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Population Control or Population Justice?


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Shrinking the world’s population is one way to curb global warming, according to some environmentalists. To make that happen, women need to be in control of their own fertility. But those perspectives are very controversial. On this edition: how environmentalism can lead down a slippery slope to population control, and even anti-immigrant policies. Can an emerging movement for ‘population justice’ save our planet while respecting women’s rights?
Special thanks to Mary Wohlford Foundation for funding this program.
See below for the transcript.


Laurie Mazur, author of A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental ChallengeJade Sasser, Loyola Marymount University women’s studies professor; Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health policy director; Ben Zuckerman, former Sierra Club board member


For More Information:

Population Justice Project
Population and Development Program at Hampshire College
National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health
Sierra Club’s Global Population and the Environment Program
Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth)
National Audubon Society
The Izaac Walton League

National Geographic, “Population 7 Billion”
BBC, “The World at 7 Billion”
The Economist, “Horrid History”

Counting Crows, “Big Yellow Taxi”
Kenny Ulrich “Journey Around the World”
Pink Floyd “Echoes”



Kyung Jin Lee: This week on Making Contact:

Ben Zuckerman: There’s no question, human population has to be controlled. There’s just absolutely no way that we can live in a sustainable world with an increase in human population.

Kyung Jin Lee: Shrinking the world’s population is one way to curb global warming, according to some environmentalists. And to make that happen, women need to be in control of their own fertility. But that focus is very controversial.

“This focus on population really does put it back to this, ‘women are to blame’ for environmental degradation, which we reject.”

On this edition, how environmentalism can lead down a slippery slope to population control, and even anti-immigrant policies. Can an emerging movement for ‘population justice’ save our planet while respecting women’s rights?

I’m Kyung Jin Lee and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.

Ben Zuckerman: People talk about sustainability. The problem is that if the human population keeps growing, sustainability is but a hopeless theoretical construct.

Kyung Jin Lee: Today, there are more than 7 billion people who inhabit the earth. For at least the past 2 centuries, debate has raged about how many people the earth can sustainably support.

Ben Zuckerman: In order for the human species and the biosphere to come into some kind of a sustainable equilibrium, our population must stop growing and our consumption of nonrenewable resources must stop growing. There’s no way that a finite biosphere can support an endless number of growing number of human beings.

Kyung Jin Lee: That’s Ben Zuckerman, a Sierra Club member since 1969, and a longtime environmental conservationist.

Overconsumption of natural resources…. Mass famines….environmental catastrophes, These and other threats have spurred many governments to try and radically reduce the number of babies born throughout the 20th century.

For most of the time humans have inhabited the earth, the population grew at a slow and steady pace. It took until the early 1800s to reach the first billion. But since industrialization, the advent of vaccines and antibiotics, and increased sanitation practices starting in the late 18th century, the world’s population has ballooned, and is now at more than 7 billion. Many say that’s just too much.

Currently, China is the world’s most populous country at 1.3 billion. Government officials enacted its controversial one-child policy in 1979 to better manage the resources each citizen would consume. As a result, China has drastically slowed down its growth rate from about 6 births per woman in the 50s to 1.7 today. The government uses incentives; including offering longer maternity leave to parents who wait to have their only child.

On the flipside, reports of hefty fines, forced abortions and sterilizations have also been common. In total, 400 million births have been prevented through this policy, reducing the burden on the government and the environment.

Zuckerman applauds China’s efforts to reduce its population. But he notes the country has also become the biggest greenhouse emitter in the world.

Ben Zuckerman: China is the worst enemy in terms of countries for the biosphere. China is in the midst of endless construction of coal power plants. So, in terms of climate change, China is really a disaster for the earth’s atmosphere and the oceans. Because once the carbon gets into the ocean, it acidifies the ocean and it’s bad for the coral and fishes.

Kyung Jin Lee: Zuckerman says China also destroys rain forests, supports dam building around the world, and is taking resources away from those who need them more.

