Real Environmental Racism

Radical feminist Betsy Hartmann decries the "greening of hate."


That the world's poor breed environmental destruction is a disturbing, and possibly racist, tenet propounded by many prominent ideological environmentalists. Consider, for example, this passage from the first page of one of the founding texts of modern environmentalism, The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich:

I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a few years ago. My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas. The only functional gear was third. As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened.

Poor Paul. All those awful, awful people! Indeed, a crisis. Curious that Ehrlich would pick Delhi to illustrate urban crowding. He could just as easily have picked New York City or London. That creepy passage has a lot in common with the yellow peril narratives from the last century.

Of course, the crisis he recognized in the unpleasing masses of Indians demands firm and swift action. Ehrlich also wrote in his magnum opus, "We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail." He then toyed with the idea of putting sterilants in the water supply and rationing the antidote to produce the optimum population. He discarded that idea, noting that it was not yet technically feasible and besides, "society would probably dissolve before sterilants were added to the water by the government." Amazingly astute political analysis, that last.

Coercive population control has long been an established and widely accepted precept of ideological environmentalism. But in a fascinating interview in New Scientist, Betsy Hartmann, director of the population and development program at Hampshire College, questions that ideology. "Phrases like 'the population bomb' and 'the population explosion' breed racism," Hartmann declares.

Hartmann notes that many prominent ideological environmentalists are members of anti-immigrant organizations in which she detects a racist tinge. For example, Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel is on the board of the Carrying Capacity Network (CCN), which favors an immediate moratorium on immigration into the United States on environmental grounds. Hartmann asserts that the CCN "blame[s] migrants for destroying pristine America." Other CCN advisors include such leading environmentalists as Heinz Center President Thomas Lovejoy, the Rocky Mountain Institute's L. Hunter Lovins, Gund Institute of Ecological Economics Director Robert Costanza, and University of Maryland ecological economist Herman Daly.

Hartmann's interview represents an interesting breakthrough in that this radical feminist scholar with impeccable environmentalist credentials understands that the issue is not that the poor breed too much. The issue is that they are poor. Ehrlich and other would-be population controllers have confused poverty with overpopulation. Had Ehrlich and his frightened family been riding a carriage through New York or London in 1900, his affluent mid-20th century sensibilities would no doubt have been similarly offended by the stinks, the smoke, the noise, and the press of people crowding those cities. The difference is that the residents of New York and London are much richer than Delhi residents today, so their urban environments are much more pleasant.

Hartmann clearly explains that there is no contradiction between being pro-choice, in favor of contraception, and against population control. "A lot of people find this hard to understand," she says. "But for me, family planning is about human rights and women's health—not population control. It is about freeing women to have the number of children they want, not blaming them for a whole host of social problems."

Hartmann surprisingly offers some qualified praise for economist Julian Simon, who spent much of his career debunking the likes of Ehrlich and the anti-immigration crowd. "Julian Simon had a point when he said that [population growth] provides more brains to think and hands to work as well as mouths to feed," said Hartmann. While retaining an unwarranted skepticism of free markets, she admits, "People like Simon on the libertarian right have often had better positions on population control than the liberal population establishment, who were often afraid to speak out against coercion and sometimes actively supported it."

The best way to prevent harm to nature is to help the poorest people in the world become richer so that they too can afford to cherish it as much or more than do the likes of Ehrlich, Pimentel, and Lovejoy. Ehrlich wrote, "We must all learn to identify with the plight of our less fortunate fellows on Spaceship Earth if we are help both them and ourselves to survive."

And that is surely true. But we must correctly identify what the problem is before we can effectively work to solve it. Environmentalist Hartmann has made a good first diagnosis. Poverty is the problem, not population. (She's wrong about economic growth and consumption, but that's another discussion.) Let's hope for the sake of humanity and a thriving natural world that other environmentalists will heed her and turn away from the false, coercive, and possibly racist, population control nostrums still being offered by so many ideological environmentalists.