10 Reasons to Rethink Overpopulation
by the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College

A central requirement for reproductive justice is not only for women to have the right not to have children, but to also exercise the right to have children. Women have been denied this right through population control programs that care more about reducing birth rates than empowering women to have control over their reproductive health and rights. The ideology that informed the programs has not gone away, and below are ten reasons why rethinking overpopulation is vital to creating the global understanding and solidarity needed to advance women's reproductive and sexual rights.

1. The population 'explosion' is over. Although world population is still growing and is expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050, the era of rapid growth is over. With increasing education, urbanization, and women's work outside the home, birth rates have fallen in almost every part of the world and now average 2.7 births per woman.

2. The focus on population masks the complex causes of poverty and inequality. A narrow focus on human numbers obscures the way different economic and political systems operate to perpetuate poverty and inequality. It places the blame on the people with the least amount of resources and power rather than on corrupt governments and rich elites.

3. Hunger is not the result of 'too many mouths' to feed. Global food production has consistently outpaced population growth. People go hungry because they do not have the land on which to grow food or the money with which to buy it.

4. Population growth is not the driving force behind environmental degradation. Blaming environmental degradation on overpopulation lets the real culprits off the hook. The richest fifth of the world's people consume 66 times as many resources as the poorest fifth. The U.S., with a low fertility rate, is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

5. Population pressure is not a root cause of political insecurity and conflict.Especially since 9/11, conflict in the Middle East has been linked to a 'youth bulge' of too many young men whose numbers supposedly make them prone to violence. Blaming population pressure for instability takes the onus off powerful actors and political choices.

6. Population control targets women's fertility and restricts reproductive rights. All women should have access to high quality, voluntary reproductive health services, including safe birth control and abortion. In contrast, population control programs try to drive down birth rates through coercive social policies and the aggressive promotion of sterilization or long-acting contraceptives that can threaten women's health.

7. Population control programs have a negative effect on basic health care. Under pressure from international population agencies, many poor countries made population control a higher priority than primary health care from the 1970s on. Reducing fertility was considered more important than preventing and treating debilitating diseases like malaria, improving maternal and child health, and addressing malnutrition.

8. Population alarmism encourages apocalyptic thinking that legitimizes human rights abuses. Dire predictions of population-induced mass famine and environmental collapse have long been popular in the U.S. Population funding appeals still play on such fears even though they have not been borne out in reality. This sense of emergency leads to an elitist moral relativism, in which 'we' know best and 'our' rights are more worthy than 'theirs.'

9. Threatening images of overpopulation reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes and scapegoat immigrants and other vulnerable communities. Negative media images of starving African babies, poor, pregnant women of color, and hordes of dangerous Third World men drive home the message that 'those people' outnumber 'us.' Fear of overpopulation in the Third World often translates into fear of increasing immigration to the West, and thereby people of color becoming the majority.

10. Conventional views of overpopulation stand in the way of greater global understanding and solidarity. Fears of overpopulation are deeply divisive and harmful. In order to protect and advance reproductive rights in a hostile climate, we urgently need to work together across borders of gender, race, class and nationality. Rethinking population helps open the way.

For more information:

The Committee on Women, Population and the Environment - www.cwpe.org

Population in Perspective: A Curriculum Resource - www.populationinperspective.org

Babies, Burdens and Threats: Current Faces of Population Control - http://popdev.hampshire.edu/projects/ppi/

The Corner House - www.thecornerhouse.org.uk

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Comment by Daniel on August 12, 2009 at 7:52pm
Human population passed the "sustainable" level over 100 years ago, @ around 2billion. If the average child-per-couple could be held to ONE (yes, ONE - that means "keep it in your pants, Boys) then the human population will return to about 2billion in another 100 years. Without starvation, without war, without pain. Just have ONE child per family, and love her/him. That would be wonderful, yes? Yes. Or we can flood the earth with our progeny, to starve and suffer and destroy. Bad? Bad.
Comment by Brian Anderson on May 31, 2009 at 1:36pm
#1: The population explosion is NOT over. In 1900, the North American continent had 81 million people. In 2000, it exceeded 290 million. That is an increase of 210 million people/100 years, or 105 million people in 50 years. Projections of the North American continent having 400 million people in 2050 is an increase of 100 million people in 50 years. That is the same increase from the last 50 years. The population explosion is projected to continue for the next 50 years exactly as it has for the last 50 years. The only difference is that the fertility rate will be lower because there are already too many people in America ready to help us create the next 100 million people.

