In this thought-provoking, big-idea book, Betsy Hartmann sheds light on a pervasive but—until now—invisible theme shaping the American mindset: apocalyptic thinking, or the belief that the end of the world is nigh.
Has apocalyptic thinking contributed to some of our nation's biggest problems—inequality, permanent war, and the despoiling of our natural resources? From the Puritans to the present, historian and public policy advocate Betsy Hartmann sheds light on a pervasive but—until now—invisible theme shaping the American mindset: apocalyptic thinking, or the belief that the end of the world is nigh. Hartmann makes a compelling case that apocalyptic fears are deeply intertwined with the American ethos, to our detriment. In The America Syndrome, she seeks to reclaim human agency and, in so doing, revise the national narrative. By changing the way we think, we just might change the world.
We project onto nature the tensions and contradictions of our providential mission. Nature is seen as a wilderness to be tamed, a continent to be conquered, an apocalypse over the horizon, and at the same time a sublime landscape where we can escape the wounds of civilization and lift ourselves toward heaven.
Population and Scarcity
Anxiety about scarcity runs deep in the American psyche. Some of the reasons are understandable. Growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, my parents’ generation experienced what happened when the bottom fell out of the economy, and worried that it could happen again. Many poor Americans live with real scarcity, not sure where the next meal is going to come from. In 2014, one in seven American households suffered from food insecurity at some point during the year, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, the boom-and-bust cycle of financial markets, cuts in government spending on safety nets, the high price of health insurance, and the rising cost of living keep all but the richest Americans on edge.
There are also more irrational fears of Scarcity with a capital “S.” Americans often read periodic shortages of food, water, or energy as harbingers of a population and environment apocalypse that will make our bellies ache, mouths go dry, and houses go dark. And even if we stockpile food, water, and fuel against this specter, we worry that desperate hordes of poor people will come to loot them.
Such fears of scarcity derive in large part from the America syndrome, especially our fractured relationship with nature. Puritan guilt at our profligacy elicits dread of the revenge that an angry Nature, like Jonathan Edwards’s angry God, will make us suffer for our sins. Or, as Paul Ehrlich puts it, “It’s the top of the ninth inning and humanity has been hitting nature hard, but you’ve always got to remember that nature bats last.” Ehrlich makes a straight line to Malthus, thinking our population numbers ultimately force nature to take its final revenge.
Overlaid with this trepidation is the peculiarly American geographical anxiety about shrinking space—too many people, too little room—that also predisposes us to Malthusian ideas. I began writing this chapter having just returned from a cross-country trip from California to Massachusetts. Anyone who has made that journey knows how long the country stretches from coast to coast, and that along the route there are vast empty spaces where you have to plan where to stop for gas since the next station will be many miles away. I used to think it was sort of crazy, given all those empty miles, that Americans worry so much about population pressure, much more in fact than Europeans who live in more densely populated lands. Gradually, I have come to understand that how we occupied this great and beautiful continent, and what we did and didn’t learn from that history, accounts for much of our claustrophobia. It’s less about craziness than about enduring national myths.
When I was a child, I was taught that when the Europeans arrived in North America, they found a wilderness. While there were a few Native Americans lurking around, they were savages whose presence didn’t tame the landscape. Recent historical research has blown apart this wilderness myth. In his book 1491, author Charles Mann draws on this scholarship to paint a very different picture of what the country looked like before the Europeans showed up. In the 16th century, New England alone may have been home to 100,000 or more Native Americans. Much earlier than that, from 950–1250, the Native American town of Cahokia, on the banks of the Mississippi, not far from what is now St. Louis, was a thriving population center. It grew to a size of at least 15,000 people, similar to the size of London at that time.
Across the continent, Native Americans managed fields and forests to sustain their livelihoods. They used fire to turn the Great Plains and Midwest prairies into “prodigious game farms” for bison and other large animals; in the eastern forests, they cut the underbrush to facilitate hunting, cleared land for farming, and managed tree species. “Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau,” Mann writes, “the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak.” Native Americans enjoyed longer life expectancies, and quite possibly a higher quality of life, than most Europeans. But the new diseases, like smallpox, that arrived with the Europeans depopulated the continent. Early settlers found the New England woodlands littered with human bones and skulls.
