Populationism and Prejudice

In fact, environmentalists, policymakers, and security analysts have long addressed social and environmental problems with calls for limiting or reducing the population (an ideology called “populationism”) by controlling the bodies of poor women via policies such as linking U.S. food aid with population-reduction campaigns.

“Growth in population has often been blamed for global problems that, in fact, have other causes,” says Anne Hendrixson 91F, Hampshire alum and director of population and development (PopDev) programs in the School of Critical Social Inquiry. “Too often women’s bodies are targeted as the site of intervention.”

In response, Hendrixson and five other feminist scholars cowrote the article, “A feminist exploration of ‘populationism’: engaging contemporary form as of population control.” Their article introduced a themed section —“Confronting Populationism: Feminist Challenges to Population Control in an Era of Climate Change” — published in August in Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography.

Hendrixson and her colleagues identify encroaching and invidious forms of populationism and bring them to light with challenges to current forms of population control.

They employ feminist critiques to contest manifestations of populationism that “restrict bodies, reinforce boundaries [such as border walls], and create spaces of exclusion and violence.”

Some analysts, they argue, “use of the concept of ‘climate’ refugees to justify building borders and land and water seizure by private corporations and government developers that forces population displacement.”

Their articles in Gender, Place & Culture link topics that are “seemingly” disparate but, they argue, very much related. Among them are the emphasis on fertility reduction in long-acting reversible contraceptive campaigns, the spreading of fear about the Zika virus, and the reinforcement of geographical boundaries, such as the strengthening of borders and detainment of people, mostly from the global south, who have been displaced.

“These interventions are timely and necessary because of the continued relevance of population control ideology and population alarmism in sustainable development and climate change policy and programs,” Hendrixson and her coauthors write. “We issue a direct challenge to scholarship that links population reduction with climate change adaptation and mitigation and the survival of the planet.”

Hendrixson earned her master’s degree in international development and social change from Clark University and served as PopDev coordinator from 1996 to 2000. After leaving the program, she worked as director for aids2031, a project commission of UNAIDS to chart a long-term, global response to HIV, and also started up several initiatives for VentureWell, an educational nonprofit. She returned to PopDev as assistant director in 2012.

The PopDev program was solidified and expanded in 1986, at the height of a global population-control movement, by Professor Betsy Hartmann, who taught development studies. Her goal was to advance feminist scholarship and advocacy that was grounded in the international women’s health movement’s resistance to population control. The program advocates for social justice regarding sexual and reproductive freedom, the climate and the environment, peace, and immigrant rights.

Hartmann conducted research, wrote, and lectured on the intersections of population, migration, environment, and security issues. In 2015, she was a Fulbright-Nehru Distinguished Chair, based in New Delhi.

Now a Hampshire professor emerita of development studies, she is currently working on a novel about the opioid crisis and the war on drugs.

“Betsy was a mentor to me and many others,” says Hendrixson. “She challenged the prevailing belief that overpopulation causes problems like environmental degradation, climate change, poverty, hunger and even war.”

These familiar explanations fail to address the complexity of those trends in a complicated world: “Populationism narrows the scope of policy responses,” says Hendrixson. “It’s a technocratic solution, not a humane one.”