Race, Population and Environmental Advocacy

From Darkness into Light: Race,
Population, and Environmental
Jade Sasser
Department of Women’s Studies, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA, USA;
[email protected]
Abstract: Environmentalists and environmental organizations in the USA have long identified
population growth as a key threat to environmental sustainability at local and global
scales. The neo-Malthusian logics they invoke embed racialized images and categories in defining
population “problems”, yet increasingly social justice language is invoked in population
debates as a “solution” in the context of international development. This article explores the
historical and contemporary characterizations of race as a central component of population–
environment advocacy. It focuses on locations of race narratives in both the conceptualizations
of population growth as an environmental problem, and family planning as a global
solution. Through a critical analysis of the “population justice” framework, I argue that new
discursive approaches attempt to reposition population work as socially just, while eliding
critical analyses of race.
Keywords: population–environment, race, development, justice
In 2009 and 2010, I conducted ethnographic research with a group of American
environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), their community-based
members, and their funders. As disparate as their social and professional positions
were, all members of this loosely organized network were engaged in international
development work focused on slowing global population growth, with most focusing
their efforts on advocating for international population and family planning
policy. Tracking the advocacy practices of this group carried me from the cramped
cubicles of NGO offices to the halls of Congress and the cavernous labyrinth of the
US Agency for International Development (USAID), from the plush inner offices of
private foundations to the sleek conference rooms of research and policy centers. In
one such office, I interviewed a seasoned environmental sustainability advocate who
had long been committed to the project of global population stabilization. We spoke
at length about population–environment organizing in the USA, the twists and turns
of public sentiment on family planning, and generational differences in environmental
priorities. When I asked about the factors that have driven shifts in the popularity of
population advocacy among American environmentalists over time, he unexpectedly
turned the conversation to race:
“Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, there was the climax of hope and expectation that empowerment,
access, etc., would lead population to become sustainable spontaneously.
Then two things went wrong: first, immigration, with the whole Sierra Club controversy.
Antipode Vol. 46 No. 5 2014 ISSN 0066-4812, pp. 1240–1257 doi: 10.1111/anti.12029
© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
It was a huge problem within the Club. It was really, tremendously scary. And second, it
happened at the same time that environmental organizations started being criticized for
being non-diverse, full of elite whites, and for not addressing environmental justice issues
… this played into population–environment issues because we’re measuring and studying
racial, ethnic, and financial differences in population growth and decline among groups.
Suddenly it became extremely sensitive to talk about population. Well meaning groups today
don’t address population. It’s just not a part of the progressive movement because it’s too
freighted with ugliness, like racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. Too many good causes
are not associated at all with thinking about human numbers.”
Similar racial anxieties animated my conversations with other population policy
advocates, who expressed a desire to relegate racial controversy into the “dark past”
of population control,1 and focus on new approaches prioritizing social justice.
During these conversations, race emerged over time as a complex and contradictory
subject, regularly invoked in cautionary tales about the thorniness of American racial
politics, as well as a marker of advances in the development of progressive thinking
and strategizing on international population advocacy. At the same time, race was
often described as a social problem that is external to the relationships between
population, environment, and international population policymaking.
Yet, as Halfon (1997:133) notes, “whether population policies coerce or persuade
or merely provide the resources with which people can make their own reproductive
decisions, attempts to affect the rate of population growth converge on reproductive
behavior—on changing the social, cultural and personal configurations around
bodies. Importantly, the bodies of concern are rarely those of the primarily white,
primarily male, primarily upper- and middle-class (elite) policymakers in the United
States; they are rather the bodies ofwomen, of Third World peoples, and of the poor”.
Environmentalist population advocacy is centrally concerned with constructing narratives
about the relationships between particular populations and natural resource use,
and devising interventions to change those relationships by reducing the number of
people in the population. Whether voluntary or coercive, these interventions have
historically been based on identifying rapidly growing populations in the global South
as productive of environmental problems and resource shortages (Hartmann 1995;
Sandilands 1999), a process in which racialization is central. As such, populations
are marked for intervention not solely on the basis of what they do in the world in
terms of resource use and consumption, but also what they represent in terms of sheer
numbers and their ability to invoke racialized anxieties (Hartmann 2007). Park and
Pellow (2011) describe the ability to regularly access coveted environmental amenities,
from clean air and water, to unpolluted lands and recreational spaces, as an
expression of power which they refer to as environmental privilege. This privilege
accruing to the powerful, they argue, is predicated in part on the existence of the
opposite experience—the environmental injustices experienced by socially marginalized
groups. I argue that a similar dynamic exists in the context of population–
environment narratives, in that the development and circulation of ideas of racialized
populations as environmentally problematic and in need of intervention is reflective of
a particular kind of power possessed by development actors. This power—the power
to develop and circulate construct narratives aboutmarginalized global South others,
From Darkness Into Light 1241
© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
and to have that knowledge serve as the basis of international policy and program
interventions—is predicated both on the prestige of development institutions, as well
as the social marginalization of the people who are the objects of knowledge
(Goldman 2006).
In this article, I argue that racial narratives are deeply embedded in American environmentalist
approaches to international population policy advocacy—but that these
efforts invoke race in complex and contradictory ways. While population discourses
have historically marked racialized bodies and populations as environmental threats,
racialized and gendered bodies occupy a key role in new efforts to reframe advocacy
projects as socially progressive. As such, those marked in population–environment
discourse as racial “others” simultaneously represent both population “problems”
as well as strategic solutions for ENGOs engaged in population work, even as race is
no longer explicitly invoked. In an ironic moment in which scientists are increasingly
returning to discussions of the biological and genetic basis of race (Krimsky and Sloan
2011), these framings mark the reproductive bodies of women of color in the global
South as both global burden and potential salvation.
Drawing on ethnographic and archival data, I investigate the role of race in population–
environment advocacy through a study of the Sierra Club. The Club occupies a
particularly important role in racialized population debates due to a widely publicized
internal conflict that erupted within the organization beginning in the 1990s over the
role of Latino immigration in resource use, changing consumption patterns, and
resulting environmental problems (Park and Pellow 2011). This conflict spurred a
range of effects within the Club, from an explicit refusal to adopt a US policy on
population, even as advocacy on global population policy intensified, to a new
emphasis on “population justice”. This article engages these complexities to analyze
the ways race has shaped American environmentalist narratives and advocacy strategies
on global population growth by tracking it both as a discursive marker of bodily
difference and as an often unacknowledged influence on international development
messaging and policy strategy.
The remainder of the article is organized in four sections. The first section explores
the historical rise of narratives identifying population as an environmental problem
over time, and analyzes the roles of race and racialized populations in these
narratives. The following section tracks the unfolding of an environmentalist-led
American immigration controversy centered on the Sierra Club, and the advocacy
approaches that arose in its wake. In the third section, I investigate the representational
practices involved in constructing the population “problem” as one linked
to dark bodies in global South countries—and family planning as its solution. The
final section investigates the role of race in the “population justice” approach that
positions population issues in the arena of progressive social justice advocacy.
Exploring race in this context is a challenging undertaking, as it usually operates as
an unmarked category in environmentalist discussions of demographic difference.
As such, one of the goals of this article is to render often-invisible discourses and
narratives visible, and to situate them within historical and political context. While
Gilroy (2000) has argued the dangers of a focus on raciology—or the “lore that
brings the virtual realities of ‘race’ to dismal and destructive life”—here I argue that
analyzing the discursive and representational practices that sustain these virtual
1242 Antipode
© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
realities is necessary to rethinking population–environment development programs,
and the advocacy practices that support them.

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