Ben Zuckerman: Because the Chinese have so many people to feed, they’re buying up farm land in countries like Africa and maybe in Latin America too, in order to ship food back to china. And the poor people in Africa definitely need that food to remain in Africa. But it’s not going to happen because the Chinese are so powerful and relatively rich compared to the Africans.

It’s not to say that average or typical Chinese person is any worse than anybody living anywhere else. It’s just that there’s so many darn Chinese … that in order to satisfy all their desires, they’re literally raping the biosphere both on land and in the oceans.

Kyung Jin Lee: But Jade Sasser, an incoming women’s studies professor at Loyola Marymount University, points out that China isn’t the biggest culprit, and says the argument that population control practices help the environment is a fallacy.

Jade Sasser: The US still emits more greenhouse gasses per person or per capita. … The average Chinese woman is having 1.7 children. That rate is continuing to go down. So there are definitely other interventions that should be implemented in China, including the development of alternative energies. China right now is the leading country in the world in developing alternative energies. Population control has been in place for four decades and it is not a successful environmental intervention.

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Kyung Jin Lee: Meanwhile, population growth in India, the second most populated country in the world, has also slowed considerably in the past 50 years, but alarm bells continue to ring.

India population collage:

According to the projection made by the government over the last hundred years India’s population has seen a five fold increase and is expected to surpass that of China by 2050. While India’s population grew by 1.4 percent over the last five years China witnessed only 0.6 percent population growth.

We learned from a census ten years ago that India had more than a billion people. But now results of the latest census say India’s population has gone way up by 180 million. That’s like adding the entire population of Russia and then some in just ten years.

India’s population of 1.2 billion is expected to balloon to 1.6 billion by the middle of the century

If India continues at the existing pace its population will increase to 1.68 billion by 2050 with very serious consequences on sustainable development of the country

Unless there’s a huge paradigm shift in planning towards realistic planning based on what is available and huge control on population, there’ll be no water, there’ll be no food. We’re losing more and more land to global warming

The government is tackling population growth through pilot programs providing cash incentives for those that have fewer children.

Kyung Jin Lee: India has tried measures to cut its population through voluntary and forced sterilization programs. More than 8 million men and women were sterilized in the mid-70s. Many were coerced, forced and unwitting victims. But this practice created a huge public backlash. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was ousted from power. And the people developed an aversion toward family planning.

But in some areas, incentives and coercive measures to reduce the number of births are slowly becoming standard practice once again. In Satara, a city in Southwestern India, couples are being offered about $100 to wait to have their first child. In the state of Rajasthan, women are offered cell phones and a chance to win a car if they agree to be sterilized.

Such government policies have been repudiated by women’s rights activists. Laurie Mazur, the author of “A Pivotal Moment,” has been an environmentalist and reproductive health activist for 20 years.

Laurie Mazur: I think coercive population control programs are not only dead wrong, an egregious violation of human rights and bodily integrity, it’s completely counterproductive. There’s always a backlash. You can’t do that to people… It’s completely wrong, it’s misguided. And it’s unnecessary.

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Kyung Jin Lee: So where did the idea of slowing population growth come from?

In the late-1700s, an English economist named Thomas Malthus believed there would come a time when there would be too many people to feed, compared to the availability of food. To counter the inevitable calamity from famine, war or disease, Malthus supported regulation of birth rates, especially for poor people, as he saw the lower classes as a waste of resources.

Malthus’ idea that poor people’s reproduction threatened the rich lived on for the next 200 years. In the 20th century, various programs to reduce undesirable populations became popular, and international organizations including the United Nations and USAID began to focus on the rapidly escalating population in third-world countries.

In the US, Indiana became the first state to pass a sterilization law in 1907. Eventually, more than 30 states would follow suit.

Laurie Mazur: Back in the 1960s the international family planning movement was launched, mostly in response to concern about pop growth – that was the time of Paul Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb.”

Kyung Jin Lee: Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich published his controversial book in 1968. Like Malthus, Ehrlich predicted global apocalypse unless birth rates were drastically reduced. None of his predictions came to pass. But Ehrlich’s doomsday scenarios helped popularize the movement, and spurred sterilization programs in the United States and around the world.

