Making the Population Problem

Knowing and Representing Others: Making the
Population Problem
In June, 2010, I sat in a shiny office conference room with 30 other training
participants listening to a series of Sierra Club staff and volunteers giving PowerPoint
presentations. We were at the Club’s San Francisco headquarters attending a Global
Population Environment Program (GPEP)-led advocacy training, the “Western
Regional Advocacy Training on Population and the Environment”. This was not my
first training of its kind; over the prior year of fieldwork, I had participated in a series
of these gatherings across the USA. Each training followed the same style and format:
3 days of facts, figures and statistics, interspersed with role plays, values clarification
exercises, and an endless flow of PowerPoint presentations, all designed to demonstrate
the importance of advocating for international population policy as a strategy
of environmental sustainability. At this particular event, we were told that some of
the training participants had visited communities in Ethiopia, Madagascar, and India
on GPEP “study tours”, and had come to share their impressions, photos and stories
with us. Study tours are organized in conjunction with Sierra Club’s partner environmental
organizations that operate programs overseas, typically taking American activists
to visit integrated population–health–environment programs4 in order to observe
how they function on the ground. A Sierra Club website describes study tours thus:
[participants] “learn about the connections among environmental conservation, population
growth, and access to voluntary family planning services. Upon their return, they
become proactive messengers in their communities in support of international family
planning and sustainable development policies. These trips provide dedicated population
activists with the opportunity to experience first-hand some of the very programs
for which they have advocated for years.”5
What the site does not say is that these tours serve as a crucial recruitment tool
for advocacy efforts: being able to connect statistical data to images and stories of
From Darkness Into Light 1249
© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
on-the-ground population–environment work is a key component of gaining and
sustaining advocates’ enthusiasm.6
Renée, a white woman from a Southern California Club chapter, opened the
meeting with a presentation fromher week-long trip to Madagascar. A bucolic image
of a rural village, surrounded by terraced rice fields and homes made of mud, dung
and spindly tree branches, sprang to life on the screen as Renée described the beauty
of the Malagasy landscape. The next image was that of a Malagasy family: a darkskinned,
haggard woman surrounded by children of various ages and sizes, some
holding smaller children; the smallest child an infant, face smudged,mucous streaming
from his nose; all in tattered clothing, hair unkempt. Gasps and murmurs were
heard around the room as the image struck its intended chord. Renée spoke about
how women in communities like this one have few choices to limit their childbearing,
due to poverty, lack of education, and gender inequality. “Because they are poor, and
don’t have education, women have a lot of babies”, she told us. “It’s about a lack of
choice.” She followed by extolling the benefits of family planning, arguing that when
given access to tools, women andmen choose to limit the size of their families, which
has a ripple effect in other areas, including women’s empowerment and the environment.
If there were fewer children in this family, she argued, their parents would be
better equipped to provide them with healthy, nutritious food, and the girl children
could go to school.
Central to advocacy practices like Renée’s are specific strategies of representation,
including the production and dissemination of images, statistics, stories and other
“facts” reinforcing a narrow concept of nature as under threat, and poor global South
women as target audiences available for development interventions. In the case of
population–environment advocacy, contrasting ideas are circulated, producing
notions ofwomen’s fertility in different regions of the world as both radically different,
and yet potentially universally the same. Statistical data on individual fertility trends,
photographic images, stories of “on the ground” conditions and demographic
models depicting rapid population growth are invoked to reinforce the belief that
the fertility ofwomen in global South countries, particularly Africa and Asia, is different
from that of women in the USA. At the same time, these data are also invoked as
evidence that women’s fertility could be universally the same, if only global South
women had universal and voluntary access to contraceptives.
The images in Renee’s presentation reflect a longstanding practice in the development
community: that of using visual imagery to stand in as a representation of
population growth and poverty in the global South. Ranging from pictures of large,
teeming crowds, mothers surrounded by babies, cartoon drawings of hordes of
people hanging from the edges of a beleaguered earth, and masses of dark bodies
swarming around food aid packages, these images have become well recognized
icons that represent the “population problem”. In the 1960s and 1970s, these images
were often seen on the covers of popularmagazines and full-page spreads in newspapers;
today, the image of the anonymous, teeming crowd continues to serve as the
iconic focal point of advocacy materials and special issues of environmental magazines.