On their divine errand into this wilderness, the Pilgrims saw this depopulation as a gift from God. Later generations of Americans simply forgot that the land had been populated in the first place. The wilderness became a romantic, sublime, quasi-religious force, and its loss a source of profound nostalgia. “For many Americans,” writes historian William Cronon, “wilderness stands as the last remaining place where civilization, that all too human disease, has not fully infected the earth.”
The “wilderness ethic” became a cornerstone of American environmentalism, locating Nature in places without people, rather than in the places where people live. John Muir, iconic father of the wilderness movement and first president of the Sierra Club, saw no place for Native Americans in the “pure wildness” of Yosemite. Those that lived there were “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous,” he wrote, and “they seemed to have no right place in the landscape.” The government agreed, and they were expelled to make way for the national park. Ironically, the Native Americans had carefully managed that landscape through controlled burns, giving Yosemite Valley the park-like appearance that so enchanted Muir. Once they were gone, the ecosystem declined. Muir’s prejudices didn’t allow him to see the people for the trees.
In 1893, the US Census Bureau officially announced there was no more unsettled land in the country. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner lamented “the closing of a great historic moment,” and declared that American history was largely about the colonization of the Great West: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuing recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” The frontier transformed the pioneers from Europeans into rugged Americans. “The wilderness masters the colonist,” Turner wrote.
There is a conundrum here. For if both the wilderness and the frontier are fundamental to American identity, what happens if advancing the latter means destroying the former? And when we reach the limits of both—a vanished wilderness, a closed frontier—what then? Imperial adventures overseas, or into outer space, may extend the frontier, but our continental dream is dashed. In its place arise the nightmares of Scarcity. The land can no longer hold all of us, at least not in the manner to which we believe we are entitled.
Combined with the fear of shrinking space come periodic racial panics about overcrowding, especially in urban areas where black and immigrant communities are viewed as an ominous threat. In the 1960s and ’70s, population control advocates purposefully placed articles and images about overcrowding in popular media to build support for their cause. “How many people do you want in your country?” one of Hugh Moore’s ads asked, painting a picture of cities “packed with youngsters—thousands of them idle, victims of discontent and drug addiction . . . You go out after dark at your peril. Birth Control is an answer.” In fact, framing the population issue in terms of overcrowding was an important factor in building a public consensus for population control interventions in the US and overseas. It still is. To warn Americans about the perils of overpopulation, the recent coffee table book Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot, produced by the Foundation for Deep Ecology and the Population Media Center, features photographs of dark-skinned crowds struggling to get on urban transport or squashed together in a “human tide” on a beach. These representations of the “collected weight of a bloated humanity” almost never include any white people. No photographs of businessmen at rush hour in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station.
Our economic system breeds further scarcity fears. Modern textbooks define economics as being about the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends. Homo economicus rationally pursues his self-interest, with little room for other values like altruism, sharing, and caring, and this is exalted as rational behavior. Capitalism enshrines greed as the holy grail. In his book Scarcity and Modernity, political scientist Nicholas Xenos tells the story of how capitalism came to reframe our view of human nature so that to be human is to have unlimited wants and desires, defined in relation to the next guy’s, that outstrip our actual needs. We don’t just need an adequate roof over our heads, but a bigger and bigger house in a never-ending quest to keep up with the Joneses.
These insatiable appetites that are the engine of American consumerism are bred into us by Madison Avenue and the purveyors of credit. As a result, most Americans are constantly pushing against another frontier, the bottom line of their bank accounts. The anxiety this creates has intensified in recent years due to deepening wealth inequality and the instability and corruption of a financial system that runs on risk and speculation. Globally, the bottom 50 percent of adults on the wealth scale now own less than 1 percent of the world’s total wealth, while the richest 10 percent own almost 90 percent of total wealth. The top 1 percent alone owns 50 percent. The US is no stranger to this pattern. The top 0.1 percent—approximately 160,000 families—owns almost a quarter of the nation’s wealth, a figure that is almost as high as before the 1929 stock market crash. With so much wealth in so few hands, the specter of the 2008 global financial crisis still fresh in many people’s minds, and a volatile labor market where workers are easily expendable, it’s hard for most Americans to feel economically secure. Scarcity looms, if not today, then certainly tomorrow.
