Admit it Betsy, we agree: part 1

Feminism in conflict with concerns over population growth?Readers here know there are those who argue world population growth is not a problem. Most prominent are groups with certain political axes to grind, usually from a right wing economic perspective, often advocating free market capitalism and opposed to government intervention in environmental matters. Some libertarian “think tanks” typify this group. They tout the party line with regard to the current dominant economic model. I disagree strongly with those groups, have touched briefly on that disagreement in previous essays, and will do so in more depth in the future.

A bit less prominent among critics of the environmental perspective on population is a subset of academics writing from a feminist perspective. They argue any focus on population is a distraction from the real issues, works against women’s rights, and promotes racism and class bias. One of the best known authors from this camp is Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.

Reading some of her online writings, I set out to examine where she and I disagreed. Though I expected to encounter worthwhile ideas, I also anticipated frustration concerning our points of clear divergence. I was surprised instead to conclude that, on certain fundamentals, Betsy Hartmann and I do not seriously disagree. (That may not be at all obvious until Part 2.) Therefore these two essays are not so much a sharp refutation — as might be my typical approach — as a careful look at where and how I agree and disagree with her positions. My hope is that these essays might become a small stepping stone toward fuller agreement and cooperation between those in the environmental camp concerned with population and the particular feminist camp in which Dr. Hartmann resides. I should add, however, that I have read only a small portion of her work. I hope to read more, and cannot rule out changing my assessment as a result.

For this essay, I looked for a succinct sampling of Hartmann’s views on population. I chose her critique of 1994’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Obviously, it’s not her newest work, but when comparing it to more recent brief overviews of the topic by her or her colleagues, the main points are largely the same. And this article contains a few comments which, when examined closely, reveal important points of overlap between her views and those of environmentalists who deal with population. Let’s take a look.

Is there a population-poverty link?

In her critique Hartmann explains her disagreement with several facets of what she calls “the new population consensus,” that is, the consensus coming out of the Cairo conference, which her writings suggest she equates with the views of many environmentalists who talk about population growth. The first facet concerns the relationship between population and poverty.

She points to an assumption that population growth is an important cause of poverty. She argues, instead, “[T]he inequitable distribution of wealth and power is the main cause of poverty — not population growth. According to the United Nations, global income disparity has doubled during the last three decades…”

Most of my focus on GIM has been on the link between population growth and environmental degradation. So I am less prepared to take a strong position on the issue of population and poverty. I will mention, though, that before accepting Hartmann’s argument on this point I’d like to see some evidence suggesting population growth is not one of the factors driving the growing global income disparity she mentions.

Additionally, a simple observation leads me to remain skeptical of the notion that population growth is not one cause of poverty: Does not a family of seven cost more to support than a family of three?

Finally, other experts do link population growth with poverty. Jeffrey Sachs, for instance, has pointed out, “[I]n Africa and the Middle East, high fertility rates are leading to profound local environmental pressures… thereby worsening the grave economic challenges these countries face.” One would think there is a vicious cycle at work. Poverty leads families to have more children, and population growth exacerbates poverty.

I believe Hartman is right, however, to point to the importance of inequitable wealth distribution in creating poverty; I merely think she is too quick to dismiss population growth as another important factor in the equation. (Here’s an informative article on the topic from the School of Economics, University of the Philipinnes – PDF.)

What about environmental degradation?

Here, Hartmann’s basic argument is simple. She says population growth is not a key driver of environmental degradation. She makes some valid observations on this topic, but they do not provide convincing support for such a strong assertion. For instance, she says, “As for environmental degradation, it is no secret that Western industrialized countries consume the bulk of the Earth’s resources.”

I would counter that, while its true developed countries consume the bulk of the world’s resources, the gap between developed and developing countries is closing. China, for example, now consumes more of some resources than the U.S. Despite China’s low per capita consumption levels, they beat the U.S. here due to sheer numbers. (In fairness, those particular statistics were not available at the time Hartmann wrote her article.)

