Cross Dressing Malthus

Betsy Hartman


12, 1999 has the dubious distinction of being both Columbus Day and ‘Day of 6

Billion,’ ostensibly the day world population will pass the six billion people

mark. A well-funded media campaign, organized by the United Nations Fund for

Population Activities (UNFPA), the Communications Consortium Media Center and

others is already revving up to spread demographic alarmism, despite the fact,

or perhaps because of it, that population growth rates are declining worldwide

faster than anticipated.


many of the campaign’s messages include the need for women’s empowerment, the

main theme reaching the press is that population growth is a major drain on

social, economic and environmental resources. Left out of the picture are the

real culprits: capitalist exploitation of both people and nature, obscene income

and consumption disparities, inappropriate technologies and hyper-militarization.The

belief is you can have your cake and eat it too: you can support women’s rights,

while scapegoating their fertility for the planet’s ills. You can cross-dress

Malthus and parade him around as a feminist.


years after the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo, the population

establishment is experiencing a sort of ideological schizophrenia. On the one

hand are positive calls to make women’s empowerment and broader reproductive

health services the centerpiece of population policies and the rightful

condemnation of the use of coercion and demographic targeting in family planning

programs. In some countries there have been serious attempts to reform

population programs, and within institutions like the UNFPA, there are

progressive individuals struggling to change policy.


the other hand, many population and environment groups, especially in the US,

continue to blame poverty, environmental degradation, political violence and

even the spread of diseases like AIDS on rapid population growth in the Third

World. Zero Population Growth, for example, links ‘Y6B’ to ‘Y2K’, claiming that

world population passing the six billion mark is a more threatening problem than

the potential computer glitch. Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute has

taken an even more cynical approach, arguing that African countries which have

experienced rapid population growth are suffering from "demographic

fatigue", accounting for their inability to take adequate measures to halt

the spread of the AIDS epidemic.


messages actually undermine the Cairo reforms by reinforcing demographic

targeting and spreading fear and loathing of the faceless, nameless masses ‘over

there.’ Despite the Cairo reforms, population control programs remain in place

in many regions. Sterilization abuse of poor women is still common in a number

of countries, including Peru, Mexico, India and China. In many national and

international family planning programs, long-acting, provider-dependent

contraceptives like Norplant are targeted at poor women since these methods are

considered more effective in preventing pregnancy even if they present greater

risks to health and do nothing to block the transmission of sexually transmitted

diseases like HIV/AIDS. The main rationale for US foreign assistance in the

reproductive health field is still reducing population growth; according to the

Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, USAID continues to give less funding for

maternal services than it does for family planning.


is neo-Malthusianism so powerful in the US, much more powerful than it is, for

example, in European development and environment circles? There are a number of

different but related reasons. For one, we have a strong anti-abortion movement

which makes the population establishment seem reasonable by comparison — at

least it supports family planning, though often of the wrong kind. We also have

a well-funded population lobby that has influence at the highest echelons of

government. Money talks in Washington, DC.


addition, we happen to live in one of the most parochial countries on the

planet, where knowledge about development issues in the Third World is slim

indeed. Just look at the social studies and biology textbooks kids read in

school and you’ll find that population is typically blamed for poverty and

environmental degradation. This is very unlike curricular materials in the UK,

where competing theories on population are taught in a sophisticated and complex

way, and geography involves more than learning the location of the fifty states.


there is the wilderness ethic, the belief in a pure nature, unsullied by human

beings. (Of course we created our wilderness through the genocide of its Native

American inhabitants.) There is little appreciation that human communities can

and do live in more sustainable relationships with their environments in other

countries. Poor peasants, we are taught, overmine the soil and cut down the rain

forests — there is little knowledge about how peasant agriculture actually

contributes to biodiversity and land conservation in many areas, or about the

business interests responsible for most forest destruction.


the roots of the neo-Malthusian success go deeper than this. Neo-Malthusianism

is a useful ideological glue which binds liberals, and even some leftists, to

conservative causes. It is a tricky little belief system, constantly mutating to

fit the political moment. Just last year, right-wing anti-immigration activists

tried to change the Sierra Club’s neutral policy on immigration by arguing that

immigrants, by contributing to US population growth, were the main despoilers of

our environment. And just watch the debates over climate change. The spin

doctors are trying to divert attention from the US refusal to take serious

measures to cut carbon emissions by playing up the threat of China and India’s

populations as future energy consumers. Better the one child family over there

than a one car policy here, or raising taxes, god forbid, to finance public

transport and energy conservation.


probably the single most important reason neo-Malthusianism is so powerful in

the US is because it resonates so well with domestic racism and sexism. Images

of overbreeding single women of color on welfare and bare-breasted, always

pregnant Third World woman are two sides of the same nasty coin. And both

groups, it is believed, are excellent candidates for social engineering. Insert

Norplant, tie their tubes, put them to work in fast food chains or sweat shops,

and give them a little micro-credit and education if you’re feeling generous…

And meanwhile call their young male counterparts barbarians, whether they live

in the US inner city or Robert Kaplan’s African anarchy. Lock the boys and men

in prison.


get me wrong. I’m all for people having access to safe, voluntary, and

affordable birth control and abortion services as part of, not a substitute for,

comprehensive health services. Reproductive rights are a vital part of a human

rights agenda. I also support many of the reforms outlined at Cairo, though most

are yet to be realized. But I believe that once and for all support for

reproductive rights needs to be divorced from the neo-Malthusian agenda, which

not only distorts the delivery of family planning services, but wider social



for the women’s movement, the American left has remained much too silent on this

issue. On Columbus Day in 1992 progressives here and in Latin America joined

together to say that 500 years of colonialism and imperialism were enough. This

year ‘Day of 6 Billion’ would be a good date to strip Malthus of all his trendy

trappings and put him back in his grave where he belongs.

Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program at

Hampshire College and a co-founder of the Committee on Women, Population and

the Environment.

Leave a comment