In an article written 20 years ago, but equally applicable to today, historian Andrew Ross contends that many Americans have come to conflate such economic scarcities with natural ones. We live in an era, he argues, when American capitalism is pushing natural limits in terms of guzzling resources, generating waste, and degrading the environment. At the same time, in thrall to the neoliberal ideology of competitive individualism and free markets, the government has imposed cuts on health, education, and social services, enforcing an austerity regime that hits the working and middle classes the hardest. While the root causes of both kinds of scarcity—natural and economic—lie in particular features of our economy and political system, we are told instead that they result from Malthusian population pressures: because there are too many of us, there’s not enough money or natural resources to go around. This potent “scarcity cocktail” dulls the critical senses, preventing us from seeing what’s really going on.
Duels and Dualisms
Challenging the hold of Scarcity on the American imagination is thus no easy task. Doing so is complicated by the either/or dualism that is part of the America syndrome and that pervades so much of our thinking. In the name of balance, the media typically frame debates in terms of two competing views. When it comes to scarcity, the battle is between doomsday predictors on one side and cornucopian free marketeers on the other. Epitomizing this dualism is the bet made in 1980 between biologist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon on what would happen over the next decade to the prices of five scarce metals (copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten). Ehrlich bet their prices would go up, while Simon wagered they would go down. Simon won.
The bet, which featured as a cover story in the New York Times magazine, was about much more than the price of metals. Simon maintained that shortages of resources simply spur the development of new techniques to find them, so that, in the end, we’re better off than if the temporary shortage had never occurred. Moreover, population growth is a good thing since people are the “ultimate resource,” provided they live in a free market economy where they can come up with the new ideas to make the system work. Simon’s positive view of human potential didn’t extend to government, however. In his libertarian view, government regulation was a break on progress. If capitalism creates some environmental damages along the way, then capitalism will also find the means to fix them. We don’t need the likes of the Clean Air Act and the EPA.
Simon’s techno-hubris and disdain for environmental protection made Ehrlich appear to be the responsible conservationist. Simon and Ehrlich’s contrasting positions came to demarcate differences between the Democratic and Republican parties on environmental issues and to deeply influence perceptions of population in the wider culture. This duality has made it difficult to critique Malthusianism without being cast as an enemy of the environment. If you disagree with Ehrlich, you must be in Simon’s camp. The notion that one could be in favor of environmental protection and not espouse population control is hard for people to fathom.
Cast as a duel between two alpha male experts, the competition between Ehrlich and Simon shut out women’s voices and turned reproduction into a political football tossed by men. While Ehrlich’s arguments were harnessed to support population control, Simon’s were used to encourage pro-natalist policies: the more babies women have, the better. Simon himself wasn’t against family planning, but the anti-abortion movement seized upon his arguments. At the International Conference on Population held in Mexico City in 1984, the Reagan administration announced that population wasn’t a problem. In what is now known as the global gag rule, it then proceeded to deny US government funds to any private family planning organization overseas that included abortion as an option or even just counseled women about it, marking the beginning of a full-scale attack on contraception and abortion access. The result was yet another dualism—this time between population control on the one hand and the anti-abortion movement on the other. In both scenarios, women lack agency. Instead, they are to be acted upon in the service of either preventing scarcity or guaranteeing abundance. Either way, they lose the right to chart their own reproductive destinies.
