Attenborough’s claims that over-population contributes to the climate crisis is limiting women’s agency and reproducing racial injustices.
In his most recent documentary, ‘A Life on Our Planet’, David Attenborough declares that overpopulation (amongst several other issues) is creating a great burden on our planet. While this may seem not too shocking a fact, with population figures climbing exponentially ever closer to the tens of billions, this classic malthusian environmental theory creates a dangerous rhetoric on how we control public agency – but more specifically – how environmental campaigns want to control poor, female bodies of colour.
So, what is the malthusian theory of population? Well, it was coined by Thomas Malthus back in 1798 in ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’. Tom claimed that due to the finite nature of resources such as food, the global population would eventually hit full capacity, and surpassing this, more people than food would cause a fair amount of issues from famine to natural disasters. This is similar to ideas of carrying capacity and population ecology, the idea that any environment will have a limit to the number of organisms it can support sustainably before resource depletion triggers population collapse. While initially, this theory may seem fairly logical, (think when the hyenas took over pride rock in the lion king and there wasn’t enough prey to go around…) we should be cautious when transferring ecological ideologies to anthropogenic matters – as the implications of this can be very serious.
Thomas Malthus theorised that to avoid widespread disaster, measures of population control should be adopted as preventative measures. These measures included family planning, late marriages, and celibacy. While ideas around celibacy unsurprisingly haven’t held much ground, and many individuals no longer feel the need to get married before having children, the most persistent form of population control today has centred around family planning and ensuring access to contraception.
While family planning is undoubtedly a positive thing in terms of personal fertility control and improving agency for reproductive bodies as a means of gender empowerment and equality, population control policies often target marginalised communities the most, restricting bodies and reproducing damaging tropes covered in racial and sexist bias. This is because neo-malthusian policies target particular bodies as scape-goats for the climate crisis. Not to mention that historically the guise of ‘empowerment’ and ‘development’ policies have often given way to eugenic principles.
Let’s take a look at some case studies…
Indigenous women in America suffered forced sterilisation under the Indian Healthcare Service in the 1960s and 1970s, as a means of increasing birth control. However, such radical methods were justified by the institutions’ belief that Native Americans were mentally, morally and socially defective – thus a program of eugenics was carried out, deceiving potentially 25% of women into sterilisations when coerced into having a Caesarean section. Some were completely unaware of this until many years later. Native American women still lack reproductive justice, with many indigenous women struggling to navigate western healthcare systems that disregard traditional practices of giving birth and homogenise maternity care due to lack of funding, education and for convenience. For more on this, I would strongly recommend watching the video below by the Changing Women Initiative of their experience as the ‘Midwives of Standing Rock’.
The overpopulation rhetoric continues to drive harmful practices against women of colour across western nations, middle, and least economically developed countries. An evidence brief from the international family planning intiative, Family Planning 2020 (an initiative that aimed to increase users of modern contraception by another 120 million by 2020) argued that “rapid population growth exerts considerable pressure on individuals, communities and the planet”. Similar accounts of forced sterilisation come from women in South Africa, pushed as a means of reducing population growth as an argument for ending poverty and boosting economic development in line with claims by the Family Planning Initiative. But where is the boundary drawn? How extreme is too extreme for a population policy when defended against a unanimous global issue such as climate change and widespread famine? China’s one child policy was scorned by westerners as extreme and controlling, unlike the safe, democratic and capitalist systems we have here… and yet the UK has it’s own coercive population policies, by failing to provide child support beyond two children. It is worth noting that those who can afford an extra child will still be able to do so – likewise in China, wealthier families can simply pay a fine to have more children. Therefore, it is clear that when programmes act to limit population growth, they work in a somewhat neo-eugenic manner in prioritising who gets to have more children – and who doesn’t.
This urgent push for restricting population growth targets cultures that may traditionally have more children, most predominantly in middle and lower income nations. However, despite arguments for ‘agency’ and ‘empowerment’, pressure by governing bodies and development agencies can result in coercive practices where women’s agency is undermined. For example, quantitative targets such as ‘120 by 2020’ put pressure on organisations working on the ground, and have led to the distribution of harmful contraceptives with dangerous side effects amongst poor communities in the Global South without providing sufficient warning. Practices such as these restrict bodies, families and communities, determining whose lives are valuable and whose are not. Gayatri Spivak termed this the need to control ‘Third World Wombs’. Therefore, this rhetoric of overpopulation is producing, reinforcing, and naturalising inequalities along lines of race, class, gender and geography.
Moreover, this argument is completely redundant when investigated further. Nations in the Global South with larger populations most commonly have significantly lower emissions per capita than those of ‘more developed’ nations. The average citizen of the US will produce 160X more emissions than the average person in Chad will produce in a year. Moreover, definitions of overpopulation vary from case to case and do not reflect the true dispersion of people across the Globe. London’s fertility rate is higher than Mumbai’s, and Monaco’s population is more dense than China’s. Overpopulation rhetorics are instead use to displace blame on marginalised communities of colour, class and ethnicity.
So does David Attenborough hate indigenous communities? And Black women? And the poor? I mean, probably not… but David Attenborough and others with a similarly large platform should be incredibly careful of the opinions they push into popular culture. If we have learnt anything from the past year, with the pandemic, Black Lives Matter movement and Trump, it’s that injustice is strife in the world and democracy hangs by a thread. With narratives that circled earlier this year claiming that the virus was ‘mother nature’s way of rebalancing the planet’, it’s clear that overpopulation rhetorics and their racial implications have trickled into popular culture and public opinion. Would we be saying that if the virus had struck white westerners first rather than Asian communities? I don’t think so. So, no, Karen, the virus was not mother nature striking back. It was the lack of sufficient preparedness and swift action taken by global leaders that left us in the mess we are in today.
Next time you hear someone claim that the climate crisis is an issue caused by overpopulation, remind them that this rhetoric supports a neoliberal agenda that offshores blame to individuals – particularly marginalised individuals – rather than the large conglomerates who are really to blame.