In 1969, a year after Paul and Anne Ehrlich published a book predicting that a “population bomb” would set humankind on a path to widespread famine and political instability, twenty-year-old Stephanie Mills addressed her graduating class at Mills College in a bracing valedictory entitled “The Future is a Cruel Hoax.” Mills, a feminist and environmentalist who wore IUDs as earrings, thought, like many other women of her generation, that their roles could and should expand far beyond motherhood. Yet she presented her decision to forgo reproduction as a sacrifice made for the sake of planetary stability rather than an expression of personal freedom. “I am terribly saddened,” she declared, “by the fact that the most humane thing for me to do is to have no children at all.”
Fifty-two years and roughly four billion people later, we are still asking what it means to seek personal solutions to global environmental problems. The famines and widespread death feared by Mills and the Ehrlichs have not come to pass, at least not in the ways they feared*; now we face the crisis of climate change. Since Mills gave her speech, humans have consumed over 1.37 trillion barrels of oil and emitted over 1.26 quadrillion tons of carbon dioxide. The surface of the earth’s oceans has warmed by more than 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Americans alone have purchased over 8.2 billion cars. Would the planet, and humanity, be better off if fewer people had chosen to have children?
Like Mills, many environmentalists today connect individual reproductive choices and our ability to live sustainably on this planet. At house parties organized across the country by the activist network Conceivable Future, people hash out difficult questions among like-minded peers: What kind of world would my child be born into? Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, an associate professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College, estimates that at least 12.5 million Americans, some calling themselves BirthStrikers or GINKs (Green Inclination, No Kids), have forgone parenthood at least in part because of concerns about a future child’s existence on a burning planet and “the carbon footprint of procreation.” New York congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has asked, in light of climate change, “Is it OK still to have children?”
Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of Our World by Daniel Sherrell, an organizer who helped lead the campaign to pass a critical 2018 climate justice bill in New York state, is an epistolary memoir to an as-yet-unborn child, written in part to justify Sherrell’s desire to bring a child into a world beset by climate change. “Should I have you, and risk putting you in harm’s way?” he writes. “Or should I not, and prevent there ever being a ‘you’ to be harmed?” Sherrell, who ultimately recognizes that his decision to have a child “had taken shape prior to and underneath any conscious deliberation,” acknowledges, unlike many BirthStrikers, that the ability to make a choice is a privilege:
Framing it as a decision ignores the many people throughout history for whom procreation was never a choice. The women who had their reproductive freedom seized by men. The families who needed children for labor, who would have starved without them.
In comparison, I have real options.
In On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change, Jade Sasser, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside, shows how environmental activists and scientists have used the urgency of climate change to call for reducing population numbers in the Global South as part of the effort to slow global warming. Drawing on two years of fieldwork with NGO workers, government employees, volunteers, activists, and donors, Sasser chronicles a resurgent Malthusianism, which she calls “populationism,” dressed in progressive-sounding terms such as “empowerment,” “human rights,” and “reproductive justice.” Populationists are never so crass as to express support for outright population controls to save our ravaged planet. Rather, she writes, populationism suggests that one can uphold Malthus’s and his followers’ central claim that there are natural limits to the earth’s ability to sustain human life, and that human numbers threaten those limits and must be decreased, while also supporting human rights and international development solutions as the right strategies to slow growth.
According to this view, whose proponents include the environmentalist Bill McKibben and the philosopher Peter Singer, technological solutions such as renewable energy or geoengineering will not suffice to avert catastrophic climate change as long as humanity keeps growing. In 2016, Sasser notes, three bioethicists published an article in which they deemed population engineering “a practical and morally justifiable means to help ameliorate the threat of climate change.” Environmental groups, too, have seized on this link between population and climate change, making it a central part of their work training youth activists, who are drawn to its neat logic: more funding for family planning ensures women get access to contraception, and fewer people on the earth means smaller carbon footprints and less damage to the environment.
