the powerful economic and political forces that threaten the well-being of both people and the planet. It leads to top-down, target-driven population control programs that undermine voluntary family planning and women’s reproductive rights. It reinforces racism, promoting harmful stereotypes of poor people of color. And it prevents the kind of global understanding we need in order to reach across borders to work together for a more just, peaceful and environmentally sustainable world.

Here are ten reasons why we should rethink ‘overpopulation.’

1. The population ‘explosion’ is over.  
World population is still growing and is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050. However, demographers agree that the era of rapid growth is over. Population growth rates peaked in the 1960s due to dramatic reductions in death rates and increased life expectancy. Since then, with increasing education, urbanization, and women’s work outside the home, birth rates have fallen in almost every part of the world. The average is now 2.7 births per woman. A number of countries, especially in Europe, are now concerned about declining population growth as many women have only one child. The UN projects that
world population will eventually stabilize, falling to 8.3 billion in 2175.

2. The focus on population masks the complex causes of poverty and inequality.

A narrow focus on human numbers obscures the way different economic and political systems operate to perpetuate poverty and inequality. It places the blame on the people with the least amount of resources and power rather than on corrupt governments and economic and political elites. It ignores the legacy of colonialism and the continuing unequal relationship between rich and poor countries, including unfavorable terms of trade and the debt burden. It says nothing about the concentration of much wealth in a few hands. In the late 1990s, the 225 people who comprise the ‘ultra-rich’ had a combined wealth of over US $1 trillion, equivalent to the annual income of the poorest 47% of the world’s people.

3. Hunger is not the result of ‘too many mouths’ to feed.
Global food production has consistently kept pace with population growth, and today world agriculture produces 17% more calories per person than it did 30 years ago. There is enough food for every man, woman and child to have more than the recommended daily calorie intake. People go hungry because they do not have the land on which to grow food or the money with which to buy it. In Brazil, one percent of the land owners control almost half of the country’s arable land, and more land is owned by multinational corporations than all the peasants combined. Globally, more than 1.2 billion people earn less than $1 per day, making it difficult to afford enough food to feed a family. Many governments have failed to make food security a priority. In 2002, when at least 320 million people in India were suffering from hunger, the government tripled its rice and wheat exports. The U.S. is the largest food producer in the world, yet more than one in ten American households are either experiencing hunger or are at the risk of it.

4. Population growth is not the driving force behind environmental degradation.

Blaming environmental degradation on overpopulation lets the real culprits off the hook. In terms of resource consumption alone, the richest fifth of the world’s people consume 66 times as much as the poorest fifth. The U.S. is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming – and the least willing to do anything about it. And just who is destroying the rain forest? While poor peasants sometimes play a role, corporate ranching, mining and logging operations are chiefly responsible for tropical deforestation. Worldwide militaries are major agents of environmental destruction. War ravages natural landscapes and military toxics pollute land, air and water. Nuclear weapons, reactors and waste pose the most deadly environmental threat to the planet. Imagine what a different world it would be if all the resources invested in producing deadly armaments went instead to environmental restoration and the development of cleaner, greener energy sources and technologies.

Focusing on population also blinds us to the positive role many poor people play in protecting the environment. In many parts of the world, small farmers, especially women, are the main preservers of plant biodiversity through cultivating local crop varieties, preserving seeds, and forest stewardship. Recent research in Africa reveals that increasing population densities, if combined with sound agricultural practices, can actually stimulate environmental improvements.

5. Population pressure is not a root cause of political insecurity and conflict.

Blaming population pressure for instability takes the onus off powerful actors and political choices. In 1994, for example, top officials in the Clinton administration blamed the Rwandan genocide on population pressure, diverting attention from the tragic U.S. and U.N. decision not to take effective action to halt it. Especially since 9/11, conflict in the Middle East has been linked to a ‘youth bulge’ of too many young men whose numbers supposedly make them prone to violence. Missing from this simple picture is how oil politics, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Bush administration’s war on Iraq are causing unrest in the region. Ideas like the ‘youth bulge’ can have very real and lethal consequences. A case in point is Chechnya, where the International Helsinki Federation has charged the Russian army of abducting and murdering young males in a deliberate process of “thinning out a population of young men.”

6. Population control targets women’s fertility and restricts reproductive rights.
Population control programs view women as ‘breeders’ of too many babies without considering the complex circumstances of their lives and their reasons for having children. All women should have access to high quality, voluntary reproductive health services, including safe birth control and abortion. In contrast, population control programs try to drive down birth rates as fast and cheaply as possible through the aggressive promotion of sterilization or long-acting, provider-controlled contraceptives like Norplant and Depo-Provera. In addition to their side effects, these contraceptives pose greater health risks for marginalized women in areas where screening and follow-up care are inadequate or nonexistent. Unlike condoms, they do not protect women from sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.