The War on Mothers and Others
Since its inception, Malthusianism has drawn on powerful stereotypes. While Malthus reduced his own parishioners to abstract numbers, his imagination roamed further when it came to the impoverished people of distant lands. In his famous essay, he embellished the dismal arithmetic of scarcity with over-heated colonialist narratives about the barbaric practices of inferior races (as well as less-than-flattering views of women almost everywhere). In rereading Malthus, scholar Carole McCann found this passage about the mating practices of “races of savages”:
He steals upon her in the absence of her protectors, and having first stupefied her with the blows of a club, or wooden sword, on the head, back, every one of which is followed by a stream of blood, he drags her through the woods by one arm, regardless of the stones and broken pieces of trees that may lie in his route, and anxious only to convey his prize in safety to his own party, where a most brutal scene occurs.
While the nations of northern Europe had some chance of reducing population pressure by means of moral restraint, Malthus viewed violence as endemic to the lesser cultures. He naturalized not only poverty, but violence, linking the latter explicitly to ethnicity and race.
Fear of the dark and menacing Other has passed down through successive generations in the “Church of Malthus,” along with loathing of the poor and the mothers who breed them. While numbers provide the arithmetic of population apocalypse, it is these more emotional undercurrents that turn believers into crusaders. In a classic inversion of victim and perpetrator, population crusaders justify violence against the poor by convincing themselves that the poor, especially poor men, are naturally violent. Malthusian violence against the poor takes three main forms: structural, reproductive, and nativist.
Structural violence refers to the violence of routine inequalities, embedded in the institutions and social arrangements that govern people’s lives. The exorbitant infant and child mortality rates we witnessed in Bangladesh in the 1970s were an example of structural violence: no single individual pulled the trigger, but lack of access to health care, clean water, and food condemned many children to an early death. By masking the power relationships that determine who has the right to live and who doesn’t, Malthusian ideology feeds into this structural violence. Politically, it often acts as a brake on reforms that could make things better. When the Bangladesh government devoted over one-third of the country’s health budget to curbing birth rates in the 1980s, this diverted resources from primary health care and the prevention and treatment of common diseases.
A century earlier, British colonial authorities in India allowed a severe drought to turn into the massive famine of 1876–1878, in which between five and eight million people perished, by shipping existing food stocks to Britain, failing to curtail speculation and hoarding, and not mounting relief efforts in the countryside. Afterward, British finance minister Sir Evelyn Baring told Parliament, “Every benevolent attempt made to mitigate the effects of famine and defective sanitation serves but to enhance the evils resulting from overpopulation.” Such views also influenced the British non-response to the Irish potato famine of 1846–1849, during which food was exported to England while the Irish peasants starved.
Reproductive violence directly targets sexuality, fertility, and child-bearing. One of the most dramatic forms is forced sterilization. This, too, has a long history. In the US in the early 20th century, eugenics, the science (or pseudo-science) of improving human heredity, was widely preached and often practiced. Proponents of racial hygiene called for improvement of the white race not only through controls on immigration and anti-miscegenation laws, but also through compulsory sterilization of prisoners, the mentally disabled, and poor women deemed to be a burden on the state by having too many children. Eugenics began as a private venture, funded by the likes of Andrew Carnegie and the wealthy Harriman and Kellogg families, but by 1932, 30 states had mandatory sterilization laws. Between the turn of the century and the end of World War II, some 70,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized. When Nazi Germany adopted eugenic laws, they were based in part on the Model Eugenic Sterilization Law developed by the US Eugenics Record Office.
Although the Nazi holocaust gave eugenics a bad name, 27 US states kept eugenic laws on the books into the 1970s, and Americans continued to be sterilized against their will. Black, Native American, and Latina women were the main targets. In the early 1970s, hundreds of Mexican-origin women were sterilized without their knowledge or consent at the University of Southern California–Los Angeles County Medical Center. In 1976 the US General Accounting Office revealed that the federally-funded Indian Health Services had sterilized 3000 Native American women over a four-year period without informed consent.