Per capita, industrialized societies do tend to far out-consume developing countries. But this does not diminish the importance of population growth. As I’ve shown here previously, the relevant equation is per capita consumption times population size. In countries such as the U.S., population growth is a serious problem as each new person added consumes much more than a counterpart in a developing country. Moreover, in developing countries, per capita consumption rates are rising rapidly while, in many cases, population continues to climb as well. The product of the equation in those countries is therfore quickly increasing in magnitude.

Hartmann goes on to say, “[T]he precise dynamics of environmental degradation in the Third World are considerably more complex than the population consensus suggests. In the case of deforestation, for example, corporate logging and ranching are the main culprits”

That’s true as far as it goes. As shown here in a past essay, “In some parts of the world, local population growth is the major culprit. In the Amazon… the guilt goes to classic examples of conventional, unsustainable economic growth.” But such observations say little about the underlying role of population on a larger level. Even when corporate logging or ranching is the main culprit, we have to ask where the growing demand for those corporate products comes from. The contribution of population growth is obvious. (4/24/08, Update: See Jeffrey McKee’s work, described in Sparing Nature, for much information on the fundamental relationship between human population and species extinction.)

Hartmann says, “A critique of the dominant economic model and its impact on the environment was conveniently left out of Cairo conference… Overconsumption is part of a larger production and distribution system that puts quick profits before basic human needs and environmental protection.”

I completely agree. The dominant economic model represents a profound problem, both for the ecosystem and human justice. Discussion of this topic should be included in any serious examination of environmental degradation. Overconsumption is linked to that economic model. Again, though, that unfortunately does not let population growth off the hook. It combines with per capita consumption to determine our overall resource consumption.

It is my impression that Dr. Hartmann sees the population issue as a distraction. Her concern is that we recognize the importance of women’s and other social issues in their own right, and that we properly address them. In Part 2, I will suggest that denial of the importance of population growth is not the best way to accomplish that.

Part 2 will begin with a look at the question of women’s rights. It is the central component of Dr. Hartmann’s argument.

Here is part 2.

Image source: posted on Wikimedia Commons as a public domain image.

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8 responses to “Admit it Betsy, we agree: part 1

  1. Like you, I can’t imagine population growth not be an integral part of everyone’s thinking about our planet and sustainability, but I like Hartmann’s approach as well. Here’s an example of why I do:

    The issue of deforestation being linked to population growth is one of proximate causes. Trees are being cut down in some areas because subsistance farmers need arable land or simply space on which to live. One could say, then, it is growth in the number of subsistance farmers that is the cause of deforestation, thus a population growth problem which might be mitigated by population control measures (e.g. family planning services, tax penalties, withdrawl of priviledges from large families).

    On the other hand, the same situation can be seen as one of lack of economic development and economic/political fairness. If farmers had the means to farm more sustainably and more profitably or had other educational and occupational choices, that solves the problem without reference to population growth. In this view the (less proximate) cause of deforestation is economic or more generally a human rights issue: equal access to education and fair distribution of national resources for the well-being of the nation (and the world). This might generate a different set of corrective measures.

    I doubt this sort of thing escaped your thinking and look forward to the second part of your post.

  2. Trinifar, I think that really hits on the key issue here. Though in Part 1, I’ve quibbled with a lot of details in Hartmann’s way of seeing this, most of my disagreement boils down to just a couple of things. Unfortunately, those things are difficult to dissect clearly, but here’s a shot at it which may help me to revise Part 2 before posting it:

    Since there are a great many social and economic problems needing attention, and not all of them strongly impact fertility rates, we must be careful to address all those which do. Otherwise we risk helping with some array of human problems while watching the human population continue to grow in a finite world. (Of course we must also address other social and economic problems which may not be so directly tied to fertility rates because of their importance in their own right.)

    Similarly, in some instances, such as the scenario you describe, we might make progress in solving some environmental problem, but without influencing fertility rates, again risking seeing population continue to grow toward or beyond the earth’s limits. (Focusing only on non-fertility-linked issues may be okay in particular instances, such as the one you mention, as long as we maintain a simultaneous focus on stabilizing world population.)

