Sustainable lifestyles, not population control, will solve the climate crisis

By Betsy Hartmann, January 29, 2008

I’m glad we agree that universal access to noncoercive family planning and reproductive health
services should be an important goal of international development policy. However, this doesn’t
necessarily mean we’ve reached a consensus. I’d like to clarify several points of difference.

First, although the distinction may seem subtle, there’s a big difference between family
planning services designed primarily to reduce birthrates and those premised on the belief that
quality reproductive health care is a fundamental right, regardless of its impact on population
growth. At the clinical level, services crafted mainly to reduce birthrates–even if they’re not
directly coercive–often treat women more as targets than as clients. Namely, they neglect medical
screening and follow-up and promote riskier contraceptives such as
Depo Provera and
Norplant because
they’re ostensibly more effective in reducing birthrates. In the drive for demographic results,
quality of care and freedom of choice end up taking a backseat. Two recent books,
Politics and Development
, do an excellent job of exploring this dynamic in Tanzania and Haiti

A second point is that there is a profound difference in the worldviews of those who see the
roots of poverty and environmental degradation in overpopulation, and those who locate them in
structural economic, political, and social (including gender) inequalities. In Bangladesh, where I
lived in the 1970s, villagers were poor not because they had too many children, but because
centuries of colonial rule and corrupt governance concentrated land, resources, and power in the
hands of a few. Meanwhile, high rates of infant and child mortality meant that parents had to have
many children in order to ensure that a few would survive to take care of them in old age.

After witnessing such inequalities, I could never again accept the simplistic–and often
elitist–assumptions of Malthusian thought. In addition to scapegoating the poor,
trapped as it is in a rigid man-versus-nature dichotomy, tells us little about the complex causes
of environmental degradation from a social or natural science perspective. (Today birthrates have
declined in Bangladesh because of improvements in child health care and social and economic changes
that encourage smaller families.)

I’ve spent much of my career trying to understand why Malthusianism is such a persistent and
popular belief system, especially in the United States. Ironically, one of the current reasons is
the strength of the anti-abortion movement and its success in reducing U.S. international family
planning assistance. In order to mobilize support and appeal to conservatives in Congress, some
population/family planning agencies strategically resort to fear-based appeals (e.g. overpopulation
as a threat to national security) even if they don’t actually believe their own rhetoric. And so
women’s rights activists often find themselves caught between a virulent anti-abortion movement on
the one hand and advocates of population control on the other. (There’s a parallel here with the
rhetoric about how climate change will cause wars and mass migration, as some environmental
lobbyists in Washington deploy these alarmist arguments in order to get conservatives to support
legislation on reducing carbon emissions.)

We must start thinking outside the box–and off the grid–in terms of solutions to the climate
crisis. I disagree with Fred Meyerson that population growth is easier to manage than per-capita
emissions and also with John Guillebaud and Martin Desvaux’s pessimism about renewables. (I also
don’t see how we could possibly get to a population of 2.8 billion any time soon without coercion
and/or mass death–not a prospect I would look forward to.)

If possible, I’d like to see this debate take a different turn: Let’s seriously consider how we
might fundamentally transform our capitalist, consumerist culture to live in more socially and
environmentally sustainable ways. In the United States, we’ve lived for so long now under the
depressing shadow of a right-wing militarist and anti-environmental regime that we’re losing our
capacity for creative political imagination. We need to revive that capacity–now.

A recent
New York Times piece,
the Meat Guzzler,”
examined the health, environmental, and climate consequences of industrial
meat production and provided the basic message that we could have a big impact on the environment
simply by changing the way we eat. Meanwhile, in Germany and Scandinavia, homebuilding is being
revolutionized and energy efficiency is being fine-tuned to an unprecedented degree. So let’s break
loose from the population debate and get on with the real tasks at hand.


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