The 1994 UN population conference in Cairo came out against the use of coercion in population programs, but unfortunately it persists. Today, in India, a number of states punish poor parents who have more than two children by denying them access to government assistance, employment and election to public office. In China, the one-child policy is still enforced through forced sterilizations and abortions. In both countries, the strong preference for bearing at least one son, coupled with restrictive population control policies, has led to sex-selective abortions of female fetuses and skewed sex ratios.

7. Population control programs have a negative effect on basic health care.
Under pressure from international population agencies, many poor countries such as Bangladesh, Indonesia, and India made population control a higher priority than primary health care. Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, reducing fertility was considered more important than preventing and treating malaria and other debilitating diseases, improving maternal and child health, and addressing malnutrition. This shift not only took a tragic toll on human life, but left countries without the strong public health infrastructure needed to face new threats like HIV/AIDS. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund further undermined primary health care by forcing countries to cut and/or privatize health services, putting them out of the reach of poor people.

This legacy continues today. Two prominent international family planners recently wrote that in Africa rapid population growth poses more of a threat than AIDS and therefore population control should be a high priority in the region. In actuality, while just over 10% of the world population lives in sub-Saharan Africa, it is home to over 60% of all people living with HIV.

8. Population alarmism encourages apocalyptic thinking that legitimizes human rights abuses.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s famous book The Population Bomb warned that the world was on the brink of massive famine and that in the 1970s “hundreds of millions” of people would starve to death. Though not borne out in reality, such dire predictions have long been popular in the population field. Today, population funding appeals still play on fears of future apocalypse. Fear does more than sell, however. It convinces many otherwise well-meaning people that it is morally justified to curtail the basic human and reproductive rights of poor people in order to save ourselves and the planet from doom. This sense of emergency leads to an elitist moral relativism, in which ‘we’ know best and ‘our’ rights are more worthy than ‘theirs.’ Politically, it legitimizes authoritarianism.

Nowhere is the negative effect of apocalyptic thinking more dramatic than in the case of China. The decision to implement the draconian one-child policy was greatly influenced by the 1972 Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, a deeply flawed computer simulation that incorrectly predicted impending economic and environmental collapse due to population growth.

9. Threatening images of overpopulation reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes and scapegoat immigrants and other vulnerable communities.
Negative media images of starving African babies, poor, pregnant women of color, and hordes of dangerous Third World men drive home the message that ‘those people’ outnumber ‘us.’ Fear of overpopulation in the Third World often translates into fear of increasing immigration to the West, and thereby people of color becoming the majority. Harvard professor Samuel Huntington argues that high numbers of Latino immigrants threaten a unified American Anglo-Protestant culture and identity. Anti-immigrant groups tied to white supremacists strategically deploy population fears to appeal to liberal environmentalists. The demonization of immigrants ignores their positive contributions to the U.S. economy as well as the global economic forces that drive many people to migrate. In Europe, nativist policymakers are urging white women to have more babies to reduce the economy’s dependence on immigrant labor.

In the U.S. there is a strong link between negative images of Third World overpopulation and racist views of African Americans as burdens on society. Eugenics programs and punitive welfare policies have subjected African Americans and other marginalized communities to sterilization and contraceptive abuse because of racist assumptions that their fertility is out of control. Even though women on welfare have on average fewer than two children, the image of the overbreeding ‘welfare queen’ remains firmly fixed in the white imagination.

10. Conventional views of overpopulation stand in the way of greater global understanding and solidarity.
In order to solve the world’s pressing economic, political and environmental problems, we need more global understanding and solidarity, not less. For all the reasons cited above, fears of overpopulation are deeply divisive and harmful. Population control programs distort family planning and diminish human rights. In order to protect and advance women’s reproductive rights in a hostile climate, we urgently need to work together across borders of gender, race, class and nationality. Rethinking population helps open the way.

The Population and Development Program
CLPP, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA 01002
413.559.5506  http://popdev.hampshire.edu
Opinions expressed in this publication are those of the individual authors unless otherwise specified.

For more information on population issues, see:
Population in Perspective: A Curriculum Resource, by Mary Lugton with Phoebe McKinney, http://www.populationinperspective.org
Population and Development Program at Hampshire College, http://popdev.hampshire.edu
Committee on Women, Population and the Environment, www.cwpe.org
The Corner House, www.thecornerhouse.org.uk

References

1. The population ‘explosion’ is over.
For a review of population dynamics, see Mary Lugton with Phoebe McKinney, Population in Perspective: A Curriculum Resource, Amherst, MA: Population and Development Program, Hampshire College, 2004, http://www.populationinperspective.org, and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, “World Population Prospects, the 2004 Revision,” February 24, 2005.

2. The focus on population masks the complex causes of poverty and inequality.

Population in Perspective, Section Four, “Population and Poverty,” and Betsy Hartmann, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, Boston: South End Press, 1995.

3. Hunger is not the result of ‘too many mouths’ to feed.

Population in Perspective, Section Two, “Population, Food and Hunger.” and Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rossett, World Hunger: Twelve Myths, New York: Grove Press, 1998.

4. Population growth is not the driving force behind environmental degradation.

Population in Perspective, Section Three, “Population and the Environment.” On military and environment, see Joni Seager, “Patriarchal Vandalism: Militaries and the Environment,” in Jael Silliman and Ynestra King, eds., Dangerous Intersections: Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment and Development, Boston: South End Press, 1999, 163-188. On the positive role many poor people play in protecting the environment, see James K. Boyce and Barry G. Shelley, eds., Natural Assets: Democratizing Environmental Ownership, Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003. On gender and biodiversity, see Patricia L. Howard, ed., Women and Plants: Gender Relations in Biodiversity Management and Conservation, London: Zed Books, 2003.

5. Population pressure is not a root cause of political insecurity and conflict.

Betsy Hartmann and Anne Hendrixson, “Pernicious Peasants and Angry Young Men: The Strategic Demography of Threats,” in Betsy Hartmann, Banu Subramaniam and Charles Zerner, eds., Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005, 217-237. For more on the youth bulge, see Anne Hendrixson, “Angry Young Men, Veiled Young Women: Constructing a New Population Threat,” Corner House, Briefing No. 34, December 2004, http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk.

6. Population control targets women’s fertility and restricts reproductive rights.

See Reproductive Rights and Wrongs; Amy Oliver and Diana Dukhanova, “Depo-Provera: Old Concerns, New Risks,” DifferenTakes, No. 32, Population and Development Program, Hampshire College, Spring 2005, http://popdev.hampshire.edu/projects/dt; Rajani Bhatia, “Ten Years after Cairo: The Resurgence of Coercive Population Control in India,” DifferenTakes, No. 31, Spring 2005, http://popdev.hampshire.edu/projects/dt; and Kay Johnson, Wanting a Daughter: Needing a Son, Minneapolis: Yeong and Yeong, 2004.

7. Population control programs have a negative effect on basic health care.

Sarah Sexton, Sumati Nair and Preeti Kirbat, “A Decade after Cairo: Women’s Health in a Free Market Economy,” Corner House, Briefing No. 30, June 2004, http://thecornerhouse.org.uk; John Cleland and Steven Sinding, “What would Malthus say about AIDS in Africa?” The Lancet, Vol. 366, Issue 9500, Pages 1899-1901 (November 26, 2005); UNAIDS: Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, http://www.unaids.org/en/Regions_Countries/Regions/SubSaharanAfrica.asp.

8. Population alarmism encourages apocalyptic thinking that legitimizes human rights abuses.

John Dryzek, “Looming Tragedy: Survivalism,” in The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 23-44; Susan Greenhalgh, “Science, Modernity and the Making of China’s One-Child Policy,” Population and Development Review, Vol. 29, No. 2 (June 2003), 163-196; Larry Lohmann, “Malthusianism and the Terror of Scarcity,” in Hartmann et al, eds., Making Threats, 81-98.

9. Threatening images of overpopulation reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes and scapegoat immigrants and other vulnerable communities.

Elynor Lord, “The Huntington Challenge: Why “The Hispanic Challenge” Should be Discredited,” DifferenTakes, Fall 2004, http://popdev.hampshire.edu/projects/dt; Adam Werbach, “Hostile Takeover: Anti-Immigration Coalition Seeks Control of Sierra Club,” In These Times, March 9, 2004; Binta Jeffers, “Population Control Imagery: Stopping the Blame,” computer graphic presentation, Committee on Women, Population and the Environment, forthcoming 2006; Jael Silliman and Anannya Bhattacharjee, eds., Policing the National Body: Race, Gender and Criminalization, Cambridge. MA: South End Press, 2002; Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty, New York: Pantheon Books, 1997; Elizabeth L. Krause, “Dangerous Demographies: The Scientific Manufacture of Fear,” Corner House, Briefing No. 36, July 2006, www.thecornerhouse.org.uk.

10. Conventional views of overpopulation stand in the way of greater global understanding and solidarity.

See Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross and Elena R. Gutiérrez, Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organiz for Reproductive Justice, Boston: South End Press, 2004; Adam Werbach, “End of the Population Movement, The America  Prospect, October 5, 2005; and “Call for a New Approach” in Silliman and King, eds., Dangerous Intersections, xx-xxi.