    Hartmann calls, essentially, for a complete dismissal of the idea that population growth is a problem in itself. She tries to weave an argument that population growth simply isn’t a cause of environmental degradation. That is, I think she would say world population could just keep on growing without creating problems as long as we address certain social and economic concerns she sees as the causes of environmental degradation. I wonder if she fully believes that. My guess is that she simply takes her argument to an extreme in order to drive home her point about population distracting us from important human problems. For no matter how well we do in dealing with all the economic and social problems which contribute to environmental degradation, if our actions do not also stabilize world population we’ll inevitably run into the consequences of overshooting the limits to growth. So on this matter, I do disagree with her, though I wonder if she really believes the whole of her own argument.

    But in at least one key area I really agree with her. Because I’m a believer in dealing with root causes, and because I appreciate the importance of those social and economic factors in their own right, I agree with Hartmann that it’s best to focus on dealing with those factors for their own sake. In the process, by working to solve those problems, we also happen to take the best possible steps for bringing down fertility rates. But we do need to make sure that included in the factors we address are all those which influence fertility rates.

    Well, I’ll make this a little clearer in Part 2. :-/

  3. Magne Karlsen

    Trinifar: “the same situation can be seen as one of lack of economic development and economic/political fairness. ”

    John: “Because I’m a believer in dealing with root causes, and because I appreciate the importance of those social and economic factors in their own right …”

    – —

    You people are just great! 🙂

    But: “Money talks, and hey we’re listening.” Check it out.

    … in which the greatest utopist of all time (Jean-Jacques Rouseau) reached the conclusion that the root cause of inequality amongst humans is to be found in the institution of property … uh humm: this is the exact place where my mind power starts to fail me, and the ambitions of my soul goes to rest …

    Because this is the last and final taboo. This is where all the human vices find their cause. I am ready to accept, in a factual manner, the notion that “the property sin” comes as an integral part of what we might call “human nature”. We just cannot do anything about this.

    However: just like one of “the environment site” forum users stated yesterday: “”We have to dare to think differently and cooperatively in a way that profiteering and personal fortune is taken out of the equation.” – I’m of exactly the same opinion.

    Problem is: I do not believe it is possible to achieve this. Dreams like these simply do not come true. So even though every sane person can instinctively understand that human beings ought to co-operate here, unfortunately, we all basically know that human beings (the social creatures) are natural competitors and not co-operators, like we should have been.

    I know this comment is a wee bit off topic. But I also know that this wretched problem is bound to be discussed more often than ever before. It is way too important, and – in the long run – absolutely impossible for anyone to ignore.

  4. Pingback: Admit it Betsy, we agree: part 2 « Growth is Madness!

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  6. signature103

    Hi to John and everyone else here who have commented:

    Population is a definite problem and avoid it is simply irresponsible.

    However, I think we do need to get back to the basics of overconsumption, that if only developed nations can lower their consumption (a talk order as Magne mentioned here).

    Also, we tend to forget American population growth is not simply due to birth. The 4 percent per annum immigration equates to an extra 12 million people per year. The number of whom who come from developing nations is unclear but at any rate these people are consuming at the same per capita rate as the rest of the country.

    This means it is not only a population problem but an attitude problem. I have said this many times before but moving towards developed status is not such a great thing. It is possible to live with lower consumption levels and be happy.

    Whether free market capitalism and its supporters will let us have our free choice is another matter.

    Either way, population growth and movement (linked by disparity between the rich and poor, and the migration of people from poor to rich “zones”) needs to be stabilized, and the consumption of developed nations must be lowered dramatically.

    This does not mean people in poorer nations should not raise their standard of living. But raising it does not imply a greater rise in consumption. Again, that is only what the free market capitalists want you to believe. In other words, to consume (indiscriminately) is to be better off. I say “no”. Because it is possible to consumption wisely.

    But everybody here understands this so well I don’t need to go on.

    For the feminist angle, I must leave that for my comment in Part 2.

  7. signature103,

    Good points all. Consumption is indeed a major problem, though my focus on population and economic issues here sometimes makes it seem as though I’m underemphasizing it. It’s late, so I’m going to come back to this tomorrow to respond a little more. In fact, I want to first read your two new posts on technology (at sustainability theory dharma) as that clearly ties in here as well.

  8. Pingback: immigration and US population growth « Trinifar