Admit it Betsy, we agree: part 2

In Part 1 of this essay, I began to examine Betsy Hartmann’s argument that population growth is not a serious problem, and that it distracts us from real problems of women’s rights, racism, and class bias. Assessing her critique of 1994’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, I touched on her arguments concerning poverty and environmental degradation. For neither does she readily accept population growth as playing an important causal role. I acknowledged her valid points, but disagreed with certain assertions, particularly concerning the environmental issue. Now let’s turn to the question of women’s issues and how they relate to population growth.

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Does a focus on population work against women’s rights?

Those who study population know there is a negative correlation between fertility rates and the provision of educational, work, and other opportunities for girls and women. Efforts to improve these opportunities is thus a central part of the work of many population organizations. But Hartmann writes, “[P]lacing women’s rights within a population framework is fraught with peril. First, gender can be used to obscure issues of class and race, and inequalities between North and South.”

So she points to a risk presented by a focus on population and efforts to address it by empowering women. Understandably, she does not want to see a focus on population obscure certain human issues, hurting or failing sufficiently to help the very women it aims to assist. So she pushes us to act as though population growth were not a problem.

I would have less objection to this, if we could know for sure that in our efforts to alleviate the human issues Hartmann mentions, the social and economic factors fueling high fertility rates would be thoroughly addressed such that those rates come down. But when we do not intentionally seek out all those factors we can have no such guarantee. As I suggested in a reply to Trinifar under Part 1 of this essay, not all social and economic problems correlate equally strongly with fertility rates. So if we do want to stabilize world population, we must be sure that among those problems we address, we give appropriate attention to those most influencing population growth in a particular region. If we want to bring down fertility rates, the ways we address relevant social and health issues will vary according to whether or not we keep population itself squarely in mind.

Avoiding talking about a problem isn’t the way to solve it. Consider a doctor treating an illness. If she ignores the symptoms she may neglect certain crucial aspects of treatment.

In this case, the symptom is deadly. Millions, possibly billions of lives could be at stake. We must therefore be especially careful to face it forthrightly. It is difficult to see it otherwise as long as we remain aware that population growth in a finite world is fundamentally unsustainable.

Nor does tackling population growth head on have to lead to the problems Hartmann fears. Her argument seems to involve a kind of unnecessary “either/or” thinking: Either we address population or, out of concern for obscuring important issues of class and race, we instead address those issues directly, ignoring the issue of population.

Why can’t we do both? We can acknowledge the importance of population, acknowledge that the need to empower women is a crucial issue of human justice in its own right, and acknowledge that one of the benefits of doing so is to lower fertility rates, thus working toward population stabilization. However well intended, pushing aside the problem of population is to blur our vision of the issues with which we’re dealing. We’re better off exposing everything to the light and working with these interrelated issues accordingly.

Hartmann argues, “[T]he consensus aims to empower women — but only in a limited fashion. [It would] give women greater access to education, since female literacy has been correlated with lower fertility. Education is politically safer than advocating land redistribution and the unionization of women workers, for instance.”

I completely agree with her concerns here and would urge that they be addressed. We need not deny the population issue to do that. We can give both women’s empowerment and population the attention they deserve.

Reproductive health

Hartmann continues:

“Another important assumption of the consensus is that population policy should shift from a narrow focus on family planning to a broader reproductive health approach…” She acknowledges this is a good thing, but warns, “[I]t will be difficult, if not impossible, for Southern governments to implement a reproductive health approach in the context of deteriorating public health systems and conditions…”

So she’s saying this ideal is good, but may be impossible to make a reality. But surely we can’t opt to do nothing. Even simple family planning programs, if well planned so as to avoid less safe or otherwise problematic forms of birth control, are a positive step, giving women greater control, more options, and addressing population growth as well. Nor am I sure it’s impossible to provide at least a basic level of broader reproductive health care. In a comment here, for example, Karen Gaia Pitts described a $5 birthing kit she saw distributed to expectant mothers in Bangladesh. Yes, it’s rudimentary, but is a step beyond a family-planning-only or contraception-only approach.


Hartmann then moves on to the problem of coercion: “Although the Cairo plan criticizes coercive population control programs… it contains no institutional mechanisms to curb abuses.”

Though I’ve not researched the influence today of the Cairo conference, the clear answer, I think, is to do what is necessary to ensure such safeguards.

What about the U.S.?

Turning to the issue of population growth in the U.S., Hartmann says, “Within the U.S., the greatest danger of the population consensus lies in its intersection with the right-wing politics of scapegoating immigrants and poor women, particularly women of color.”

Such as danger does exist. In researching the issue, I have noticed that some of the groups advocating immigration reduction, ostensibly to reduce population growth for legitimate reasons, appear, to varying degrees, to have racist connections, at least in their histories. Some no doubt pursue racist agendas today. Others do not, and act purely out of environmental concerns.

