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Women’s Rights, Population and Climate Change: The Debate Continues

Should climate activists and feminists support campaigns to slow population growth? Laurie Mazur says that alliance will strengthen the movement. Ian Angus strongly disagrees …



Climate and Capitalism recently published a debate between Betsy Hartmann and Laurie Mazur about campaigns that promote family planning and reproductive health programs as means of slowing population growth and fighting global warming.

We subsequently published a reply to Laurie Mazur in which Ian Angus argued that “The combination of population reduction and women’s rights was already like oil and water. Adding CO2 reductions to the mix only makes things worse.”

This post continues the debate, with new articles by Laurie Mazur and Ian Angus. We encourage readers to join the discussion, using the Comments feature at the bottom of this page.

  • Laurie Mazur is director of the Population Justice Project. Her book, A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge, was published this year by Island Press.
  • Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism. His book, The Global Fight for Climate Justice: Anticapitalist Responses to Global Warming and Environmental Destruction, is published in North America by Fernwood Publishing, and in Europe by Resistance Books.

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A Reply to Ian Angus

by Laurie Mazur

First, may I suggest that you read my book? With chapters by leading thinkers from the environmental, women’s rights and social justice movements — including Walden Bello, Carmen Barroso, Gordon McGranahan and many others — it offers a wealth of perspectives on the intersection of population dynamics, capitalism and environmental quality.

You and I have many areas of agreement. Most importantly, we agree that capitalism is the driving force behind ecological devastation today. I do not “blame poor women’s fertility for environmental problems.” I argue that consumption in the affluent countries, and — more broadly—globalized, “free market” capitalism, is at the root of the problem. However, I don’t believe that human numbers are irrelevant; slower population growth could make environmental problems easier to solve. Moreover, the best means to slow population growth are all important ends in themselves.

Population, capitalism and carrying capacity

“People are not the cause of ecological devastation,” you write in response to one of the comments on your post. “Capitalism is.”

Must we characterize the problem as either “too many people” or capitalism? In my book, I attempt to show that it is not an either-or. The Marxists and the “populationists,” as you call them, each have valid points. The Marxists are right that capitalism is driving unprecedented and unsustainable environmental destruction. The populationists are right to be concerned about the carrying capacity of ecosystems and of the planet in general.

The limits of carrying capacity are excruciatingly difficult to discern, because resources are distributed so inequitably and used so wastefully. But that does not mean such limits do not exist. And I don’t have to tell you that, for many ecosystems, those limits are near — or have already been surpassed.

There is no single magic bullet that will get us out of the environmental mess we are in. I agree with Wendy, who writes that, “To reverse the ecological and social meltdown facing us we need to address every aspect of humanity’s massive assault upon the earth’s resources.” That means weaning ourselves from fossil fuels and cultivating sustainable energy and agriculture. It means replacing the capitalist imperatives of growth and accumulation with a new ethic of justice and sufficiency. And it means doing so against a backdrop of irreversible environmental damage: climate change, species extinction, and resource depletion. I believe these monumental challenges would be easier to surmount with a world population of eight billion, rather than 11 billion.

You take me to task for asserting that:

“The affluent countries can reduce emissions by reducing the vast amounts of waste in our systems of production and consumption. But the developing countries are not likely to raise their standards of living without more intensive use of resources and higher emissions.”


Now, the first part of my statement is hard to argue with. The second part is subject to legitimate debate, which you elude by suggesting that poor people trying to get out of poverty can use “low-emission technologies.” But what are the technologies that will enable everyone on earth to live a decent quality of life without vastly increasing carbon emissions?

There are 6.8 billion people on the planet today, and demographic projections say we’ll get to anywhere from 8 billion to 11 billion by 2050. Let’s use 9 billion, the UN’s medium projection — though it’s far from a sure bet.

Now let’s look at per capita CO2, an imperfect but still useful proxy for other greenhouse gas emissions, and for environmental impact generally. As you know, Americans emit more CO2 per capita than anyone on earth–about 20 tons per person, per year. Europeans emit about half that, and most sub-Saharan Africans come in at a ton or less. Let’s say the US was able to cut its emissions by three quarters, and Europeans cut theirs in half. While we’re at it, let’s have a massive redistribution of wealth and technology, which enables everyone on earth to converge at an emissions level of 5 tons per person, per year — about the level of Mexico today.

Even in this fantastically rosy scenario, with a population of 9 billion and per capita emissions of 5 tons per person, global carbon dioxide emissions would rise to 45 billion tons of CO2 per year — a 50% increase over our current, ruinous level.

