A couple of days ago I spotted something rare — an article from the mainstream press looking squarely at the population issue. Reprinted on Alternet with the title, It’s Time to Fight Population Growth, Which Exacerbates Global Warming and Sprawl, Katha Pollitt’s piece appeared originally in The Nation, as Europeans do it Better.
Pollitt’s feminist perspective on population growth competes with, and arguably trumps that of Betsy Hartmann. Hartmann is so concerned that a focus on population will distract from such problems as women’s rights and class bias that she mostly refuses even to acknowledge that population growth is a problem. Pollitt though, judging from her article, chooses simply to see each set of problems for what it is. There are women’s and other social issues and there is population growth. Yes, they interact in important ways, but each must be acknowledged and examined in its own right to understand and approach it effectively.
Pollitt’s piece is important in part because it has a feminist writer bringing to a wider audience the recognition that the traditional drivers of population growth are disempowering to women. (That is why the need to address population growth should rightly be seen, in part, as a feminist cause.)
Isn’t it weird?
She explains that some European governments, concerned about the prospects of declining populations, have instituted policies aimed at increasing fertility rates. The traditional methods of doing this are no longer prevalent, or no longer work as well in modern Europe. She lists them: “early marriage, lack of sex ed and birth control, religious propaganda, community pressure, denial of education and jobs to women.” Seeking new methods that do work to boost fertility rates, governments are trying now to support working mothers with things like paid parental leave and better child care options. The thinking seems to be that without such support women in these countries often feel forced to chose between work and children. The hope is to make it easier to do both, thereby creating more children — the ones who wouldn’t have been born to
women choosing work over kids. 
This, as Pollitt puts it, is a case of government doing the right thing for the wrong reason. It’s right to make things easier on working mothers, but doing so in the hope of boosting fertility rates in a world of 6.6 billion, in countries often containing much larger populations today than a half century ago, is short sighted. Pollitt asks, “Isn’t it weird to promote population growth while we wring our hands over global warming, environmental damage, species loss and suburban sprawl?”
Governments’ concerns over population loss are, of course, purely economic. The focus is on the fear of a loss of younger people to pay into social security and to care for the elderly in the coming decades. There is little attention paid to the problem that there won’t be much economy to worry about if the ecological impacts of population growth are allowed to continue. They would do better to maintain the focus on equal opportunities for women — which is unlikely to boost fertility rates very much anyway — while examining how best to adjust economically to what appear to be smaller future populations. Pollitt suggests that in these countries “population decline looks practically inevitable… so why not learn to live with it?” Why not, indeed.
As for countries whose fertility rates are still above replacement level, look back at Pollitt’s list of the traditional ways of boosting fertility rates. Just a glance makes clear why providing options and equal treatment for women is a major step in addressing the population problem.
Where’s the racism?
Just as notable are Pollitt’s observations concerning the tinge of racism or nationalism in much of the fretting over population declines in certain historically white countries. These governments want to produce not just more workers but, as Pollitt puts it, “ethnically correct workers, too, not the troublesome immigrant kind.” (We don’t see them countering waning fertility rates by opening their borders.) Pollitt suggests they instead bring into mainstream society all those children and adults most countries now cast aside:
Poor children, for example — why can’t they grow up to be those missing skilled, educated people and productive workers? What about the children of France’s Arab immigrants who rioted two years ago to protest joblessness and social exclusion? The Gypsies of Eastern Europe, whose kids are written off at birth and who have been sterilized without their consent in Slovakia and the Czech Republic? Vladimir Putin bemoans Russia’s free-falling population, but babies are still being stashed in his country’s appalling orphanages. Get those kids out of there, or stop complaining!
Pollitt’s piece leads easily to the observation that there is complaining in the US press, as well, about declining European fertility rates. The most vocal comes from the far right in the form of free marketeers and Christian fundamentalists. Here again it is not a great stretch to see racist undertones. Clearly the promoters of free market capitalism, in their support of global corporatization, continue a long tradition of hegemony which, if you say it slowly, has a curious tendency to sound a lot like “r-a-c-i-s-m.” And while those on the Christian right may be suffering simply from faith-based illogic, one can’t help thinking of the hegemony in evangelism and missionary work.
