He ain’t heavy, he’s my . . .

A conversation with a young acquaintance last week helped crystallize the Nonprofiteer’s thinking about her estrangement from the environmental movement.  This interlocutor argued that the most essential form of environmentalism is population control, because we’re approaching (if we haven’t already exceeded) the "carrying capacity" of the planet.  She went on to observe that people in the developing world have numerous children because their children are so vulnerable to early death, implying that population growth in the developing world is the source of Earth’s problems.

The Nonprofiteer is a big supporter of the UN Population Fund and other efforts to make family planning accessible to women in the developing world.  Despite the old development saw "The best birth control is economic development," in fact the best birth control is–birth control; women who are given the opportunity to plan and space their pregnancies virtually always do so. 

But promoting family planning is, for the Nonprofiteer, about promoting individual choice and the empowerment of women.  Discussing the planet’s "carrying capacity" implies that there’s a central bureau somewhere entitled to determine how many people there should be, and that its first task should be to reduce reproduction among poor dark people.  Notwithstanding the planet’s capacity or lack thereof, the speaker herself intends to have children, though each one of her children will use at least four times as many resources as a child born in the developing world.  (According to the World Wildlife Fund, "The average per-capita environmental footprint is 2.2 global hectares per person . . . . while the United States uses 9.6.")

There are plenty of things the developed world can and should do about environmental degradation before advising poor people to stop having babies, though doing so is a time-honored activity of the wealthy.  And it doesn’t strike the Nonprofiteer as an accident that the objections to population growth are directed at people of color, while there is much public weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth about the lack of population growth in Europe and the US.  This, too, is a time-honored strategy of white people: to pretend the planet isn’t big enough for anyone but them.

And that’s why the Nonprofiteer has never been able to engage with environmentalists as fellow fighters for social justice.  Doubtless there are environmentalists who don’t rely on racist assumptions and/or assertions of the right to make other people’s most intimate decisions; she just hasn’t met any.


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