#2: Overpopulation does not mask the problem of poverty. Poverty is much more commonly discussed in the media than overpopulation. Reducing poverty is one of the tools to be used to reduce population, and vice-versa. The nations with the highest fertility rates are also those with the highest poverty rates. These two issues need to be addressed together rather than prioritizing one over the other. Unfortunately, it is currently taboo to discuss overpopulation in America, while discussion of poverty is acceptable.

#3: Hunger is a problem of too many mouths to feed when viewed locally. If there were less people in the places where there was a shortage of food, there would be less hunger. The fact that there is a surplus of food in America is not helping starving children in Africa very much. Starvation is an indicator of overpopulation.

#4: I agree that over-consumption and greed is the primary cause of environmental degradation. If there were less Americans, including less wealthy Americans, there would be less environmental degradation, so overpopulation is part of the problem. However, the fertility rate of America is not related to the current over-consumption problem. America is already overpopulated, so even if there was zero population growth in America, this problem would still be here.

Furthermore, the issue of environmental degradation is not needed to make a strong argument for planning a decrease in human population. A global desire to universally increase everyone's quality of life and to reduce malnutrition is sufficient.

#5: I agree with you that overpopulation is not the cause of war, but I haven't noticed much media that blames overpopulation for war and violence. In fact, I am usually surprised by the avoidance of the O word (overpopulation) in all media coverage. I would say that most media coverage blames corruption and desire for oil for the war in Iraq.

Historically, the desire by the wealthy to control land and resources has been the cause for war. These war mongers have historically promoted the most rapid increase in population so that they can fill the ranks of their armies.

#6: I totally agree with you here. My issue is that a discussion of overpopulation does not necessitate discussion of population control. Who said we need population control? In fact, where is overpopulation being discussed in the main stream media, or by politicians? What I observe is media coverage of pro-life (AKA religious) debate. This is the opposite of population control. Please notice here that birth control and population control are not the same thing. Rather than using any Draconian population control policies, how about simply enabling those who already want to use birth control to do so, and discouraging things like artificial insemination? Notice also that I didn't just suggest banning artificial insemination. I mean "discourage" in the same way that American government currently discourages smoking.

#7: See #6 above. Again, population control is a fear tactic used by pro-life activists to derail discussion of overpopulation. The two need not be related.

#8: I agree with you that any kind of alarmism is bad. I even agree with you that in the underground media, such as this blog, overpopulation discussion often heads into alarmism. What we need is rational overpopulation discussion. Most people agree that it would be best for the majority of humanity if there were a decrease in the global population rather than an increase. That is not alarmist, simply an acknowledgment of the situation.

#9: It's not the immigration of colored people into the U.S. that Americans fear as much as it is the immigration of poor people who will work for low wages, tolerate exploitation, and thereby lower the incomes of America's working class. Immigration is more of a poverty issue than a race issue.

#10: Conventional views of overpopulation in America are informed by Christian marketing that portrays birth control as evil, so yes, I agree that conventional views of overpopulation get in the way of understanding and solidarity. Birth control is not evil.

On the other hand, I'm not observing much fear of overpopulation. No need for fear, overpopulation is here!

Additionally, I'm not noticing a hostile climate toward the protection and advancement of reproductive rights. I'm noticing that there is plenty of action being taken to ensure that American women can have a child any time she wants, even if she is a teenage drug addict, homeless or without a partner to help her raise the child. I'm also noticing there are plenty of countries where the rights of others to force a woman to have a child she doesn't want are well protected and enforced.

Although working together across borders of gender, race, class and nationality is important, when people use "gender, race and class" in a sentence, they are invoking images of women and colored people to immigrate, earn the same pay, have the same job opportunities, voting rights, and own property in the same manner as white men have. I agree that increasing women's access to birth control and family planning is part of the solution to overpopulation, but that is not the same thing as gender, race or class issues. What the earth has now is too many people of every race, class, gender and nationality.

We don't need to rethink population... we need to think about overpopulation. Where would it be that there is ideal-population or under-population? Population is overpopulation in todays world. Better yet, what we need to think about is population reduction planning that is respectful of people of all races, genders and classes and without letting people of one religion dictating what everyone not of their religion should be forced to do.

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