Archive for March, 2007

I thought I’d post a paper I recently wrote about the link between environmental protection and population control, and how population control practices and policies are bad for women of colour. I wish I had had more space to really delve into things a bit further, but this was only a 6 page assignment.


Population Control & Environmental Protection: Misplaced Coercion

Population control programs in less-developed countries have often been implemented under the guise of environmental protection and to the detriment of indigenous people, as part of a global campaign of environmental racism. I will argue that this practice is unethical and coercive, and that what is really required is for developed countries to reduce their own consumption of global resources.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’sbook, The Population Bomb, set off a maelstrom of debate and panic among scholars and the general public alike. Ehrlich argued that the environment was in distress due to unrestricted population growth, and that if left unchecked, the earth’s resources would be exhausted. In a supporting article, Ehrlich urged developed countries to spend resources on programs aimed at family planning (Ehrlich, 1971: 14). Garrett Hardin argued that the population-environment crisis is a “tragedy of the commons” where some are taking more than their fair share of the earth’s resources by having too many children, and that this will lead to environmental destruction. (Hardin, 1971: 67; Hardin 1974) His solution is conceptually simple: “If we want to keep the rest of our freedoms we must restrict the freedom to breed” (Hardin, 1971: 67). While neither explicitly cite less-developed countries as the source of the over-population problem, the implicit meaning is clear: societies where having many children is the norm (not developed countries) are responsible for environmental destruction, and population control programs must be implemented there.

The idea that population growth, if left unrestricted, would cause environmental devastation for the entire world was quite influential during the 1970s and 80s. Indebtedness by less-developed countries to Western “benefactors” was growing, and structural adjustment policies became the main option for continued aid – and came to include population control policies. In 1986, the World Bank reported “The current objective of population control programs is to curb population growth in developing countries” (World Bank, 1986, in Pillai & Wang, 1995: 12, emphasis added). In Senegal, the World Bank required that the government adopt a population control policy as a condition for receiving SAP loans (Banderage, 1999: 65). Population control programs have relied heavily on contraception funded and provided by Western government-sponsored organizations such as USAID, UNFPA, and the World Bank, and the U.S. government has consistently been the largest donor for population control programs in less-developed countries (Pillai & Wang, 1999: 12, 46; Banderage, 1999: 65).

The “disaster ethic” held by Ehrlich and Hardin focuses on ends rather than means. Ehrlich wrote, “[T]he price of personal freedom in making childbearing decisions may be the destruction of the world” (Ehrlich, in Banderage, 1999: 37). This model associates overpopulation with everything from women’s subordination to environmental destruction, and blames the victims: “the primary targets of programs were women’s bodies” (Silliman, 1995: 256). Population control programs have become equated with primarily female fertility reduction policies (Pillai & Wang, 1999: 46), and have historically been implemented only in less-developed countries, poor communities of colour in developed countries, and populations such as the physically and mentally disabled, where poverty is wide-spread and basic needs are not met due to social inequalities. The preferred methods of population control programs are long-term or permanent methods controlled by family planning authorities and clinic personnel, not by the women themselves (Silliman, 1995: 256).  These programs have often been coercive, involving uninformed and non-consensual implementation of sterilization and long-term pregnancy-avoidance products such as Norplant, Depo-Provera, and IUDs, and reproductive technologies considered unsafe, untested, and unapproved or banned in developed countries (Wangari, 2002: 306-307).

Sterilization accounts for 45% of contraception in developing countries, and extraordinarily high sterilization rates exist in some countries: 85.5% in Nepal, 69.7% in India, 66.1% in the Dominican Republic, 49.2% in China, 47.9% in Sri Lanka, 44% in Brazil, 41.3% in Thailand, and 37.7% in Mexico (Banderage, 1999: 68). Furthermore, although vasectomy is a far less complicated procedure, “female sterilization is the most favored method of family planners and the most widely used method of fertility control in the world,” and abuse and coercion is not uncommon (Banderage, 1999: 69). Highly unethical methods such as monetary incentives for sterilization “acceptors” and providers, punitive measures for those refusing sterilization, the requirement of a sterilization certificate for employment, lack of informed consent, and even direct force have been used against women and men in less-developed countries in order to reduce birth rates (Banderage, 1999: 71-80). In some instances, sterilization took place in non-sterile and unsanitary conditions and post-operative care was minimal to non-existent, as in Bangladesh, and India, where “speed doctors” perform some 300-500 female sterilization laparoscopies in mass sterilization camps (Banderage, 1999: 72, 77). In China, whose population policy is to achieve negative population growth, eugenic sterilization of mentally disabled and Tibetan women combines with a coercive set of incentives and disincentives in their infamous one-child policy (Banderage, 1999: 78-79). Non-surgical methods of female contraception, such as oral contraceptives, IUDs, Norplant, and Depo-Provera, have been administered in less-developed countries even when they had been banned or untested in developed countries. Esther Wangari writes, “This is blunt racism against the people of colour. Their bodies and their families become nothing but testing and dumping grounds for the new and banned reproductive technologies of the West” (Wangari, 2002: 308).

Meanwhile, developed countries continue to over-consume, directing their attentions to resources in less-developed countries. Large Western-owned corporations exploit heavy debt burdens experienced by less-developed countries to make resource extraction deals for timber, oil, and mining products in less-developed countries. Less-developed countries desperate to increase exports and repay loans are at the mercy of corporations eager to plunder third-world resources: “In a rush to lay claim to valuable resources, foreign companies destroy the local environment and endanger the cultural and often physical survival of the indigenous people who populate it” (Weissman, 1993: 188).

There is reason to be deeply suspicious of the deployment of reproductive technologies in less-developed countries by Western development organizations, while simultaneously, structural adjustment policies restrict economic development and allow for the depletion of third-world resources by Western corporations (Wangari, 2002: 302).  Social and cultural factors are not considered by population control programs; for example, failure to bear children can lead to ostracization and brutality for women, and for poor families in less-developed countries, children are economic assets and not liabilities (Banderage, 1999: 159-160). Each child adds only marginal cost, but the economic return on the labour they provide for their families is far greater. The environmental problems faced by the world are not caused by the poor in less-developed countries; the poor are as much victims as the environment, and are scapegoats for the real culprit: unequal distribution of power, wealth, control of resources, and overconsumption in the global population (Banderage, 1999: 187; Wangari 2002: 306).

Afffluent lifestyles in developed countries pose a serious threat to the global ecosystem. Developed countries are responsible for consuming the majority of the world’s animal meat – and subsequently 40% of the world’s grain used to feed livestock; own the majority of the world’s automobiles –a major producer of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming; and account for approximately 75% of the world’s raw materials and energy use (Banderage, 1999: 229-232). Furthermore, “although industrialized nations in the North are responsible overwhelmingly for production of greenhouse gases, the effects are global; some of the worst effects are felt in some of the poorest countries” (Banderage, 1999: 233).

The real population problem does not lie with less-developed countries, but in the population of the developed countries who are consuming resources at an alarming rate. Yet, these populations have not been targeted on the same scale for consumption reduction as less-developed countries have been for population control and fertility reduction, which have been justified in the name of environmental and resource protection. This apparent discrepancy comes from the fact that “the rich contribute to market expansion through their profligate consumption, while the poor, who lack purchasing power, are superfluous to capitalist growth” (Banderage, 1999: 234).

In conclusion, less-developed countries are being blamed for environmental destruction and resource consumption, and are being coercively and unethically targeted with contraceptive measures aimed at population/fertility reduction, the subjects of which are overwhelmingly poor women of colour, while the real culprits are overconsumptive populations in developed countries. The solution to the problem of environmental degradation, then, does not lie with population control policies implemented in less-developed countries. The solution to the problem of global environmental degradation must target the source: unequal distribution of power, wealth, control of resources, and overconsumption in the global population. Esther Wangari writes, “It is Western countries, it appears to me, that need ‘family consumption planning clinics’” (Wangari, 2002: 306, 308). I couldn’t agree more.


