Dark Narratives: Population, Environment, and
The immediate post-World War II period witnessed an explosion of environmental
narratives identifying population growth in the global South as a threat to ecological
stability and a key driver of global environmental problems—an exemplar of the
convergence of two forms of knowledge: changing notions of the biological basis of
race, and the return ofMalthusian arguments. In the early twentieth century, eugenic
thinking served as a key lens through which race was understood in the USA, with
prestigious scientific eugenics societies promoting the concept that phenotypic traits,
as well as social traits and characteristics, were genetically transmitted (Krimsky and
Sloan 2011). At the same time, eighteenth-century Malthusian ideas describing
population growth as a key threat to global food production came to the fore as a
key component of twentieth century international development debates, particularly
in the 1940s and 1950s, when Northern elites began to invoke racial fears over
resource shortages in the wake of decolonization in the global South (Linner 2004).
Two American authors at the timewere particularly influential in linking population
growth among the poor with what they saw as impending global environmental
catastrophe, ranging from global warming to widespread famine, deforestation,
and loss of biodiversity. Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet (1948) referred to
man as a “geological force” ruining the earth through unrestrained population
growth and poor stewardship practices. The same year, William Vogt published Road
to Survival (1948). In it, he argued:
“the lot of each…is completely dependent on his or her global environment, and each one
of them in greater or less degree influences that environment. One common denominator
controls their lives: the ratio between human populations and the supply of natural
resources, with which they live, such as soil, water, plants, and animals” (1948:14).
Vogt was not solely concerned with making ecological arguments; he was also
interested in influencing international population policy. Calling on political leaders
to intervene in rapid population growth in the global South, he charged that,without
such intervention, “there is little probability thatmankind can long escape the searing
downpour of war’s death from the skies”, leading to a state of global chaos in which
“at least three-quarters of the human race will be wiped out” (1948:17). Vogt also
recommended that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) integrate population
control into its conservation and food production programs through measures
including denying food aid to India and China, since such aid would “keep alive ten
million Indians and Chinese this year, so that fifty million may die five years hence”
While much of Vogt’s book reads as a polemic, it is also important to note that he
located his arguments at the nexus of science and policy, and he used the neo-
Malthusian population–environment framework as a basis for advocating changes
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© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
to international development. His work, like Osborn’s, paved the way for other
environmentalists to write about population through the lens of social difference
rooted in poverty. Garett Hardin’s essay on “Lifeboat ethics” (1974) invoked a harsh
ethical approach to analyzing the earth’s carrying capacity, arguing that all people
on earth do not have “an equal right to an equal share of [earth’s] resources” (38).
Instead, likening wealthy nations of the world to a lifeboat floating on a sea
surrounded by an ocean of the poor, he advocated an “ethics of a lifeboat” in which
the equitable sharing of food and other resources is impossible. Following Vogt,
Hardin made a plug for authoritarian regulation of human fertility, arguing that
“without a true world government to control reproduction and the use of available
resources, the sharing ethic … is impossible” (1974:126). Paul Ehrlich, however,
extended neo-Malthusian arguments to identify not just populations, but particular
bodies, as environmentally dangerous. In his now famous description of what he
described as a “frightening” taxi ride through an urban center in India, Ehrlich invoked
the sense of being overwhelmed by bodies everywhere:
“As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area…the streets seemed
alivewith people. People eating, peoplewashing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing
and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People
defecating and urinating … People, people, people.” (Ehrlich 1968:1).
