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Why the ‘overpopulation problem’ is an issue of white supremacy

Focusing on population numbers only lays the blame on those who were never responsible for the climate crisis, writes Birth Strike cofounder.

16 Jan 2023

When the eight billionth human was born in November 2022, mainstream media articles argued once again that we don’t talk enough about ‘overpopulation’, and that we’re avoiding the connection between human numbers and escalating climate collapse. Yet, as a former organiser of the campaign group Birth Strike, I know that far from being taboo, the pairing of population and environmental catastrophe underpins most conversations about reproductive choice, the future and the climate. As a woman of colour who went public with my fears of having children in a collapsing society, I’m also intimately aware of the patriarchal, racist and highly individualistic narratives that prop up such discussions.

Birth Strike, a group I co-ran from 2019 until its closure in 2020, sought to bring attention to the urgency of the climate crisis by voicing our fears of raising children in a society heading for destruction. Our aim was to help shift the public understanding of climate collapse in the Global North, from that of a future risk to a present, existential crisis, with far-reaching implications on our lives, including our reproductive choices. The group was founded by singer and activist Blythe Pepino at a time when in this part of the world, public discourse was only beginning to see the climate crisis as an immediate threat. Our manifesto made it clear that our concern wasn’t ‘overpopulation’, but a society that prioritises economic profit over the safety of children. Our point wasn’t that children are ‘bad’ for the environment, but that our society is dangerous for so many children. 

In spite of this, we were repeatedly asked in media interviews about the ‘carbon footprint of a child’, and our ‘choice’ not to bear children was described as ‘a means of fighting global warming’. These reactions were all symptomatic of a certain view of reproduction: one that equates having children with a negative impact on the environment, over-emphasising individual lifestyle choices over systemic inequality. Our stance was seen as a carbon-reduction strategy, when it was actually raising the alarm. 

“Our concern wasn’t ‘overpopulation’, but a society that prioritises economic profit over the safety of children”

I remember being struck by the absurdity of this. We call for a labour strike (childbirth and rearing is labour) in order to put pressure on employers to improve work conditions – not because halting work will permanently fix our lives. Yet this was consistently how our story was understood: through the assumed threat of overpopulation.

Part of this is rooted in misunderstandings of the alleged ‘overpopulation problem’ and its link to climate collapse, but the insistence on this argument, crucially, is driven by white supremacy and racism. Not only does half of the world’s carbon emissions caused by lifestyle come from the wealthiest 10% of the population, but the parts of the world where populations are still increasing, such as sub-Saharan Africa, are also the poorest: home to those who have suffered through centuries of colonisation and extraction, and are most affected by climate collapse. Overall, population growth is slowing down and is expected to plateau. In this context, focusing on population numbers only lays the blame on those who were never responsible for the crisis. It de-centres issues of inequality and overconsumption in favour of a dangerous distraction. 

The history of overpopulation rhetoric is intimately linked with eugenics and more recently, eco-fascism. If we establish that there are too many of us for the planet to support, inevitable questions follow: who ‘should’ procreate? Who is desirable and who can be acceptably disposed of? The answers to such questions – driven by white supremacy – lay the foundation for colonial resource extraction, as well as current UK immigration policies. They rely on the understanding that certain people and their homes are expendable.

“Focusing on population numbers only lays the blame on those who were never responsible for the crisis”

Population control practices such as coerced hysterectomies or China’s one-child policy may seem extreme, and a far cry from conversations and op-eds about population increase and environmental collapse. Abuse, however, is not separate from the culture that paves the way for it. Reproductive coercion can begin in small ways, creating a culture of judgement around birth.

The main reason that we closed down Birth Strike after little over a year of campaigning was the group dynamics. Even though we asked members of the Facebook group to not post about population or judge others’ reproductive choices, we received videos of white cis men telling the rest of us to ‘stop having children’. We had to remove countless videos featuring footage of Global South communities with messages about ‘overpopulation’. It led many, particularly people of colour, to feel uncomfortable and even unsafe. 

As Roe v Wade was overturned in the US last year, in the UK a so-called ‘childless tax’ was suggested, part of a ‘grow our own policy’ which would allegedly encourage births by those born in the UK. Meanwhile, migrants die at our borders. Although seemingly opposed, both moves grant elites the power to decide whose child is wanted, and whose isn’t. The ‘population taboo’ needs to be seen against the backdrop of existing power structures. Who is able to speak, to perpetuate cultural narratives and, ultimately, who has the power to legislate? 

In spite of claiming to be silenced, calls for ‘curbing overpopulation’ are still given space in mainstream media. The UK-based organisation Population Matters still uses David Attenborough and Chris Packham with their prominent platforms – both of whom have been vocal on overpopulation – as patrons. Their website, notably, centres images of POC. The discussion of population is, by and large, one carried out by white people about the bodies of POC, under the guise of educating girls and young women. The story of there being too many of us is taken for granted. It is based on the anxieties of the elite; this makes it the opposite of taboo. It renders it the status quo. Like racism, it needn’t be explicit in order to inform views and actions.

Although not very widely known in the UK, the term ‘reproductive justice’ was coined by Black women in the US in the 1990s. It entails true bodily autonomy – the right not to bear children, as well as the right to raise them in a safe environment. It looks to all our intersecting vulnerabilities and privileges in experiencing such autonomy and acknowledges that choices are never made in isolation. As climate collapse accelerates, there will be no shortage of voices targeting the most vulnerable, including by focusing debates on population numbers. It’s crucial that all of us who work for climate justice support the right to say yes, as well as no.