  1. Bandarage, Asoka (1997). Women, Population, and Global Crisis: A Political- Economic Analysis. London UK: Zed Books.
  2. Ehrlich, Paul (1971). “The Population Crisis: Where We Stand” in Population, Environment & People, ed. Noël Hinrichs. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 8-16.
  3. Hardin, Garrett (1971). “Population, Pollution, and Political Systems” in Population, Environment & People, ed. Noël Hinrichs. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 59-68.
  4. Pillai, Vijayan K. and Wang, Guang-zhen (1999). Women’s Reproductive Rights in Developing Countries. Aldershot UK and Brookfield, VE: Ashgate Publishing.
  5. Silliman, Jael M. (1995). “Ethics, Family Planning, Status of Women, and the Environment” in Population, Consumption, and the Environment: Religious and Secular Responses, ed. Harold Coward. Albany NY: State Unniversity of New York Press. 251-261.
  6. Wangari, Esther (2002). “Reproductive Technologies: A Third World Feminist Perspective” in Feminist Post-Development Thought: Rethinking Modernity, Postcolonialism and Representation. London UK: Zed Books. 298-312.
  7. Weissman, Robert (1993). “Corporate Plundering of Third-World Resources” in Toxic Struggles: The Theory and Practice of Environmental Justice, ed. Richard Hofrichter. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. 186-196.

Thoughts, folks?

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I’ve been taking a course this term on environmental justice. It’s been interesting for me, because I’m not very eco-savvy. Despite that my best friend is an environmental goddess. I’ve never been all that concerned about these matters, but it seems like the time is well afoot to be concerned, so yeah. Why not take a class about it? Also very interesting for me has been the intersection between environmentalism and gender, class, and race issues. That’s where the “justice” part comes in.

One of the things I’ve noticed in this class, both in the readings and in the discussion among my fellow students, is how common it is to appropriate rape as an analogy to describe environmental destruction: “raping the earth” is a phrase that has come up a number of times.

Whenever this term has been tossed out into the classroom, a common space shared by all of us as students as well as our instructor, I’d say about 60% of whom are female, it has hit me like a ton of bricks. I can only describe the emotional reaction I have had as one of shutting down. I can’t concentrate on what is being said beyond that point; it’s like there’s been a wall erected in my learning environment. I hear that phrase, and I can’t hear anything else. I am paralyzed by it. I can no longer participate, not even to register my disappointment and distress at the use of this analogy. This creates a hostile learning environment for me.
I am very disappointed that people choose to use this analogy in talking about environmental degradation. By saying that destroying the earth is like rape, two things are done. First, rape survivors feel it. In a room with 20 females, statistically speaking, 5 of them are survivors of sexual violence. They don’t need this reminder. They also don’t need their experiences appropriated in order to make a rhetorical point. It is not appropriate in any way to compare something done to the earth to something that real women have experienced and continue to experience everyday on a widespread scale as part of their gendered oppression. It is not at all appropriate to discuss the violation of a person’s body and psyche with the extraction of resources from the earth, or the destruction of an ecosystem. The earth is not a living being in the same way that humans are living beings, and it is not a valid analogy to draw. If these people using this analogy are so concerned with exploitation, they should consider the exploitation of women and rape survivors to be a high priority.

Secondly, comparing environmental destruction to rape positions women as something like the earth: not really thinking, feeling beings, but irrational, passive resources to be used and exploited for gain. It places women on par with nature, and further from humanity. It “others” women, making women more “natural”, more impulsive, more essentialized. It makes women no more than our sex, our bodies, the most “natural” thing about us, and makes women’s sexuality and reproduction in particular a point of departure for exploitation.

And as this rhetorical device serves to make women more like the earth and nature, at the same time it feminizes the earth. The earth isn’t made strong, independent, masculine – it is made to submit to the desires and whims of humans. We can even tear apart mountains if we want to, cut into diamonds to create multifaceted jewelry, plunge the depths of the ocean floors. There isn’t a single inch of this earth that can’t be bent to humans’ will, forced to behave, to become tame, to be destroyed to build our “civilizations.” Conceptually, “Mother Earth” is just a woman after all, something that has been dominated for many centuries. Anytime we want to dominate something, our best bet is to begin by feminizing it, making it womanly, making it submissive.

The last time this happened in class, I posted a note on the class online discussion board, explaining how this phrase makes me feel and some of the ideological ramifications, and asking that my colleagues refrain from using this inappropriate analogy any more. My request has been supported thus far, for which I am grateful. I’m also glad to sneak in a bit of feminist theory in a non-feminist class any chance I can!

