Fertility rates and climate change

Population, my least favorite topic, is back in the news as the focus of a recent United Nations report that examines the links between gender and climate change. Amid calls for significantly more research into the topic, the report once again points out that improved access to reproductive health services and better economic opportunities for women could have a massive impact on future emissions scenarios. Although the world population is going to continue growing no matter what, changes to the rate of growth could mean a billion fewer people by mid-century. The report also points out that women are disproportionately likely to bear the brunt of climate change.

The major news from the report, really, is the fact that people are talking about this topic at all. It has historically been a bit of taboo, but now “more than three dozen developing countries have already included population issues in national plans on climate.” (The Economist recently offered a very readable look at population trends, including a nice overview of some of the causes and implications of the astonishing drop in worldwide fertility rates. Particularly interesting is the finding that across a really wide set of geographies and circumstances, people want to be having fewer children.)

If you want a sense of just how vexed this issue remains, though, check out the feminist backlash against the treatment of population as an environmental issue (also here). Given that most discussions of population control tend to focus on expanding women’s access to education, economic opportunity, and health services, you might expect a natural fit between the views of environmentalists and feminists on this issue. Not so.[1]

The criticism centers around a few ideas. The first is that bettering the lives of women in developing countries should remain an end in itself, not a means to some other policy goal (and particularly not as a solution to a problem largely created in the West). The second is that the notion of “population control” carries inherently Orwellian overtones that come with a deserved stigma. Who but the individual should have any say over the appropriate number of children? The third is that, whatever the stated intentions of advocates of population control, the actual history of such efforts is freighted with so much coercion, colonialism, and racism that the whole idea of woman-friendly population control is oxymoronic.[2]

As my thoughts on this are pretty half-formed, I’m going to mostly hold my tongue here. It does occur to me that, whatever the complexities of this issue, it’s hardly the only ethically challenging aspect of climate change. For example, China has pulled a truly staggering number of people out of poverty over the past few decades, in part by burning unfathomable amounts of coal. Just as we are (hopefully) going to rise to the challenge of reconciling environmental protection with human development, I sincerely hope we’re up to the task of reconciling environmental protection with gender equity. It seems inevitable that the taboo around this topic is going to dissipate, so better to have an open conversation that takes in diverse viewpoints.

1\. I generally loathe the tendency to group heterogeneous groups of people under simpleminded banners, and in this sentence I’ve committed the sin twice, pitting “environmentalists” against “feminists.” So, for the record, there are lots of people concerned with environmental issues and also lots of people concerned with gender issues, and these people have many and varied opinions, sometimes in agreement and sometimes not.

2\. My compressed version of these arguments is pretty crappy, so I encourage people to click the links and read the full posts, particularly if you feel inclined to comment on this topic.

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  1. Chad - November 25, 2009

    It is really simple: All nations should be targeting zero population growth. International agencies and NGO’s should be assisting poor nations with the family planning and women’s education that will make this happen in those places.
    And yes, rich nations should be having MORE children, and figuring out ways to be rich and population-stable at the same time. The US is close due to the high birth rates of recent immigrants, which won’t last forever. No one else is.

  2. Kathleen - November 25, 2009

    I’m an environmentalist and a feminist and on this issue I cannot believe the shortsightedness of many feminists. Smaller families and access to birth control mean better lives for woman, as has been shown over and over in developing countries around the world.
    A moment of sad history: in the 70s, US awareness about population issues was at its height and was actually a national and individual issue of great concern. People understood the direct connection between too many people on the planet and environmental degradation of every sort.
    Even Nixon commissioned a report on optimal US population, which was suppressed through a political deal with the US’s Catholic bishops in exchange for votes (Google NSSM 200 for details).
    Then came the backlash. Social activists placed all emphasis on “human rights” and the whole topic took on a National Socialist stink and was dropped from public discourse.
    I don’t understand how people cannot make the connection between a damaged environment and damaged human rights and lives. Did the educational degradation that Reagan’s admin started just cut off any knowledge of how life on this planet works?

