Politics, pollution and “overpopulation”

As an Environmental Studies and International Relations (IR) major (probably), I’ve discovered that there are a few topics you’re bound to encounter in almost any class that addresses the politics of the environment. One of these topics is “overpopulation.”

In my Introduction to International Relations class last semester, we read one of the articles that helped kick off the environmental conservation movement, Garrett Hardin’s, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in 1968. Hardin’s argument is that individuals act independently and rationally to serve their own interests, and consequently deplete common resources, such as grazing land, water supplies, etc.

Hardin’s article remains relevant to many environmental problems today, such as wildlife and water conservation. But what my IR professor — and my AP Environmental Science teacher in high school, who also taught Hardin’s theory — glossed over was Hardin’s stance on population control. He believed that overpopulation was a serious threat to the Earth’s ability to sustain life, and promoted solutions such as forced sterilization targeted at what he deemed scientifically inferior populations and races of women who just wouldn’t stop having babies.

Hardin didn’t leave his troubling idea behind after 1968. His final book, The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia, published in 1999, addresses the threat of overpopulation and calls for forceful restrictions on “unqualified reproductive rights.” Oh, and he says that affirmative action is a form of racism.

I notice that Hardin’s convoluted, racist ideas influence the views of my peers in subtle ways. In many of my Environmental Studies and IR classes at Tufts, overpopulation is discussed as an environmental issue, when the real issue seems to be about overconsumption.

We know that we currently produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet, yet so much is wasted and unjustly distributed. If a couple living in Niger produces eight children, but none of those children have access to heat, running water, transportation or enough food, why are we concerned with the “environmental impact” of their fertility rate? Instead, we need to discuss how we can reduce the environmental impact of the American family of four living in a large suburban house, owning three cars and eating meat every day, as well as how we can improve living conditions for the family in Niger.

One method proven to improve living conditions is educating and empowering women. In communities and countries where women are given broader education opportunities, work opportunities and reproductive rights, employment rates increase, the infant mortality rate decreases and population growth often slows down.

Furthermore, population growth has already slowed significantly over the past few decades: estimates of population growth rates have been much too high. So the question is not, “How do we deal with a world population of 7 billion and growing?” but, “How do we make our global system more equitable?” Because let’s face it: we haven’t been feeding or serving our entire population for centuries.

And yet, we cannot afford to have everyone living like upper-middle-class Americans. If everyone in the world drove cars as much as Americans do, we would probably experience catastrophic effects of climate change within a few years. Instead of addressing how to curb growth in developing countries, we need to drastically reduce consumption among rich people in developed countries so that developing countries have the room to satisfy basic needs.

If my professors want to keep teaching Hardin’s article, so be it. But we need to change the way we talk about population control as an “environmental” effort, when it has nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with justifying the developed Western world’s rampant consumption and global domination.