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happy news

some of you might remember me talking about applying to law school and writing the LSAT a few months ago. Well, it turns out that I kicked some LSAT ass (96th percentile, 168, thank you very much), and I’ve been invited to join the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto in the fall. It was my first choice, so I’m pretty excited – and what’s more, they’re offering me enough money to almost completely cover tuition! So, looks like TG will be taking up new digs in TO in a few short months.

Any advice on how to survive law school as a left-wing anti-capitalist feminist would be greatly appreciated. 🙂

Yay me!

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I want to write about being a white racist today.

I could write about how awful racism is, and the horrors it has inflicted in the world. We know this. We know how all the wars since WWII have been fought in developing countries where the people are black and brown. We know about slavery, the black holocaust. We know about the very evil INS, and how there has been talk in the US about actually building a physical wall to keep brown people out. We know about Japanese concentration camps in Canada and the US during WWII. We know about how the global economy is controlled by white folks and works against people of colour, so that people of colour are the poorest in the world. We know about environmental racism, the placing of nuclear waste and test sites and other toxic dumps in communities of colour, about food security, about pipelines in the Canadian north and Alaska that have ruined indigenous people’s food supplies and homes. We know about the internment camps for aboriginals in Australia and Canadian residential schools. We know how white society has done everything possible to try to destroy the cultures of people of colour.  We know how white men came here a couple hundred years ago and stole the land from indigenous people.

We know all this. We know it, and yet, it continues.

Maybe we don’t all know it. Maybe if more people knew it, it would stop. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

The fact is, oppressing people of colour works for those doing the oppressing. It has worked for a long, long time. It serves a capitalist system quite well to have a so clearly divided and identified underclass. It serves the global economy, and micro economies within countries, to keep a particular class of people, so easily identified that all you have to do is look at them, from being able to access every freedom, every opportunity, every right. It serves western capitalism to continue to colonize people of colour, to continue to keep people of colour poor and uneducated. Slavery hasn’t ended; colonization hasn’t ended: we just call it globalization now. Of course, racism and capitalism are two separate things, but they are interlocking. Don’t mistake me for saying that eliminating capitalism is the answer for ending racism.

But, that’s not really what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about white racism, because I think it’s poorly understood by white people.

I’m white. For many years, I have been a self-identified anti-racist. Anti-racism was the first political movement I could really identify myself as believing in very strongly. And because I was a self-identified anti-racist, I thought that meant that I, myself, was not a racist.

Not so simple, it turns out. Because what I was identifying as “racism” was not enough. I was identifying racism as hateful acts against people because of their racial identity. Not enough. Then I moved to a philosophy that at least recognized racism as social oppression, part of social power relations, that removed the possibility of “reverse racism.” But still, not enough. And I began to accept that racism is pervasive, built into the very structures of society. And that nobody is exempt.

A few months ago now, a friend, Max, challenged me to think harder about racism in my own life, in my own mind, my own way of looking at the world. I did as he asked, and it changed me. I began to see how racism is so subtle it can be imperceptible in even someone like me, who believes in my deepest heart that people should not be valued differently because of their skin colour. I began to see how denying that I, too, am racist is unhelpful to anti-racism work. My own reaction to racism was such repulsion, I couldn’t identify the ways in which I, too, am racist – even as I believe in racial equality. The two were incoherent, incompatible. And yet, they were, side-by-side, present in me.

To be white is to be racist. To be white in a world where white is right, where white is might, is to be racist. It’s inescapable. It’s the MATRIX. It’s passed on through the generations like a family heirloom. It’s built into our education system, into our legal system, into our history, into our philosophy, into our governments – all of which benefit whites, were made by whites, recorded by whites, and as institutions, remain largely white. By the whites, for the whites. We have kept the power for ourselves, and we wield it with terrifying white-hot fury.

To be white is to be racist. Accepting this is the first step in racist recovery.

I don’t claim to be an expert, or to be enlightened, or to be finished my anti-racism work in myself. But I thought today was an appropriate day to discuss this.

