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Family planning for the planet

a.k.a. population control – disingenuous patriarchy that does not empower women).

The U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA)’s recent report, “Climate Change Connections: Gender and Population’s” linkage between access to family planning and reproductive healthcare and climate change has led to some troubling analysis regarding population control. According to the overview of the report,

The world’s population is forecast to grow from today’s 6.7 billion to between 8.0 and 10.5 billion by 2050. The majority of this growth is likely to be concentrated in areas and among populations—poor, urban and coastal—that are already highly
vulnerable to climate change impacts. Population growth typically means increased emissions. However, demographic factors such as household size, age structure of the population and urbanization also affect emissions patterns and energy use.
Further, unsustainable consumption and per capita emissions are generally much higher in rich, industrialized countries. In this context, it’s important to remember that population is not just about numbers, it’s about people.

Many of the policies that affect population trends—such as more educational opportunities for girls, greater economic opportunities for women and expanded access to reproductive health and family planning—can also reduce vulnerability to

climate change impacts and slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, helping to ensure adequate energy and sustainable development for all.

Yet as I pointed out last week,

The U.N. Population Fund acknowledged it had no proof of the effect that population control would have on climate change. “The linkages between population and climate change are in most cases complex and indirect,” the report said.

It also said that while there is no doubt that “people cause climate change,” the developing world has been responsible for a much smaller share of world’s greenhouse gas emissions than developed countries.

Nonetheless, articles such as this from Agence France Presse, were quick to focus on reducing births in developing countries:

In the world’s poorest countries, where 99 percent of the growth of the world’s population will occur over the next four decades, reduced fertility would be a boon for adaptation.

It would mean fewer demands on the environment and fewer people exposed to water stress, floods, poor harvests, bad storms and loss of their homes.

“How Niger is going to feed a population growing from 11 million today to 50 million in 2050 in a semi-arid country which may be facing climate change is unclear,” Lord Adair Turner, a British businessman and academic, observed crisply.

While it has been excruciatingly difficult for women in poorer countries to gain access to family planning because of fundamentalist governments, the influence of religious institutions, the U.S. Global Gag Order, etc. despite overwhelming evidence that family planning would greatly increase women’s empowerment and well-being, it is disturbing that reproductive empowerment is now being touted as a panacea for combating climate change.

It is instructive to look at which countries have the most people:

  1. China – 1,330,044,544
  2. India – 1,147,995,904
  3. United States – 303,824,640
  4. Indonesia – 237,512,352
  5. Brazil – 196,342,592
  6. Pakistan – 172,800,048
  7. Bangladesh – 153,546,896
  8. Nigeria – 146,255,312
  9. Russia – 140,702,096
  10. Japan – 127,288,416

and at those which are the biggest polluters:

Country Emissions (million tons CO2):

  1. China 6,027
  2. United States 5,769
  3. Russia1,587
  4. India 1,324
  5. Japan 1,236
  6. Germany 798
  7. Canada 572
  8. Britain 523
  9. South Korea 488
  10. Mexico 437

Per-capita emissions (tons CO2/capita):

  1. United States 19.1
  2. Canada 17.37
  3. Russia11.21
  4. South Korea 10.09
  5. Germany 9.71
  6. Japan 9.68
  7. Britain 8.6
  8. South Africa 7.27
  9. France 5.81
  10. China 4.57

In countries like the U.S., Germany, Japan, Britain, France and Canada, access to birth control is widespread, and China’s one child policy has clearly decreased the number of births in that country but yet these countries are top polluters. In fact these lists don’t even include poorer countries with the least amount of access to family planning. So where is the connection?

Going back to the paragraphs I highlighted above, what concerns me is that while acknowledging that the U.S. and China are the worst offenders, the concern seems to be for poorer, darker countries where populations are expected to increase significantly even though they don’t make an appearance on the list of countries which are contributing the most to the degradation of the planet.

Cut to the punch, in all these decades that we have been polluting like there’s no tomorrow, the more developed nations have been practicing a de facto kind of population control in poorer countries by not providing the necessary funds to combat malaria, hunger and HIV/AIDS. We’ve had little concern about the maternal mortality that kills hundreds of thousands of women in poor countries every year and we’ve done little to empower women in these nations.

To be clear, you’ll get no argument from me that less humans would in general be better for the health of the planet. And unquestionably, we need to address the gendered impacts of climate change (which, incidentally are thoroughly detailed in the UNFPA report). But, and particularly against the backdrop of abortion rights being under the worst siege in decades in the U.S., linking population control and reproductive empowerment is extremely troublesome. Betsy Hartmann puts it well:

A world of difference exists between services that treat women as population targets and those based on a feminist model of respectful, holistic, high-quality care.

There is no question that better access to reproductive services is desperately needed and that empowering women is crucial in addressing climate change. But equating family planning with population control is disingenuously patriarchal and a slippery and dangerous assertion for women.


Lucinda Marshall is the Founder and Director of the Feminist Peace Network, http://www.feministpeacenetwork.org. She is the author of the FPN blog as well as Reclaiming Medusa, http://www.lucindamarshall.com.

Editorial Notes: Population control needs advocates like author Lucinda Marshall who sees the complexity of the issue. Because population is so tied up with human behavior, it requires some knowledge of demographics, anthropology, sociology, etc. The current level of discussion about population strikes me as rather low, not much of an improvement over the overheated and divisive rhetoric of the 70s. -BA

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