Concerns about population “quality” and “quantity” have often mingled. A number of the pioneers of population control, including Clarence Gamble (of the Procter and Gamble fortune), biologist Garrett Hardin, and Frederick Osborn of the Population Council, had strong ties to eugenics, as did Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, who forsook her earlier radical feminist roots to forge an unsavory political alliance with the eugenics movement. Hardin, famous for his essay “Tragedy of the Commons” and his advocacy of lifeboat ethics—don’t let the poor onto the proverbial lifeboat if they’ll swamp and sink it—never gave up his eugenic ties, accepting money in the 1990s from the Pioneer Fund, the major funder of eugenics research in the US.
Like eugenics, population control at first was privately funded by wealthy individuals like Gamble and Dixie Cup magnate Hugh Moore, as well as private foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller. By the 1960s, however, it had become a major component of America’s Cold War foreign policy. In an important about-face, instead of reasoning that economic development would bring down birth rates, influential demographers began to reverse this logic and identify rapid population growth in poor countries as a serious impediment to development. Reducing birth rates, they argued, was a prerequisite for, rather than a consequence of, successful modernization. And if poor countries didn’t develop quickly, they would be susceptive to Communist takeover. By 1967, the US government had become the largest funder of population control programs in the world.
In the 1970s, the US government pushed sterilization over temporary contraceptive methods in many of the programs it supported. Coercion became a matter of course. As in the case of eugenics, victims of this social engineering were overwhelmingly poor, non-white mothers. In subsequent years, the technology shifted to long-acting forms of contraception, such as the IUD, hormonal implants, and injectables. While these methods were an improvement over forced sterilization, they were often delivered in coercive environments that denied women contraceptive choice and took dangerous risks with their health.
The reproductive violence of population control sparked an international women’s health movement against it. As a member of this movement, I advocated (and still advocate) voluntary family planning as part of comprehensive health services, as opposed to family planning as a weapon of population control. In 1994, at the UN international population conference in Cairo, the women’s health movement succeeded in shifting policy away from coercion and toward respect for reproductive rights, but reforms proved easier on paper than in practice. Only a few years later, the Fujimori dictatorship in Peru launched a brutal campaign that sterilized some 300,000 indigenous women. When the scandal broke, the US government pleaded ignorance, though it supported Fujimori financially and approved of his population control targets.
The Campaign to Stop Torture in Health Care, an initiative of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations in New York, defined forced sterilization as a form of medical torture. If we don’t condone torture in other arenas, why should it be acceptable in this most intimate realm of women’s bodies and lives? Today, five US states—California, Oregon, Virginia, and North and South Carolina—have issued public apologies to the victims of eugenic sterilization. No such apology has been forthcoming from the US federal government for its role in forced sterilization overseas.
Panic over saving the planet from overpopulation, meanwhile, encourages people to turn a blind, or half-open, eye to coercion: Well, we had to get those birth rates down somehow. While many Americans find the Chinese practice of forced abortions and sterilizations distasteful, there has been a willingness to tolerate them because, after all, aren’t there already too many Chinese gobbling up the world’s resources? Or if only it could be done a little more humanely, wouldn’t the one-child policy be a great model for the rest of the world?
Such attitudes were unfortunately bolstered by the failure of major international family planning organizations to speak out against the Chinese policy. In fact, both the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) actively aided China in implementing it. In 1983, during the initial wave of heavy coercion, the UN bestowed its first Population Award to China’s family planning minister. (He shared the award with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who, along with her son Sanjay, was responsible for forcibly sterilizing over six million men during the Emergency Rule she imposed in 1975–76.) Only now is there belated recognition that the one-child policy ranks among the world’s most serious human rights violations of the past 35 years.363
Nativist forms of Malthusian violence explicitly target foreigners—and their babies—as national enemies. During the Cold War, the poor in developing countries were regarded as potential Communists. Today, they are portrayed as potential terrorists or dangerous migrants, or both rolled up into one. National security pundits warn about new kinds of population bombs, often with an Islamic cast. Too many Palestinian babies, too few Israeli ones, or “youth bulges” of angry, urbanized Muslim young men who are easy recruits for political extremism. In the face of these challenges, aging white Western populations just can’t keep up.
