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.