From the Field

Earth Day: Anne Hendrixson breaks down population alarmism

Lindsay Schubiner • Apr 22, 2016
Anne Hendrixson, Hampshire College.

Anne Hendrixson, Hampshire College.

In honor of Earth Day this year, Imagine2050 spoke with Anne Hendrixson, the director of PopDev (the Population and Development Program) at Hampshire College, about the relationship between population and the environment. PopDev was established in 1986, in the heyday of population control, and was intended to advance feminist scholarship and advocacy that was grounded in the international women’s health movement’s resistance to class for population control.

The organized anti-immigrant movement often uses Earth Day as an excuse to foster fear that immigration will cause overpopulation in the United States, creating environmental devastation. We talked to Anne to set the record straight and break down some of these dangerous anti-immigrant narratives.

Population alarmism “plays on people’s fears about the impact of climate change on our lives.”

Anne was PopDev Coordinator from 1996 – 2000, and returned to the program as Assistant Director in 2012. Before coming back to PopDev, she served as the Assistant Director for aids2031, a project commission of UNAIDS to chart a long-term, global response to HIV and also started up several new initiatives for VentureWell, an educational non-profit. Anne works to promote fresh thinking around the links between population and the environment, support transformative integration of reproductive health and HIV/AIDS approaches for all people, and to advocate for contraceptive safety and access.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s the history behind fears about overpopulation? Where does this concern come from?

Concerns about overpopulation are hundreds of years old, dating back to the English economist Thomas Robert Malthus’ 1798 essay arguing that population growth leads to starvation, war, disease, and mass death. This argument was part of Malthus’ broader politics; he opposed welfare, thought poverty was an important check on population growth, supported privatization, and was primarily concerned about population increase among the poor or otherwise “undesirable.”

Eugenicist thinking was also a major influence on the idea of “overpopulation.” Eugenics provided a systematized way of coding who was “appropriate to reproduce,” and who was the source of the “too many people.” Of course poor, black and brown people overwhelmingly represented the “too many people.”

It was after World War II that ideas about overpopulation coalesced. It was a time of decolonization and the rise of the international development industry. The newly decolonized people were framed as “too many,” and the major cause of global instability, resource depletion, environmental degradation and hunger.

Then what’s the real relationship between population, environmental degradation, and climate change?

The first thing to understand is that this relationship is different everywhere. It’s complicated, because people don’t have a default impact on the planet. People can have a positive impact and people can have a negative impact, but it’s not a per capita impact.

In particular, this plays out differently depending on where you are in the world. In the U.S. people consume more than people in most countries, but there’s variation within U.S. residents as well. There’s really no automatic way to calculate human impact.

It’s also essential to consider the structures like corporations and the U.S. military that have outsized impacts on the environment. In fact, it’s possible to trace the majority of cumulative worldwide emissions to just 90 industries, mostly fossil fuel and cement producers. These emissions are not just attached to consumer drive; we have to think about the means by which we create energy and the way things are produced-the politics behind why we’re so reliant on fossil fuels.

It’s important to take the onus off the individual. The political structures we’ve created are what largely determine environmental impacts. But that means that we can also create structural changes that significantly reduce our negative impacts on the environment and get us out of this loop of thinking that we simply have to reduce population.

What do you think when you hear young people talk about refraining from having children because of the environment?

I find it profound because it suggests that our worth as human beings is boiled down to our imaginary carbon footprint, and that the only way we can mitigate our inevitable harm to the planet is by keeping people from existing. That shapes the way we think about human value and human potential, and the ways that we could ever interact with the environment and with each other in the future. It buys into ideas about overpopulation and undermines the opportunities for positive social change to happen.

When we think about the current social and economic arrangements that leave people poor and that don’t allow us to have positive relationships with the environment-the decision to not have children because of the environment implies that these power arrangements are natural and that our existence is unnatural.

What’s the danger in blaming overpopulation for our environmental woes? What are the impacts on communities of color specifically?

I think the biggest danger of blaming overpopulation for environmental problems is that it ignores the real culprits. It shuts down investigation about who’s really causing the environmental crises we’re currently facing.

Our reliance on fossil fuels is supported by corporations and through government, and it comes from all sides of the political spectrum. We also know that the U.S. military is an enormous polluter and that the toxicity of war, of building borders and creating new weapons, is immense.

So first we have to understand the true causes of environmental degradation and climate change and place the responsibility where it truly lies. The second piece of this is that we can’t continue to scapegoat the bodies of people of color, people living in poverty. We can’t allow people to be blamed for environmental problems when they are the least responsible, and we can’t allow the ugly stereotypes and stigma that come along with that blame.

A good example of how these damaging stereotypes play out are the anti-immigrant Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) ads that seem straightforward and caring, but simply blame people who are already marginalized for environmental issues—in this case, they blame immigrants for California’s drought. There’s no truth in laying the blame here, but these ads try, and in doing so, they don’t name the real causes of the drought.

Read: California anti-immigrant group launches Earth Day ads

The way that population alarmism lays blame on marginalized people’s bodies also leads to calls for population control. This looks different today than it did in the heyday of population control that supported forced sterilization campaigns, but it sends the same message that population is responsible for environmental degradation. Dangerously, this message has become a rallying cry in international family planning, which is intended to lessen the impacts of people on the environment. Of course, international family planning has the goal of providing contraceptive services to the black and brown people who are often the lowest consumers globally.

Why is this troubling narrative about overpopulation still so present in the environmental movement? What individuals or organizations are responsible for reinforcing it?

I think this narrative is still so present because it resonates with people in a way that sounds simple and common-sense.

It also resonates with many of the subconscious fears that white people have, including racist fears, fears about changing demographics and the idea of being outnumbered by people of color. This may just be an undercurrent, but it’s often there.

And it plays on people’s fears about the impact of climate change on our lives. This narrative has become deeply entrenched in a self-regulatory way for many people. The idea that we can halt climate change by making the ultimate sacrifice of self, not having children, seems heroic. It can feel like the last rampart against the apocalypse.

Unfortunately, many environmental and policy organizations have chosen to play into fears of overpopulation in order to get people to take climate change seriously. For them, getting policy change has meant using the fear factor.

I think this this overpopulation narrative is also still around because there aren’t a lot of other positive, specific things for people to tap into. Feeling the urgency around climate change but not understanding how to make an impact has warped people’s ideas about what to do. Mainstream environmental organizations have supported this because it’s easier to rely on old tropes than to offer a new vision and concrete ways to get there.

What can we do this Earth Day to push back against population alarmism and for environmental justice, reproductive justice, and racial justice?


A lot of the environmental interventions we’re given are to recycle or consume more greenly. And it’s good to create a lifestyle that respects our ethics. But that doesn’t change the structures that perpetuate climate change and environmental degradation.

I think it’s really about finding the things that tap into your passion and taking on the big issues with a group of people creating a vision in which you want to take part. It’s critical to take on the people who are only offering false solutions that are biased and perpetuate stigma. Don’t accept the seemingly easy solutions; get at the root of the problem, and challenge problematic ideas.

Learn more by visiting the PopDev website.

Here are some additional resources:

If you care about climate change, should you have children?

Family planning and the environment

The “Invisible Casualty of War”: The Environmental Destruction of U.S. Militarism

Is This the Future We Want? The Green Economy vs. Climate Justice

Back from the Brink: Ten Reasons to Challenge the Greening of Hate



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