In Europe, declining fertility and aging populations are stoking fears of a “demographic winter,” in which the barren white population is overwhelmed by dark-skinned immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. In the words of author Kathryn Joyce, demographic winter is “a more austere brand of apocalypse than doomsdayers normally trade in, evoking not a nuclear inferno but a quiet and cold blanket of snow in which . . . Western civilization is laying itself down to die.” In the US, the prospect that whites may become a minority by 2050 sparks similar anxieties.
The scapegoating of immigrants for environmental degradation gives nativism an environmental twist. I first encountered this phenomenon, which I’ve called the greening of hate, when I was invited to debate a woman named Virginia Abernethy at an environmental law conference in Oregon in 1994. Abernethy, a professor at Vanderbilt University, was representing an organization called the Carrying Capacity Network. The topic of our debate was supposed to be women and population stabilization, but I soon realized I wasn’t debating a fellow environmentalist or family planning advocate, but instead an anti-immigrant zealot for whom “population control” and “carrying capacity” meant circling our wagons and closing our borders. I later learned that Abernethy worked with the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens. In 2011, she joined the neofascist American Third Position Party, now renamed the American Freedom Party, the largest racist political party now operating in the US.
In the person of Abernethy I encountered a well-funded nativist network, founded by Michigan ophthalmologist and neo-eugenicist John Tanton, that cloaks itself in green language to lure liberal environmentalists into its conservative fold. Its main contention is that immigration, by spurring US population growth, drives environmental degradation. When they come to the US, the argument goes, immigrants cause everything from traffic congestion to deforestation to accelerated greenhouse gas emissions. This environmental burden compounds the supposed economic burden they place on taxpayers, schools, hospitals, and other public services. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this nativist movement sought to take over the Sierra Club by becoming members en masse in order to get the Club to take a stand against immigration and put nativists on the board. Fortunately, they were beaten back, but they have hardly faded away. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has helped to orchestrate the greening of hate, took an active role in drafting Arizona’s draconian anti-immigration law. New front groups, with names like Progressives for Immigration Reform, continue to woo environmentalists with Malthusian arguments.
The structural, reproductive, and nativist violence condoned and espoused by the “Church of Malthus” makes apocalyptic fear of overpopulation more than an eccentric preoccupation, and more than a diversion from efforts to understand and address the real causes of poverty, environmental degradation, and war. The violence moves beyond sins of omission to the more dangerous terrain of actively committed transgressions against human dignity and lives. This makes it ethically imperative to confront and challenge its core beliefs. What is more, freeing ourselves from population fundamentalism allows us to imagine, and start to create, a more peaceful, equitable, and sustainable future.
In addition to images of ticking time bombs depicting overpopulation, there are actual clocks that register each new birth as if it were a potential disaster. One such clock is posted on a medical building at a busy intersection in New Delhi. On the website of the Population Media Center in the US, a similar clock tells how many human beings were added to the planet during your visit. The countdown to doom is measured one birth at a time. Humanity is heading backwards, not forwards.
Sometimes the population time keepers raise the rhetoric to fever pitch. As the year 2000 millennium approached, Population Connection, the group formerly called ZPG, launched a campaign that tried to link the birth of the world’s six billionth child to the coming Y2K global computer crash, a disaster that never materialized despite all the hype. In his 2013 book Countdown, author Alan Weisman warns that the population crisis could lead humanity to extinction. “Either we decide to manage our own numbers, to avoid a collision of every line on civilization’s graph,” he writes, “or nature will do it for us, in the form of famines, thirst, climate chaos, crashing ecosystems, opportunistic disease, and wars over dwindling resources that finally cut us down to size.” He believes our numbers have reached a point “where we’ve essentially redefined the concept of original sin.”
How do we rid ourselves of the ticking time bombs, the countdown clocks, the dismal models, and the dystopic dread that the Reverend Malthus set in motion two centuries ago? With birth rates dropping and family size shrinking around the world, his church’s time has passed, but the bells in the belfry are still ringing loudly. Their latest clamor concerns climate change.
