Nov. 2019 Mother & child (Danish SIddiqui:Reuters)
A mother and child in Mumbai, India. (Danish Siddiqui / Reuters)


Twenty-five years ago at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt, feminists raised the alarm about the links between the international development schemes of the big imperialist nations and racist population-control plans. They fought against a “business as usual” international development paradigm in which aid agencies would bring abortion and long-acting contraception to the underdeveloped world as part of an effort to reduce population, but at the same time refuse to provide holistic health care for women and children, or take measures that would actually empower women in agriculture and low-wage work.

Feminists won commitments to change in Cairo and it was marked as an historic occasion. In retrospect, feminists can today see just how dangerous the limitations of those commitments have been.

In preparation for a November International Conference on Population and Development summit in Nairobi, Kenya, feminist scholars and activists are attempting to draw the world’s attention to the deeply racist and imperialist population-control schemes that are not only still in play, but expanding. In fact, they are more hidden than before, and today obscured by progressive language about liberating women and girls.

Anne Hendrixson of the Population and Development Center at Hampshire College, along with Rajani Bhatia from the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department of SUNY at Albany, Kalpana Wilson from the Department of Geography at the University of London, and others have initiated A Feminist Call for Resistance to Population Control to publicize the reactionary plans underway and about to be expanded in Nairobi.

It is fairly obvious that population and high fossil-fuel emissions do not correlate. It is the global North whose economies are producing by far the greatest percentage of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions bringing us to disaster. Yet the populations targeted for “control” live in areas of the world that produce the lowest percentages of greenhouse gases.

Not only is targeting the less developed world unfair, it is sure to result in some terrifying social experiments enabled by racism and class fear. Hendrixson and her collaborators argue that “when population numbers, composition, and movement” are seen “as causing or worsening climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, war, and conflict,” dystopian restrictions like “fertility control, heightened border control, dispossession, detention, and imprisonment” are very often proposed as solutions.

Further, the false linkage of climate chaos and population obscures the real profit-driven roots of this crisis. Instead of highlighting the need to dump the capitalist disorganization of the economy, populationism poses reactionary measures against those who are currently most victimized by world warming.

Behind today’s populationist schemes are what Hendrixson and others call “the current population establishment.” It includes international organizations, donor governments, philanthro-capitalists such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the pharmaceutical giants—all of whom, under the guise of slowing climate change, are driving forward billion-dollar programs in Africa.

These programs dispense dangerous long-acting contraception measures whose use has been discontinued in Europe and the United States. The often coercive contraception distribution is sometimes carried out alongside “ClimateSmart” programs that bypass traditional knowledge to promote toxic and corporate agricultural methods that target female farm labor. Such projects are openly aimed at female farmers and urge them to privilege profit-making over food security. Taken together, Hendrixson and others argue, these projects aim to control Black and Brown female bodies in both the productive and reproductive spheres, all for the good of world capitalism.

In order to provide feminists and climate justice activists with the knowledge to combat this pernicious trend, Hendrixson and her collaborators have begun publishing regularly in a journal whose full text articles are downloadable on most campuses. They have developed a themed section—“Confronting Populationism: Feminist Challenges to Population Control in an Era of Climate Change”— in Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography.

Articles published here build on the thesis put forward by Ian Angus and Simon Butler’s 2011 book, “Too Many People?: Population, Immigration, and the Environment.” They define populationism as an ideological position that holds that population is the primary driver of social, political, and ecological problems and analyze the interwoven demographic, geographic and biopolitical dimensions of populationism. Feminists and climate justice activists can find in this themed section of Gender, Place & Culture a wealth of new approaches to thinking about the place of populationism in the efforts of global elites to prepare for climate chaos.

Ecosocialists must quickly incorporate these new understandings into our work to build a climate justice movement big enough and effective enough to meet the existential threat at hand. There is nothing truer than the slogan, “There can be no climate justice without gender justice and reproductive justice!”