Please, if you haven’t read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” already, go and do it, in the name of all that is good.

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in a couple weeks, I will be participating in a video conference with the head of the IMF. We’ve been asked to put together a list of questions for him to answer. I have a couple questions already, but I thought I would ask you:

What would YOU ask the head of the IMF if you had the chance?

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interview meme

The Rules: Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me.”I respond by asking you five personal questions so I can get to know you better. If I already know you well, expect the questions may be a little more intimate!You WILL update your journal/bloggy thing/whatever with the answers to the questions.You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the post.When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.

My quesitons come from Sage:

1. How do you reconcile the fact that non-thinkers seem so happy? Does their happiness in life have less value because they’re unaware of or unconcerned with strife in this world? Or are they the truly brilliant?

Oh, I didn’t realize the non-thinkers were so happy! 🙂

I do sort of follow the philosophy “the unexamined life is not worth living,” so I wouldn’t classify the non-thinkers of the world as brilliant, but I don’t think that their happiness in and of itself has less value; it might be easier to come by, perhaps, but I think that in general terms, happiness is happiness, none more valuable than another. I do worry, however, that their happiness comes at the expense of others, which might make the happiness of the unaware less ethical.

2. What do you make of de Beauvoir’s question to Sartre (to paraphrase): “If we’re all so free, then why are women so oppressed, dammit?”

I do love de Beauvoir. And Sartre, while a great philosopher and serious genius, just didn’t seem to fully get it about gender oppression.  Too much of a focus on individual existential angst. While I personally adore his line, “Hell is other people,” I feel like Sartre was way too isolationist with his philosophical work, and didn’t see the full complexity of how interwoven and relational we humans are. de Beauvoir, I think, understood this in a fuller way.

3. Who’s your favourite philosopher and why?

Nietzsche. I just love the cutting nature of his brilliance. No mincing of words, but a deep understanding of human nature. I love his genealogical approach to history and philosophy. And I also love his atheism. He’s just in a class all his own.

I also, for the record, love Camus, Foucault, Butler and Derrida. I’m into existentialism and post-modernism/post-structuralism primarily. And I’m a Kantian.

4. What did you used to do in your blogging time before you started blogging?

Well, I used to watch a lot more TV. But, truth be told, I am a world-class master procrastinator, so blogging is my new method. Also, I used to talk to my best friend on the phone every night, but now she lives in another country.

5. If I came out east and we went out on a night on the town, would we be more likely to keep each other from drinking too much, or egg one another on to tequila shooters at dawn? Explain.

Yeah, I’m gonna go with tequila. Tequila is just… well… tequila is awesome. And, after all, it would be such a treat to have you come to visit, I’d definitely feel obliged to show you a good time! And there are simply so many places to drink tequila. The spot I think you’d like best closes a bit early, but lots of other spots stay open quite late and can be lots of fun. Once they close, then it’s on to the favourite all-night greasy spoon! I’d also probably drag your ass out of bed bright and early the next day for some fresh sea-side air to chase the hangover away! Ions, don’t ya know. 😉

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A common claim in feminist theory is that sex and gender are different; that “sex” refers to biological characteristics like genitals and chromosomes, and “gender” refers to social roles and practices like masculinity and femininity. Continuing this distinction, the “sex” categories are referred to as “male” and “female” and the gender categories are referred to as “man” and “woman”. It’s been a useful rhetorical tool to talk about the social vs. the physical aspects of sex and gender, as well as to allow some wiggle room to open up in which people can subvert these roles by, say, being “female” and also “man”, or vice versa.

I don’t find this distinction helpful anymore. I also don’t think it’s particularly true.

I’ve been reading a fabulous book lately by Anne Fausto-Sterling, a feminist biologist, called Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. She talks about intersexuality, the state of being where one’s reproductive or sexual anatomy isn’t simply “male” or “female” according to genitalia, gonads, or chromosomes, but some combination of both. Intersexuality is not so uncommon as you might think: about 1.7% of births are intersexual. In a population of 20,000, that’s about 340. It’s significantly more common than albanism, the lack of melanin in the skin and hair – only 1 in 20,000 births, or 0.005%.