As Sasser recounts, until recently population control was a widely accepted goal, premised on the theory that the earth could sustain only certain numbers of given species. Modern population science grew out of game management, notably the conservationist Aldo Leopold’s analysis of the population of Kaibab deer in Arizona, which in the 1920s rose dramatically and then collapsed. Leopold and others expanded Malthus’s proposition that the number of humans would outpace their ability to feed themselves into a more complex notion of ecological connectedness that accounted for the ways animals, plants, and humans interact.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, this ecological aspect of population thinking, along with advances in communication technologies, the acceleration of global trade, and the devastation of World War I, gave rise to the notion that all humankind, irrespective of national origin, shares what the agricultural biologist Edward East called “this little terraqueous globe.” Proponents of neo-Malthusianism had different reasons for supporting measures aimed at controlling both population size and the quality of population “stock.” The liberal economist John Maynard Keynes emphasized population stabilization as a necessary condition for peace and prosperity, Margaret Sanger fought for birth control so women could escape poverty, the racist eugenicist Prescott F. Hall argued that allowing immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe into the US would “sterilize all strata of higher social and economic levels,” and the anticolonial eugenicist Radhakamal Mukerjee worried that without intervention the “inferior social strata” would become the majority of India’s growing population.
In the 1950s and 1960s population control measures increased, backed by new sources of funding and new motivations. The United States developed institutions for the study of demography (notably at the Princeton University Office of Population Research) and channeled funding for contraception research and distribution abroad through aid agencies and government loan packages. In the 1970s and early 1980s donor agencies, USAID chief among them, pressured the Bangladeshi government to ramp up its sterilization campaign, which used financial incentives, including money, a sari or a lungi, and a card that entitled the holder to food relief. The sterilization rate rose dramatically ahead of the harvest season, when hunger was at its most pronounced. In the same period, hundreds of family planning surveys were conducted around the world to measure (and, in the historian Michelle Murphy’s interpretation, create) demand for contraception, an undertaking described by the libertarian economist Julian Simon as “surely the largest worldwide market research job ever done.”
Governments around the world, most notably China, embraced theories of economic development that championed small families. Susan Greenhalgh, a professor emerita at Harvard, observes that Chinese officials realized that other countries would see China’s willingness to curb its population growth as a demonstration of its “keen sense of responsibility toward the world and its embrace of an ethics of global-mindedness” given widespread concern about population and environmental degradation. In 1983, the same year China’s government launched its nationwide sterilization campaign, the country’s birth minister received the first United Nations Population Award. The other recipient that year was Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had overseen a mass sterilization program. The prize recognized “their vision and foresight in responding to the formidable challenge of controlling population growth.”
The extreme measures taken by China, India, and other countries account for the current association of the term “population” with coercive regimes of sterilization, forced abortion, and other human rights abuses. At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, feminists from across the Global South articulated a new relationship between population and development centered around sexual and reproductive rights and women’s empowerment. This shift, which cast the choice to have children as a human right, precipitated a notable drop in foreign aid for family planning, which fell from $975 million a year (adjusted for inflation) at its peak in the mid-1990s to around $600 million ever since. “When the immediacy of crisis thinking about ‘overpopulation’ dissipated after the Cairo conference, attention and funding priorities turned to global AIDS prevention and treatment,” Sasser writes. “Many in the population sector have been seeking to restore population to its former funding prominence within global health ever since.”
Then came climate change, which is almost always discussed by scientists and environmental advocates in the language of urgency, crisis, and apocalypse. In 2017 the Alliance of World Scientists issued a “Warning to Humanity” about global warming for the second time in the organization’s history, repeating its appeal to stabilize population: “We are jeopardizing our future…by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.” Population Matters, a UK-based nonprofit, warns on its website that “further temperature rises will have a devastating impact and more action on greenhouse gas emissions is urgently required. Population and climate change are inextricably linked.” One hears echoes, in both tone and message, of the Ehrlichs’ opening proclamation in The Population Bomb: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over…hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”
Population control, long taboo, is emerging from the shadows because, some argue, the crisis of climate change—like the threat of famine a half-century ago—demands it. As governments stepped back from family planning, private foundations and donors have taken their place. Sasser casts doubt on new scientific models advanced by these foundations that link population numbers and climate change: “There is not, and never has been, a single, evidence-based model that has successfully calculated or predicted the global environmental impact of human numbers alone.” Yet this has not stopped some activists from pursuing the connection. She describes a highly motivated former donor at a Silicon Valley foundation who, through an NGO in Washington, D.C., located a scientist who could give her what she wanted: persuasive models detailing the impact of population growth on greenhouse gas emissions.
