Feminist revolution: population, migration and consumption

The poor women of the world are defusing the population time-bomb themselves so let’s stop talking about overpopulation and migration. It's time to complete the feminist revolution

Marion Bowman
17 June 2010

A temporary, tented town had sprung up in the fields to accommodate the thousands who had travelled far to be there. People were on the move, in search of friends and family they’d become separated from, checking that the children – free to roam safely for once - were still OK, that the queues were not too long for the food outlets. Standpipes had brought water to the site for those with bottles to refill. It was hot. There was shade on the cool grass in the lee of the tents. Flags and banners fluttered in the breeze and the atmosphere was buoyant. People’s journeys had brought them to a place where they could find their own kind, where they were safe and where life, far from the daily grind, was free of strife.

It was the Hay Festival. Over ten days at the beginning of June, 200,000 people gathered in the tiny Welsh town – usual population 1,500 – to hear writers talk about their newly published books. In one of the darkened tents, filled to capacity with hundreds of listeners, was a man who had come to tell them good news. The UK’s worried middle classes could, for this hour at least, have some respite from their concerns about climate change, carbon footprints, and the recession and public spending cuts that were laying waste to their wealth, jobs, and public services.

The prophet had come to tell them that they could stop worrying about overpopulation.  Ever since 1798 when a young English clergyman, Reverend Malthus, raised the spectre of the world’s poor breeding prolifically and outpacing food supply, ideas about overpopulation - and all that goes with it, disease, famine, migration - have had a powerful grip on thinking about the world. Even though the history of the past 200 years has proved Malthus wrong, this is still the orthodox view. It gave rise to the 20th century’s population control movement and became associated with coercive eugenics and racial supremacy.  In the 21st century we have come to believe that the growing populations of countries like China and India, added to climate change and water shortages, are leading the world to a runaway environmental crisis that threatens human survival. Once more, fear of overpopulation and of migrants fleeing poverty or environmental crisis is driving popular opinion and policy, often despite realities that contradict this vision of cause and effect.  

The cautionary voice in the darkness of the Hay tent was that of Fred Pearce, talking about his new book Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing and the Coming of the Population Crash in which he sets out a different narrative of population trends, migration, women’s autonomy and – the real cause of our problems – consumption by the few.

‘Environmentalists have a doomsday scenario they want to play out,’ said Pearce when we met after his talk. Sure, the world’s population at nearly seven billion is four times what it was a century ago. Sure, there will be a couple of billion more by 2050, but UN projections  show that the world’s population will then tail off.  ‘Neither the population NGOs nor the environmentalists want to say we are already defusing the population time bomb. The poor women of the world are fixing the problem themselves,’ he said. ‘It does not require draconian government population control programmes.’  Pearce says that half the world’s women are now having two children or fewer and not just in rich countries but in Iran and parts of India, Burma and Brazil, and South Africa. Elsewhere birth rates have fallen dramatically - in Bangladesh, South East Asia and across Latin America – in Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. ‘Like the mobile phone and TV, contraception is a near-universal technology. Only the most bizarre and patrician regimes try to withhold it’, he writes. ‘Contraception is overwhelmingly women’s business. Less than a tenth of the world’s men take responsibility for contraception, mostly using a condom’.

Although we are yet to reach peak population, Pearce says the environmental problem is not one of headcount but of consumption. The developing world, for all its billions of people, uses far less of the earth’s resources than the developed. Figures from Stephen Pacala, Director of Princeton Environmental Institute, show that 7% of the world’s population are responsible for 50% of CO2 emissions and 50% of the population for 7% of the emissions. 

Pearce’s argument is all about demographics.  More people survive infancy and live longer worldwide and the bulge of the post-war baby boom in the west is still pushing population totals up. In some countries, half the people are under 16, so there are lots of babies still to come, but overall, populations are ageing because the proportion of older people is rising. The majority of people in the world will soon be over 50. Fewer babies are being born. All around the world women are choosing to limit the number of babies they have to the extent that the birth rate in many countries is already below replacement rate, a world average of 2.3 children per woman. There are still some places with high birth rates, where patriarchy and religious ideology hold out, such as very rural countries like Yemen, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and Catholic countries in the developing world like the Philippines. But other countries with falling birth rates may become dependent on migrants to maintain their populations and meet the needs of the bulge in older, non-working citizens. 

New perspectives on migration are needed. ‘With our fertility rates we are going to need a lot more migrants so we had better get used to it. There is a lot of talk about snakeheads, of people smugglers, but most people migrate with their eyes open for economic reasons,’ he said. ‘We need to help them complete their journey to becoming part of society and plan for it and manage the allocation of resources like housing better. We shouldn’t marginalise them, because then they fall out of the tax system, they get exploited and push down wages, and it’s just shooting yourself in the foot.’

Pearce’s ‘Peoplequake’ is happening because the world’s women have begun to emerge from their hitherto historic fate of continual childbearing, to have fewer babies and become better educated and economically active.  So could women face a backlash given religious fundamentalism? ‘Religious fundamentalism is spectacularly ineffective in persuading women to have lots of children’, said Pearce.  The lowest fertility rates in the developed world are in Catholic countries like Spain, Italy or Poland. In developing countries like Brazil where religion is strong but urbanisation is growing women are having only two children. ‘Some of the fastest falls in fertility are in Muslim countries like Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey, Algeria and Morocco,’ he said. ‘In Iran, Ahmadinejad is saying women should go back into the home but in less than 30 years the average number of children Iranian women are having has gone down from 8 to two.’   Could the rise of the right, spurred by recession, put pressure on women to have more babies? According to Pearce ‘The history of economic recession is that it reduces fertility rates; the post-war baby boom came with rising livings standards.’

Pearce’s book is a plea for a clearer-headed view of what is needed in response to these population changes. ‘I never thought I’d be writing a feminist tract, but what matters is not talk of population control but women’s reproductive rights. We need to complete the feminist revolution and make it easier for women to combine working with having children.’

Perhaps these are the tasks now of the baby boomer generation - who’ve had it so good - in the last decades of their lives.  To help complete the feminist revolution so that the world’s young women can earn their own living and raise the small families they want; to lead the way on reducing consumption so that climate change challenges can start to be met; and to welcome migrants, in the realisation that our own interests mean we are going to need them to keep the show on the road.

Young mothers, migrants, and grey-haired baby boomers could be in the vanguard of a revolution, but they pass unremarked in the streets. Pearce’s Hay audience may look at them with new eyes now that they are home again, back in the daily grind, with his book by the bed and the tents gone from the fields. 

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