Cross Dressing Malthus
October 12, 1999 has the dubious distinction of being both Columbus Day and 'Day of 6 Billion,' ostensibly the day world population will pass the six billion people mark. A well-funded media campaign, organized by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), the Communications Consortium Media Center and others is already revving up to spread demographic alarmism, despite the fact, or perhaps because of it, that population growth rates are declining worldwide faster than anticipated.
While many of the campaign's messages include the need for women's empowerment, the main theme reaching the press is that population growth is a major drain on social, economic and environmental resources. Left out of the picture are the real culprits: capitalist exploitation of both people and nature, obscene income and consumption disparities, inappropriate technologies and hyper-militarization.The belief is you can have your cake and eat it too: you can support women's rights, while scapegoating their fertility for the planet's ills. You can cross-dress Malthus and parade him around as a feminist.
Five years after the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo, the population establishment is experiencing a sort of ideological schizophrenia. On the one hand are positive calls to make women's empowerment and broader reproductive health services the centerpiece of population policies and the rightful condemnation of the use of coercion and demographic targeting in family planning programs. In some countries there have been serious attempts to reform population programs, and within institutions like the UNFPA, there are progressive individuals struggling to change policy.
On the other hand, many population and environment groups, especially in the US, continue to blame poverty, environmental degradation, political violence and even the spread of diseases like AIDS on rapid population growth in the Third World. Zero Population Growth, for example, links 'Y6B' to 'Y2K', claiming that world population passing the six billion mark is a more threatening problem than the potential computer glitch. Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute has taken an even more cynical approach, arguing that African countries which have experienced rapid population growth are suffering from "demographic fatigue", accounting for their inability to take adequate measures to halt the spread of the AIDS epidemic.
These messages actually undermine the Cairo reforms by reinforcing demographic targeting and spreading fear and loathing of the faceless, nameless masses 'over there.' Despite the Cairo reforms, population control programs remain in place in many regions. Sterilization abuse of poor women is still common in a number of countries, including Peru, Mexico, India and China. In many national and international family planning programs, long-acting, provider-dependent contraceptives like Norplant are targeted at poor women since these methods are considered more effective in preventing pregnancy even if they present greater risks to health and do nothing to block the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. The main rationale for US foreign assistance in the reproductive health field is still reducing population growth; according to the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, USAID continues to give less funding for maternal services than it does for family planning.
Why is neo-Malthusianism so powerful in the US, much more powerful than it is, for example, in European development and environment circles? There are a number of different but related reasons. For one, we have a strong anti-abortion movement which makes the population establishment seem reasonable by comparison -- at least it supports family planning, though often of the wrong kind. We also have a well-funded population lobby that has influence at the highest echelons of government. Money talks in Washington, DC.
In addition, we happen to live in one of the most parochial countries on the planet, where knowledge about development issues in the Third World is slim indeed. Just look at the social studies and biology textbooks kids read in school and you'll find that population is typically blamed for poverty and environmental degradation. This is very unlike curricular materials in the UK, where competing theories on population are taught in a sophisticated and complex way, and geography involves more than learning the location of the fifty states.
Then there is the wilderness ethic, the belief in a pure nature, unsullied by human beings. (Of course we created our wilderness through the genocide of its Native American inhabitants.) There is little appreciation that human communities can and do live in more sustainable relationships with their environments in other countries. Poor peasants, we are taught, overmine the soil and cut down the rain forests -- there is little knowledge about how peasant agriculture actually contributes to biodiversity and land conservation in many areas, or about the business interests responsible for most forest destruction.
But the roots of the neo-Malthusian success go deeper than this. Neo-Malthusianism is a useful ideological glue which binds liberals, and even some leftists, to conservative causes. It is a tricky little belief system, constantly mutating to fit the political moment. Just last year, right-wing anti-immigration activists tried to change the Sierra Club's neutral policy on immigration by arguing that immigrants, by contributing to US population growth, were the main despoilers of our environment. And just watch the debates over climate change. The spin doctors are trying to divert attention from the US refusal to take serious measures to cut carbon emissions by playing up the threat of China and India's populations as future energy consumers. Better the one child family over there than a one car policy here, or raising taxes, god forbid, to finance public transport and energy conservation.
But probably the single most important reason neo-Malthusianism is so powerful in the US is because it resonates so well with domestic racism and sexism. Images of overbreeding single women of color on welfare and bare-breasted, always pregnant Third World woman are two sides of the same nasty coin. And both groups, it is believed, are excellent candidates for social engineering. Insert Norplant, tie their tubes, put them to work in fast food chains or sweat shops, and give them a little micro-credit and education if you're feeling generous... And meanwhile call their young male counterparts barbarians, whether they live in the US inner city or Robert Kaplan's African anarchy. Lock the boys and men in prison.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for people having access to safe, voluntary, and affordable birth control and abortion services as part of, not a substitute for, comprehensive health services. Reproductive rights are a vital part of a human rights agenda. I also support many of the reforms outlined at Cairo, though most are yet to be realized. But I believe that once and for all support for reproductive rights needs to be divorced from the neo-Malthusian agenda, which not only distorts the delivery of family planning services, but wider social policies.
Except for the women's movement, the American left has remained much too silent on this issue. On Columbus Day in 1992 progressives here and in Latin America joined together to say that 500 years of colonialism and imperialism were enough. This year 'Day of 6 Billion' would be a good date to strip Malthus of all his trendy trappings and put him back in his grave where he belongs.
-- Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College and a co-founder of the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment.