The Rebel Girl: Is Population the Problem?

Against the Current, No. 51, July/August 1994

Catherine Sameh

A DANGEROUS AND misguided notion continues to be expressed in some parts of the environmental movement today that the root cause of environmental problems is population growth. When activists in this movement link population control to the fight for safe and legal abortion, the results are troubling, particularly in the context of a growing anti-abortion and anti-contraception movement worldwide.

As women’s health and reproductive rights activists, we must challenge our allies in the environmental movement to reject even the “best” population control analyses and policies as fundamentally racist, sexist, anti-poor and anti-working class. Together we must oppose attempts everywhere in the world that deny women access to abortion and contraception, and at the same time oppose “family planning” schemes that target women’s fertility as the cause of poverty and ecological devastation.

It’s essential to maintain the distinction between population control and birth control: population control is the external domination over people’s reproductive lives while birth control involves individual autonomy and empowerment. The difference can be spotted easily in practice: Do family planning programs offer poor women an educated choice in the selection of birth control methods? Are hormonal methods promoted over less invasive technologies? Are appropriately trained medical personnel available for follow-up?

Today, as author and activist Betsy Hartmann points out, the population control establishment “has incorporated the language of women’s rights into its technocratic lexicon.” Powerful institutions such as the World Health Organization and the UN now include feminist demands like the education of women into their programs, at first glance giving the illusion of a more comprehensive approach. But in reality these programs still blame women for perpetuating the cycle of poverty by having more children, and fail to challenge the unequal global distribution of wealth and power.

Demographic data has illustrated two crucial points. First, while population growth rates have slowed in many countries, environmental conditions continue to get worse. This is not to say that reducing population growth has no effect on environmental conditions. But, as the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment points out, reducing population growth alone will not solve global environmental problems. Secondly, when women’s quality of life improves through increased economic opportunities, better and more comprehensive health care services, and access to education and political participation, population growth rates go down.

The root causes of global ecological deterioration are far more complex than any population control program reveals. For example, the Research Institute for Peace Policy in Starnberg, Germany estimates that twenty percent of all global environmental degradation can be directly or indirectly attributed to the military. This includes global air pollution, carbon dioxide, ozone-depletion, smog- and acid rain-forming chemicals. But the alarm bell is never rung for the military, industry or the affluent who consume luxury goods that generate significant pollution.

The Committee on Women, Population and the Environment outlines five major causes of environmental destruction in their statement calling for a new approach. These include “economic systems that exploit and misuse nature and people in the drive for short-term and short-sighted gains and profits,” and the “disproportionate consumption patterns of the affluent the world over.” Among other demands, the Committee calls on governments, international agencies and other social institutions to end programs which “sacrifice human dignity and basic needs for food, health and education to debt repayment and free market, male-dominated models of unsustainable development,” and to provide “affordable, culturally appropriate, and comprehensive health care and health education for women of all ages and their families.”

As the poverty of women and their families increases around the world, and as global ecological degradation worsens, activists in all movements must come together to construct thoughtful analyses and demand comprehensive changes like those that have come from the Committee. In the attempt to “get things done,” environmental and pro-choice activists must resist the temptation to look toward simple, but coercive, solutions. In fact, that’s the hallmark of conservatives—blame poverty on those who are poor.

For more information, contact the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment, do Population and Development Progran/SS, P.O. Box 5001, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA 010025001, Phone 413-582-5506, Fax 413-5825620.

July-August 1994, ATC 51