“The war on population always has been, and will continue to be, a war on women’s bodies.”

After reading this article by Betsy Hartmann rebutting recent psuedo-environmental hysteria surrounding overpopulation, I wanted to investigate further how fears of overpopulation facilitate sexist, racist and imperialistic policies by Western countries and NGOs against poor women of color in the Global South.

As Hartmann states with clarity:

“The population controllers have blinders on their eyes when they attribute the cutting down of forests, the polluting of water supplies, and the extinction of species to too many poor people, rather than the unchecked power of large corporations to monopolize resources and ravage the land. Missing from the picture is the question of technological choice: for example, reducing the population of automobiles and investing in public transport worldwide would do much more to curtail climate change than imposing limits on family size.”

This seems to me fundamentally correct. It’s clear that human civilization has overshot the capacity of the Earth to provide for it, that’s not in question. The question is about what forces are responsible for this, and what can we do about it?

For Hartmann and myself, the number of people alive is not nearly as important as the structure of the economic system in which we live. The planet could support 6, or maybe even 9, billion people living a low-impact lifestyle, based on community subsistence and a diet full of fruits and vegetables. But the planet cannot possibly support 6 billion people living like Americans, with their cars, and their computers, and their wars.

As with all things, the debate on “overpopulation” is a political debate, because its a question about who has power and who doesn’t. Placing the blame on poor women is just a way of ignoring the real power-holders: Large multinational corporations and Western capitalist governments.

Below are excerpts from an article that I found helpful in explaining this more clearly. [alex]

10 Reasons to Rethink “Overpopulation”

By the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College

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.’

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.

…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. … 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.

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.

…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.

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 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.

For more information on population issues, see: