Population

by Anne Hendrixson and Diana Ojeda

While often thought of as a given reality, definitions of population are highly political. They are most often negatively associated with notions of “overpopulation” or “too many” Black, Brown and Indigenous people, supposedly overly fertile women and poor people, as well as some religious and ethnic groups. These ideas about population serve the purpose of classifying people and marking them as in need of intervention, defining whose life and ways of life are valuable or worthy of reproduction. In this line, it is important to question how population numbers are calculated and how they are used, as they help shape possible futures.

In relation to the environment and environmental conflict, population is often defined as a problem in neo-Malthusian terms. Neo-Malthusianism builds on British economist Thomas Malthus’s predictions of population-induced resource scarcity and violence. Neo-Malthusian promotion of family planning as the solution to hunger, conflict, and poverty has contributed to destructive population control approaches, that are targeted most often at poor, racialized women.

Population control was an international development policy from the 1960s to mid-1990s. Its policies have been based on top-down, coercive interventions. Such interventions are tied with imperial strategies for restraining local populations. Examples include China’s one-child policy, sterilization abuses in 1970s India and 1990s Peru, and the wide-scale dissemination of long-acting reversible contraceptive methods in the global South as a condition of international aid, like Norplant implants in Indonesia and elsewhere. Although the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development foregrounded sexual and reproductive health and rights and women’s empowerment and moved away from population control, it continues in practice. Population control is part of a troubled present, and cannot be relegated to history as dated international development policy.

In the context of the global environmental crisis, neo-Malthusianism is on the rise. As we have seen recently, the alarmism around population growth mobilizes fear in ways that often promote fascist, racist and xenophobic discourses dressed in green. For example, human pressure on the environment is cited as the reason for international migration, and, for some, under this logic, walls, deportation and fertility control become desirable. It is not uncommon to see media coverage that portrays humanitarian and political crises as a population problem that is causing waves of migration to the global North, as can be noted in the case of Syria. Feminist political ecologists challenge neo-Malthusianism because it assumes that there are external limits to resources. This obscures the ways in which scarcity and conflict are shaped by social and political factors.

Recent feminist writing gives us insight into the current population control efforts which are promoted as a win-win for women and the environment. The Thriving Together campaign sponsored by the UK-based, Margaret Pyke Trust’s Population & Sustainability Network, is a case in point. The Population and Sustainability Network works to promote “family planning for the planet”. Its Thriving Together campaign aims to bring together international organizations that work on issues of human and environmental health. Their statement, signed by 150 organizations declares: “Increasing human pressures are among the many challenges facing planetary health. By harming ecosystems we undermine food and water security and human health, and we threaten habitats and species. Ensuring family planning is available to all who seek it is among the positive actions we must take to lessen these pressures”.

This quote is weighted with common assumptions about population and the environment. “Human pressures” refers largely to population numbers in “poor rural communities in developing nations” with “higher levels of fertility and more rapid rates of population growth”. This is where the purportedly neutral container of “population” becomes racialized, sexed, gendered, located, and classed. As is typical of population control conversations, the targets are poor, racialized women in the global South, largely in African nations.

Thriving Together instrumentalizes contraception as a tool for women’s empowerment, which they claim not only improves health but “advances education and life opportunities” while at the same time it “eases pressures on wildlife and ecosystems.” It is an unrealistic expectation that a contraceptive method could resolve serious structural issues such as these. As advocates for reproductive justice, including access to safe and free or affordable abortion, we are concerned that this approach has the potential to skew quality sexual and reproductive health services in the service of environmental and economic agendas. Further, when family planning is posed as a technical fix to multiple problems, it ignores the political, social and economic character of environmental issues. In a depoliticizing move, these kinds of statements downplay issues central to the current environmental crisis such as rising inequalities and land grabbing, among others.1 At the same time, it leaves unquestioned the abuses of carried out in the name of conservation, associated with sterilization, violence, and even death, as a recent report against WWF shows.

Thriving Together’s narrative leads to environmental conservation policies which too often consider people to be environmental threats and overly fertile. These ideas translate into tight restrictions on the actions and movements of people who live in places which are seen as ecologically strategic.

In contrast, a feminist take on population critiques the troubling ways in which some individuals and groups are targeted as the root causes of poverty, environmental degradation and conflict. As stated in A Renewed Call for Feminist Resistance to Population Control, we call for ways in which climate change can be tackled at the same time that we challenge racism and social injustice, including issues of sexual and reproductive health. There cannot be environmental justice, including climate justice, without social, racial and gender justice.

1 Note: Land grabbing is used to define the land transactions that followed the financial crisis of 2007-2008, as countries, private companies and individuals in the Global North started to acquire massive chunks of land in the Global South. Speculative trends and neoliberal policies worsened this situation, resulting in big changes in land use, tenure and ownership. The notion has expanded since then to include the multiple ways in which very few rich people have been appropriating natural resources (using diverse strategies such as debt, violence and public policy) at the expense of the rural and urban poor.

Further resources

Ian Angus and Simon Butler. 2011. Too Many People?: Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

  • Systematically challenges the idea that “overpopulation” is the cause of environmental problems and climate change and calls to account the worst contributors to environmental destruction.

Betsy Hartmann. 2016. Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, 3rd edition. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

  • Critiques population control and alarmism from a feminist, social justice perspective.

Anne Hendrixson, Diana Ojeda, Jade S. Sasser, Sarojini Nadimpally, Ellen E. Foley & Rajani Bhatia (2019): Confronting Populationism: Feminist challenges to population control in an era of climate change, Gender, Place & Culture. DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2019.1639634

  • Argues for renewed feminist attention to population control in the context of climate change.

Diana Ojeda, Jade S. Sasser & Elizabeth Lunstrum (2019): Malthus’s specter and the Anthropocene, Gender, Place & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2018.1553858

  • Confronts the discourses linking climate change and the idea of the Anthropocene, which often advance neo-Malthusianism and suggests population control to address the challenges of climate change.

Anne Hendrixson leads PopDev, a feminist program challenging population control in all its forms through critical research, publications, and social justice advocacy. Anne is a writer and teacher who seeks to uncover the ways that population bomb thinking manifests in environmentalism, security discourses and sexual and reproductive health advocacy today. Contact: popdevprogram [at] gmail.com

Diana Ojeda is Associate Professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Development Studies at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Diana is a feminist geographer who does research on the relation between environmental issues and dispossession. Her recent work pays closer attention to the role of gender in the expansion of oil palm plantations in the Colombian Caribbean. Contact: dc.ojeda [at] uniandes.edu.co.

Cover image made from an original photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

January readings

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, via Counterfire


Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory. 

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth. 

We’re back from our break with fresh new readings for you! The world moves fast, and a lot has happened over the past two months. Jane Goodall’s comment at the World Economic Forum that most of our environmental problems wouldn’t exist if human population growth were at the levels they were 500 years ago sparked another debate about the validity and dangers of ‘overpopulation’ arguments. We featured a critique of her claim here. We also collected resources around green colonialism: the push to ‘green’ the Global North at the expense of the Global South. And of course, we’re sharing a couple of articles about the Wuhan coronavirus which has been dominating the news, on top of the usual news and discussions about global and Indigenous struggles, cities and radical municipalism, and degrowth.



Uneven Earth updates

Energy and the Green New Deal | Link | The complex challenge of powering societies 

Swedish colonialist neutrality | Link | A tradition of double standards from historical colonialism to current environmental injustice 

Public money for environmental justice | Link | We’ll never fund a transformative Green New Deal with money designed for capitalism 

Hayashi-san’s Green Headband | Link | “In Tokyo, New York, Montreal, Rome, Paris, Beijing, Kinshasa, millions of people were wearing green headbands … this has made you a martyr and brought the environmental movement to a level never before reached.” 

Show me the money | Link | How will we pay for the Green New Deal?

A just food transition | Link | Why the Green New Deal should give farmers a Basic Income 

Birth | Link | “Maybe then we’ll regain the access to the river, the river that is now controlled by the insiders and their obsession with energy resources.” 



Top 5 articles to read

Why we should be wary of blaming ‘overpopulation’ for the climate crisis

What if Darwin’s ideas about competition aren’t as correct as we’ve long thought?

A repair manual for Spaceship Earth

Life under the algorithm

Back to the land



News you might’ve missed

Nuclear power ‘cannot rival renewable energy’

The plastics pipeline: A surge of new production is on the way

Our pathetically slow shift to clean energy, in five charts

It’s not just Australia — Indonesia is facing its own climate disaster

Perpetual debt in the Silicon Savannah



Coronavirus

Notes on a novel coronavirus

Bat soup didn’t cause the Wuhan virus. Racist memes target Chinese eating habits, but the real causes of the coronavirus are more mundane.



Global struggles

In Hong Kong, the art of resistance and erasure

‘This place used to be green’: the brutal impact of oil in the Niger Delta

Don’t mess with French pensions

The popular assemblies at the heart of the Chilean uprising

A Mexican indigenous town’s environmental revolt

COP25, social movements and climate justice 

Rojava is a laboratory that links the environment and society with municipalism

‘This movement is just beginning’: homeless moms evicted after taking over vacant house

  • The fight for mom’s house. This is the story of a group of homeless mothers who for 58 days occupied a vacant home in Oakland, and eventually claimed a historic victory in the struggle for housing justice.

