Population control beats wind and solar power at influencing climate change

Via Feministing:

New research (PDF) from the London School of Economics (LSE) says that, when it comes to fighting climate change, investing in contraception is five times more effective than technologies such as wind and solar power.

Meeting basic family planning needs along the lines suggested would save 34 gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of CO2 between now and 2050 – equivalent to nearly six times the annual emissions of the US and almost 60 times the UK’s annual total.

In response to the report, some enviro-bloggers have called for “breaking the taboo” on linking population policy with environmental policy. Writes Lydia DePillis at TNR,

[I]t’s simply about reducing the number of footprints as well as their size, through increasing access to reproductive choice–a key element of the development agenda, and something the Obama administration itself endorsed eight months ago, by scrapping the gag rule on family planning. Too bad it looks like that’s totally off-limits in the American environmental discourse.

Now, I do understand that rapid population growth can exacerbate the impact of climate change. And I’m all for meeting global family planning needs. But linking these goals is problematic. I know the LSE report contains a prominent caveat that this is about non-coercive family planning, but using fears about climate change as a way to expand contraceptive use is eerily reminiscent of “population control” policies, some of which were coercive and all of which were rooted in the idea that certain people should be having fewer babies. (For some examples of the historically problematic use of “population control,” check out this report from Hampshire College.) I wonder whether liberals who are favorably linking to the LSE research are aware of how close its rhetoric is to racist talking points about population. Some taboos exist for a reason.

Of course, the LSE report is carefully worded and clearly aware of this history. But it still doesn’t sit right with me. I mean, the study was commissioned by a group called the Optimum Population Trust. Apparently “optimum population” is the new way of saying “population control.” And it seems that Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, is one of the group’s patrons. In the late 1960s, Ehrlich’s book set off a panic that overpopulation would lead to mass starvation in the coming decades — and spurred the U.S. to create its first global family-planning policies, which were not super feminist. (Read Michelle Goldberg’s book for more on this.)

As Claire, guest-blogging at Feministe recently, asked, “Has science ever actually defined the number of people the world and it’s resources can support, or is this fear of a “population bomb” about something else, more to do with which babies are being born than how many are being born?” (Emphasis mine.) Which is why I reject the “population control” frame altogether. Put another way, by Adam Werbach in a 2005 article about population and immigration,

In the population-control frame, the number of people and their placement on the planet is the root problem that needs to be solved. But is that really the problem? Family planning has succeeded only where economic security has been improved for women, including access to food and shelter, health care, and education. With this as background, the real population problem may be the treatment of women on the planet.

We all understand that empowering women to determine their own reproductive fates leads to other benefits — economic, societal, and yes, environmental. But given the history of population policy, to me the only acceptable international family planning policy is one that is motivated by increasing the empowerment and choices for women. Full stop. When we try to intervene in women’s reproductive lives for any other reason, the potential for abuse is just too high.

For more, check out this report from Hampshire College, Rethinking the Link: A Critical Review of Population-Environment Programs (PDF). It looks at this question on a more local scale.

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