In 1976, US Senator James Abourezk of South Dakota commissioned the Government Accounting Office to conduct a study.

Abourezk clip: Somebody came to me and said there’s some sterilization going on of Indian women. I publicized it, I had hearings on it.

Reporter: Can you tell me what the findings were?

Abourezk: The findings were that there was indeed sterilization going on.

Kyung Jin Lee: The report found four federal health care centers in the Southwest sterilized more than 3,400 Native-American women within a three-year time period. Activist Ward Churchill:

Ward Churchill: Based on the documents that were secured, a virtue of illegal acts by the American Indian Movement, women of all red nations warrant that organization, analyzed the documents and concluded on the basis of evidence they had, that there was about 42 percent of the overall female population of childbearing age was prevented from birth. Not only involuntarily, but in a number of cases, unwittingly. They were never even informed.

Kyung Jin Lee: Other countries including Bangladesh, Peru and Sweden have also enacted widespread coercive and forced sterilization programs.

In the case of Peru, more than 200,000 women were sterilized between 1996 and 2000. Here two women tell their stories to Al Jazeera TV.

Hilaria Huaman: When I woke up, there was a pain here. There was a wound covered with gauze. When I screamed, the doctor scolded me. Look you Indian, do you want to keep breeding like a pig? You should be grateful to Pres. Fujimori for sterilizing you for free.

Michaela Flores: I tried to get out but we were locked in. They tied us up like sheep.]]

Kyung Jin Lee: But by the 1990s, the backlash against coercive sterilization methods also began to gain momentum. Activists organized to reform population policies with some success.

In particular, the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt proved to be turning point for reformists. The final agreement, known as the Cairo Consensus, on the reproductive health and rights of women specified that “coercion has no part to play” in determining the success of family planning programs.

This conference also brought women of color activists from the United States together. After analyzing women’s reproductive health through a human rights and social justice lens, these activists created a new movement, says professor Jade Sasser.

Jade Sasser: So they developed this approach which argues for basically three things: 1) the right to have children that you want to have, 2) the right to not have the children you don’t want to have, and 3) the right to parent the children that you do have.

Kyung Jin Lee: The approach she talks about is what we now know as reproductive justice.

Sasser says advocating for population control became unacceptable after the 1994 UN conference. The ardent population control proponents have largely softened their message to fit the reproductive justice model. They have also reframed their focus….now, while the end-goal is still the same, the emphasis is on empowering women’s health and education.

Longtime environmentalist Ben Zuckerman says every contemporary generation is dependent on their ancestors to be good environmental stewards. And so women who previously bore many children acted irresponsibly to future generations—leaving us, and our descendents, to pay the price

Zuckerman thinks if women have more choices and resources, they will make the right decisions.

Ben Zuckerman: The low status of women in various countries around the world is the single most important contributor to basically out of control population growth. That is there’s no real sign of world population growth declining in a noticeable rate, according to UN projections. Not for many decades into the future. The most important way to turn things around is to raise the status of women, economically, politically, educationally. Because once women are able to control their own lives, then everybody know all around the world, their fertility goes way down because they realize they have more interesting things to do than be baby machines basically from the time they’re 15 or 20 years old till they’re in middle age.

Kyung Jin Lee: Zuckerman says rich countries can help by providing resources for family planning, contraception and education. He also supports governments providing certain types of incentives or disincentives for women to have fewer children.

Ben Zuckerman: There’s definite policies our government could introduce such as changing the tax structure to favor having small families rather than large families. For example, a couple or a family can get a tax break certainly for the 1st and maybe 2nd child, but after that there shouldn’t be more tax incentives to have more children than two.

Kyung Jin Lee: But not everyone accepts that frame.

Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, policy director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health says blaming environmental problems on women, especially women of color, and the number of children they have allows for the real culprits to go unrecognized and unaccounted.

Elizabeth Barajas-Roman: If the concern is about the environment, I would think that the focus should be on the kind of high impact solutions. You know, the multinational corporations, the military, and their use of natural resources, both in these countries and in the US military, which are huge actors on environmental degradation. It would make more sense to focus on the actors that have the biggest impact.

