Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A disturbing focus on birth rates in the poorer nations among climate change scientists (or an alarming exemplum of sullied science in the fight against global warming)

“Scientists suggest fertility control as a way to combat climate change. Now that’s alarming.”
By Kelsey Holt for the Los Angeles Times, Dec, 11, 2019 

“Thousands of scientists around the world joined together last month to label climate change the ‘emergency’ that it is. But one of the main points they make — linking control of women’s reproduction to environmental goals — is problematic. Focusing on what women in poor nations with the highest birth rates can do to curb climate change distracts from holding wealthy countries and corporations accountable for their disproportionate harm to the planet and imperils the right to reproductive autonomy. [….] Reducing population growth is one of six steps the authors say would slow carbon dioxide emissions. They also argue that to decrease the birthrate, family planning services and primary and secondary education need to be more available and accessible.

The group’s website goes a big step further. It says families must be encouraged to have fewer children and sounds the overpopulation alarm. A startling graph shows a dramatic world population spike beginning in the 19th century. The accompanying text refers to people giving birth as ‘adding more carbon emitters to the planet.’ This presents a troubling and unfair picture and promotes the scapegoating of [poor] women. [….] 

The full article is here.

We’ve been down this dead-end road before, including at the birth of the modern environmental movement wherein existing ideas and practices of “conservationism” were transformed into a broader philosophies, political theories and forms of praxis. The singling out of overpopulation and family planning as central to ecological concerns and environmentalist ends is deeply misguided and frequently implicated in the resurrection of Malthusian Social Darwinism or simply various forms of Malthusian (or Malthusian-like) and neo-Malthusian reasoning and arguments (with some historical and ‘scientific’ roots in eugenics) which are often couched in technocratic (with strong statist premises) and scientific rhetoric. 

Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) exemplifies this genre (the arguments of which were refuted by Barry Commoner, among others), as does, in a more sophisticated manner, the work the late Garrett Hardin (a geneticist by training), whose policy proposals were more drastic and draconian than those of Ehrlich (e.g., selling licenses for reproduction on the open market). Some Malthusian assumptions and premises also animate the Club of Rome’s commissioned report, The Limits to Growth (1972). Hardin’s central concepts, “carrying capacity,” “tragedy of the commons,” and “lifeboat ethics,” combine to create a frightening form of eco-fascism, the ideas and practices of which have not disappeared from academic scientific discourse (in fairness, he did endeavor to expand women’s rights and opportunities, at least in the most affluent countries, and argued against the colonization of outer space as a solution to population ‘problems’).

Perhaps needless to say, the aforementioned arguments take for granted contemporary capitalism and its notions of private property. Eric Ross has aptly described such arguments as embodying the “cardinal qualities of Cold War Malthusian thinking,” which are “anti-socialist, anti-democratic, and eugenic.” 

Essential Reading (in addition to my recent compilation, ‘Toward Red-Green Democratic Socialism’):
  • Fisher, Alec. The Logic of Real Arguments (Cambridge University Press, 1988), in particular, chapter 3, “A first example—from Thomas Malthus,” pp. 29-47.
  • Murdoch, William. The Poverty of Nations: The Political Economy of Hunger and Population (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Paehhlke, Robert C. Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (Yale University Press, 1989).
  • Ross, Eric B. The Malthus Factor: Poverty, Politics and Population in Capitalist Development (Zed Books, 1998).


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