  3. Spinoza - November 25, 2009

    Reading essays like this one here reminds me of watching a video of a lion chasing down a beautiful gazelle across the African savannah and killing it. There’s a sense of horror at watching such a beautiful animal ruthlessly killed, but then, we stop ourselves and reflect that, after all, this is “nature” at work.
    It’s the same with watching the world’s human population double every couple of decades. We are appalled at such wanton destruction of the earth by such uncontrolled species growth, but then stop and reflect that, hey, this is “biology” (or “nature”) and there’s really nothing we can do about it.
    We translate this biological drive to reproduce, socially and ethically, into our “God-given” right to bear children. This is so fundamental that no social organization would dare even bring up the issue of over-population as a problem (except for a handful of inconsequential research institutes and the like).
    And so, like a video, all we can do is sit and watch the lion of uncontrolled population growth lead to untold human tragedy (world wars, holocausts, environmental disasters, etc etc), and brutally destroy what was once a beautiful, living planet. The feminists that Adam cites are not, after all, denying that over-population is a serious problem, they’re really just saying we shouldn’t talk about it. And this is true for all social groups, from religious bodies on through to local and national governments. Biology, in this case, is couched as “God’s will”.
    You can become cynical about all this, or you can sit down and– like the National Geographic video–wonder at the brutal determination of nature at work.

  4. Woody - November 25, 2009

    Regarding “…all we can do is sit and watch the lion of uncontrolled population growth lead to untold human tragedy…”, I couldn’t disagree more. When people, particularly women, become empowered with knowledge about family planning and have access to methods of controlling the size of their families, the stress on natural resources is reduced because fewer people are consuming them.
    Support for organizations like EngenderHealth (http://www.engenderhealth.org/index-main.php), Planned Parenthood (http://www.ippf.org/en) and many others makes a difference.

  5. richard schumacher - November 25, 2009

    The key reading here is the Economist link. It describes how the world’s people are choosing to reduce their fertility to the replacement level as both a cause and a consequence of their economic development. There is no need for anger or hand-wringing about that.
    The challenge of this century is to provide a developed-world standard of living to nine billion people without wrecking the environment. Difficult though that is, thank what gods you know that there will be only nine billion.

  6. michael - November 25, 2009

    I find it hard to compare a lion pride with a family of four in the context of the story and links above. A lion pride seldom elevate living much above the practical every day need to eat. Sure, they play and there is a socail structure. But our abstract society is something quite different…and by abstract I am referring to societies that promote higher education.
    In the link above, Population Trends, it becomes only just apparent – to me – how complex population is…and dare I suggest, zero population may not be the path to nirvana.
    Regarding my comment about higher education…Cognitive Development, Its cultural and Social Foundations by Alexsandr Romanovich Lauriia is an insightful, if a bit pedantic, text about how society changes from a practical daily needs organism into an abstract thinking society. The discussion isn’t about population but about the forces that shape the human mind. He studied/compared both primitive and rising inductrial society in Uzbekistan during the early 1900s.

  7. Julian Cole - November 25, 2009

    The issue is not that we should coerce women to have fewer children. On the contrary, our fight must be to enable women to make their own choice to have the number of children they want. There is more than sufficient evidence that women tend to choose fewer children when educational and economic opportunities are available – no coercion is needed (see Italy among other countries for negative population growth, or Thailand for greatly decreased growth).
    So we must fight for educational and economic opportunities for women, as well as promoting the notion that a choice to have fewer children is rational.

  8. Julian Cole - November 25, 2009

    What a negative view – “biology is destiny: therefore we should all act mindlessly”!
    Of course biology is the foundation of human life, just as chemistry is the foundation of life itself, but biology is so much more than mere chemistry.
    And human life is so much more than mere biology – why should we not use our God-given ability to make rational choices, among them the mindful choice to follow a path which will not damage our planet and ruin our human future?