Ironically, one of the favorite arguments of those who deny the population problem, who include some such as Hartmann on the left, is to label efforts to address it as racist or oppressive. They claim concern over population pits First Worlders against Third Worlders, or puts the blame for our problems on the latter. I’ve maintained here that this idea is misguided, that the truth is exactly the opposite, precisely because empowering women and other humane measures, such as improving childhood survival, are central to any well planned effort to reduce fertility rates. It’s hard to tell where this argument originated, but population denialists on the right are more than willing to adopt it. Is this because it distracts from the real racism inherent in their world dominating views?
 How well such policies actually work is open to question. They might be seen, after all, as an extension of the very sorts of policies often suggested and occasionally used in Third World countries to empower women for the purpose of bringing fertility rates down. Clearly, though, each involves different variables and is applied under very different social and cultural conditions.
Image source: celesteh, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license
While I definitely think there should be an encouragement of negative population growth, I think that is never going to happen in third world countries. I don’t know if it can be communicated to them effectively.
I think what G8 countries should instead is focus on the own consumerism by it’s people. The environment and the damage that is being done to the world is done mainly by G8 countries.
The factories, the pollution, the destruction of nature is all done so that people in G8 countries can have stuff.
While education in regards to developing nations should take place, I think the actions of places like the US should be scrutinized much more closely.
I haven’t looked this up, but what do you think will kill us first (if it goes unchecked hopefully this won’t happen) the pollution of the US and China or a continuous trend of positive population growth?
In most third world countries, whenever times of trouble show up, people depend exclusively on family members’ practical aid and financial assistance. There typically are no public health care systems, and no social welfare allowances available. Consequently, in third world countries, dealing with the overpopulation issue is not just a question of communicating the problem to the people; it is also a question of how to make life itself, without a large family, at all possible.
As so often is the case, problems of this nature tend, first and foremost, to end up as a question of governance.
Pollitt asks, “Isn’t it weird to promote population growth while we wring our hands over global warming, environmental damage, species loss and suburban sprawl?”
We’ve got one problem known as “manmade climate change”, and then, on top of that, we’ve got this funny concept of “population explosion” … er? … interesting, eh? …
In regards to third world country it is a well known fact that the family is social services, so what do we do? The only solutions that G8 nations know in regards to not having to have a large family is capitalism.
We tell people in third world countries, “What you need to do is have a business and exploit people…” Not in so many words, but pretty close it seems.
Now the problem is that once you introduce captialism into a country you have the problem of consumerism and the problems that go along with it, which is why you have the US 5% of population of the world making 25% of the carbon dioxide.
I am not trying to be a contrarian, but what is the least harmful solution? How do we in industrial countries (especially people in America, I don’t know what country the people who post here are from) tell someone else to not have babies when we are very heavily responsible for the warming planet? Even the polution that is caused in third world countries is because places like the US goes in and destroys (see the rainforest in Brazil) it. The US goes to Mexico and dumps trash, it cuts the rainforest down to make hamburgers.
Do not think I am not for population control, I truly believe that is a component in stopping the destruction of the planet. I’m a big believer in adoption. Also my partner is “fixed,” so we’re definitely not having children, but how do we deal with population control without spreading consumerism. I think that is the key. We can’t make little jr united states all over the place, look at what the original United States is doing to the planet.
Possibly these are all rhetorical questions that can’t be answered, but something for me to think about some more while I’m suppose to be working.
I totally agree with everything you said. _ 🙂
“We can’t make little jr united states all over the place” … that’s a very good point, and I’ve been among those who has repeatedly been making a statement like that, not only here but on other sustainability blogs and discussion forums as well. – Unfortunately though, I know that the world civilization is becoming more and more Americanized. “The American Way of Life” has become the modern credo for all the peoples of this planet: it’s what every other nation is trying to emulate. If – in Nigeria for example – you are able to lead an American life (believe me: many Nigerians do just that), you’ve got every right to consider this life of yours a total success story. –
You see: what we really need is a civilizational shift. Not only in American and the Western world, but all over the planet. Everyone needs to accept the reality of over-consumption, first and foremost. But also the need to co-operate, rather than constantly compete. If ever there was a time in history where the very idea of co-operation should come as a self-evident fact of life, it should be right now – as the whole planet Earth – including all of its peoples, nations, and cultures – are facing manmade climate change and a nauseating variety of other forms of ecological stress syndroms.