At the heart of the policy-oriented “degradation narratives” (Hartmann 2006;
Hartmann and Hendrixson 2005) promoted by Ehrlich, Vogt, Osborn and Hardin is
a logic that identifies both poverty and natural resource shortages as the result of a
surplus of bodies. But which bodies were they talking about? Bandarage’s (1997,
1999) analysis of population crisis rhetoric demonstrates that struggles for independence
from colonization across the global South gave rise to a reframing of the significance
of colonial populations in the North. While a range of policies were introduced
across colonial nations to boost the size of colonial labor forces, after independence,
the resulting population booms were recharacterized as threatening, dangerous,
and potential drivers of neo-Malthusian food shortages (Bandarage 1997, 1999). US
leaders in particular looked at these demographic trends with apprehension, framing
population “crisis” as a threat to geopolitical security thatwould spurworldwide food
shortages and swell the ranks of communist adherents (Linner 2004). Reports
commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 predicted widespread famines to
plague wide swaths of Asia in the 1970s, swelling to engulf other poor nations in
Africa and Latin America by the 1980s. In the same year, the State Department’s
special assistant for population suggested the development of a global population
control program at a cost of $150 million, or more with the inclusion of payments
and other incentives (Connelly 2008:255). These concerns did not stop at a focus
on food; they were used to ground narratives of global South population booms as
threats to the geopolitical security of the US and other wealthy nations, both through
internationalmigration and through potential resource shortage-drivenwars. Population
growth increasingly came to be viewed by American policymakers as linked
through a trinity of concerns focused on population, environment, and security, an
often racialized framework which in part drove the construction of international
population policy (Hartmann 1999).
© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
What did these policy concerns have to do with race? One answer can be found in
Foucault’s analysis of race as a particular concern of biopolitics (1978, 1997).
Biopolitics itself is a manifestation of particular forms of state power focused on the
preservation of the life of the populace through the surveillance, management,
regulation and control of the population at the level of the body. As Foucault argues,
at the nexus of “the population” and “the body” is sex itself, thus rendering the
surveillance and regulation of sexuality, fertility and reproduction a central concern
of state and other actors concerned with population “problems”. He defines
biopolitics in part thus: “Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population
as political problem, as a problemthat is at once scientific and political, as a biological
problem and as power’s problem” (1997:245). If biopolitics is concerned with the
management and regulation of life, however, racism exerts the opposite effect.
Foucault defines racismas a “break” in the exercising of power over life; it is a break
between “what must live and what must die” (1997:254). It functions as a means
of positing the life of one group as predicated upon the death, or non-life, of the other.
This point, he argues, was founded on the base of war, the notion of self-preservation
as predicated on the non-existence of “threatening” others. It is a particular kind of
logicwhich says that the death of the other willmake life healthier and purer. Foucault
describes this as a biological relationship rather than amilitary or political one, as those
identified as “enemies who have to be done away with” are defined as “threats … to
the population and for the population” (1997:256). In this framing, racism makes
killing not just possible, but “acceptable only if it results … in the elimination of the
biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race” (1997:256). It is
the precondition for exercising the right to kill, in both direct and indirect ways,
through exposing some to death, increasing the risk of death for some, or through
While population–environment advocacy does not call for the killing of racially
different populations, it can be understood as calling for the selective suppression
of life through restrictive food aid policies, withholding medical care to rapidly
growing populations, and forced restrictions on fertility—views that found their
way into more mainstream environmentalist approaches over the twentieth
century. However, the politics of population advocacy, as well as racial politics,
operating at ENGOs have changed over time. The harsh realities of human rights
abuses enacted in the name of population control began to give population policy
advocacy a distinctly unsavory reputation in the latter half of the twentieth century
(Connelly 2008), while international controversies over abortion politics further
eroded funding support for population interventions across organizations in the
1980s and 1990s (Connelly 2008; Goldberg 2009), causing a number of ENGOs
to discontinue their population policy work (Sasser 2009). At the same time,
community activists of color in the USA began to mobilize campaigns for environmental
justice explicitly as a means of combating environmental racism, priorities
which mainstream environmental organizations were heavily critiqued for ignoring
(DeLuca and Demo 2001; DiChiro 2003). Given these histories, many ENGOs in the
1990s would recoil from the socially contentious population debates that could
potentially erode their bases of membership and funding support. The Sierra Club,
however, was headed straight into the fire. The immigration debate was beginning
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© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
to heat up, and for some environmentalists, population–environment was ground
zero for staking out a policy response.
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