At youth advocacy trainings and workshops run by the Sierra Club, Sasser watched program leaders dismiss attendees’ attempts to bring up population control’s “dark past,” and repeatedly encountered a reductive image of women in the Global South as poor and endlessly fertile. Sasser doubts that the mostly white, mostly young American women learning to advocate for more family planning funding have much familiarity with their supposed beneficiaries. At a multiday training session held by the Sierra Club’s now-defunct Global Population Environment Program, Sasser talked with the young woman seated next to her, an enthusiastic hiker and nature lover:
“Look at the packaging we use every day,” she noted. “These water bottles will be on the earth forever. Forever!” I agreed, and asked how she saw the connection with reproductive health and family planning in the Global South. She hesitated for a moment, then said, “Well, I’ve never been outside of the US, so I don’t really know. But if it helps women have access to health care, it’s a good idea.”
The argument that reducing human populations will help curb climate change has obvious appeal, but it overlooks several inconvenient and obvious facts. One is that people consume at almost comically disparate levels, although rising living standards in developing countries, particularly among those countries’ elites, will lead to increased consumption. The per-capita carbon footprint of an American citizen was 16.16 tons in 2017, compared with 0.15 tons for the average citizen of Madagascar, where Sasser has spent time researching family-planning interventions by conservation groups. Furthermore, the parts of the world where consumption is highest are also where fertility has fallen to or below the replacement rate, but rather than cheer this trend, policymakers are desperate to reverse it, motivated by fears of a shrinking workforce and underfunded pension systems, as well as, in some cases, a fierce ethnonationalism that recalls Theodore Roosevelt’s century-old warning against “race suicide.” These contradictory concerns exemplify the insidious notion that, in Murphy’s words, “some must not be born so that future others might live more abundantly.”
Today’s interventions to address “overpopulation” do not involve force or coercion; they are rooted instead in ideas about choice, autonomy, and responsibility. Sasser criticizes this concept, which she calls “sexual stewardship,” since it creates a stereotype of women in the Global South as victims of their countries’ sexism and their biology, for whom birth control brings “empowerment,” allowing them to pursue education and employment. According to this view, poor women’s use of contraception “will not only improve women’s social status, it will potentially solve problems for the entire world.” Responsibility for preventing ecological crisis lies with women and their wombs; men hardly figure into it at all.
Sasser’s observations of how family planning programs operate in low-resource communities are invaluable. As she has written elsewhere, environmental groups that provide family planning services sometimes fail to meet the health needs of the communities they serve, which is not altogether surprising since their primary goal is conservation. At one mobile clinic in coastal Madagascar, a woman arrived with an infected birth control implant that needed to be removed. She was referred to the nearest hospital, which was a full day’s trip away and would cost approximately a month’s wages to reach. Another young woman told Sasser’s cowriter Merrill Baker-Médard that she had a contraceptive implant but planned on having children when it “wore off” the next year; apparently she hadn’t been told or didn’t fully understand that it would need to be removed before she could get pregnant.
As Sasser notes, the distance between the intentions of idealistic advocates who talk about women’s empowerment and the women they claim to be helping is vast. She describes the varied opinions of those she met overseas:
During my encounters with women, I often asked about their babies, and what they meant to them. The answers were diverse and multifaceted: they told me that babies were sources of joy, of familial and cultural continuity. For some of the women, babies would solidify their position within new marriages, satisfying husbands’ and in-laws’ expectations. For many, they would solidify their position within the community as mothers, an important status to hold among other women…. Above all, babies symbolized their hopes for the future.
Not everyone, of course, wants babies right away, and many would undoubtedly benefit from better access to contraception. But Sasser’s larger point stands. Perhaps the most unintentionally funny part of the book is her analysis of the misuse of the term “reproductive justice” by populationists. Marisa, one of the leaders of the Sierra Club’s Global Population Environment Program, tells Sasser that the “youth really appreciated” hearing about the relation between population and justice, even though populationists have no direct interest in fighting against racism or for civil rights; adding the word “justice,” she tells Sasser, “sort of [made] people feel comfortable with these issues.”
