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