The costs of overpopulation and lack of family planning access fall disproportionately on women. Securing women’s rights and ecological sustainability depend on a clear-eyed understanding of this. This raises the question of why there are not more women who are actively involved in the issue of human overpopulation.
By Karen Shragg and Madeline Weld
An observation to ponder
We are two long-time population activists driven by an understanding that growing human numbers are detrimental not only to humanity itself but to all life on Earth. One of us is an author (Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation, 2015) and the former director of a nature centre near Minneapolis. The other is the president of Population Institute Canada. We first met close to 15 years ago in Washington D.C. at a meeting on population organized by Bill Ryerson, president of the Population Media Center, and most recently in 2018 at Indiana University in Bloomington where we had the pleasure of being on a panel with population expert Alon Tal. In between we have communicated electronically and participated in various online groups.
Karen observed recently that despite our passion for our cause, most of the people in the population activist line of work are men. She noted that most of the people who follow her website or have reached out to praise her efforts are men. She wondered why an issue about which we cared so deeply had relatively few female activists. To see whether Karen’s seemingly accurate observation fit the data as far as PIC supporters was concerned, Madeline checked the sex ratio of PIC members (i.e., people who have paid membership fees) and PIC followers (people who have opted on our website to get our mailings for free – of course we hope this entices them to become members eventually).
It turns out that among PIC membership, the ratio of men to women was 2.5 to 1. Among the followers, it was 1.6 to 1. So, it seems that when it comes to having some interest in the subject, men outnumber women by 60%. And when it comes to backing up that interest with financial support, they outnumber women by 150%. We recognize that this little survey is not necessarily representative of overpopulation activists in general. However, it does align with our observations regarding fellow activists in other population organizations and also with the relative numbers of male and female PIC directors over the decades (founded 1992 by retired engineer Whitman Wright). So, notwithstanding the authors of this article and many other committed female activists we could name (including PIC member Val Allen, who last year published 8 Billion Reasons Population Matters and US population activist Linda Huhn who works on immigration issues), organizations whose primary focus is population don’t seem to be a big draw for women.
And it does seem to be specifically the issue of population itself that women don’t favour, not for example reproductive health and rights. For a few years in the early 2000s, Madeline sat on the board of Planned Parenthood Ottawa, and the board was mostly, sometimes entirely, female. Female preponderance on the boards of reproductive health organizations still seems to be the case when one checks online. So why does the critical issue of overpopulation not attract more women?
Population control and reproductive rights
The efforts and concerns of population activists substantially align with those of reproductive rights activists. PIC’s website promotes improving the status of women and girls where inequality exists, the education of girls and employment opportunities for women, and universal access to family planning and reproductive health services. It’s possible that women are more likely to support organizations that do the hands-on work of providing services and products rather than the more abstract educational and advocacy work about human numbers that PIC does. But it could also be that more women than men have accepted the negative narratives around population control and reject the very concept of deliberately striving to reduce the size of the human population.
Toxic ideas that hurt our cause
There has been a substantial amount of negative messaging about being concerned about overpopulation. It has been equated with supporting China’s brutal one-child policy (while ignoring successful, non-coercive programs that were implemented in many countries). Concerns about overpopulation have been associated with colonialism and racism and described as blaming poor brown and black women for the overconsumption of the rich. Then there is the concept that if you say the world is overpopulated, you want to eliminate some of the people on it. The term “neo-Malthusian” is applied in a derogatory way – as if Malthus hadn’t been right that every time the food supply increases, the human population does too, and “eats up” the gains of an expanded food supply with the consequence that poverty and hunger persist.
Many feminist and social justice non-governmental organizations attended the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development and had a powerful influence on it. Hence, while the Programme of Action arising from the conference recognized the enormous environmental and social problems that rapidly growing populations would bring, it advocated only that women and men should “freely and responsibly” determine the number and spacing of their children but was silent about developing ethical population control programs. There was no emphasis on reducing the number of births. Consequently, a reduction of the total fertility rates in the poorest countries was stalled. The average total fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa is still five children per woman.
Ignoring population growth is not showing compassion
The consequences of delayed action on population growth have been most detrimental to the people that the “social justice warriors” were allegedly protecting from racist population programs. The vision statement of the UN Water Conference that was held a week ago said that 2 billion people, one-quarter of humanity, had unsafe drinking water. The UN’s World Food Program had warned us about the many famines in the news lately. There are still as many as 828 million hungry people in the world. As humanity destroys its environment through population growth, it immiserates primarily the poor. It is they who live in the most polluted and depleted parts of the world. While there is no doubt that global resource-extracting corporations are responsible for much environmental destruction, so too is the simple expansion of humanity. Global deforestation is driven primarily by agricultural expansion, which is driven primarily by population growth. Population growth is also a big driver of water scarcity. An article by Madeline published in 2012 “deconstructed” the “Dangerous Dogma of Denial” that impedes action on population growth.
As a burgeoning humanity of 8 billion (and still growing by almost 70 million annually) consumes the resources on a planet that is not getting any bigger, it is also wreaking havoc on the rest of life on Earth. The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report 2022 says that there has been an average 69% decrease in monitored wildlife populations between 1970 and 2018. And by the designated baseline year 1970, biodiversity had already taken a substantial hit from human activities.
As we take over more and more of Earth’s real estate, there is less and less for wildlife. Humans now account for 34% of the mammalian biomass on Earth, their livestock and domestic animals for 62%, while wild animals make up only 4%. The oceans aren’t safe from us either. As they get fished out to feed humanity, we are also depriving seabirds of food.
Using reason does not mean excluding compassion
In contrast to the population movement, the “Woke” movement is largely led by women and their mantra is one of social justice which sees concerns about overpopulation as infringing on the rights of the oppressed poor. This movement does not pay much attention to what is happening to our biosphere and denies that overpopulation inevitably leads to overconsumption of resources. At its core it is a very anthropocentric movement averse to even hearing messages that a reduction in the number of births leading to fewer people on an overcrowded planet would lead to greater abundance for current and future generations.
It’s unlikely that population activists will ever win a popularity contest. While those who work to relieve hunger through food programs are praised by many, those who say that we have to cut back on the number of people are as likely to be condemned as heartless and racist. Thomas Robert Malthus, famous or infamous for pointing out that increasing the food supply without also applying “preventive checks” to fertility simply leads to population growth, is more often condemned for his lack of sentiment than praised for his insights. Yet the analysis of agronomist Russell Hopfenberg shows that human population growth has predictably followed any increase in the food supply.
Norman Borlaug, father of the green revolution, whose work enabled the near-tripling of the world population during the lifetime of these authors, was a compassionate man who saw how hunger affected people. But he also understood overpopulation. He hoped (in vain) that the high-yielding crops he developed would give humanity the “breathing space” it needed to prevent starvation while reducing its population growth. During his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, he made the case for population control as a compassionate endeavour:
“There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort. Fighting alone, they may win temporary skirmishes, but united they can win a decisive and lasting victory to provide food and other amenities of a progressive civilization for the benefit of all mankind.”
Borlaug noted that “We can’t build world peace on empty stomachs and human misery.”
Ecologist Garrett Hardin said that “There is nothing more dangerous than a shallow-thinking compassionate person.” The state of our planet shows that when it comes to the issue of overpopulation, shallow thinking does not serve humanity well. The cessation and eventually reversal of human population growth through education and the voluntary use of family planning is possibly the most compassionate thing that humanity could do for itself.
We hope that more women will come to understand that compassion that ignores biophysical realities will not get humanity out of its predicament and join us in fighting for this critical cause.
Madeline Weld, Ph.D.
President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668
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This post was originally posted here.