In our equitable world scenario, the difference between a world population of 8 billion and one of 11 billion would be about 15 billion tons of CO2 per year — half our current emissions and quite possibly the margin between a manageable climate crisis and catastrophe. In an equitable world, population matters. In fact, the only scenario in which population doesn’t matter (much) is one where the current inequitable divide between rich and poor remains fixed for all time.

A means or an end?

So, yes, I believe that a world population of 8 billion would be better than 11 billion. But I would not have embarked on this project if I thought that the only way to get to 8 billion was by coercing poor women to have fewer children. In fact, as I’ve said, the best means to slow population growth — universal access to family planning and other reproductive health services, educating girls and empowering women, and promoting sustainable, equitable development–are all vitally important ends in and of themselves.

You rightly decry the abuses committed in the name of population control. Half a century ago, general panic about the “population bomb” helped launch the international family planning movement. That movement brought contraception to millions in the developing world, where family planning usage rates grew from less than 10% in the early 1960s to more than 60% today. But it also committed horrible abuses, notably in India and China (where abuses persist today). That, in turn, sparked a revolution in reproductive health, as pioneering feminists essentially took over the family planning movement from within. (Michelle Goldberg tells their story beautifully in The Means of Reproduction.)

Also, in the 1990s, demographers made a game-changing realization: you don’t need to control anyone to slow population growth. Survey data showed that most women in the developing world were having more children than they said they want. So, simply addressing this “unmet need” – by providing reproductive health services that enable women to realize their own fertility goals – would decrease birthrates by as much, or more, than was called for in most countries’ demographic targets.

This shift in thinking enabled feminists and “populationists” to make common cause at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo. You characterize this alliance as a marriage of convenience aimed at defeating the Vatican. But there’s a more important piece of the story: feminists and populationists joined forces because their interests were aligned. If the best way to slow population growth is by ensuring reproductive rights and empowering women, then this is a win-win for both groups. Populationists didn’t just learn “to hide their views behind feminist vocabulary,” as you assert, many (though admittedly not all) truly came to realize that the feminists’ goals were central to their own.

And you fail to appreciate the significance of the Cairo conference, which brought together thousands of women from North and South, and launched a new, rights-based approach to population issues. Academic feminists like Betsy Hartmann sat on the sidelines and criticized the Cairo agreement for not being radical enough, but activist feminists from all over the world embraced it as a groundbreaking affirmation of women’s rights.

The Cairo agenda has not been fully implemented; patriarchy may prove even hardier than capitalism. But it brought real changes in the way family planning programs are run. It is now widely accepted that those programs should be designed to meet the reproductive health needs of their clients, full stop. No more demographic targets. No more rewards for providers who get the most “contraceptive acceptors.” We have a long way to go to make Cairo a reality, and we must always remain vigilant against coercion of any kind, but Cairo produced a seismic shift in the population/family planning movement.

Still, an important question remains: Can family planning programs adhere to Cairo principles if their funding comes from donors who are concerned about population growth? Is it essential that rights-based family planning programs be seen as an end in themselves, or can they also be seen as the means to an end — of slowing population growth? These are legitimate questions that have sparked lively debate in our field.

And there are divergent answers to these questions, even among card-carrying feminists. Some, especially academic feminists like Hartmann, say no. For them, ideological purity is essential; any hint of instrumentality will fatally compromise delivery of reproductive health services.

For others, including many of the women who have devoted their lives to delivering reproductive health care to women in the developing world, who deal on a daily basis with staggering need and woefully inadequate resources — the answer is yes. Those women have worked to increase the resources available for reproductive health–which sometimes means forming alliances with people who are concerned about population growth, national security, the environment and other issues — and they have fought like hell to make those programs as responsive to their clients’ needs as they can be.

You can probably tell which side I’m on. But there is a potential middle ground. Frances Kissling, the founder of Catholics for Choice, seeks to resolve this conflict in a terrific chapter in my book, called “Reconciling Differences.” She concludes, and I agree, that we must make room for both approaches:

“I would suggest that for one set of organizations, whose central goal is achieving women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, there is no reason to include environmentalism or population stabilization advocacy in their agenda. In fact, there are good reasons to avoid these issues. The social transformation needed for women’s reproductive rights to be fully accepted as fundamental human rights is in process, but it is not complete. Some groups must continue to work singlemindedly for that transformation in culture and politics by insisting that women’s rights are an end in themselves and not a means to a better life for children, men and society at large….