I need peace. And so do you. And you, and you, and you.
P.S.: Unlike most of the people who post here, I am not from the USA. I’m from Norway. In this country, CO2 emissions have risen by 14% since the year 1990.
You raise some key points. Let me try to offer a few thoughts on them in no particular order.
The question of consumption in the G8 countries versus population growth in the Third world is a little complicated, but there is actually a simple equation which helps to clarify the issue. It’s essentially that total consumption (either globally or within a country) equals population size times the average level of per capita consumption. If you feel like reading more on it, I wrote two posts on this here:
But the gist is that in most parts of the world, both factors in the equation (pop and consumption) need to be attended to. In the US, for instance, consumption levels are so high that it’s insane not to address that. It really, really needs to come down. (tall order, I know…) At the same time, each person added to the population here has many times the impact of a person added to the population of, say, India. So population growth in the US is a real problem as well.
That said, while per capita consumption is much lower in places like India and China, they have such large populations that (in some cases) their total consumption is high, just by sheer force of numbers. China, for instance, has surpassed the US in total consumption of some resources (meat, steel, coal) just because of their numbers. Just as important is that the per capita consumption levels of China, India, and other developing countries are rising and expected to keep doing so at a pretty good clip. (And we certainly can’t fault them for that; everyone wants to live a more consumptive, Western lifestyle.) So, the product of that pop x consumption equation is going to be going up very fast in those countries. What I’ve concluded is that we simply can’t ignore either factor in the equation in any part of the world.
I haven’t looked this up, but what do you think will kill us first (if it goes unchecked hopefully this won’t happen) the pollution of the US and China or a continuous trend of positive population growth?
Well, don’t forget that all that pollution and the other effects of our incredible overconsumption is made much worse by our large and growing numbers. (that equation again) So it’s hard to separate the two. If forced to choose, I’d say consumption just edges out population as the most important factor right now. But they’re both key. I tend to focus more on population here, simply because so few other blogs do.
Now, you bring up a very interesting point:
The only solutions that G8 nations know in regards to not having to have a large family is capitalism.
Yes, and this is the kind of thing that makes the whole problem diabolically complex. In addition to dealing with population growth and consumption we have to consider altering the whole capitalist model, I think. A blogger who knows this subject very well is Molly Scott Cato:
She wrote a book I’m reading which suggests, as an alternative to Capitalism, the model involved in co-ops. Apparently, it has the potential to represent much larger parts of the economy than it does today. (It seems to have done so at times in the past in the UK) At any rate, I think we actually need to seriously challenge the whole capitalism/corporate-globalization model which is such a huge part of the problem today. (again, a tall order, but if we’re going to look for real solutions we have to grapple with the real core of the problem, eh?)
How do we in industrial countries (especially people in America, I don’t know what country the people who post here are from) tell someone else to not have babies when we are very heavily responsible for the warming planet? Even the polution that is caused in third world countries is because places like the US goes in and destroys (see the rainforest in Brazil) it. The US goes to Mexico and dumps trash, it cuts the rainforest down to make hamburgers.
So, yeah, we need to address that corportae growth imperative for starters. But then I want to clarify that it’s not a matter, really, of telling those in Third World countries not to have babies. It’s really helping to solve the problems in those countries which lead to their high rates of population growth. Those solutions mostly revolve around such things as providing better educational opportunities to women, improving childhood survival rates, generally improving the status of girls and women so that they have options in life other than just having children. I took a first shot at summarizing these things here:
But a commenter under the Alternet article this post was about provided a really good list here:
So while I totally agree with all your points, I just want to try to show how these different issues interact – to the limited extent I have any clue about it. And I see Magne just sneeked in a reply above mine, so I’ll go read that now…
I totally get that with your blog you are focusing on population and I also get (from what I read on your blog) that you get all of the other stuff.