  9. Anonymous - November 25, 2009

    Michael, you are not really understanding my reference to the lion–of course I am not setting up the analogy of a lion pride with human social interaction (that was quite a stretch on your part!). Rather, I am only raising the essential nature of biology, of a human’s essential place in nature as an animal.
    This is indeed very relevant to Adam’s essay, since as a part of evolutionary psychology it helps us to understand the dynamics of population growth, biologically, and how humans socially respond to it. There’s a feminist backlash to equating environmental degradation with over-population because of the powerful biological drive for sex and reproduction. Because of this drive any association between destruction and reproduction must be just as powerfully repressed.
    The consequences of human over-population, however complex you believe this is, are not difficult to see and we encounter them everyday in a world that is totally out of balance. Humans cognitively, however, are ingenious in their ability to repress this.

  10. Spinoza - November 25, 2009

    “When people, particularly women, become empowered with knowledge about family planning and have access to methods of controlling the size of their families, the stress on natural resources is reduced because fewer people are consuming them.”
    This is absolutely true, but you are only voicing a conjectural “if” (or ‘When”). For the vast majority of women on this planet–for a least a couple of billion–your words are and will be meaningless because they will never see or hear them. Planned Parenthood and the other organizations you may think of touch only an infinitesimal fraction of the people on this planet. Geez, we’ve got a local Planned Parent office here in my area and I guarantee you only a tiny percentage of the young women around here know of its existence. There are strong social forces, religious and otherwise, making sure that Planned Parenthood’s influence is well contained.

  11. michael - November 25, 2009

    …perhaps this mode of communication is at fault???
    I understand your thoughts but I think your last statement points to a core idea; an educated society does have the intelligence, the cognitive acumen if you will, to control its indulgences. But our will to make change – in the context of global warming -may only come when confronted with the notion of extinction. How clear that notion has to be is in question.

  12. Spinoza - November 25, 2009

    Julian, you are confusing two very different levels of discourse here: the moral/ethical, and the scientific. Morally and ethically I’m 100% with you, I consider myself a strong Obama “Yes You Can!” kind of person. You can bet I’m doing whatever I can to walk the talk in terms of saving this planet. But I am also a social scientist, and so consider it very important to keep moral and ethical pronouncements out of statements of fact and objective observation.
    Understanding our animal nature goes far in understanding our behavior and our actions. What other animal has willingly massacred up to 50,000 of his own kind in a *single* day? Humans have done this on countless occasions in the past two-hundred years. The only animals we know of that have carried out this kind of wanton intra-species destruction we have found a direct connection with over-population, with a battle for resources that became so vicious that a mass wipe-out was the result. Not only did other humans kill each other, but in a great many cases they did so with glee, with vicious joy.
    My bringing up these facts does not make me “against” any action regarding over-population or in saving the planet. On the contrary, as Socrates said a couple of thousand years ago, “Knowledge is power.” Understanding these forces, historically and scientifically, is the first step to a solution.
    Not only have they done this

  13. Julian Cole - November 25, 2009

    Perhaps you’re right – I should have left the scientific comments out. I was hoping to address only the “feminist” argument that any discussion of population is necessarily oppressive of women – the idea mentioned in the original post: “the whole idea of woman-friendly population control is oxymoronic”. Not so, since the free choices that are in fact made by women are in line with the aims of population reduction.

  14. anonymous 2 - November 25, 2009

    Okay, I’m going to be the brutally rude one here, but as a woman who knew early on she didn’t want to have children (and doesn’t), I think the female biological imperative to breed humanity into extinction is WAY overstated – most women I know are happy with one or two or NONE – I think that biological “breeding imperative” is just a rationalization of that archaic male version of “more kids” is some ridiculous evidence of their sexual prowess, studliness etc. – same kind of crap that is wiping out tigers and rhinos in search of some magic studly elixir… I believe it’s ESPECIALLY true in the less developed or “traditional” mostly patriarchal or male dominated/women suppressed cultures. Educating women, and educating MEN to find their masculine pride in something besides war, accumulation and sexual prowess, giving women freedom to do something besides be wives and mothers and giving them control over their bodies, and allowing THEM to make decisions about when and who they marry – or even IF they marry – when they could actually HAVE other choices like education, jobs and meaningful work would drastically reduce the number of children born worldwide. Real rights are the ones that include freedom from being raped as an act of war, freedom to be educated, and freedom not to live in stupid patriarchal, male-dominated religious cultures that force women as second class citizens into virtual indentured servitude. Education, Education, Education – not religious – SCIENCE.

