I listen to a lot of podcasts and read a lot about climate change. One theme that keeps reappearing is that in order to truly fix climate change, or slow it down because, well, it is actually happening, we as a species need to simply stop reproducing. We need to bring the human reproductive rate to zero. Then all the problems of resources and energy consumption will be solved.
This implies that the problem behind climate change is, well, women and their reproduction. Nevermind that the countries with the some of the lowest population growth in terms of reproduction are also most responsible for climate change. In fact, all the commenters and callers to the podcasts who talked about the need for population control referenced Africa – you know, the continent apparently responsible for all the world’s ills because they can’t seem to get their shit together, particularly regarding reproduction (sarcasm).
There is an inherent racism and sexism behind this statement. Any well-informed feminist knows that the population control programs of the 1970s and 1980s targeted women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America according to the racist view that women of color were reproducing uncontrollably and thus needed to be reigned in by the West. Forced abortions and sterilizations occurred en mass, violating women’s rights while having no real impact on population size. Meanwhile, climate change continued to gather steam as Western countries, not targeted for population control with the exception of women of color – i.e. poor women who consumed the least amount of energy – continued to produce higher and higher rates of energy consumption. Urban sprawl, mainly the creation of scared middle to upper class white people, created carbon emissions through commuting and high-energy houses. Demand for meat grew, also contributing world-wide to carbon emissions and environmental degradation, while a carbon-producing plastic throw away culture abounded.
This cause of climate change – lifestyle choices – remains virtually the same. I am not claiming there isn’t some truth to the fact that higher populations can possibly contribute more to energy consumption. But sheer numbers alone aren’t the cause for climate change. What is important is the LIFESTYLE of a population, and the high-energy lifestyle causing climate change isn’t necessarily related to high reproductive rates. It is mostly related to a Western consumer lifestyle and a world-wide rising middle class, a demographic that demands more meat, bigger houses, individualized transportation, and of course more polluting consumption in general. You can see this clearly in the map above. The only changes I would add that have occurred since 2011 is with China and India, both of whom have growing middle classes and are beginning to contribute more to climate change. What is really important, however, is who is actually causing climate change and who is being blamed for it – which is why I chose this particular map. Its clarity is beautiful.
Interestingly most, if not all, of the people claiming population growth is the most important factor in climate change are men. And they generally are talking about reproductive rates of women of color, generally of the developing world, with no comment about lifestyle changes or an economic system dependent on high energy consumption. In turn, there is also no recognition that much of what we see responsible for climate change is an economic system built by and favoring men.
This isn’t to say women don’t contribute to climate change, or that there are no female leaders in oil or other fossil fuel companies. But capitalism is a system created by men, based on consumption, and it is a system that oppresses both women and the environment, abusing both as resources to be consumed and thrown away. And yet, women’s reproduction bears the brunt of much blame from Westerners – particularly Western white men – serving as a good deflection from their own actions that continue to contribute to climate change. And of course, women’s bodies are held responsible for this population growth, with the onus of controlling population placed squarely upon women’s bodies through the use of birth control. It’s the same old racism and sexism that led to the oppressive population control programs of the 1970s and 1980s.
There ARE problems, of course, with a growing population, such as a terrible shortage of fresh water. Cape Town, South Africa, is a large city that faces an absolute crisis of available water. But population itself isn’t the problem. There are issues with infrastructure which are causing water to leak from containment. Tourism is putting extra pressure on fresh water resources and competes with citizens’ access to fresh water. Golf courses and other unnecessary constructs of capitalism also cause water waste. You see this all over America, too – lawns and golf courses in the arid West along with almond and fruit groves where they shouldn’t be wasting water and contributing to climate change as entire ecosystems are destroyed.
And none of this is the fault of women’s reproduction, and none of this will be solved by birth control. Yes, birth control is essential, but so many men who blame climate change on population growth assert that birth control is THE answer – again, laying the blame and responsibility on women’s bodies, with the philosophy that if you control women’s bodies, you will better control the world. Well, we tried this before. Forced sterilizations and abortions, the ultimate form of birth control, violated women’s rights and did not actually do anything to decrease the population. Nor did these policies do anything to change the middle to upper class lifestyle that produces the most polluting energy. I, by myself, probably have a larger carbon footprint than a poor family of five children in the poorest reaches of Africa. But it is easier, especially for men, to blame climate change on the reproduction of third-world women instead of the lifestyle of the West – which is being imported daily to burgeoning middle-classes all over the world.
I think it is important for women to have control over their bodies and when they reproduce, and to have access to birth control – but this needs to be an actual choice and not a matter of policy, as government sponsored programs don’t work and are inhumane, especially those in which the West enforces population control on the developing world. I believe women should control their own reproduction for their own health. And I believe the best way for a woman to control her reproduction, and thus her own body, is through empowerment, particularly education and access to economic resources such as land. And this empowerment should be encouraged regardless of climate change.
To the credit of the professional guests of the climate change podcasts, when a male caller calls in demanding third world birth control as the solution, the climate change expert often states that it is, in fact, the actual EMPOWERMENT of women that will put a cork in population growth – and that lower reproductive rates are not the main solution to climate change. I mean seriously, who cares if all African women collectively lower their reproductive rate when you still have some American dude guzzling gas in a monster truck as he commutes down the highway for his daily, forest-killing burger? Or if all women in the developing world finally access education but a family of four in the United States insists on building a giant, energy guzzling house in an arid part of the US – also adding to carbon emissions through commutes while stripping other regions of their fresh water? No amount of birth control will save the world if the we in the developed world don’t immediately begin to change our lifestyle, and stop importing it the world over.