But to ignore the issue of population in order to avoid the appearance of siding with the former groups, or to avoid inadvertently furthering their agenda, is to turn away from reality at a time when scientists warn us we are near or beyond the number of people the earth can support. We must not avoid confronting population growth simply because some racists mention the same issue for completely different and abhorent reasons. (If criminals encouraged people to walk to work so they could mug them, would that mean others should avoid encouraging people to walk to work for the health and environmental benefits?) To do so only blurs our vision of the problems we must solve if we are to avoid the full impact of ecological collapse.

In the end, not so different

I’ve outlined a number of points of disagreement. Yet in her conclusion, Hartmann’s words reveal the ultimate insignificance of the difference between her views and those of environmentalists concerned with population. She says:

Instead of focusing primarily on population numbers, governments and NGOs should pursue women’s rights, including reproductive rights, social and economic justice, and ecologically sustainable development as ends in and of themselves. In the process, population growth rates will come down. Demographic data from around the globe affirm that improvements in women’s status and in general living standards are keys to reductions in population growth.

In the end, then, she hints strongly at a concession that population is a problem. She points out that addressing women’s issues is key to reducing population growth. That could as easily be a summary of my own or many other environmentalists’ views! The only real difference is that Betsy Hartmann is urging us, in essence, to pretend we aren’t interested in population growth so that we might appreciate the importance of women’s and other human rights issues in themselves. In the process, we are reassured, population will take care of itself.

I suggest, on the other hand, that we can acknowledge the importance of women’s and other social issues apart from their connection with population while simultaneously recognizing the importance of the population issue and the need to empower women if we are to solve it.

Clearly, despite differences in perspective, Betsy Hartmann’s suggestions for addressing women’s issues, and mine and other environmentalists’ ideas for tackling the population problem overlap closely. I believe Dr. Hartmann’s ideas might actually be reconciled with the views of those who call for population stabilization on environmental grounds. And that would be a great thing. Rapprochement and cooperation would only strengthen the work of both groups.
Image sources: Erik++, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license; christopherbaa, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license

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14 responses to “Admit it Betsy, we agree: part 2

  1. Magne Karlsen

    I quote from The Boston Globe article, linked above: “For the first time, the report compared national and regional population trends with environmental indicators, highlighting stresses that growing populations are placing on nature, according to the report and outside analysts.”

    The report was published in August 2006.

  2. Magne Karlsen

    I quote from the Conclusions of the report (p. 55): “The US has become a “super-size” nation, with lifestyles reflected in “super-sized” appetites for food, houses, land and resource consumption. In fact, “more of more” seems to characterize modern day America – more people than any generation before us experienced, more natural resources being utilized to support everyday life, and now, more major impacts on the natural systems that support life on Earth.”

  3. Magne,

    Those are good sources.

    I found it hard to formulate exactly what I wanted to say in those two posts. I think that is because it’s difficult in the article cited to tell exactly what Hartmann believes. It appears to be one of two things:

    (a) Population growth is not a cause (or not an important cause) of environmental degradation. In places she does say that, such as here:

    ([Edit] That does not list her as author, but comes from her program, and is presumably consistent with her views.)

    If that is her contention, I think it’s clear it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The mere consideration of an ever growing population on a finite earth goes a long way toward refuting it. And that is before even considering the conclusions of large numbers of scientists and scientific organizations.

    But if that’s her argument, I acknowledge the importance of the issues on which she does want us to focus, but cannot agree at all with her dismissal of population as a problem.

    (b) Population is a cause of environmental degradation, but because it is driven by various women’s issues, and social and economic factors, it will take care of itself if we just focus on alleviating the issues she mentions. She comes very close to saying that at the end of the article critiqued in the post above. And, though it was a bit of a guess on my part, that’s what I concluded was her “bottom line” argument.

    And if that’s her argument, then, as I described, there is really only a minor (I think) difference of perspective between that and my view (or yours or that of many others in the environmental camp). [1] Should we look at those social issues as the “root cause” of population growth and consequent environmental degradation? That’s a valid perspective. But it loses a key element if we take it to mean we should then deny the importance of population in that sequence. It is, as Trinifar mentioned in comments, the more proximate cause of environmental degradation.

    By the way, it’s worth noting that when looking at “root causes,” we can usually find a deeper root cause for every root cause we identify. There are root causes of the social issues Hartmann identifies. But we shouldn’t therefore deny the importance of those social issues in our efforts to address those deeper root causes. You know?

    [1] Yes, the environmental view might lead to a bit more willingness to approach population with things like tax incentives, but in the end that seems a fairly minor difference which should be possible to resolve, but certainly should not create serious divisions.