“At the same time, there is no need for [sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR)] groups to attempt to prohibit all organizations from making links between population, environment, development and reproductive health or to offer blanket public criticism of such efforts as unethical or unfounded. We have become extremely sensitive to the efforts of the right to ignore or subvert evidence and science in service of ideology. We would fall prey to the same dishonesty were we to insist that these links cannot be explored. And to claim that they do not exist at all would be intellectually dishonest.”


Population justice — it’s not just about family planning

Population justice was inspired by the reproductive justice movement, which asks us to examine the inequities of race and class that limit reproductive choice. For example, the legal right to an abortion means little to a woman who can’t afford one. Similarly, the population justice framework looks at the inequities — both economic and gender — that constrain people’s decisions about childbearing and drive rapid population growth.

Several posters have noted the connection between capitalism and population growth. The capitalist growth imperative underlies pronatalist policies that seek to ensure an ever-expanding supply of workers and consumers. At the same time, rapid population growth is a byproduct of the inequity produced by our current economic system. High fertility correlates perfectly with poverty; the poorest families in the poorest countries have the highest fertility rates.

Poverty is a cause of high fertility — where child mortality rates are high and social safety nets are nonexistent, people will have many children to ensure that some survive and to help support parents in their old age. But the reverse is also true — high fertility can exacerbate poverty. More children can mean less food, education and healthcare to go around, perpetuating a cycle of poverty. The best way to break the cycle is to address poverty with equitable development that reduces the need for large families and to make sure that people have the services and information they need to make their own decisions about childbearing.

Gender inequality is also a powerful driver of high fertility. In many parts of the world, girls and women have no alternative to early marriage and frequent childbearing. What does reproductive choice mean to an 11 year-old girl who is married against her will, whose sexual initiation is indistinguishable from rape, and who begins childbearing before her pelvis is fully formed, at great risk to her life and health?

Of course, the core problem is patriarchy, but while we’re working to overturn that, two interventions have been shown to make a dramatic difference in the lives of girls and women: education and reproductive health. Girls’ education subverts patriarchy by increasing the economic value of women’s work outside the home. Reproductive health saves women’s lives: Universal access to family planning and reproductive health services would reduce 70% of maternal deaths worldwide, and nearly half of newborn deaths. And, by enabling women to plan and space childbearing, reproductive health services improve women’s health, educational status and economic well-being. Asoka Bandarage is correct that women’s rights can’t be reduced to reproductive rights, but reproductive rights are a cornerstone of self-determination. Just try exercising your “rights” without being able to control whether you are pregnant.

So, yes, the Population Justice Project calls for universal access to high quality family planning and reproductive health services. But we it’s not just about family planning; we also advocate for girls’ education and women’s empowerment, and for sustainable and equitable development.

Why Third World Women?

You ask why my work emphasizes the fertility of the poorest women in the world. “Shouldn’t Mazur’s group emphasize population reduction in rich countries,” you ask, “where each avoided birth will have a greater effect than dozens in the global South?”

First, I do not advocate “population reduction” anywhere in the world. Barring some catastrophic increase in mortality, world population won’t be reduced anytime soon. Instead I advocate slowing population growth by making sure that all people — North and South–have the means and the power to make their own decisions about childbearing. This ideal has yet to be fully realized anywhere in the world, but it remains most elusive for poor women in the global South. That’s why I focus on their needs.

Of course, dealing with emissions in the affluent countries is job number one if we are to address climate change. But if the goal is to reduce emissions in the US, say, reducing fertility is not the low-hanging fruit. Our fertility rate is already at 2.1 — replacement level. That’s why the conversation about slowing population growth in the US turns very quickly to an ugly attack on immigration. The fundamental problem is that the US, with just 5% of the world’s population, devours 25% of its resources. Closing the border and targeting immigrants won’t change that.

Don’t give this issue to the Right

Here’s my final point. The population issue isn’t going away. It keeps coming up because we are staring into the abyss and because political efforts to avert disaster are floundering. It keeps coming up because some people are drawn to simplistic answers to complex problems. And it keeps coming up because there is a connection between population growth and environmental devastation, and because slowing population growth is one of many, many things we must do to save ourselves.

Lately, it’s coming up a lot. Jonathon Porritt, the British environmental advisor, set off a firestorm last year when he said it was “irresponsible” for British couples to have more than two children. In The World Without Us, environmental journalist Alan Weissman calls for a global “one child per human mother policy.”

