Control cash not people: a voice against birth control

To blame our social and environmental problems on a population explosion in the developing world is to ignore the real bottom line, says Asoka Bandarage

Since the Industrial Revolution, ‘overpopulation’ has been identified as the major cause of environmental destruction as well as poverty and social conflict.

According to the principle of population put forward in 1798 by Thomas Malthus, human population increases geometrically, but, given the scarcity of natural resources, the food supply increases only arithmetically. The resulting ‘overpopulation’, Malthus argued, leads inevitably to natural resource depletion, poverty and social disorder, and he called for stringent methods of population control among the poor to avert these problems.

Malthusian ideology, which was based on inequality and fear, has been invoked throughout the modern era, especially during economic downturns and social crises. As quantitative reasoning and statistics became the lingua franca, the term ‘population’ lost its active usage and people came to be viewed as a dependent variable to be managed by a class of scientific and bureaucratic professionals identified with Malthusian ideology.

Demand for birth control

As global destruction, food scarcity and conflict worsens, calls for population control in less developed countries intensify.

Seeing each human born as a ‘draft on all aspects of the environment’, neo-Malthusians attribute major environmental problems – depletion of the ozone layer, greenhouse gases, acid rain, pollution, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, topsoil, desertification – to increased population pressure. They call for population stabilisation as the urgent solution.

People and the environment are closely interlinked, but the so-called ‘carrying capacity’ of regions – the relationship between population and resources – is not a static, mathematical one that can be extricated from sociohistorical context. It is a complex dynamic shaped by social relations, technologies of production and reproduction, patterns of consumption, religious ideologies and social class and gender relations in particular.

During the early stages of global capitalist development, the European population ‘exploded’, while non-Europeans experienced massive depopulation. The reason for the contemporary ‘population explosion’ in the global South and decline in the North (apart from immigration) lies in uneven and unequal patterns of global development.

Poverty and families

Poverty and lack of other sources of security make large families a rational choice for most colonised people, as it has been for many in labour-intensive agricultural societies. Children are economic assets in poor families, not liabilities like their middle-class counterparts.

Although poor women continue to have larger families than educated middle-class women, fertility and population growth rates are today declining far more rapidly in the South than they did during the demographic transition in the West.

Fertility in the 50 least developed countries is expected to decline from 4.63 children per woman in 2005-2010 to 2.5 in 2045-2050. In regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, population growth rates are also slowing down due to mortality increases associated with poverty, war and AIDS.

Population control by itself does not lead to environmental sustainability or the alleviation of poverty and conflict. Coercive and experimental fertility control can make family planning a force of women’s victimisation rather than liberation. Often experimental contraceptive methods, such as anti-fertility ‘vaccines’ are given without informed consent procedures and quality healthcare.

Falling fertility and living standards

In many countries in the South, fertility and population growth rates have come down sharply, without significant improvements in standards of living and the social and economic position of women. Research shows that for family planning to be voluntary, economic security of the population and women’s access to material resources, education and healthcare must be available.

In regions such as Kerala, in India, and in Sri Lanka, voluntary fertility declines were associated with social welfare and the reduction of social and economic disparities, including social class- and gender based inequities. In contrast, aggressive family planning in contexts of extreme impoverishment is leading to crisis-led fertility declines among some of the poorest populations in the world today.

Widening economic inequality, not overpopulation, is the critical issue. The 20 per cent of the world’s population living in the highest-income countries account for 86 per cent of total private consumption, whereas the poorest 20 per cent account for 1.3 per cent of the same. Clearly, the rich put more pressure on the environment than the poor.

Militarism and the arms trade emanating from the North pose a threat to life and the environment; population control advocates call for timetables and quotas for population stabilisation, but not specific strategies to level overconsumption and economic growth, which would be completely unacceptable to wealthier segments, which would feel robbed.

Real threats

The greatest threat to the environment is the current model of unbridled economic growth pursued by transnational corporations, industrialised countries and new economic powers such as India and China.

A more balanced model of development that incorporates social and ecological criteria is urgently needed. It is necessary to move away from the quantitative focus on population size and growth rates to a more qualitative focus on the right of all to food, shelter, healthcare, education and decent livelihoods.

Contemporary environmentalism too needs to move beyond a narrow Malthusian framework towards a holistic approach incorporating the concerns of social justice and global political-economic transformation.

Sustainable development requires that the purpose of economic production be changed from the pursuit of short-term profit to preservation of the ecosystem and humanity in the long term. It calls for a fundamental transformation of consciousness, from the excessively individualistic and mechanistic approach to an ethical, ecological and democratic approach to life that honours the interdependence and unity of planetary life.

Asoka Bandarage is the author of Women, Population and Global Crisis

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2008

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