Eugenics in the service of sustainability

When Thomas Malthus theorized over 200 years ago that the human population would eventually outgrow the earth’s resources, he endowed Western societies with a deep concern for demographic sustainability. We have worried for centuries that if we can’t slow population growth, our species will struggle to survive on this planet. Can the planet handle 10 billion people? Probably, but many scientists say that’s approaching the limit of carrying capacity, and we may soon learn what that means.

To head off the threat of overgrowth, the global community has turned to solutions like birth control and family planning to help fast-growing populations slow their birth rates and assuage our sustainability fears. But when you look at who ends up carrying out our efforts to reach demographic sustainability, it seems that the growing countries of the Global South are being unfairly saddled with a burden that is not theirs.

Lowering birth rates in countries simply because they have high birth rates is not the fast track to a sustainable future because it ignores the major global inequalities in resource usage and environmental impact. Wealthy, highly developed countries tend to encourage unsustainable choices at every turn, so even while their growth rates shrink, their harm to the earth and to future sustainability grows.

If carbon dioxide emissions per capita are used as the measure of impact on the planet, one person in the United States has the same impact as 46 people in Bangladesh or 67 people in Afghanistan. So while these countries may be growing very rapidly, the people in those countries are not to blame if we one day overwhelm the planet – the blame lies with the countries and people who are doing the most to harm the Earth. We must focus our efforts on massive changes in consumption and production patterns, not on population growth.

Family planning can be an effective tool of development when it is done in a way that benefits individuals. Access to family planning has been found to give women more control over their lives by allowing them to make decisions that had previously been left up to their husbands, families, communities, and governments. It allows women to take more control over their educations, health, employment, and bank accounts and gives families opportunities to develop and grow in ways beside population.

But the benefits of family planning must be considered in the context of the global community’s ultimate goal: not just to improve the lives of individuals but to slow down population growth and improve our overall chances at survival. Racialized, poor populations are not the primary perpetrators using our resources too quickly or destroying our planet through carbon emissions and plastic pollution, yet it has become their responsibility to reverse trends that they didn’t create.

Many of our narratives around family planning are based in dehumanization, with the women of the Global South viewed primarily as producers of children and not as people. Global institutions celebrate dramatic drops in birth rate as development successes, but what is left unsaid speaks volumes: lowering the population growth of developing countries is helping us survive on this planet. The jump to a disturbing conclusion from this is a short one, as reducing the fertility of certain populations in the name of the greater good is clearly eugenics.

Reducing birth rate in the 20th century was not about choice but control. Institutions like the United Nations and the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) have dark histories of participating in eugenic activities. For instance, the United Nations Population Fund contributed to the Fujimori sterilization campaign in Peru in the 1990s, during which 100,000 women, mostly indigenous and rural, were forced to be sterilized. Governments themselves are often perpetrators of eugenics, as was the case in 1976 when the government of India – supported by the American government – sterilized 6.2 million men against their will.

Dramatic cases like these may seem like blemishes on an otherwise fair and successful global movement for demographic sustainability, but they are really indications that racism and classism are deeply embedded in our conceptions of population and development. In his controversial book Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, Matthew Connelly writes that family planning can create and encourage racial divides and victimize vulnerable populations.

“Even now, long after the demise of population control as an organized movement, fear of the fertility and mobility of particular groups continues to spark ethnic strife,” Connelly writes.

The potential still exists for family planning to be an equitable and empowering tool for sustainability if utilized differently. This requires looking at populations and communities on an individualized basis at the local level, rather than the global, and identifying what specific environmental and socioeconomic problems they face. Family planning may not be able to mitigate global climate change, but it can help communities adapt to their changing ecological conditions and enhance their abilities to survive and prosper on the small scale.

Demographic sustainability in the future may not mean protecting the environment from populations, but protecting populations from the changing environment. Hopefully, the future of sustainable development will prioritize the rights of individuals over the shrinking of the human population. It is the reduction of harmful activities that will save the planet, not the reduction of numbers.

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