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.
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.
“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