By Jesse Sanes
The recent Oregon Biking Beyond Bigotry tour was an incredible experience. Conversations began in Portland, Oregon, and continued along 130 miles to Eugene. In Eugene we attended panels and presentations and networked with other environmentalists at The Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (ELAW) at the University of Oregon.
The trip culminated at the lunch discussion we held at University of Oregon’s Multicultural center. The goal was to have an interdisciplinary and inclusive discussion countering anti-immigrant frames around U.S. population stabilization. As the conversation began, people in the room began to speak about the panel earlier in the morning, “Population and the Environmental Movement: Time to Talk About It.”
One thing was clear: people were hungry for discussion, and mobilization, around the issues of women and climate change, with a particular emphasis on reproductive health and family planning services. However, at the panel in the morning there was still a baseline understanding that one of the main drivers of environmental damage is overpopulation.
The Tanton Network’s activities for example, have continued to bring an anti-immigrant agenda into the environmental movement by promoting the idea that immigration is a main driver of US population growth. The Tanton Network has played on people’s fears of overpopulation and linked such discussions to environmental degradation in order to place blame on immigrants.
Even though there was no anti-immigrant sentiment at the morning panel the connections being made between the “population problem” and reproductive rights still left me with a couple of questions. One speaker on the panel, Laurie Mazur, director of the Population Justice Project, spoke enthusiastically about tenets of reproductive justice being central to how she saw moving forward on the “population issue.” Her presentation and other panelists seemed in agreement, posited that education for women and girls and reproductive health services like contraception are corner stones to slowing population growth. However, I still had to ask, why is it that this emphasis is placed so squarely on women in developing countries?
While I felt that the assumption for those concerned about population growth is that emphases lies on wherever fertility rates are the highest, I was having a hard time making out Laurie Mazur’s own explanation. From her book A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice & The Environmental Challenge (Island Press, 2009), her stance on why she highlights women in developing countries:
The developing countries are where the lion’s share of population growth will occur, and they are also where development must occur for half of humanity to escape from grinding poverty. The affluent countries can reduce emissions by reducing the vast amounts of waste in our systems of production and consumption. But the developing countries are not likely to raise their standards of living without more intensive use of resources and higher emissions.
During the question and answer period after the panelists presented, I asked why, if the global north is responsible for most of the pollution causing global warming, Mazur views new technology and new systems of production and consumption as the way to reduce their net emissions. I continued by asking why wouldn’t those paths be available to the communities in the global south who she emphasizes “we” need to slow the population growth rate of the most?
Ian Angus unpacks this logic at Climate and Capitalism:
Instead of dealing with the real problems that exist in the North today, Mazur would have us target poor women in the South because of what they might do in the future.
This makes no sense. Not only do Third World countries have low overall emission rates, but within those countries women are low emitters – and the poorest women produce the lowest levels of all. They are the first and greatest victims of global warming, and they bear the least responsibility for causing it – but Mazur tells us that that their fertility is the problem we should address. It’s difficult to see either feminism or justice in that.
But, in response to my question, Mazur told me it was intricacies like I was bringing up that make the population issue so delicate and that is why it needs to be “framed very carefully.”
Mazur and I agree very firmly, it seems, on many things, especially the value of reproductive health and safe, accessible family planning services as a human right the world over. And, I actually agree that this could be part of the foundation of mutual policy recommendations with regards to global warming. I disagree very firmly, however, that the underlying issue is a matter of framing. Why the insistence that overpopulation is a root cause or even major contributor to global warming, especially if some notion of social justice is a major goal as well?
It is one thing to advocate for reproductive health and rights for the sake of women’s own selves and recognizing the mutual goals of ecological agendas. It is another to rest the advocacy or reproductive health and rights on an understanding that it will be better for the environment if the women receiving these services have fewer children.