I truly am interested in the alternative, so thanks for all of the links. I will pop by again soon.
Blogs like this help me stay focused, if I have to read another thing on, well I won’t even corrupt your blog by speaking the name 🙂
I should have added that Trinifar has an interesting post on how Iran reduced its fertility rate:
It seems to support the kinds of approaches in the lists I linked to above, plus provides some other ideas too.
Just a comment on Europe’s fertility decline. I think it is entirely legitimate that European countries may wish to shy away from importing a large bulk of their future labour from abroad. I’m a huge believer in global biodiversity, but I’m also a huge believer in global cultural diversity and massive movements of people between nations doesn’t help this diversity particularly well. One of the things we love about European countires is the remarkable richness of linguistic, literary, artistic and other cultural traditions reaching far back into history. Traditions, perhaps, that may not be best served by massive levels of immigration/emigration. There is some emerging evidence that ethnically heterogeneous societies have lower levels of trust and social capital. Far better to assist the source countries achieve their goals and aspirations and to release them from debt traps than to simply absorb the lucky ones who flee their homelands. Racist? I don’t believe so. I believe acknowledging and fostering cultural diversity is better than adopting a complete blindness to cultural and ethnic differences.
Perhaps the future solution to caring for the swollen aged demographic in Western countries lies in radiacl economic re-engineering as John has suggested. It seems bizarre that we in the West might only work for 35 years of our average 80 year lifespan. So combined with longer careers, perhaps also, the re-discovery of the extended family and the de-institutionalisation of the caring industries (i.e. taking aged care and child care out of the “paid” economy) might make it possible to allow our populations to stabilise or drift slowly down.
I hear you Verdurous. But let me try to clarify a couple of aspects of the “racism” that probably weren’t so clear in my post.
I don’t think Pollitt is suggesting these countries compensate for their shrinking (or potentially so) populations through huge increases in immigration. Her first point is that they needn’t really compensate for it at all. Better to learn how to adjust to it, as it’s actually an very good thing in the long run.
Her next point, though, concerns how they are choosing to deal with it. They’re clearly not choosing the immigration option, and you make an argument for why that one could perhaps be taken too far. But they’re not choosing the “adjust” option either. They’re choosing to try to add to the world population by increasing fertility rates. Pollitt suggests a much better option (though one which might be debatable in terms of its practical feasibility) — to bring into the mainstream all those people already there, but who are lost to poverty and isolation. (social programs instead of fertility programs)
Now, the point I added is that the right wing writers in the US who complain about these European population declines are not, I don’t think, concerned (as you are) about a loss of the diverse cultures in Europe. The question is, would they be fretting that way if some similarly sized Third World countries were facing possible population declines. Well, they might if that meant a reduction in vast numbers of cheap laborers fueling corporate growth. But on the whole, I sense they’d be less concerned. I can’t read their minds, so I’m not positive, but it does have a feel of some sort of racism or colonialism — the weakening of the Western (white) Empire… that sort of thing. So that’s where my own suspicion of something akin to racism comes from here. Is that any clearer? 🙂
Pollitt’s piece is excellent (good find!) and I think you are quite right emphasize the connection between feminism and the concern about population growth.
To Lo’s question I think the G8 countries have to do both — address their own consumerism and push family planning and women’s and children’s right hard everywhere.
Wish I had time to say more. Great post.
Oops, missed Verdurous’s comment which touches a personal hot button.
One of the things we love about European countires is the remarkable richness of linguistic, literary, artistic and other cultural traditions reaching far back into history. Traditions, perhaps, that may not be best served by massive levels of immigration/emigration.
Are the levels “massive”? Why won’t those traditions be well served by immigration/emigration?
(We have a political pundit in the US, Pat Buchanan, who often speaks like this and I may just be projecting what I’ve heard from him onto Verdurous’s words.)
Verdurous: “There is some emerging evidence that ethnically heterogeneous societies have lower levels of trust and social capital.”
This may actually be true. But I believe that it’s more a question of the manner in which the natives of the country in question receive their immigrants, than it is the other way ’round.
