Guest post: Connecting environmental and reproductive justice

This guest post is from Katie McKay Bryson from the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College. It’s part of our partnership with the 2010 From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building a Movement for Reproductive Freedom Conference.
For many people, the ties between environmental activism and sexual health or reproductive rights aren’t obvious – unless, of course, they’ve heard the mainstream line that global overpopulation is the root of resource scarcity, poverty, war and, most recently, climate change. This can be a difficult thing to recognize in our own worldviews, so pervasive is the belief that the earth can only support a certain number of human bodies, and that when the number is breached, famine, disease and violence appear, somehow apolitically, to yank population back under control.
This idea has been used in the past to support coercive population control programs, and yet it’s currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, as even some mainstream environmental organizations connect “feminist” international family planning initiatives with combating climate change, scarcity and deforestation. The simplicity that makes the overpopulation argument so comfortable and persuasive is precisely what’s wrong with it. The richest fifth of the world’s people contribute over 80% of greenhouse gas emissions and use 66 times more resources than the poorest fifth. That means we can’t ignore complicated social structures like over-consumption, the privatization of fresh water resources, and consolidation of land through corporate agriculture that create or concentrate hunger and other global problems. We need to ask hard questions about who is targeted as needing to control their family size, and whether accepting the threatening framework of overpopulation is really in the best interest of our feminist and environmentalist organizations.


The Population and Development Program (PopDev) works to bring a global feminist analysis to the intersecting fields of reproductive rights, environmental justice, international development and peace. PopDev is a sister program to CLPP and works in collaboration with CLPP on the upcoming conference, From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Building the Movement for Reproductive Freedom. The workshops we organize at the conference give a view of the intersecting fields we focus on, and will support activists in sharing their experiences in Building Community Resistance to Militarism, The New Eugenics, Climate Justice, and more.
PopDev supports access to high quality, safe and voluntary reproductive health and abortion services as a vital part of reproductive freedom. Yet, one of the reasons that this conference is so important to us is that the conversation it creates about what reproductive freedom means is broad and complex. It includes the right to be seen as a full person and a valuable member of the global community whether you have one child, eight children, or none. It includes the right not to have your health impacted by coercive sterilization, or toxic contamination from the abandoned military waste in your indigenous community, or by constant exposure to pesticides in the fields where you pick fruit. It includes the right not to be diminished or denied dignity based on your skin color, nationality or gender, in the way that simple images of women and children of color are used as implicit symbols of overpopulation.
To see environmental issues as separate from the personal, political conversation about our bodies, our families, and our rights becomes impossible in the space this conference creates. By gathering annually in this space, we’re building a comprehensive vision of reproductive justice. Our goal is a movement full of bridges, guided by multiple visions and perspectives, where our understanding of what it means to struggle together is complicated, and strong enough to question. We look forward to seeing you there!
By Katie McKay Bryson, Population and Development Program

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2 Comments

  1. Comrade Kevin
    Posted April 2, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    This is very encouraging and I hope others will learn from this example.

  2. SamLL
    Posted April 2, 2010 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    This is probably me being unnecessarily pedantic, but “the belief that the earth can only support a certain number of human bodies” seems fundamentally true to me, barring technological advance along the lines of limitless free energy or uploading ourselves and becoming AIs. I mean, there is only so much energy, so much water, so much space that we have, right? We can argue that maybe the certain number is vastly higher than the world’s current population but it exists somewhere? (In a fatuous case, if you use all the carbon in the earth on human bodies you only get 10^20 of them as a hard upper limit.)
    I do certainly agree with everything else that you say that it is worth carefully dissecting these arguments and asking all the hard questions you mention, especially when what historically seems to be the best way of reaching stable populations is education, economic development, and the right & access to voluntary use of contraception. This goes double if we are trying to have that poorest fifth you mention reach the prosperity levels of the richest fifth!

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