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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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