Yet the basicmessage of the images remains unchanged over the course of time:
populations are still growing, but they are only certain populations: people of color,
often overwhelmingly poor and foreign.
1250 Antipode
© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
What is the purpose of these images, beyond an indexical description of the
population “problem”? One purpose is to mobilize resources and broader support;
hearts andminds can bewon through images, at timesmore effectively than through
recitations of statistics and other data.7 Wellmeaning advocates draw on these images
and the narratives they invoke as a strategic effort to create a compelling link between
the coldness of quantitative data and the visceral reality of what those data mean in
the world—such as those utilized in Renee’s presentation. It is this link that serves as
the key linchpin in developing advocacy messages, particularly those proposing
solutions, such as access to contraceptives and other components of development
projects. At the same time, using these images can decontextualize bodies and
histories, lifting them out of time and space. These images become reference points
for a set of abstract ideas, grounded through the stories told by the storyteller, and
de-linked from the material conditions of those being viewed.
In his analysis of the media-driven consumption of violence as public spectacle,
Feldman (1994) describes “generalities of bodies—dead, wounded, starving, diseases
and homeless … pressed against the screen as mass articles. In their pervasive
depersonalization, this anonymous corporeality functions as an allegory of the
“elephantine”, “archaic”, and violent histories of external and internal subalterns”
(1994:407). Malkki (1996) argues similarly that images of masses of refugees serve
as a form of standardizing representational practice which works to dehistoricize
and decontextualize specific refugee experiences. She argues that “mobile representations
are often very easily translated and shared across nation-state borders” in ways
that serve to systematically silence those who are depicted (386). As a result, visual
representation comes to serve as a “singularly translatable and mobile mode of
knowledge” in which “pictures of refugees are now a key vehicle in the elaboration
of a transnational social imagination of refugeeness” (387). Particularly in images
depicting large groups of people, a spectacle of “raw”, or “bare” humanity, individual
stories become irrelevant as images come to speak for themselves as representative of
a particular category of person: “in their overpowering philanthropic universalism, in
their insistence on the secondariness and unknowability of details of specific histories
and specific cultural or political contexts, such forms of representation deny the very
particulars that make of people something other than anonymous bodies, merely
human beings” (388–389).
Depictions of “the masses” also preclude any understanding of poverty, gender
inequality, and power. This is particularly salient in the context of pictures
depicting “population”, “population growth”, or “the population problem”. When
“population growth” is reduced to a flat, two-dimensional image, it is abstracted from
any context within histories of colonization, or contemporary webs of relations in
which global capitalism and patriarchy give rise to conditions that maintain population
trends. At the same time, race and gender remain unproblematized in these
images: population growth is the domain of the poor, the racially coded, the environmentally
problematic actor. Images of black and brown bodies, proliferating rapidly
and filling up crowded images of urban chaos,mark a striking absence—that of white
bodies. In the racial politics of population imagery, the “crisis” on display is one of a
world which is rapidly filling with people of color- regardless of the intention of the
image producer. In the case of Renee, for example, the image of the impoverished
From Darkness Into Light 1251
© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
Malagasy family is meant to stand as emblematic of a development problem in
which women and families are victimized both by poverty and by lack of access to
contraceptives. Yet, the images themselves eschew a focus on larger scale structural
forces driving population trends and rural poverty in Madagascar, and instead place
ownership squarely on the shoulders—and uteruses—of dark-skinned women. Race,
as an uncritiqued marker of bodily difference, thus stands as an assumed marker of
social difference, replicating racialized assumptions that have historically circulated
throughout the development discourse on population.
Simultaneously, some development actors are engaged in circulating new understandings
of population interventions through the lens of social justice. Working at
the nexus of international population debates and domestic framings of environmental
and reproductive justice, these actors and their work raise questions about the
flexibility of race within the population narrative—and whether it can be shifted from
a problem to a solution for development programs.

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