  15. Julian Cole - November 25, 2009


  16. Spinoza - November 25, 2009

    Nice posting, I agree with most of what you say. But I do believe you overstate the case so much for women that you inadvertently cast them as the victim, which I think is going too far (at least in industrialized countries). I think biology helps to explain what’s going on; here’s why: if we take the United States as an example, even though we’ve gone through a couple of generations of the pill, women’s lib, and open access to education, still over 90% of all American women procreate. There are a lot of reasons for this–how does one explain, for example, that in this industrialized country a very high percentage of pregnancies are still “unplanned” (or are they)?
    At the same time, American women have their children even though most American men will leave them before their children reach adulthood. So it’s almost like we’ve got a situation in which an American woman says, “Okay, look, deep down I know that having a baby is painful, ugly, and messy, and that raising that child in America today is incredibly expensive and difficult, and that my husband will most likely divorce me (statistically), but none of this matters, I still want my child, I want my baby!”
    So is this biology? Or is American society still so patriarchal that somehow women are still being pressured (brainwashed?) to procreate?

  17. michael - November 25, 2009

    Isn’t procreation the ‘will’ of mother nature? Would you also agree that society imprints a pressure upon women?

  18. Spinoza - November 25, 2009

    Exactly my questions. I think it’s both, and the interesting thing for science is to study–and delineate–the relationship between the two. The more we can do this, the more we can understand the relationship between biology and society, between nature and nurture, the more I believe we will be on the way to *real* solutions.

  19. michael - November 25, 2009

    Society’s prevailing pressures define a generation of choices I should think. But it is very difficult to study a thing and not affect it at the same time. The more revealing a thing becomes to us the more tempted we may become to mess with it.

  20. David booth - November 25, 2009

    Chad, you say developed nations should be having more children. What is the basis for this? Surely each person added to a developed nation would have a much larger carbon footprint than a person in an underdeveloped nation? So the result is worse for the planet.
    There is also a problem for immigration where a person from an underdeveloped nation migrates to a developed nation. He or she immediately increases his/her carbon footprint. Again worse for the planet.

  21. Anonymous - November 25, 2009

    Actually, haven’t rats been known to go on a killing rampage when they get too crowded?

  22. Susette - November 25, 2009

    Actually, haven’t rats been known to go on a killing rampage when they get too crowded?

  23. Anonymous - November 25, 2009

    Precisely. When we look at, for example, Hitler and the Third Reich, we study it historically in terms of Hitler’s stated motivations: Germany expanded into Eastern Europe because of the need for “Lebensraum”, or the need to expand to accommodate Germany’s rapidly growing population (Germans could no longer, after all, easily send off their hungry masses to places like the US or Latin America).
    In reality, Hitler’s need for Lebensraum was simply a human equivalent to the rats that will kill each other in close quarters. The German Wehrmacht rolled into Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc etc, ruthlessly wiping out any human who happened to be in their way. This is only one of countless examples over the past couple of centuries: Rwanda, the Boer War, the American Civil War, the Boxer Rebellion, Sudan, the Balkan Wars, Iraq, the American Indian massacres, Cambodia, and so on, are some others. Common to all of these examples are the battle for limited living space and resources.

  24. Jonno - November 26, 2009

    In addition, immigration has been shown to strongly correlated with worse mental health status. FYI.

  25. Meagen - November 28, 2009

    Great conversation starter! As someone who could be classified as both environmentalist & feminist, and furthermore being motivated for both from a Catholic social justice view point, I think this is a really important tension that needs some much deeper discussion before resolution. For me, your third point of feminist criticism is the most critical. One huge example is the # of female children vs male children born in China due to the 1 child policy. Yes, it’s effective population control but definitely with a misogynistic outcome thanks to a pro-male society. But I think groups like Green for All have the right approach: collaborative & inclusive. Because women bear the brunt of poverty even in “developed” countries like ours, creating a green economy that benefits the lowest economic brackets should definitely be grounds for feminist participation.