These and many others would take us straight back to “population control.” At the other end of the spectrum, people like you and Betsy Hartmann have declared population growth an untouchable issue. But here’s the problem: if there is no left/progressive voice on this issue, environmentalists and others who are legitimately concerned about population growth will be driven into the arms of the neo-Malthusians.

I propose a third option. Let’s have a real conversation about population growth that embraces the insights of Marxists, feminists, environmentalists and demographers. Let’s explore the issue with nuance and honesty. And let’s try to parlay the new interest in human numbers into renewed commitment to the Cairo agenda — and to reproductive rights, health and justice for all.

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A Reply to Laurie Mazur

by Ian Angus

Thank you for your reply. Open and frank debate can only strengthen the fight for progressive change.

As you say, we have many areas of agreement. In particular, we both believe that women everywhere should have the right to choose if, when and how often to have children, without any form of coercion. We agree that to ensure the right to choose, high quality health services should be universally available.

But we disagree profoundly about your efforts to link that objective to a campaign for slower population growth. Your website makes your approach clear: “By making sure that all people are able to make real choices about childbearing, we can slow population growth and reduce human impact on the environment.” In my opinion, connecting those issues undermines both women’s rights and the fight against climate change.

That connection would only be appropriate if:

  • “Too many people” is a valid explanation for ecological problems in general and climate change in particular;

  • Linking reproductive health to population/environment issues doesn’t undermine women’s rights.

This article first addresses those two questionable assumptions, then considers your argument that progressives must support slower population growth in order to prevent the right from monopolizing the issue.

Is overpopulation the problem?

I have indeed read your book, and as I did so, I was struck by the contrast between the lobbyists and partisans who assert confidently that population growth is an urgent issue, and the actual scientists, who are far more cautious.

For example, Joel Cohen, head of the Laboratory of Populations at the Rockefeller University and Columbia University, poses a dozen questions, all related to the nature of our social order, that must be addressed by anyone who tries to “quantify human carrying capacity or a sustainable human population size.” He concludes:

“Because no estimates of human carrying capacity have explicitly addressed the questions raised above, taking into account the diversity of views about their answers in different societies and cultures, no scientific estimates of sustainable human population size can be said to exist.” ( p. 34. emphasis added)


If that’s the case, then there is no science behind calls for “optimum population” or even “slower growth.” Before we deal with numbers, we must resolve a host of social and economic questions, in theory and in practice.

Brian O’Neill, who also has an article in your book, is one of the very few climate scientists who has actually studied correlations between population size and greenhouse gas emissions. He concludes that “slowing population growth could make a contribution to solving the climate-change problem,” but he carefully qualifies even that limited conclusion. Some examples:

“while population size is a driver of greenhouse gas emissions, it is not necessarily the most important driver. Increases in GDP also were found to have a roughly proportional effect on emissions, and technology effects were equally important.” (p. 84)

“slower population growth alone is no guarantee of lower emissions; other factors, notably energy use, can easily outweigh the positive impact of slower growth.” (p. 86)

“In general, lower population growth is associated with — but cannot guarantee — lower emissions.” (p. 90)


What’s more, he concludes that slower population growth will have little effect on emissions until the second half of the century. It’s hard to see that as a justification for putting population at the top of an activist agenda today. As you write in your Introduction, “we have less than a decade left to head off catastrophic climate change.”

The weakness of O’Neill’s conclusions is particularly noteworthy because his computer modeling approach “employs a neoclassical economic growth model, the PET (population-environment-technology) model, of the type that is commonly used in the energy and emissions scenario field.” (p. 87)

Translation: his models assume that capitalist economic growth will continue unabated and they assume that population growth is a driver of that growth. They exclude any possibility of significant social and economic change. Since his economic assumptions embody the very populationist ideas he’s supposed to be testing, the only surprising thing about his conclusions is that they are so weak.

One day, when we have broad agreement on the answers to all of Joel Cohen’s questions, and when we have eliminated the gross waste, destruction and inequities of capitalism, we may be able to measure the earth’s carrying capacity scientifically. If so, humanity may then decide to consciously limit its numbers. Since the birth rate is already below replacement levels in much of the world, that probably won’t be a difficult task.

But today, science provides no support for a populationist program.

Allying with the population establishment

You write that at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, “feminists and populationists joined forces because their interests were aligned. If the best way to slow population growth is by ensuring reproductive rights and empowering women, then this is a win-win for both groups.”

You charge that “academic feminists like Betsy Hartmann … sat on the sidelines criticized the Cairo agreement for not being radical enough,” while “activist feminists from all over the world embraced it as a groundbreaking affirmation of women’s rights.”