Sasser understands Marisa’s goal and acknowledges that her own undergraduate students are hungry for social justice and eager to embrace anything seen to further its aims. But the deployment of “justice” in service of populationism is particularly egregious. The concept of reproductive justice was developed by feminists of color, who grounded it in “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities”—a right historically denied to women of color. To use the term to describe or justify programs that discourage women from reproducing because of, say, their proximity to particular landscapes shifts the focus away from larger forces wreaking havoc on the environment, placing the blame on individuals instead. For example, Blue Ventures, a marine conservation group that works along Madagascar’s biodiverse west coast, highlights the role of “anthropogenic stressors” on sensitive coastal environments, and to that end runs family planning programs in coastal communities. But which is the bigger threat to Madagascar’s coastline, large local families or the global demand for seafood that routes most of the country’s catch to export markets?
Even if people everywhere were granted full reproductive autonomy, the capacity to use that freedom is no longer a given, having come under threat from climate change and harmful chemicals. In Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race, Shanna Swan documents the ways human and animal reproductive capacities are dwindling thanks to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs.
The endocrine system consists of a number of organs that communicate with one another via the chemical messengers known as hormones. EDCs mimic or interfere with the functioning of hormones, such as estrogen or testosterone, in a variety of ways: binding to receptor sites and tricking the body into generating too much or too few hormones, redirecting hormones from their biological tasks, or affecting the way they are broken down or stored in the body, changing how much is present in the bloodstream.
The effects can be particularly dramatic if such disruption takes place in utero, especially in earlier stages of fetal development. In one well-known example, when the synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) was given to pregnant women in the 1940s through 1960s to prevent miscarriage, it caused some “DES daughters” to later develop a rare vaginal cancer or to be born with severe deformities in their own reproductive systems. Today, humans are subject to ongoing, low-level exposure to EDCs through everyday materials such as makeup, furniture (which often contains flame retardants), and clothing (pesticides used on cotton plants can persist after harvesting and processing).
Swan, a professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, has been investigating links between environmental toxicity and human reproduction for thirty years. She made headlines with a 2017 metastudy, cowritten with Hagai Levine, an Israeli epidemiologist, showing that sperm counts in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand had dropped by roughly 50 percent between 1973 and 2011. Count Down, written with Stacey Colino, a science reporter, is an alarming compendium of research in this field. The findings from Swan and her colleagues suggest that if we continue to use industrial chemicals at current rates, we could plasticize and nonstick and flame-retard ourselves into a state of near sterility.
Just as poor people of color tend to be most vulnerable to climate change, these groups are also the most exposed to dangerous chemicals. Phthalates, which the authors describe as “a large, diverse class of chemicals,”
are found in plastic and vinyl, floor and wall coverings, medical tubing and medical devices, and toys, as well as in a vast array of personal-care products (including nail polishes, perfumes, hair sprays, soaps, shampoos, and others).
Phthalates and other chemicals have varied effects on health, and men and women may react to them differently. The people most at risk from chemical exposure are renters who may not have a choice about the synthetic carpet or vinyl siding that comes with their house, or anyone who can’t afford to buy organic cotton sheets and stainless-steel cookware.
A study of 1,710 pregnant women in Greenland, Ukraine, and Poland linked higher blood levels of two pesticides with a “significantly higher” chance of pregnancy loss. Human males whose mothers were exposed to phthalates during weeks eight to twelve of their pregnancy were born with smaller penises and shorter anogenital distances (AGD) than expected for boys of a similar size. (Anogenital distance is defined by Swan as “the span from the anus to the base of the penis, which is significant because research has shown that a shorter AGD correlates with a lower sperm count and a smaller penis.”) In a 2003 study Swan found that men living near farmland in rural central Missouri had half as many moving sperm as those in urban Minneapolis, which she links to the Missourians’ higher exposure to herbicides and insecticides. Infertility may no longer be a private tragedy but something we must contend with collectively.
Swan and Colino also describe disturbing trends across nonhuman species. Baby female alligators in Florida’s Lake Apopka, the site of a major pesticide spill, were found to have estrogen levels nearly twice as high as those living in an uncontaminated lake; young male alligators had “abnormally small penises” and “poorly organized seminiferous tubules,” the part of the testicles where spermatogenesis takes place. Unsurprisingly, the hatching rate for alligators at Lake Apopka was just 5 percent, compared to a typical rate of 85 percent at uncontaminated lakes.
