Feeling grounded: a gendered view of population control.

Author:Spahn, Elizabeth
Position:Symposium on Population Law

On a slow boat in China, sailing up the Yangtze River, I observed construction beginning on what will soon become the largest dam on the planet.(1) I was on my way to the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing(2) and took the long way around to visit the famous Three Gorges(3) before the Yangtze is dammed.

The parallels between controlling a major river and controlling population are fairly obvious. Damming the river will reduce the danger of devastating floods.(4) In population policy discussions, the danger is often perceived as a "flood of humanity" threatening to overwhelm the planet's resources. A dam can also produce hydroelectric power, which permits industrial and military development, or raise the standard of living. In population policy, controlling the birth rate enables a state to regulate the size of the available labor and military forces, as well as the standard of living.(5)

In China, damming the river and controlling the birth rate go hand in hand. The Three Gorges Dam will limit seasonal flooding, which has periodically devastated crops and human settlements in the past, as well as provide sufficient hydroelectric power to support industrial development along the Yangtze from Shanghai all the way to Met. China is also implementing the "one child policy," which by limiting most couples to one birth, will ensure that sufficient food and other basic resources are available to feed their population.(6)

Both the dam and the one child policy are based on a methodology of control.(7) Control methodology involves a centralized decision maker, like a sovereign state such as China or the United States, or perhaps a multilateral funding agency such as the World Bank, which sets policy targets based on abstract statistical predictors and implements them through technological means.(8) The resulting dislocations to the environment and to the humans who are part of that environment may be viewed as sadly regrettable, but necessary to accomplish the greater good.

Questions regarding either the dam or the one child policy are often met with apocalyptic visions of the alternative. Either we build the dam and limit population, or we will face a revolution by starving masses of hopelessly unemployed people. The rhetorical strategy of population controllers, controlistas as feminists dub them, involve two related techniques. First, the appeal is created in highly emotional terms by exaggerating the dire consequences if the preferred method is not chosen. Second, the use of either/or dichotomies reinforces the sense that the dire consequences are inevitable unless the controlling method is used.

In a classic example of Malthusian rhetorical technique,(9) the Chinese government defended its one child policy in two White Papers. China stated that it had only two alternatives in handling its population policy: implementing the one child policy or allowing blind growth in births. As one commentator explains, limiting the issue to the resolution of these two competing extremes provides support for the Chinese government's choice of policy:

The former choice enables children to be born and grow up healthy and live

a better life, while the latter one leads to unrestrained expansion of

population so that the majority of the people will be short of food and

clothing, while some will even tend to die young. Which of the two pays

more attention to human rights and is more humane? The answer is


The imminence of the impending disaster is articulated in genuinely impassioned terms. As Professor Amartya Sen points out:

Even though Malthus's fears and dire predictions of doom and disaster have

not been vindicated--the world has many times more people today, who are

many times more opulent than in Malthus's time--it would be foolish to

dismiss the concern about the potential for excessive growth of population

given the increases that have already occurred and the continued rapid

increase that is now occurring.(11)

Pessimistic population predictions are often accompanied by a sense of urgency which has an almost frantic quality. Professor Sen describes this as "panic-based reasoning,"(12) and notes that "[g]overnmental interference and forceful population planning have often been advocated by persons seized by panic at the sight of--or the thought of--very large numbers of people and overcome by the reflection that further population growth of any rapidity cannot but end in disaster."(13)

Professor Sen argues that the pessimistic or panicked predictions of some population control advocates have not been substantiated by our actual experiences. The world's death rate has substantially decreased since the 1970s, not increased as Professor Ehrlich predicted.(14) Famines have been most severe in sub-Saharan Africa, which has relatively low levels of population density compared to Asia, but which is "battered by political instability, military dictatorships, and public disorder, which have immobilized economic and social development."(15)

Famine, it appears, is not particularly correlated to population density. The environmental degradation associated with human activity is clearly substantial, but the world's largest polluters are associated with military weaponry and activities,(16) not rural families in less developed countries.

As one commentator exploring these concerns points out:

Perhaps the most pervasive piece of misguided conventional wisdom holds

that rapid population growth leads inevitably to environmental decline.

Intuitively, this proposition makes sense: More humans consume more

resources and generate more waste. A quick look at the data appears to

support this equation.... However ... vast differences in consumption mean

that some populations have a far greater environmental impact than others.

With only 25 percent of the world's people, the industrialized nations of

the North generate nearly three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emissions,

accounting for about half of the manmade `greenhouse' gases in the

atmosphere. So in terms of global climate change, consumption in the North

poses a greater threat than population growth in the South.(17)

Yet advocating female fertility control as if it were the single most significant strain on the environment, or the most efficient and direct method for stabilizing or reducing population, retains a surprising vitality. It is female fertility which is described as a "bomb" with its "explosive" effect threatening the planet's very existence. Actual military pollution, the devastating impact of global arms sales, military maneuvers, and nuclear testing are ignored. Consumerism in industrialized economies and its devastating impact on the environment, while occasionally included in the debates, is not seriously targeted for re-education campaigns. Certainly no one seriously suggests "controlling" the consumer "explosion" in order to save the planet. Yet "controlling" female fertility, bolstered by the militaristic language and imagery of bombs and explosions, continues to carry influence in modern population policy debates.

Control methodology is typically presented as the practical, objective solution to the apocalyptic nightmare alternative of overpopulation, even though data analyses do not particularly or clearly support this view.(18) Apparently, it is not enough to simply explain the various studies regarding human fertility patterns. The resistance to seriously examining alternatives to controlling female reproduction appears to be beyond rational discourse.

A gendered analysis of the methodology of control may therefore be useful in recognizing the patterns of power in play. Once the forms of power play are recognized, it becomes possible to imagine counter-forms, other ways for power to flow, which redirect power into ways perhaps less harsh to the earth and her children.

Examining control strategies from the perspective of the object being controlled rather than the subject doing the controlling is the classic beginning point for gendered analysis. Simone de Beauvoir, in her masterpiece The Second Sex,(19) launched modern feminist theory with exactly that technique. Nearly forty years later, the official theme of the Beijing U.N. Women's Conference was "Looking at the World Through Women's Eyes."(20)

In the case of the dam, we look not only through the eyes of the human and animal populations being displaced, but also through the perspective of the earth, whose weather patterns may be affected by the creation of a lake of that magnitude. In the one child policy, we look through the eyes of the women whose fertility is being controlled.

Once we have grounded ourselves in the perspective of the object rather than the subject,(21) we can then observe the classic sign of a dominance power game in play: the use of formalist dichotomies(22) such as either/or. Either build the dam, or hoards of starving people will revolt. Either lower female fertility rates, or the planet will be crushed. The charm of formal dichotomies, of course, is their simplicity: black or white, easy to grasp, great for sound bites.

As those of us who have been through the joys of the Socratic method in law school know all too well, the use of formal dichotomies is classically paired with the slippery slope technique: if this, then that, and that. The next thing you know the sky has fallen. Apocalypse now. If no dam, then revolution. If no population control, then obliteration.

The key to effective slippery slope technique is to present the dire consequence as inevitable, unavoidable, and predestined. In the late twentieth century, this is often accomplished through linear quantitative analysis(23) or religion.

The effect, if not necessarily the purpose, of control methodology is often to preclude dialogue.(24) Control strategies operate through a rigid stance: my way or no way. Alternatives or suggestions regarding other options are understood by the control advocates as insubordinate challenges to...

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