In addition to being a cheap shot – Betsy Hartmann’s credentials as a feminist activist need no defense – that’s also a gross oversimplification of the debate. Far from being a conflict between activists and ultraleft abstentionists, it is a debate over whether allying with the population establishment helps or harms the movement for women’s right to choose.

That question was central to my previous article, but instead of replying, you attack a straw woman: “Some, especially academic feminists like Hartmann, say no. For them, ideological purity is essential; any hint of instrumentality will fatally compromise delivery of reproductive health services.”

But the debate has never been about “ideological purity” – it’s about practical results and coercion. The population establishment isn’t a neutral force: it has a specific political agenda, and when it provides funds, it wants to see results. As Amara Perez writes in her contribution to the evocatively-title book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded:

“The reality is foundations are ultimately interested in the packaging and production of success stories, measurable outcomes, and the use of infrastructure and capacity-building systems. As non-profit organizations that rely on foundation money, we must embrace and engage in the organizing market. This resembles a business model in that the consumers are foundations to which organizations offer to sell their political work for a grant. … Over time, funding trends actually come to influence our work, priorities, and direction as we struggle to remain competitive and funded in the movement market.” (pp. 92-3)


This is not an abstract issue. Family planning programs that raise government and foundation money by promising to reduce the birth rate will face demands for measurable results – and those that want to keep their grants will find themselves pressured to shift from offering reproductive choices to pressuring women to make the “right” choices.

As I pointed out in my previous reply to you, experience with family planning in Third World countries shows that programs motivated by a desire to cut population tend to use coercive measures, regardless of the desires of their supporters. I cited James Oldham’s study of Reproductive Health/Family Planning (RH/FP) programs in Africa and Latin America, which concludes:

“When NGOs arrive with predetermined agendas, the danger is that these will be imposed on local communities. As long as a Malthusian narrative is part of the program vision, such a narrative is likely to be communicated to, and potentially imposed upon, target communities. …

“Organizations promoting the funding and provision of RH/FP services in the global south should refrain from using environmental and population arguments to promote their goals. The distortions of Malthusian arguments cannot be justified simply because they are effective in winning partners or funding; they need to be replaced with rights-based arguments in favor of making RH/FP available to all women.” (Rethinking the Link: A Critical Review of Population-Environment Programs. pp. 3, 5)


In your own book, Susana Chavez Alvarado and Jacqueline Nolley Echegaray describe how a supposedly voluntary program to slow population growth in Peru in the late 1990s led to the involuntary sterilization of hundreds of thousands of indigenous women. Like Oldham, they conclude that the first lesson of that experience is that “human rights abuses are likely where reproductive health services are seen as a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves.” (p. 298.)

I repeat what I wrote previously: That’s an important lesson for anyone who considers promoting family planning as a way to reduce population and greenhouse gas emissions.

Leaving population to the right?

You conclude with an appeal: “Don’t give this issue to the right.”

“people like you and Betsy Hartmann have declared population growth an untouchable issue. But here’s the problem: if there is no left/progressive voice on this issue, environmentalists and others who are legitimately concerned about population growth will be driven into the arms of the neo-Malthusians.”


But the real danger is that liberal environmentalists and feminists will strengthen the right by lending credibility to reactionary arguments. When you adopt the argument that population growth causes global warming, you endorse the strongest argument the right has against the social and economic changes that are really needed to stop climate change and environmental destruction.

What’s more, no matter how sincere you may be, promoting birth control as a means of slowing climate change opens the door to the very coercive measures you oppose. If we only have a decade to stop climate change, shouldn’t we be reducing population drastically right now? How can we justify voluntary programs that won’t be effective for decades?

The “don’t give this issue to the right” argument is a slippery slope. Simon Butler and I recently wrote an article for the Australian newspaper Green Left Weekly, opposing proposals by some environmentalists to limit immigration. A reader responded that our opposition to restrictions on immigration “isolates the left from the majority, and leaves the door wide open for right-wing organizations to tap into their discontent.”

If “don’t leave it to the right” were a valid argument, then neither you nor we would have an effective response to that. But since we don’t think that progressives should try to win support by using right wing arguments, we replied: “Immigration is only one of many issues on which socialists are a minority in Australia today. We deal with this not by abandoning our principles, but by working hard to win the majority to our side.”

The same response applies to your “don’t leave it to the right” argument. If environmentalists and others believe that population growth is causing climate change, then our responsibility is to show them why that’s wrong, not to adapt to their errors.

(My thanks to Simon Butler for his advice and comments on this article.)

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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