Kyung Jin Lee: Almost 80 percent of US emissions are caused by corporate, military and government actions, according to a report by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College. Zuckerman agrees the military is largely to blame for the environmental situation.

Ben Zuckerman: What we have to do is to stop spending so much money on wars and fighting with one another and basically pissing resources and money down the toilet to build ships, planes and bombs that hopefully will never be used. Instead that money needs to be spent on shifting the world’s economy away from blind resource consumption, using fossil fuels and transitioning to wind and solar power renewables.

Kyung Jin Lee: But, he also argues that reducing the world’s population is another imperative way to bring balance back to our environment.

So is there room for cooperation between reproductive justice and environmental activists? And How are immigrants connected to this debate? We’ll be back with more, in just a minute.

Kyung Jin Lee: You’re listening to “Making Contact,” a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information or for C-D copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736.

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Kyung Jin Lee: Back in the heyday of international population control, even environmental groups such as the Sierra Club enthusiastically embraced the notion that overpopulation was the main cause of environmental harms. The organization commissioned Paul Ehrlich to write “The Population Bomb ” in 1968. He was also the keynote speaker for the Club’s annual Wilderness Conference in 1969.

But when outward support of population control activities became taboo in the 1990s, former Sierra Club board member Ben Zukerman says,

Ben Zuckerman: The Sierra Club changed its direction with regards to overpopulation, population growth.

Kyung Jin Lee: Other environmental organizations and activists also began to back down on their positions and soften their message. But within the Sierra Club membership, Jade Sasser says controversy and debate on the topic ensued:

Jade Sasser: About whether the organization should adopt an official population policy focused on the US. A population policy that would come out against immigration to the United States as an environmental problem.

Ben Zuckerman: The Club would not longer deal or talk about the #1 cause of US population growth, which is over-immigration and the US born children of immigrants.

Jade Sasser: So the Sierra Club leadership and its membership have very firmly and strongly come out in opposition to creating those policies.

Ben Zuckerman: There were some Sierra Club members including myself who thought this was a very bad mistake regarding environmental stewardship and responsibility and the Sierra Club must deal with population issues.

Kyung Jin Lee: So Zuckerman and his allies created an affinity group called “Sierrans for US Population Stabilization.”

Ben Zuckerman: And we tried our best through ballot initiatives, votes of the membership and getting people elected to the Sierra Club board of directors to change the Sierra Club’s direction with regards to this issue of US and world population growth.

Jade Sasser: Not all members and leaders are against having an anti-immigration policy for the organization, but the majority are against it. And that’s the reason why there’s no policy today.

Kyung Jin Lee: The Sierra Club declined numerous requests for an interview.

Kyung Jin Lee: While the organization may still feel skittish about its past ties to population control advocacy, in recent years, the Sierra Club and other major environmental groups have begun infusing social justice and reproductive justice concepts into their work on population issues. Jade Sasser:

Jade Sasser: So there is a network of environmental organizations, primarily based in Washington DC, that includes groups like the National Audubon Society, Population Action International, Population Connection, Sierra Club of course, the Izaac Walton League and others who are focused on the this justice-based approach to protecting women’s rights, women’s human rights, advocating for women’s empowerment, addressing population growth in the process.

Kyung Jin Lee: The idea to bring reproductive justice, environmental justice and social justice together to deal with the population issue was presented in 2009 through a book titled “A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge,” by Laurie Mazur.

Laurie Mazur: We’re really in big trouble. … There’s new evidence that we’ve already transgressed certain boundaries that constitute safe operating space for humanity on the planet. That we have crossed critical thresholds in climate for one thing, and also species loss. So the challenges we face are just extraordinary.

Kyung Jin Lee: Mazur acknowledges the complex history of population politics, and how the bad practices of the past have made it difficult for some environmental organizations to enthusiastically jump back into this issue. She also says women must be empowered to make their own decisions around sexuality and reproduction through providing access to education and contraception.

So to help bridge the gap between the environmental and reproductive justice movements, and to increase funding for family planning programs, Mazur came up with a new idea she calls population justice.