As a matter of personal idealism, I have a strong belief in “every person’s right and freedom of movement.” – Like Salman Rushdie used to say: “Man was born with feet, not with roots.”
But I’m not going to let myself be portrayed as a person who can’t see that conflicts may arise. ‘Cause believe it or not: they do.
Quote: “If you’re well educated and in this sence well of, you’re welcome to Europe. To others Europe would rather say “bye, bye”. This seems to be the idea of European immigration policy. Politicians want to get rid of immigrants with irregular status eventhough the aging Europe needs them.”
The whole article is worthy of a read, as I think it sums up a lot of the issues that are concerned with third world immigration to Europe.
I had typed this fab response in regards to Norway and you being next to Santa Clause, so how bad could your country be, but then my power went out…
I believe as you do that we should all be able to go where ever we want, whenever we want.
Now when I initially wrote the following I was responding to something that someone said, but there have been so many responses, but I still want to type it 🙂
Oh I found something–
““If you’re well educated and in this sence well of, you’re welcome to Europe. To others Europe would rather say “bye, bye”. Magne in regards to Europe.
In the U.S. I know for a fact the welcome thing, not true.
In regards to immigration, sometimes I can’t help but think that it’s more about nationalism than anything else.
There are people who are not low impact people who are capitalist or better yet pro capitalism in regards to a kind of an economy, but still don’t like immigrants from places that aren’t western Europe. Even if those immigrants are adding to the economy and making it “better.”
For instance in LA we have in recent years has many immigrants from Taiwan come over. They are educated, industrious, they are everything that people claim they want in an immigrant population. They brought up the test scores in working class neighborhoods in the San Gabriel Valley, they pushed the prices of houses in upscale San Gabriel Valley neighborhood even higher, but yet still…you have people complaining and whining and changing the standardized test because the kids from Taiwan were scoring too high…
I was very disappointed in this country. This may sound very silly to many of you, but that’s when I knew America really is racist. I swear up until that moment, I truly thought well, if people tried harder or they did this differently, but when I saw how the people from Taiwan were treated wow, it opened my eyes. I mean they did everything right.
Phds, kids where great students, they started successful businesses…I mean what more can you do? I mean that’s America. Do they have to make their eyes round?
Also it’s odd how people who are very pro business can get very into being low impact when the business people are the wrong color.
I merely wish to suggest that we need not view low immigration policies of Europe with disdain or disgust. Clearly countries such as France and the Netherlands have radically altered their demographics through high levels of immigration though probably comparatively lower than the USA. Both of these countries are dealing with some associated social unrest and tension. Now, this may be largely due to hostile attitudes on behalf of the unfriendly local hosts, but it may still be a reason for some to question the future shape of migration policy. I have no problem with countries choosing a high immigration pathway (my own is per capita higher than just about all), but I hope that it is with the consent of the people and not because of a growth imperative built into our economic system or indeed because of some other economic imperative on its own.
John, thanks f0r clarifying.
I should say that I fully agree with your assessment of some on the right. There does seem to be a fear in some quarters of a decline in European/Western/Anglo-Saxon influence. I don’t share these fears. I think it is a good thing that more voices are heard. Well overdue.
LO: “In regards to immigration, sometimes I can’t help but think that it’s more about nationalism than anything else.”
Quote: “The recent EUMC report focused on the situation in the member states of the European Union and tried to assess the more structural aspects of the discrimination. It concluded that many Muslims face unfair treatment in employment, education and housing in EU countries. Young Muslims in particular meet barriers to social advancement:”
I believe, very strongly, that nationalism has a thing or two to do with all sorts of racial-based discrimination; not only in Europe, of course, but everywhere.
Now: there’s a rather new form of racism on the loose on this continent, as the rich countries of Western Europe are being invaded, not only by Africans and Asians, but by eastern Europeans as well. Polish people, Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Rumanians for example. Cheap labour, for short. I mean: how many people are woking on slave contracts in Western Europe today? It’s impossible to say. But the fact remains: Eastern Europeans travel to the West, get paid peanuts, but do not complain; Western peanuts amount to a whole lot of money in the Eastern countries they hail from. They accept all forms of rotten accommodation, they do not dare to complain about anything, and – on top of that – they never get to see any of the locals smile at them. ‘Cause the locals hate and loathe them: “Here are the people who take our jobs,” they say. When the fact is: it’s the industry bosses who are looking to cut down on production costs.
