Population Control Isn’t the Answer to Our Climate Crisis

“If we can get rid of enough people,” the El Paso terrorist wrote in his grotesque manifesto, “then our way of life can be more sustainable.” His bigoted rampage left little doubt who he meant by “we” and “our way of life.” The eco-fascism of the far-right couches its racist intent as concern for the environment, demonizes women of color for “overpopulation” and stokes fears of an end to white racial “purity” and power. It uses the current specter of looming ecological collapse to reawaken a genocidal impulse as old as the United States, wiping out those deemed unfit to survive.

Only a few people defend the most horrific expression of these beliefs. But today, arguments for population control are reemerging in mainstream and even liberal discussions around limiting women’s fertility in the name of environmental sustainability.

Climate strike protestors in Melbourne, Australia. (julian meehan / Creative Commons)

This isn’t the first time women’s bodies have been treated as a means to a demographic end. Recall such ugly initiatives, all mainstream in their day, to forcibly sterilize Black, Latina, and Indigenous women, to treat Puerto Rican women like lab rats in contraceptive trials to keep the island’s population down and to fund sterilization camps in India

Invariably, even the most nefarious population control projects claim to serve some unassailable social good, like poverty reduction or peace. After Hurricane Katrina, a Louisiana representative proposed paying people who receive state assistance $1,000 in exchange for being sterilized. He explained the benefits of reducing the number of poor people, citing the likelihood of more frequent hurricanes and the need to conserve resources.

The reproductive justice movement then emerged to redefine these policies as human rights abuses. But today, the monster of population control has been reanimated, and these gains are again under threat.

Most people now know better than to use the discredited term “population control.” Neither will you hear mainstream voices talking about “black overpopulation.” Listen, instead, for rights-based and social justice language that positions contraception and family planning as core strategies to reduce carbon emissions.

For instance, a USAID blog entry for World Population Day links family planning to protecting “people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership,” before going on to say that “by slowing rapid population growth, family planning can help to decrease the sheer number of poor people.”

Today’s mainstream population control advocates offer full-throated support for reproductive rights. They point to a happy coincidence that women’s freedom to limit childbearing is also a key solution to climate change. Win-win propositions are inherently appealing, but we should be skeptical of solutions that ask little of those who have caused the problem.

Women around the world will tell you that access to healthcare, family planning, contraception and abortion remain critical unmet needs. True reproductive justice, as conceived by women who have long been targeted for population control, includes the option to choose how many children to have and raise them in a safe, healthy environment. But those seeking to instrumentalize these basic rights as climate solutions segue too seamlessly and singularly to the emissions-cutting benefits of women bearing fewer children—not just any women, but the same poor Black and brown women who have always been blamed for “having too many babies.”

Whatever their political underpinnings, population-based approaches to climate change are steeped in three falsehoods.

One is that the world’s population is exploding. The rate of growth has actually been slowing since the 1960s; from 1990 to 2019, the global fertility rate fell from 3.2 births per woman to 2.5.

Another is that the main threat we face is resource scarcity, when in fact the problem isn’t sheer numbers—it’s unequal distribution of basic necessities. The planet cannot provide for 7.5 billion people exploiting resources at the rate of the richest, but it could support many more if the wealthiest used a fairer share and policies enabled poorer communities to end over-reliance on fragile ecosystems.

Finally, there is the myth that larger populations accelerate climate change, when a country’s carbon emissions cannot be extrapolated only from its population size. The U.S. is less than 5 percent of the world population but responsible for 15 percent of emissions. Meanwhile, countries in sub-Saharan Africa, commonly cited as prime candidates for population control policies, are among the lowest carbon polluters.

That’s obvious when you remember that climate chaos is a direct consequence of industrial policy—but recognizing that truth brings you to a very different set of strategies than encouraging poor women to have fewer babies. The scapegoating of women ultimately draws attention away from the real culprits behind our climate catastrophe: fossil fuel and energy companies, and their scandalous success in supplanting government regulation with subsidies and tax loopholes. It diverts attention from the need to change an economic system that demands limitless resource exploitation and profit-seeking. 

Policymakers must seize the change to beat back the idea that population control is a solution to climate breakdown. Most importantly, they can learn from women on the frontlines of climate change worldwide, whose innovative solutions and calls for global economic justice are the real answer to climate breakdown.


Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women's human rights organization that partners with community-based women's groups worldwide facing war and disaster. Yifat’s writing and critical analysis on U.S. foreign policy and women's human rights has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus, The Guardian and The Huffington Post. She has been featured as a commentator on CNN, National Public Radio and BBC Radio.