Should ‘population’ be on climate agenda?


 The fight to save the planet as a viable home to our species will require the most powerful social movement ever organized. Necessarily central to that project is solidarity and collaboration with those who are most immediately vulnerable to the dire effects of the capitalist carbon-fueled economy.

An international movement that fails to inspire and articulate the needs of the vast majority of the world’s population—made up of poor small farmers, fisherpeople, rural dwellers, and indigenous populations—will be completely ineffective. An international movement that fails to recognize the rights and autonomy of the women who are, at minimum, integral to these economies—and more often than not, the prime movers of these economies—is doomed to fail.

Unfortunately, the notion that “overpopulation” is contributing to climate change is leading to a new acceptance of old and reactionary ideas and policies promoting coercive family-planning programs in the underdeveloped world. Sensitive to a world public opinion that finds eugenic ideas loathsome, these family-planning programs are cloaked in language about the health and rights of women and children. Upon examination, it turns out that they are overtly motivated by neo-Malthusian arguments and ignore the basic principles honed by feminist activists attempting to completely bury the legacy of the racist, sexist, and anti-working-class legacy of the population control and eugenicist movements of the past.

The term neo-Malthusian is often used to refer to ideas that bear some of the political characteristics of the famous “Essay on the Principle of Population,” written by Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798. This book played an important ideological role for the European ruling classes in the wake of the Great French Revolution. It blamed poverty on a supposed “natural law” that said that the poor would reproduce faster than the food supply.

Thus, Malthus argued, poverty, disease, and early death of the majority of the working population was not the result of the nature of the economic system (human-made and therefore, changeable) but part of the natural order of things. Today, those who think that the size of the human population is the cause, or a major cause, of poverty and ecological destruction—called “populationists”—disagree with many of Malthus’ basic postulates, but the association sticks because they continue to blame the activity and reproduction of the poor for the climate crisis.

One of the most troubling initiatives based on these ideas is the global “Family Planning” project of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Others include a category of conservation programs referred to as “Population-Environment” or “PE” projects. Many of these are funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), an agency notorious for assisting U.S. imperialist aims abroad.

The danger to the moral and political authority of the climate justice movement posed by PE projects has been explored deeply by James Oldham, the founder of Las Lianas Resource Center, an organization that supports indigenous communities in the Amazon region. In a paper called “Rethinking the Link” and supported by the feminist Population and Development Center of Hampshire College, he discovered the ways in which Malthusian arguments regarding environmental degradation were being used to disrupt peasant economies and associate conservation with overt efforts at population control.

In many cases, these population control programs actually hindered more effective community-initiated and community-controlled efforts to protect the environment, giving political cover to gross neglect of women’s health and independence, and performing ideological work that minimized the role of both colonialism and current imperialist intervention to create situations friendly to corporate profit in creating ecological havoc. At minimum, the coercive aspects of PE projects, which offer some reproductive health aid in return for peasants giving up land, are immoral and make new solidarities in the interest of the climate impossible.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose literature stresses their interest in women’s health and universal access to voluntary family planning without “coercion or discrimination,” in fact, has targeted Sub-Saharan Africa as the site of a massive distribution of the dangerous long-acting contraceptive, Depo-Provera. Depo-Provera is a contraceptive used on female U.S. prisoners because it is injected once and its effect lasts two years.

This particular contraceptive has been chosen by the Gates Foundation, because, combined with a new syringe-less device they are developing, it can be administered without any medical personnel on hand. That is, it will reduce poor rural populations without the cost of building a real medical infrastructure to take care of the diseases that actually increase mortality. Depo-Provera often produces devastating side effects, including loss of libido and dangerously brittle bones (osteoporosis), in very young women.

The long-acting impact and side effects of Depo-Provera mean that it is used disproportionately, in circumstances likely to be coercive, on women of color. (In 2011, seventy-two percent of all injectable long-acting contraceptives shipped by USAID went to Africa.) In addition, a 2012 Lancet report indicated that the drug might double the risk of HIV transmission. Yet, it is being pushed as an alternative to other birth-control methods that require international and national commitments to real health care, to say nothing of support to movements capable of challenging the imperialist economic order and the poverty and sexism it fosters.

If the climate movement in the United States becomes associated with the coercion, racism, and arrogance of the population projects pushed by USAID and the Gates Foundation, we will be cutting ourselves off from some of the most important allies for the struggle ahead.

Again and again, the working poor and farmers of the underdeveloped world have risen up to challenge the U.S. and Europe and demanded another kind of world based on human needs. Today, the international movements against GMOs, for food sovereignty, against the privatization of water, etc., are led by women from the underdeveloped world, whose empowerment and autonomy is critical to our struggle.

Part of building a global movement to stop warming is educating ourselves and other activists about the dangers that the “populationists” pose—to women, to those under the imperialist boot, to working people, and to true climate justice. For a wealth of information and curricula on these issues, visit the website of Pop/Dev: For People, For Justice, For the Environment.

To help build a climate justice movement that places women and international solidarity at the center, consider joining Socialist Action.

Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action



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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


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