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.
- Bandarage, Asoka (1997). Women, Population, and Global Crisis: A Political- Economic Analysis. London UK: Zed Books.
- Ehrlich, Paul (1971). “The Population Crisis: Where We Stand” in Population, Environment & People, ed. Noël Hinrichs. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 8-16.
- Hardin, Garrett (1971). “Population, Pollution, and Political Systems” in Population, Environment & People, ed. Noël Hinrichs. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 59-68.
- Pillai, Vijayan K. and Wang, Guang-zhen (1999). Women’s Reproductive Rights in Developing Countries. Aldershot UK and Brookfield, VE: Ashgate Publishing.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.