Some American population and environment groups now argue that reducing population growth in developing countries is the key to mitigating climate change. The Sierra Club urges people to “fight climate change with family planning.” A private American philanthropist even financed a climate scientist to come up with a model that would show the purported linkage between the two. Yet industrialized countries, with 20 percent of the world’s population, are responsible for 80 percent of the carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere. In 2010, the US emitted 17.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person, compared to 6.2 in China, 0.4 in Bangladesh, and 0.1 in Uganda.372 In the few countries in the world where population growth rates remain high, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, carbon emissions per person are the lowest on the planet.
Others, like Johns Hopkins philosopher Travis Rieder, are grabbing media attention by arguing that the looming climate catastrophe means that we should socially engineer a reduction in birth rates, not just in developing countries but at home, too. Curbing women’s fertility is supposedly easier than other measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. New parents in the US should be financially penalized for having children, Rieder maintains, while mothers in developing countries should have their birth control refills paid for. “Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them,” he told NPR. The absurd notion that babies cause climate change is a convenient way to obscure its structural causes, including the economic and political clout of the fossil fuel industry. It’s also yet another way to scapegoat women and children for global crisis.
Equally worrying is the way powerful interests in the international family planning field are turning the clock back toward population control, undoing a lot of the progress made at the 1994 international population conference in Cairo. They are reintroducing numerical targets, promoting long-acting contraceptives over other methods, and brushing aside critical health, safety, and human rights concerns.
Here in the US, population interests are targeting low-income young women and women of color with long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARC for short), notably the IUD and hormonal implants. These methods are being touted as a technical fix for high rates of adolescent pregnancy and a solution to endemic poverty. While these methods should be part of the mix, the LARC strategy restricts poor women’s access to a wider range of contraceptives and opens the door to pressure and coercion. There are now reports of poor women on Medicaid not being able to get their IUDs removed unless they pay privately out of their own pocket. Concerned about such restrictions on reproductive choice, a number of women’s health groups, including Planned Parenthood, have signed onto a Statement of Principles to guide LARC distribution. The statement notes that “A one-size-fits-all focus on LARCs at the exclusion of a full discussion of other methods ignores the needs of each individual and the benefits that other contraceptive methods provide.”
Meanwhile, the anti-abortion movement very cleverly plays the moral high ground card whenever the international family planning establishment fails to speak out against coercion or sweeps contraceptive risks under the rug. This happened with China’s one-child policy, and it is happening now with Depo-Provera. In these instances, the anti-abortion movement falsely bills itself as the true defender of women. Instead, in working to deny women access to abortion, contraception, and reproductive health care—through defunding Planned Parenthood, for example—the movement undermines women’s health and human rights. The election of Donald Trump puts reproductive rights, including the legal right to abortion, granted in the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, in serious jeopardy. One of his earliest acts as president was to reinstate the global gag rule first imposed by Ronald Reagan.
Given the hyperbole on both sides, it’s important to remember that the population issue shouldn’t be defined by the two ideological poles of population control on the one hand and the anti-abortion movement on the other. You can promote reproductive rights and support access to birth control, including the right to safe, legal abortion, without supporting population control. You can be an environmentalist, too, without subscribing to Malthusian notions of Scarcity.
From the time of the Puritans onwards, the vision of Armageddon-style battles between good and evil, God and the Devil, has predisposed Americans to simple-minded dualisms and extremist ideologies. Malthusianism is one of them. The overpopulation fears it ignites help keep the larger American apocalyptic fire burning, and that fire in turn helps keeps Malthusianism alive. It’s a vicious cycle that we have to break.
Before leaving Malthus, I’d like to follow him back to Okewood, where he began his career. I think of him visiting the home of one of his poor parishioners. I imagine him as an inexperienced young man, standing in the doorway, peering in, aghast at the squalor and the emaciated children. Perhaps the woman of the house is breastfeeding a newborn baby. He’s invited in, but politely declines. He has seen enough, thank you. Incapable of making that basic human connection, he retreats to his study and the neat, comforting world of numbers. What if he had dared to stay, dared to ask a few sympathetic questions of both husband and wife, dared to get to the bottom of what caused their predicament?
He could have made another choice. So can we.