Though the warnings in Count Down about the dangers of industrial chemicals evoke Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s best-selling 1962 exposé of pesticides’ effects on the environment, its tone is markedly different. In contrast to Carson’s poetic depiction of a blighted future, Swan and Colino’s prose is punchy and jocular, sometimes jarringly so. Sperm are referred to as “little swimmers,” a finding on the presence of nine types of microplastic particles in human stool is prefaced with the warning “Cringe alert,” and a section on the effects of cigarettes on fertility is titled “Smoke Gets into Your Private Parts.”
It should also be noted that while sperm counts in men are easier to measure than other indicators of fertility, they are also, perhaps, the most sensational. A recent paper criticizing Swan and Levine’s 2017 metastudy notes that “male infertility is a complex biological and social phenomenon that cannot be understood in terms of the single metric of sperm count,” warning that their choice to compare “Western” men with men from “other” countries “situates men’s bodies and environments labelled ‘Western’ as exemplary, natural, and now imperiled.” This approach may make Swan’s work appealing to men’s rights activists who push conspiracy theories that equate Western feminism with emasculation, as well as ethnonationalist supporters of the “great replacement” theory that white citizens in Western countries will be supplanted by hyperfertile immigrants of color.
Despite this, the book is full of solid science, with detailed, clear explanations and proposals for how to reduce the harm caused by common chemicals. Although she discusses the need for more stringent chemical regulations in the US, pointing to efforts in the EU as a model, she offers what is essentially a series of wellness tips to enhance fertility (avoid smoking and second-hand smoke, remove any synthetic carpeting from your home, don’t be obese) in lieu of suggestions for effective collective action. Swan provides a short list of nongovernmental organizations working on consumer protection and research into toxic chemicals, as well as suggestions for further reading, but I was left feeling that it’s nearly impossible to bridge the gap between the scale of the problem and our ability to address it.
Swan’s focus on sperm counts has had the welcome effect of highlighting men’s role in reproduction, which has typically been perceived as a woman’s job. There have been some exceptions: during the seventeenth century, Louis XIV, fearing France’s population was on the decline, targeted men by offering financial rewards—“concessions and privileges”—to fathers with ten to twelve children. But today’s populationism creates a unique burden for women, who, Sasser writes, are the ones “assumed to be fertile, reproducing beings.” In linking women’s reproductive decisions to climate change, she argues, populationists cast the choice to have children as “never individual, never free from the weight of potential environmental catastrophe—and thus never free from a duty to reproduce responsibly.” One wonders what is lost when so many individuals invite this burden on themselves, agonizing over having a wanted child or forgoing parenthood entirely in an effort to stave off global catastrophe.
Just as importantly, we might also ask how many people needlessly suffer from infertility due to climate change and our indiscriminate use of toxic chemicals. Women in coastal Bangladesh are reporting higher rates of miscarriage, which has been linked to the increased salinity of their drinking water caused by sea-level rise; children of pesticide applicators are born with higher rates of birth defects; rising pollution is correlated with an increase in infertility, and exposure to extreme heat has also been associated with reduced fertility. In such conditions, the prospect of reproductive “choice” becomes moot. Unlike the middle-class American activists choosing childlessness, in these vulnerable populations—as well as in countries all around the world where infertility is on the rise and sperm counts are on the decline—childlessness is choosing them.
Several years ago I interviewed Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli of Conceivable Future, the group that organizes house parties where people gather to discuss their complicated feelings about children and climate change. “This is a collective problem that’s being treated as an individualistic thing,” Kallman told me. “You can recycle till your face falls off. Like, I could literally kill myself—remove myself from the carbon equation—and we would be no closer to solving the climate crisis than if I had not.”
A problem that is global in scale will never be solved solely by individual behavioral change; it takes a movement of people working together to target governments and large corporations. Perhaps Stephanie Mills realized this as well. In 1984, fifteen years after she renounced parenthood in her valedictory address, Mills told a reporter from United Press International that she had changed her mind. She “would certainly consider having children.” She was working at an environmentally focused college, and there was a man in her life, she said. Although she didn’t know if their relationship would lead to marriage and children, if it did, she told the reporter, “I will rejoice.”
Since the 1960s, more deaths from famine have been caused by warfare than by environmental exhaustion. See Charles Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World (Vintage, 2019). ↩