Don’t undo the progress made in development and women’s rights

By Betsy Hartmann, April 1, 2008

We all agree that climate change is a serious threat to environmental and human health.
Precisely because of its seriousness, we don’t have time to bark up the proverbial wrong tree.
Population control isn’t the solution to global warming. In much of the world, birthrates are
coming down toward replacement level. In places where they remain relatively high, e.g. sub-Saharan
Africa, per-capita emissions are quite low.

Focusing on population growth not only diverts us from the real problems and solutions at hand,
but it could undermine the achievements made at the 1994 U.N. International Conference on
Population and Development in Cairo. The Cairo conference criticized top-down population control
programs that violate human rights and argued that women’s empowerment and the provision of safe,
voluntary birth control and reproductive health services were a much better approach to the
population problem. It condemned coercion and criticized the use of incentives and disincentives in
family planning programs.

Therefore, I’m troubled to read Joseph Chamie’s concluding remarks that suggest it may be
necessary to override individual rights through government-mandated legislation, programs, and
incentives to achieve population stabilization. (Fred Meyerson also suggests the use of tax and
other economic incentives to this end.) Readers of this discussion might do well to familiarize
themselves with the dark history of population control programs that gave family planning a bad
name by sacrificing women’s health and basic human rights. (In particular, see

Fatal Misconceptions: The Struggle to Control World Population
by Columbia University historian Matthew Connelly.)

I’m similarly distressed by Joe’s advocacy of the views of Kingsley Davis and Garrett Hardin
regarding the need for coercive programs when voluntary programs fall short of their intended
goals. Hardin, author of the 1968
Science article
“Tragedy of the Commons,” was a known
eugenicist and advocate of lifeboat ethics–throw the poor overboard so the rich can live. As late
as 1993, he accepted funding from the
Pioneer Fund, the major supporter of
eugenics research in the United States, which he stated in the introduction to his book,

Living Within Limits
. (For more on Hardin’s connection to eugenics, see
The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism by Allan Chase.)
Moreover, his notion of the tragedy of the commons was ahistorical and analytically flawed,
ignoring how communities over the centuries have regulated access to common resources.

I cannot state too strongly that we don’t want to dredge up these outmoded (and in my mind,
immoral) ideas as part of some hypothetical solution to overpopulation and climate change. Instead,
we need to expand women’s rights and human rights and support the Cairo reforms, which are under
attack from fundamentalists and anti-abortion forces, not undermine them. We also need to support
immigrant rights. Recent scaremongering press reports and studies about human tides of climate
refugees swarming the European Union and the United States aren’t based on solid empirical evidence
play into the
hands of nativist forces

I’ve already written about what I see as the real solutions to the climate crisis. These include
demilitarization; technology transfer and the greening of industrialization in countries such as
India and China; investment in alternative energy development and mass transport; challenging the
overconsumption logic of global capitalism; and ensuring that corporate energy giants do not gain
windfall profits from carbon taxes and trading schemes and that poor people don’t bear the burden
of the energy transition. Indeed, responding to climate change presents an
to redirect
our development path toward social and environmental justice. Rather than doomsday
thinking, we need to support scientists, engineers, architects, artists, builders, politicians, and
community organizers to get on with the concrete business of reducing emissions and developing
alternative technologies.

One final thought: Several here have suggested it’s somehow easier to reduce population growth
than emissions and that people are necessarily averse to changing their lifestyles and consumption
habits. In contrast, I believe there’s great scope for a cultural transition toward sustainability
in the developed world. Overconsumption hardly buys happiness. If measured by the amount of
antidepressants consumed daily, the United States is perhaps the most unhappy place on Earth. A
saner lifestyle of less consumption but more security–e.g. universal access to health care,
something many Europeans enjoy–is a trade-off many in the United States might willingly accept. We
shouldn’t underestimate the capacity for people to change and work together for the common


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