Sunday, September 20, 2009

Doomsday Scenarios (by Phila)

A recent editorial in The Lancet argued that increasing access to contraception and family planning information in the developing world would be a sensible way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and making these populations less vulnerable to climate effects that are expected to pose a particular threat to the poor.

Betsy Hartmann and Elizabeth Barajas-Roman aren't thrilled with this idea, and so they've come up with ten reasons why population control is not the solution to global warming. Their strongest point is the most obvious one: industrialized countries comprise 20% of the population and produce 80% of the emissions, and focusing on resource use in the developing world is a distraction from that fact. (To be precise, they say that it "lets wealthy countries, corporations, and consumers off the hook." I wouldn't go quite that far, personally, but I do agree that it draws attention away from the real culprits.)

They also argue that "demographically driven family planning programs erode reproductive rights," and cite the "long and sordid history" of population control measures as evidence.

Which is fair enough. But suppose your goal is simply to use the climate crisis as an additional argument in favor of expanding existing, non-coercive programs, and overturning laws that limit access to contraceptives and education? In other words, what if you want to pressure restrictive governments to increase freedom of choice, instead of pressuring individuals to limit their offspring?

As far as I can tell, that's not really acceptable either.
Most population and environment groups insist that they are against coercion, and maintain that linking family planning and climate change is a win-win solution for women and the planet. The reality is closer to lose-lose.
That confuses me, somewhat. As do some of their other arguments. For instance, they say that "the population-climate change connection bolsters anti-immigrant agendas." As an example, they point out that anti-immigrant activists could argue that "immigrants should remain in their home countries where they consume less energy." But that's not an argument about population growth per se; it could be made whether a given population is increasing or decreasing.

More to the point, if we have to refrain from making arguments that might be seized upon by anti-immigration activists, we may as well sew our lips shut. That subculture, like so many others on the far right, will twist virtually anything into an argument for their agenda (when they're not simply making stuff up).

The next few arguments are similar, in that they focus primarily on the risk of racial stigma and stereotyping. The concern is that family planning measures undertaken for the "wrong" reasons will demonize people living in the Global South, contribute to the militarization of immigration enforcement, and so forth. But like the example above, some of these problems aren't clearly linked to the environmental rationale for family planning. I completely agree that portraying "climate-displaced people as a dark and dangerous horde of violent migrants rather than human beings with human rights has profoundly negative consequences." But I'm not convinced that this is an inevitable outcome of all environmentally minded family-planning projects.

It's reason #8 that really puzzles me, though.
Historically, the U.S. environmental movement often has succumbed to apocalyptic thinking. Doomsday scenarios of population outstripping resources exemplify this philosophy.
First, this isn't a "doomsday scenario," but an elementary fact: natural resources aren't limitless, and people are using them faster than they're being replaced. Second, if you're going to object to doomsday scenarios and apocalyptic thinking, you may as well make the same complaint about climate change itself. Treating the concern that population will outstrip resources as "alarmist," while calling climate change "one of the most urgent problems of our time," isn't really coherent...especially since climate change is expected to affect the availability of resources. On this point, I'd have to side with The Lancet.

I think what bothers me most about all this -- besides the fact that there's no consideration of the possibility that some people in the Global South may actually understand the environmental issues better than "we" do, and welcome environmentally focused family planning programs for that very reason -- is that it falls into the classic left-wing trap of giving racists and reactionaries de facto veto power over your options. Just as Obama was destined to be called a communist no matter how mild and business-friendly his "reforms" turned out to be, people who work for reproductive freedom and gender equality and environmental justice in the developing world are inevitably going to be called babykillers and eugenicists and cultural imperialists by people who oppose those goals. And just as inevitably, racists are going to demonize climate-displaced people and immigrants, whether you give them an "excuse" to do so or not. These aren't possible outcomes to be avoided through careful framing of the issues, so much as the ancient dirt in which we're obliged to stand our ladders.

Which is why it seems to me that the ultimate measure of a specific tactic should be whether it will actually reduce suffering and save lives, not whether it gives a bunch of reactionary thugs an opportunity to say the hateful things that they're going to say no matter what. It's one thing to distrust how a specific government or NGO would go about making an environmental case for "population control"; I share that concern, absolutely. But unless I'm misreading them, Hartmann and Barajas-Roman are arguing that we must not make this connection, period, whether it's in support of coercive or non-coercive policies. And I can't help feeling that this is something of an advance capitulation to extremism, as well as a luxury that neither family planning nor climate activists can necessarily afford.

I'm very interested to hear what other people think.