Climate Change Is a Feminist Issue

2009•10•29 Mary Fitzgerald Prospect Magazine

When it emerged earlier this year that Obama’s science star John Holdren had once, back in 1977, co-authored a textbook discussing possible methods of population control, among them sterilisation, America’s rightwing fury machine triumphantly seized upon it, dubbing him Obama’s “science fiction tsar“.

Yet with the climate change conference in Copenhagen approaching, how fictitious is the need for population control? As Alex Renton noted in November’s Prospect magazine, if the world’s population continues to grow at present rate, by 2050 the globe will need the resources of a second Earth to sustain it. And if you throw in the projected effects of a warming planet, the problem starts to look as apocalyptic as it did to Holdren, and many others, back in the 1970s.

However world leaders might try to spin this problem, nearly all the ways of tackling climate change involve taking rights away from people — be it their right to fly, to drive, or to heat their patios. The one thing that would do the opposite, that would empower human beings, would be to give women across the world control over their own bodies. Plenty of them want it: according to the UN, there are currently more than 200 million women worldwide wanting but unable to get contraception.

So forget ghoulish 1970s notions of compulsory abortions — as Michelle Goldberg points out, feminism has already vanquished these — we can start “controlling” population simply by providing women with basic rights. In short, population control, and by extension climate change, are feminist issues.

Wherever women have adequate access to contraception, education, the right to work, equality before the law, the birth rate plummets. And this is where western liberal proclivities towards cultural relativism start to break down. However much we might want to respect other cultures, those that deny women these rights are directly harming all of us, even if our own society is an equitable, gender-blind utopia. Unless we want a world ravaged by droughts and floods, we are going to have to start demanding women be treated as equal citizens — everywhere. In fact, you don’t even have to call it feminism. You could call it calculated self-interest.

Population control is not something the “developing world” alone needs to wise up to, either. Quite the opposite. The one-child policy of China, the world’s fastest developing country, is infamous, yet as a result we already have 300-400 million fewer people on the planet. (Interestingly, China is doing a lot more on climate change in other areas than we assume too).

That’s not to suggest that we import China’s birth control policies wholesale — the People’s Republic, after all, is not widely known for its regard for anyone’s rights, female or otherwise. But we have to do something: one British child pollutes more than 30 children in sub-Saharan Africa do. And, unlike in Britain, there are pressing economic reasons why women in sub-Saharan Africa need children.

True, many women in rich countries already choose to limit their families; Britain’s average birth rate per family is a modest 1.97, roughly average for the developed world. But this means a vast number of women are still having more than three children and, given the disproportionate bulk of their carbon footprint, they need to be persuaded not to.

This doesn’t have to take the shape of draconian legislation, but rather positive incentives. We should not deny women autonomy over their own bodies (as many pro-life campaigns seek to), but we could make child benefits for smaller families much more generous. We could also offer middle-class families generous tax breaks if they have two children or less. This isn’t taking away people’s rights, it’s just weighting the options differently — and, in turn, better protecting the rights of others who share this planet.

You don’t even have to believe in global warming to come to this conclusion; you can still have your head firmly in the sand about the fact that humans are having an effect on the temperature of this planet. The population question exists outside this issue. It’s simply a matter of maths: the Earth can only host a finite number of people. And surely educating and bettering the lives of the world’s women, for whatever purpose, is no bad thing?

This article was originally published on at 16.30 GMT on Tuesday 27 October 2009.

Copyright The Guardian. All rights reserved.



Mary Fitzgerald

Assistant EditorProspect Magazine

Mary Fitzgerald is assistant editor of Prospect magazine. She also writes for the New Statesman and the Observer, and co-created comedy website

Join the Discussion

  • In the hands of government, the Draconian solution is always waiting in the wings. This, an all all other machinations from the eugenicists, is a worldwide nightmare waiting to happen. In fact, it’s a great subject as we approach Halloween.

  • I saw a comment on this article when a friend re-posted my link to it on Facebook to the effect that this article (an opinion piece) doesn’t propose any solutions and that its “someone should do something” argument is rather useless. I agreed with that particular comment as well as feeling slightly rankled by something deeper that I didn’t find time to fully explore.

    This morning the Guardian has run a commentary in response, which rings much truer to me. I recommend a full read of it:

    Meanwhile, its headline conveys the main gist (Population control is not what makes climate change a feminist issue) and this is the heart of it:

    “Everyone stands to suffer if climate change is allowed to spiral out of control, of course, but a gender analysis of both the impacts and causes of climate change shows that globally women contribute less to the problem and yet are likely to be hit especially hard.

    Poor people are likely to bear the brunt as the climate changes and 70% of the world’s poor are women. According to one estimate, 85% of the victims of climate disasters are women. Another study found 75% of environmental refugees are women. (Statistics from the Women’s Manifesto on Climate Change).”

  • Guest

    To say that climate change is a feminist issue is stupid. Reproduction involves both sexes, well, at least for mayority of people. We have to educate and tell not to have too many children to both, male and female. Poor and uneducated man too have tendency to have lot of children, so efforts have to go to everybody. Anyway, aside from china and other few countries, the rest of the undeveloped world isn’t that overpopulated, even in some cases they need to populate their countries, so what we are going to do?, redistribute the people of the planet?, tell them that their population should not grow?, we are 100 million and they 10 million but in a much larger area…

    Sorry, but this article looks like the kind of dumb feminist voice that i don’t respect, even if i agree that women should be educated (well, i think that everybody should be educated) and start to control population in some way.

    Sorry for my english, I’m trying to get better at it.

  • Guest

    Read “To say that climate change is a feminist issue because of overpopulation is stupid” instead of “To say that climate change is a feminist issue is stupid”

  • theauthority

    woah, such stupidity is always astonishing to behold. how they managed to link the false carbon emission argument to this rubbish is equally amazing, but i guess less humans breathing is a good way to cut carbs…

  • BrendanBarrett

    There is a very interesting response to this article on the Guardian by Elizabeth Kirkwood – why not take a read of it – especially giorgoglio and theauthority. The title is Climate change is not a feminist issue –

  • eddy_1454

    I think is pointless to keep discussing this, it’s better to ignore it, as i do when feminists talk about a lot of other things (99% of what they say is bullsh#t and is driven by a deep ressentment). I mean, there are lots of things that i think we all agree. Like educating people for example. And that womens have the control over their reproduction (except in some extreme cases in few countries, they already have it!, they choose when and how to have sex. Abortion is a different issue and personally i think that is inhuman), like men too. But feminists take stupid paths and stupid arguments to achieve it. This articles just try to adjunct feminist blah blah to a really more serious issue to try to get more attention and give it more credit.

    Of course is a feminist issue, is a issue for all of us. It’s like saying climate change is an american issue: stupid and not the kind of actitude we have to have to face and solve this problem.

  • Bill

    Climate change is a “big government” issue, I don’t see the feminist-specific link.

  • A feminist perspective on Climate Change ?