Laurie Mazur: Job #1, for those of us who live in the developed countries to dramatically reduce our consumption of our planet’s resources. So we need to consume less. People in the developing countries actually need to consume more on the whole, in order to attain a decent standard of life in many cases. I think we all need to consume differently. We need to find ways to meet human needs at less environmental cost. And at the same time, we need to slow population growth.

Kyung Jin Lee: Mazur says the largest generation of adults – 3 billion people – is starting to come of age. And the choices the young people make with regards to childbearing will have a huge impact for future generations to come.

Laurie Mazur: I believe that all people should have the means and the power to make their own decisions about child bearing. I don’t believe in dictating optimal family or population size. But what we’ve seen around the world and over the years is that where women have that power, they do chose to have smaller families. And population growth does slow as a result.

Kyung Jin Lee: While Mazur rejects population control policies, she does think slowing the population down is one tactic that will help mitigate environmental catastrophe.

Laurie Mazur: What my program has focused on specifically, is insuring universal access to family planning and reproductive health services. This is essential both as a matter of human rights and social justice. But it has enormous benefits for women, for public health, for human development. And insuring universal access will also help slow population growth so we wind up near the low end of the population1 projections.

Kyung Jin Lee: But activists such as Elizabeth Barajas-Roman remain skeptical about Mazur’s approach, given the dark history of the population debate.

Elizabeth Barajas-Roman: Even though current research shows in that women who have higher education, make higher income tend to have less children, to say that you’re empowering women just for the sake of having less children we feel is highly inappropriate.

We are very happy to hear this kind of attention to this inequality, these underlying factors that contribute to problems that impact women of color and immigrant women. The concern we have around Population Justice as its being framed is the attention to population growth and so-called rapid population growth as still the goal to reducing that to improving the environment. That link is what’s most problematic for us.

Kyung Jin Lee: Professor Jade Sasser says while it’s important to provide family planning programs:

Jade Sasser: It’s important to delink those programs from environmental sustainability programs because if we focus on the reproduction of poor women in global south countries, then that lets a number of other more egregious actors off the hook. … So if we’re focused on the fertility of poor women in the global south we’re not thinking about the emissions activities of the military for example. We’re not thinking about how international corporations pollute and also continue to emit greenhouse gases. We’re not thinking about the changes that we need to make in the ways that we consume resources on a daily basis.

Kyung Jin Lee: Both Mazur and Zuckerman readily agree these entities, not women and their families, are responsible for the bulk of the environmental problems we have to deal with today. But they also see slowing the population growth rate as one way to reduce overall consumption.

But for some reproductive justice advocates like Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, there really isn’t much room for cooperation… yet.

Elizabeth Barajas-Roman: It may seem at the very start there is a bit of convergence, but where it splits off is the end goal. In that if women’s empowerment for the sake of just reducing population versus women’s empowerment for the sake of women’s empowerment and where-ever that may lead.

Kyung Jin Lee: The world’s population continues to grow by about 80 million every year. And by 2050, demographers project we’ll have between 8 and 10.5 billion people on the planet. There are many who are working to keep that number down as low as possible to avert cataclysmic wars and famine. And still others who say population isn’t the problem, but structural change to alleviate poverty and social injustices.

Some activists are trying to bridge that gap by bringing elements of both camps together to come up with creative solutions. Again, Professor Jade Sasser:

Jade Sasser: There are many who feel that this is a win, win approach. That meeting women’s needs for contraceptives will have environmental benefits. Slowing the rate of climate change for example, slowing the rate of deforestation. Slowing land use change in the ways that are win, win for the environment and for women.

Kyung Jin Lee: But for Sasser, this approach continues to miss the mark:

Jade Sasser: The solutions are to advocate against militarization. The solutions are to force corporations to develop alternative energies and alternative ways of fueling what they do. But we also need to think a lot more about really really drastically reducing the way we consume.

Kyung Jin Lee: And that’s it for this edition of Making Contact.

Special thanks to the Mary Wolford Foundation for their support of this program.

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I’m kyung jin lee. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

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