Magazine article Women in Action

The Population Bomb Is Back-With a Global Warming Twist: Hunger, Poverty, Environmental Degradation and Violent Conflict Are Just Some Ills That the Elites Have Blamed on the Poor since the Days of 18th Century Social Scientist Thomas Malthus. Now the List Includes Climate Change

Magazine article Women in Action

The Population Bomb Is Back-With a Global Warming Twist: Hunger, Poverty, Environmental Degradation and Violent Conflict Are Just Some Ills That the Elites Have Blamed on the Poor since the Days of 18th Century Social Scientist Thomas Malthus. Now the List Includes Climate Change

Article excerpt

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Population pundits and advocacy groups claim that overpopulation is the main cause of global warming, that only massive investments in family planning will save the planet. This argument threatens to derail climate negotiations and turn back the clock on reproductive rights and health. It is time for women's movements to defuse the population bomb--again.

When Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb in the late 1960s, he argued that a population "explosion" would wreak havoc on the environment and cause hundreds of millions to starve to death by the 1980s. His predictions did not come true. Instead world food production outpaced population growth. Birth rates started to fall for a variety of reasons, including declines in infant mortality, increases in women's education and employment, and the shift from rural to urban livelihoods. Yet his kind of dire forecast served as justification for the implementation of coercive population control programmes that brutally sacrificed women's health and human rights.

When feminists won reforms of population policy at the 1994 United Nations (UN) population conference in Cairo, Egypt, many thought family planning had finally been freed from the shackles of population control. The more immediate threat seemed to be fundamentalist forces opposing reproductive and sexual rights. But population control never went away. Mounting concern about climate change has provided a new opportunity for the population control lobby to blame the poor and target women's fertility.

Within the United States (US) population lobby, the influential Population Action International organisation has taken the lead in linking population growth and climate change. (1) Paul Ehrlich is back on the circuit and popular media is spreading fear and alarm. (2) For example, a June 2009 ABC prime time television documentary on climate change, Earth 2100 scared viewers with scenes of a future apocalypse in which half the world population dies of a new plague. And in the end, humans can get back into balance with nature again.

Unfortunately, even some feminists have jumped on board this fear-factor bandwagon. Although their message tends to be softer they believe investments in voluntary family planning will meet women's unmet need for contraception and reduce global warming at the same time. (3) They assume we live in a win-win world where there is no fundamental power imbalance between the rich and the poor or contradiction between placing disproportionate blame for the world's problems on poor women's fertility and advocating for reproductive rights and health.

The reasoning behind these views is fundamentally flawed. Industrialised countries, with only 20 per cent of the world's population, are responsible for 80 per cent of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The US is the worst offender. Over consumption by the rich has far more to do with global warming than the population growth of the poor. The few countries in the world where population growth rates remain high, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, have among the lowest carbon emissions per capita on the planet. (4)

Moreover, the recent resurgence in overpopulation rhetoric flies in the face of demographic realities. In the last few decades population growth rates have come down all over the world so that the average number of children per woman in the global South is now 2.75 and predicted m drop to 2.05 by 2050. The so-called population "explosion" is over, though the momentum built into our present numbers means that world population will grow to about nine billion in 2050, after which point it will start to stabilise.

The real challenge is to plan for the additional three billion people in ways that minimise negative environmental impact. For example, investments in public transport rather than private cars, cluster housing rather than suburbia, green energy rather than fossil fuels and nuclear, would do a lot to help a more populated planet. …

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