Let’s not oversimplify the causes of environmental degradation

By Betsy Hartmann, March 7, 2008

I agree with Joe Chamie’s assessment that even if we could dramatically reduce unintended
pregnancies, it wouldn’t have much impact on curbing global greenhouse gas emissions. In any case,
there’s no magic bullet for reducing unintended pregnancies. Access to safe contraception and
abortion is vitally important, but unintended pregnancies aren’t merely the result of lack of
family planning services. There are entrenched, gendered power dynamics at work within households,
communities, and nations worldwide. For example, a woman might be pressured by her husband,
in-laws, or her religious or ethnic community to have a child she herself doesn’t want. Or more
commonly, a woman who becomes pregnant when contraception fails might decide that even though the
timing’s not perfect, she will have the child anyway. In other cases, family planning services may
exist, but be of such poor quality that a woman decides not to use them even if she wants to space
her children.

We also need to look critically at the notions of carrying capacity and demographic entrapment
that John Guillebaud and Martin Desvaux emphasize. Carrying capacity evolved as an analytical tool
in the fields of ecology and conservation biology to estimate the maximum number of animals of a
particular species that a habitat can support indefinitely. However, applied to people and their
environments, it’s woefully inadequate, as many scholars have noted. (See

How Many People Can the Earth Support?
and the American Association for the
Advancement of Science’s
“Atlas of Population and Development.”) The
concept of carrying capacity assumes that population growth damages the environment, and in the
context of human society, inadequately considers the role of technological change. It also
overlooks the importance of trade between different regions and ignores structural economic,
political, and social inequalities that shape patterns of resource use.

The notion of demographic entrapment–that starvation and slaughter will result from humans
grossly overshooting carrying capacity in regions like sub-Saharan Africa–is highly problematic,
both scientifically and ethically. Missing from this simple Malthusian narrative are the role of
governments in fomenting ethnic violence (i.e., Rwanda), consideration for inequitable patterns of
land ownership and terms of trade, and attention to the disproportionate contributions of different
perpetrators to environmental degradation–i.e., peasants versus commercial agriculture and
corporate resource extraction.

In a highly controversial (and, I would argue, morally reprehensible) September 1990
Lancet article, Maurice King, the main advocate of demographic entrapment theory, argued
that public health programs in severely overpopulated areas shouldn’t orally rehydrate babies
suffering from dysentery. In other words, they should be left to die. Surely, we don’t want to go
down that road, either in this debate or in discussions of health and population policies in

Let’s further examine the assumption that population growth is de facto bad for the environment.
While population growth may decrease the size of landholdings, it can also expand the family labor
supply, encouraging more labor-intensive cultivation and conservation techniques. Declining
landholdings in Rwanda, for instance, have been associated with more investments in soil
conservation and better managed tree densities per unit of land. (See
“Effects of Demographic and Related Microeconomic Change on Land Quality in Hills
and Mountains of Developing Countries”

The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment
, which
disputes the overdramatization of environmental degradation in African countries.)

It’s also important to remember that violent conflict in sub-Saharan Africa is more often linked
to resource abundance (diamonds in Sierra Leone, minerals in the Congo) than to resource scarcity.

Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars

A more constructive road to follow–and one that we’ve neglected so far–is exploring the role
of militarism in climate change. The U.S. military is a major consumer of fossil fuels, in peace
and wartime. The Iraq War is costing us billions of dollars that could be better spent on
developing sustainable technologies and energy supplies. Not to mention, a militarized society is a
less democratic society that will impede our ability to develop broad popular consensus to
effectively address global warming.

I’m more optimistic than Fred Meyerson and John and Martin. I see great potential in the
intersection of peace, social justice, and environmental movements to push for an equitable and
sustainable energy transition. There is no magic blueprint for how to do that, and the challenge
will be to get a diverse group of actors to the table so that it’s not just corporate business as
usual. Networks like the
Durban Group for Climate
point the way toward more ecologically sound and socially just approaches to addressing
global warming. Malthusian doomsday thinking will get us nowhere.


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