Stories of global environmental justice

Zapatista update: Forum on Defense of the Territory and Mother Earth

How the Global North’s Left media helped pave the way for Bolivia’s right-wing coup

Can Extinction Rebellion survive?




Indigenous struggles

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs evict coastal GasLink from territory

Canada police prepared to shoot Indigenous activists, documents show

Indigenous Colombians escalate fight to rescue ancestral lands

The Wounded Knee massacre and the long tradition of Indigenous resistance

‘On my ancestors’ remains’: The fight for sacred lands

With a thousand ancestors front and back



Just think about it…

Climate change and deforestation: These 3 supertrees can protect us from climate collapse

The dark side of the Nordic model. Scandinavian countries may top every ranking on human development, but they are a disaster for the environment. 

Want to double world food production? Return the land to small farmers

Performative environmentalism won’t reverse climate change

Automation isn’t wiping out jobs. It’s that our engine of growth is winding down

Ganges River: Giulio Di Sturco’s photos capture environmental decline

A surge of new plastic is about to hit the planet

Nightmares on wax: the environmental impact of the vinyl revival

Humans will never colonize Mars

Library socialism: A utopian vision of a sustaniable, luxuriant future of circulating abundance

A future with no future: Depression, the Left, and the politics of mental health

Will Finland introduce a four-day week? Is it the secret of happiness?

Time, work and wellbeing. “Efforts to achieve decent work must encompass not just the quantity but also the quality of working time – not just time as a commodity but also as a lived complexity.”



Where we’re at: analysis

A Green New Jail

Europe’s Green Deal is a tepid response to the climate crisis 

When are we going to address the climate crisis?

A critical look at China’s One Belt, One Road initiative

Where is the rift? Marx, Lacan, capitalism, and ecology

Uber’s path of destruction

The palace of the future is nearly complete

Climate change and technology define the rural future. “No city is an autarky. For their survival, they rely on the countrysides they conveniently ignore.”



New politics

In 2030, we ended the climate emergency. Here’s how

Socialism, capitalism and the transition away from fossil fuels

The Lebanese Intifada, or the growth of an anti-capitalist mass movement 

Austria’s new anti-immigrant green government stokes fears of climate ‘nightmare’ 

What is the Green New Deal? A climate proposal, explained 

Portugal has found an antidote to right wing populism. Facing the policies of socialist Prime Minister António Costa, which include properly supporting the welfare state and investing in the public sector instead of austerity measures, right wing populists don’t stand a chance. 

The Hague must recognise ecocide 

Feminism and the social solidarity economy: A short call to action 

Moving towards low-carbon lifestyles: A question of collective action 



Green colonialism (and decolonialism)

What green costs. Deep in the salt flats of Chile lies the extractive frontier of the renewable energy transition.  

The coming green colonialism

The eco-fascists are coming

The path to net-zero emissions must include divestment, decolonization and resistance

Why a ‘Green New Deal’ must be decolonial

Decolonization requires a new economics

A view from the countryside. Contesting and constructing human rights in an age of converging crises.

Why stopping wars is essential for stopping climate change

Walls on a drowning world

Playing with fire, securing the borders of a Green New Deal

When the Green New Deal goes global

Development: A failed project 




Cities and radical municipalism

The case for making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of ‘smart’ ones 

‘We’re setting a clear stop sign’: Berlin passes five-year rent freeze law

‘My Parkdale is gone’: how gentrification reached the one place that seemed immune

Study says rent control is good for cities, debunking conventional economists’ wisdom 

Tenant organizing when rising rent isn’t the (main) issue

Islands in the illiberal storm: central European cities vow to stand together 

Reclaiming the commons: The case for public bike libraries 

The case for cohousing: Where responsibilities are shared and life is a little less lonely

Time for public power for New York 

Should public transit be free? More cities say, why not? 

Ten zero-waste cities: How Thiruvananthapuram cleaned up its act 

When capital threatens to strike in your city 

The municipalist moment. Movements on the left are increasingly looking to build power at the local level. The question is how we can leverage municipal gains to transform the system at expanding scales.

Municipalism: the next political revolution? 

Heroes of the 2010s: Kshama Sawant, the socialist who beat Amazon 



Degrowth!

Ford v. Ferrari v. Malthus

Rethinking fashion: A confession of a degrowth advocate

Deadly growth: Capitalism versus life on Earth

Is degrowth an alternative to capitalism?



Resources

Case studies from The Rules about different topics related to environmental justice and alternative economics.

Economics for people. A free online lecture series from Ha-Joon Chang.

Degrowth of aviation. A report.

Regenerative farming and the Green New Deal. A policy memo.

Dual power: Issue 9 of ROAR Magazine

Diversify and decolonise your holiday reading list

How to follow the news without burning out  



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