Thursday, June 21, 2012

Control Freaks

Making Contact's latest program is about possible measures for dealing with population growth, and it disturbed me.  It did a fair job of describing the "dark history of the population debate," including the forced sterilization programs that targeted (mostly poor) women of color in the US and elsewhere.  What bothered me was that although due lip service was paid to economic concerns and the empowerment of women, the discussion focused on replacing stress on "population control" with "reproductive justice."  "Justice," in this context, is merely a buzzword, as shown by the definition delivered by Loyola Marymount University women's studies professor Jade Sasser: "basically three things: 1) the right to have children that you want to have, 2) the right to not have the children you don’t want to have, and 3) the right to parent the children that you do have."  Those are all important ideas, but they avoid the real problems.

Far too much airtime was given to Ben Zuckerman, a "former Sierra Club board member."  He said things like this:
Ben Zuckerman: The low status of women in various countries around the world is the single most important contributor to basically out of control population growth. That is there’s no real sign of world population growth declining in a noticeable rate, according to UN projections. Not for many decades into the future. The most important way to turn things around is to raise the status of women, economically, politically, educationally. Because once women are able to control their own lives, then everybody know all around the world, their fertility goes way down because they realize they have more interesting things to do than be baby machines basically from the time they’re 15 or 20 years old till they’re in middle age.

Kyung Jin Lee: Zuckerman says rich countries can help by providing resources for family planning, contraception and education. He also supports governments providing certain types of incentives or disincentives for women to have fewer children.
Zuckerman puts the cart before the horse.  In poorer countries, children are needed and expected to ensure support and security for their parents in old age.  Women don't have children because they've been brainwashed into being "baby machines": they do it for their own future.  Whether consciously or not, they have enough children to have a reasonable chance that one will survive to care for them by the time they're 60.  True, in such societies, women who bear lots of healthy children will be lionized, since people who do the hard work a society needs will be praised.  Contrary to fantasy, pregnancy, childbirth and childcare aren't poor women's idea of recreation, their substitute for reading Fifty Shades of Grey on their Kindles.   What poor women need first isn't "resources for family planning, contraception and education" -- they need to have more economic security, including food and other health resources to lower the child-mortality rate.  When they have that, they'll be very interested in having fewer children.

Zuckerman's recommendations show a very white middle-class First World bias.  (Don't they have trust funds?  Why don't they start 401k accounts for their old age, instead of grinding out the babies?)  In general his remarks show the old eugenicist population-control paradigm lurking beneath the pious concern for poor women's agency.

The word "poverty" is used only once in this half-hour broadcast, and the concept of poverty is barely mentioned.  Even Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health policy and the commentator who's offered as a counter to Zuckerman, is quoted as saying: 
If the concern is about the environment, I would think that the focus should be on the kind of high impact solutions. You know, the multinational corporations, the military, and their use of natural resources, both in these countries and in the US military, which are huge actors on environmental degradation. It would make more sense to focus on the actors that have the biggest impact.
This is true enough.  But what about the poor people?  Handing out free birth control pills and vasectomies, even with monetary incentives, won't "empower" them.  From what we know, the best way -- the only way, really -- to lower birth rates is to make sure that everybody has adequate food and medical care; then people will have fewer children voluntarily, and women will fight for the right and the means to determine when they'll bear children.  But this solution won't play where it matters: in the board rooms of capital, the halls of government, and the cubicles of the think tanks.  "Austerity" is today's buzzword among the elites: the starvation will continue until morale and attitudes improve.

Even the way the program handles its history is flawed.  Malthus is mentioned in passing, though not that his predictions of imminent doom were wrong.  (Like Darwin, by the way, Malthus opposed birth control.)  "But since industrialization, the advent of vaccines and antibiotics, and increased sanitation practices starting in the late 18th century, the world’s population has ballooned, and is now at more than 7 billion."  There were famines and epidemics long before the world population ballooned (read the story of Joseph in Genesis for an easy example); even today, hunger is as much the result of maldistribution of resources as of their shortage, as Amartya Sen showed in Poverty and Famine (Clarendon Press, 1981). When the Western powers moved in on Asia, they dismantled the local rulers' institutions for preventing famine on the grounds that they flouted free market principles.  As a result, tens of millions of people died of hunger and disease over a few decades, while British and American officials sniffed that they were just too lazy to work.  (See Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts [Verso, 2001] for the details.)

There surely are limits to how many people the Earth can sustain, and we may have passed those limits already.  But it's just as sure that family planning must be the result of a higher standard of living, not its cause.  Very oddly for a left-progressive program, Making Contact's "Population Control or Population Justice?" evades the economic issues and focuses its baleful scrutiny on the victims.