As the saying goes: “There’s a Polish plummer on the loose in Europe.” – One who is making it difficult for young Westerners to find a job and get a decent income.
All this discussion, all these viewpoints, all these conflicting theories and bits of evidence and studies and such…
…so why are we sitting at our expensive, rich-nation technologies, whingeing about all this?
Here’s my take on it. There are too many people. As measured by the degradation of the ecosystems that support all species not just ours. 2/3 of all petrochemicals used daily on this planet (80 million barrels per day) are used to transport people and freight on land, and the majority of that 2/3 is for people transport.
So it’s really simple. Don’t go forth. Don’t multiply.
This is what we, and others, chose to do years ago. No more kids till it appears that more humans are needed, because “having babies” is a lie, what people “have” is larval human adults..
No more jetting, no more driving except for the most basic needs, and a vast slashing in all forms of consumerism. Buying what’s available locally and used. Learning to live far more simply.
This is not a national issue, not a racial issue–climate change doesn’t care what species you are, never mind what flavor of human being you are as viewed by other human beings.
This is a moment in our species’s history when we get to choose whether we are going to continue the agricultural madness of converting every ecosystem to fodder for our stomachs and our breeding egos…or whether we are going to find something more valuable, connected, and compassionate to live for.
I should say that I don’t even believe in bipolar gender, considering it one of the great mind-fucks of the past 10,000 years. As far as I can tell bipolar gender mapped a set of social power relations onto sexual reproduction categories. It’s the basis of the whole them versus us, black versus white, bad versus good bipolar way of thinking.
One last thing. I am sick and weary of this idea that growth has to keep happening. And I gave up a career in environmentalism that was lucrative and ego-inflating. I actually got flown around the planet to tell people there was an eco-crisis! After a few years I couldn’t rationalize it anymore. Now I see environmentalists–with their jobs and careers to protect–as some of the biggest hypocrites.
Empower women to make our own reproductive decisions. Let no one take that power away. So many poor women I’ve known have had lives revolving around breeding because, to put it bluntly, men kept knocking them up. In the female human, sexual pleasure and reproduction decoupled a long time ago, evolutionarily; it hasn’t yet in men. But men insist on defining women’s bodies, women’s spirits, and women’s roles according to that male thing that orgasm = zygote.
Thank you for reading my words.
Haakka Pellitta, thanks for writing those words. I agree with them.
My question is how to bring more people to that level of understanding.
I second what Trinifar said. Much truth in your comments.
As far as I can tell bipolar gender mapped a set of social power relations onto sexual reproduction categories. It’s the basis of the whole them versus us, black versus white, bad versus good bipolar way of thinking.
Very interesting point, and one I think everyone should think about.
One last thing. I am sick and weary of this idea that growth has to keep happening.
two threea bunch of us. :^)
Haakka: “Empower women to make our own reproductive decisions. Let no one take that power away. So many poor women I’ve known have had lives revolving around breeding because, to put it bluntly, men kept knocking them up.”
Good post. Many good thoughts there, I must say. 🙂
Your point quoted above is, I believe, the most important point available today. And I say this as a typical left-wing humanist, but also as an anthropologist by education. It is absolutely essentials that men around the world cease to be mere breeders and control-freaks, and that the women of this world cease to be perceived – by whole societies (not only by the male side of the social fabric; far from it) – as “cooking and cleaning baby-factories”.
But again – as a an anthropologist – I must add that, even though I (an many others) perceive this as the most important factor when it comes to dealing with population explosion, I can do nothing except admit that ancient cultures and social traditions are features of human life which are very, very difficult to do much about.
Social and cultural processes take a lot of time. Embarking on large-scale awareness campaigns would be, I believe, a better (and actually also more honest) option.
But okay: international diplomacy and honesty?!!
Ha? No. –