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In mid-October, I traveled to New Orleans to give a paper at the International Association of Environmental Philosophy (IAEP). My paper, “Biopolitics, Race, and Global Population Control,” draws heavily on research I have conducted while at the Rock. The conference ran from the evening of October 25th through October 27th and included philosophers from a wide variety of traditions and trainings, as well as a number of non-philosophers interested in interdisciplinary work. IAEP has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere; the sessions are well-attended and encourage honest exchange.

My paper addressed the prevalence of calls for population control within certain environmentalist groups who argue that human population growth is a major source of ecological degradation. Of course, the idea of population control is not a new idea, nor is it exclusive by any means to environmentalists. Worries about population size were often intermixed with eugenics concerns about the supposed quality of the racial stock in the early twentieth century. Eugenic practices culminated in campaigns to sterilize the “mentally unfit” in the United States; these campaigns disproportionately targeted poor women and girls and people of color [1]. The Nazis modeled their own sterilization laws after American practices [2].

After World War II and the exposure of the public to the horrors of the Holocaust, eugenics was largely discredited at official levels. Nevertheless, many of these ideas found new life in the burgeoning movement for “population control” that was catching on at an international level. Senior members of the international population control establishment (comprising institutions such as the UNFPA and USAID) often referred to their activities as “crypto-eugenics” in correspondence with one another. If the end of World War II brought the Cold War and the era of decolonization, it also marked the flowering of new forms of environmentalism [3]. To be sure, many environmentalist or ecological groups have not made population control a part of their program; nevertheless the idea that the planet has “too many people” and that ecological crises require a drastic reduction in population size has received dramatic expression and widespread public attention. Some of the most famous of these have been William Vogt, Paul Ehrlich, and Garrett Hardin [4]. Ehrlich and Hardin, who both rose to fame at the end of the 1960s, when environmentalism was flowering in the U.S., were contemporaries of large-scale sterilization campaigns in the global South that were responsible for widespread suffering, violence, and death. By the 1960s, for example, the United States had succeeded in sterilizing approximately one third of the women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico, and in the 1970s, Indira Gandhi’s government in India sterilized millions [5]. Although population control seems on the surface to be race, gender, class, and nationality-neutral, in reality these programs have overwhelmingly focused on poor women of color.

As we confront the most intense environmental crisis that humanity has ever faced, it is important to be self-critical of received ideas from within environmentalist movements. In the United States, population control ideas are often batted about with little sense of history, or of the enormous suffering, violence, coercion, and death that large-scale population programs have produced in the past. Below the surface of seemingly well-meaning discourses sometimes lies a thinly veiled racism that assumes that poor people overseas are unable to control their natural urges and are thus to blame for their immiseration and for environmental degradation [6]. We should remember that family sizes are not the outcomes of merely biological processes, but are always conditioned by historical, economic, and political factors. Finally, we should remember that ten peasants without electricity or automobiles in rural Madagascar are scarcely going to make the same contribution to global warming as one American CEO heating his estate or flying in his private jet. Population control discourses have an insidious way of changing how we see people, of making us judge and blame people for their family sizes, for their economic conditions, or for environmental damage in which we ourselves are historically complicit (and from which we often profit). Familiarity with the bloody history of population control programs and with the historical ties between population control and eugenics shows us how dangerous it is to divide the world up into responsible and irresponsible reproducers. There are other, better ways to take on global climate change.

[1] See, for example, Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
[2] Proctor, Robert. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
[3] Connelly, Matthew James. Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.
[4] E.g., Vogt, William. Road to Survival. New York: W. Sloan Associates, 1948; Ehrlich, Paul R. The Population Bomb. Rev. [& expanded ed.]. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971; Hardin, Garrett. “Living on a Lifeboat.” Bioscience 24, no. 10 (1974).
[5] Pearce, Fred. The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.
[6] See, for example, Betsy Hartmann’s examination of discourses on population control, environmental degradation, and Africa during the Clinton administration. Hartmann, Betsy. “Population, Environment and Security: A New Trinity.” Environment and Urbanization 10, no. 2 (October 1, 1998): 113–28.

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