  4. John: “Rapprochement and cooperation would only strengthen the work of both groups.”

    Well put!

    It’s always frustrating when a group of people — all working toward mutually benefitial goals like women’s rights, social justice, and environmental sustainability — begin to snipe at each other with some version of “My goal is more important than your goal” or worse “Your goal is interferring with my goal so let’s stop talking about your concerns.” Your response to Hartmann avoids that and goes to extra mile in seeking rapprochement and cooperation.

    Easing population pressure benefits everyone, so does strengthening women’s rights. Yet, all causes can be abused. No one wants to see measures mitigating population pressure having the side effect of harming women’s or anyone else’s rights.

    Hartmann in my opinion is just plain wrong to argue that the spotlight should be taken off population growth so it can shine more brightly on women’s rights. The answer is to make a more powerful light which can properly illuminate both concerns — which calls, as you note, for cooperation.

    The issue of poverty disccussed in part 1 of this series is another example. I think poverty is clearly caused by the nature of our economic and social systems, but also than any reasonable person must accept that it is made vastly worse, much harder to fix, by population pressure. The latter part is so sadly simple: more people, less physical resources to go around. In extreme conditions of poverty and population, children become devalued as human beings and perhaps seen more as a potential source of helping hands: having more children is a (horrible) way to create more cash producing resources. Very poor people do sell their children, yet I think that mostly is a problem only in crowded countries.

  5. Well put John. There need be no conflict between feminism and addressing growth. Oh by the way, I stumbled on this interesting blog post on growth:

  6. Trinifar:

    Easing population pressure benefits everyone, so does strengthening women’s rights. Yet, all causes can be abused. No one wants to see measures mitigating population pressure having the side effect of harming women’s or anyone else’s rights…. The answer is to make a more powerful light which can properly illuminate both concerns — which calls, as you note, for cooperation.

    Those lines and your whole comment sum up the issue beautifully. The stakes are too high for sniping between groups that could so easily be reinforcing each other’s work.


    Thanks. That’s a good overview of exponential growth. That’s a topic I need to post on. (I have in the past, on my old blog), but need to here.

    There is some debate these days over whether world population growth is currently exponential in nature (because growth rates have fallen in the last few decades). I’ve found experts who say it is, and others who say it isn’t. (It takes some pretty advanced math — beyond what my own background provides anyway — to really be able to assess the question.) But that question doesn’t much matter given that the growth is still vigorous. And people should understand the nature of exponential growth to understand what has happened to population growth over the last couple of centuries. Al Bartlett’s talk, which he’s given over 1,500 times, is a great one hour overview of it.

  7. Magne Karlsen

    “When growth is exponential, limits are sudden.”

    – —

    John: when it comes to the human population’s exponentional growth pattern, I believe the word’s out. At least I know that I (my personal self) made it pretty clear back in 2004, that the 3-births-per-woman pattern simply couldn’t be allowed to continue. Since then, many people have made active use of great many forms of non-verbal communication in order to tell me that they’ve heard about it. As I said sometime before, here on your blog, my simple maths of population explosion probably the main reason why people tend to hate me … instinctively …

    Now, people’s reactions towards me makes me understand that a lot things, believe me. About the present world ecological crisis (in which the reproductive life of humans has a way of putting us inside that jungle again), and what it means to people.

    As it is, right now: the world’s population is no longer growing exponentially. I expect that some more local populations are still growing exponentially. Especially in regions where the cultural norm of extended family clan relations is the order of the day. – And, of course, within some fundamentalist religious communities of “every sperm is sacred” attitudes.

    Anyway. Anyway. … I don’t know how else to put it. …

  8. Magne Karlsen

    ON SEX / GENDER ISSUES: it is absolutely all-important that the female must be allowed to exert control over what is going on “downstairs” (he-he), inside her vagina. And womb.

  9. signature103


    From the quick read of what you and everyone wrote here I think we can all agree.

    A fight for women’s rights is also a fight for the right of the poor. But the philosophy of the rich developed nations and its people isn’t “let’s not give them their riches” but rather “let’s not give up our riches”. I feel we need to give up some of our riches to the poor. I do not mean to make them as rich as “us”. Because that will only make the overconsumption problem worse. But that we should reduce our consumption to be more like the poor.

    I do not think living in a house that is not well insulated is a bad thing (as a matter of fact, my house is really poorly insulated for a modern country like Japan). There are other ways to keep warm without additional consumption (wearing more is one way and it does not burn fuel).

    In short, we have been too spoiled to ever wanting to give up the luxuries and comforts we have. We must simply work hard from both ends. The poor must not aspire to be like the gluttonous rich and the obese man (to be fair, it is men) must learn to lose some weight.

    Moderation, whether from the Buddhist perspective or not, is necessary.

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