Intersexuality is considered a medical emergency. When an intersexual child is born, doctors rush to try to figure out what to do – cut off the bits of genitalia that don’t match the chromosomes, like an elongated clitoris or an external testes on an XX infant? try to reposition the urethral opening to save an XY infant the future humiliation of not being able to pee standing up? cut open fused labia to create a vagina? parents are told that their child is “really” a boy or a girl (not that they are intersexual), and that it is necessary to make its body match the “true” sex identity. They are told that they must act quickly, or risk their child growing up with severe psychological trauma because they won’t be like all the other kids. They are told that there are no other people they can talk to who have gone through the same thing, and anyway, tick tock, the more minutes their infant spends in this ambiguous state of limbo the more likely they will be traumatized later on. They are told if they want to be good parents, they must sign the forms and submit their infant for genital surgery.

And so, for the most part, intersexuality is surgically “corrected” right away. Sometimes, which “sex” the child is encouraged to be raised as doesn’t match up with its chromosomes, and is instead rather arbitrarily decided according to how large or small the penis is – if it is deemed “too small” it is simply removed, the head is made into a nub that is meant to represent the clitoris and surgically embedded into the genital area (if they’re lucky!), and a vagina is created, which often involves several surgeries and requires the infant or child have a dildo inserted into their newly constructed orifice so that scar tissue doesn’t develop and close off the new opening.  One surgeon who specializes in this work has been quoted as saying “it’s easier to dig a hole than build a pole.” However, as the child develops, it is often necessary to undergo several more surgical procedures to make sure everything is working properly. Sometimes, intersexuals have one ovary and one testes, and later on the ovary is removed. Sometimes, gonads are fused together into one, called ovo-testes, and surgery is performed to remove whichever unwanted bits are there. Most often, the child is not told why they are undergoing additional surgery, and their medical history is kept secret from them. there’s a lot of ignoramce cultivated around intersexuality.

Anne Fausto-Sterling is arguing that this medical practice of eliminating intersexuality, thus creating only two sexes, is a social one. The existence of intersexuals disproves the theory that there are biologically only two sexes. We as a society have forced a false binary sex system on intersexual people because we have too much invested in the idea that there are only “male” and “female” people. It’s ridiculous!

And so, I don’t think we can really separated sex and gender. They are both social practices, having to do with creating false binaries and negating the experiences and bodies of real living people who have been “naturally” born as neither female nor male. It seems that the primary motivation behind creating two sexes is so that the people in question will not experience gender “confusion” as they grow up. Gender and sex cannot be so easily divided; they are intricately interwoven onto the bodies of us all, and especially intersexuals.

Sex/gender is a performance – there is no original, as says Judith Butler in Gender Trouble. And sex/gender cannot be separated from bodies; we are deemed to be “male” “female” “man” “woman” because of and sometimes in spite of our bodies – and if our bodies do not co-operate, they are tamed by surgical means into upholding our socially constructed and enforced binary sex/gender system.

What’s more, sex/gender is also deeply tied to sexuality. You know how doctors determine whether sex/gender assignment on intersexuals is successful or not? Whether the person in question ends up being heterosexual. That is supposed to be the indicator of whether or not they chose the “right” bits to cut off and the “right” bits to encourage! If the person in question turns out to be gay or lesbian or bisexual, then their sex/gender assignment is considered a failure – because obviously, heterosexuality=normal in this strange society we live in, and anything else is deviant or abnormal! I mean, it’s so ridiculous it’s kind of mind-boggling, how desperately we cling to these false dimorphisms! We’d rather label whole segments of the population as “freaks” of biology than admit that our social system is fucked up.

So anyway, lots of interesting stuff going on in that book, I highly recommend it. As a jump-off for discussion,  Fausto-Sterling recommends ending genital surgery on intersexual infants, and allowing them to be raised in whatever way the parent deems appropriate, and allowing the intersexual person him/herself decide later on, say at puberty, what they want to do: either have surgery to make their bodies less ambiguous, or stay the way they are. I fully support this proposition. What do you folks think?

And as a last link, I recommend taking a look at the Intersexuality Society of North America website to learn more. This is a wonderful group dedicated to helping families and intersexual people make informed decisions and alleviating the stigma of intersexuality.

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