Opposition to “Day of Six Billion”: The Campaign

Date Published: July 15, 2006

Thanks to those who spread the word, CWPE’s statement on “Day of Six Billion” went around the globe and generated responses and action from widespread organizations and individuals. We received 147 endorsements from 20 countries. The statement along with the list of endorsements were sent to Dr. Nafis Sadik (UNFPA), Kathy Bonk (Communications Consortium Media Center), and John Seager (Zero Population Growth).

Articles which shared our critique of the messages coming forth from the promotion of “Day of Six Billion” appeared in mainstream and alternative press: Green Left Weekly (Australia); The Times of India, The Hindu, Frontline (India); Holiday (Bangladesh), Reconstruct (South Africa), and the Boston Globe (USA).

Supporters of the statement from India, the Philippines, and the UK wrote letters of concern to the UNFPA. In response to queries by representatives of the UNFPA, Zero Population Growth, and the Communications Consortium Media Center, CWPE engaged in extensive e-mail dialogue, explaining the issues raised in the statement.

National Public Radio’s “Living on Earth,” and WBAI/Pacifica’s “6 Billion Day Panic: Overpopulation Myths, and Global Politics,” interviewed members of CWPE. Members also distributed the statement at “Day of Six Billion” events, such as a preview screening of the PBS documentary, Six Billion and Beyond, hosted by Senator Jim Jefford and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (Washington, DC), and at a conference, Population: Six Billion and Counting (Simmons College, Boston).

We would like to thank everyone who supported our statement, and commend all who participated for not leaving the demographic alarmism and the Malthusian assumptions of “Day of Six Billion” left unquestioned.

Opposition to “Day of Six Billion”: The Statement

The Committee on Women, Population and the Environment (CWPE), an alliance of feminist activists and scholars, supports women’s rights to safe, voluntary birth control and abortion, while strongly opposing demographically driven population policies. We take on the double challenge of resisting fundamentalist forces opposed to abortion as well as the theory and practice of population control, for both violate women’s rights, especially affecting poor women and women of color.

We are writing to alert you to an intensive and well-funded media campaign presently underway to raise alarmism about world population reaching an estimated 6 billion on October 12, 1999. The Communications Consortium Media Center (CCMC) in Washington, DC has launched this campaign in consultation with the UNFPA and the World Population Foundation in the Netherlands. Is it a coincidence that it happens to fall on Columbus Day? Christopher Columbus represents imperialism, exploitation and the beginning of Native American genocide in the Americas. A logic of domination also underlies population control policies which target women’s fertility as a major cause of poverty, environmental degradation and political instability.

It appears as though members of the international population establishment are currently experiencing an ideological schizophrenia. On the one hand, they say they support reform efforts associated with the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (ICPD), which call for women’s empowerment and reproductive health to be the centerpiece of population policies. A recent instruction sheet to journalists, produced by UNFPA for the Cairo + 5 event in The Hague, demonstrates the extent of the rhetorical shift since the ICPD. It reads, “The term (population control) is now out of favor with experts in the field, because it implies force--a negative thing to most. To some it evokes men trying to control women, industrialized nations trying to weaken the power of developing nations’ increasing numbers, or whites trying to reduce the future numbers of people of color.” (Journalist’s Notebook: What’s in a Word?) Critics both within and outside of the ICPD process have denounced the use of coercion and demographic targeting in population policies. They have questioned whether the emphasis on human numbers, and their reduction, would not inherently undermine a human rights and human needs agenda.

On the other hand, members of the population establishment still promote demographic alarmism, despite ICPD reform efforts and the fact that birth rates are declining worldwide faster than anticipated. “Day of 6 Billion” reinforces demographically driven population messages, even if it does not explicitly call for population control. It uses numbers to instill fear and give the impression that population increases are out of control. Not only is it a definitive step backward from strategies that prioritize gender and development issues, it reflects the contradictions of attaching progressive agendas to population control.

Various organizations promote the day in vastly different ways. For example, the organizations, Zero Population Growth and Facing the Future, have strong population reduction messages. Zero Population Growth popularized the expression, “Y6B”, to prey on the fear already generated by potential computer problems in “Y2K”. The editor of the ZPG Reporter writes, “(We) at ZPG know that Y6B, the year that world population reaches 6 billion, is a much bigger and more threatening problem than this computer glitch.” (ZPG Reporter, Vol. 31, No. 2, April 1999, pg. 4). The action kit prepared by the CCMC and the UNFPA website, however, adopt a more careful approach. Their messages include: “Population is not about numbers-it is about people”, or “We all know that the number of people on earth is not the real story.” At the same time, they consistently relate the number of people living in the world to problems such as resource depletion, contamination of the environment, social security coverage and unemployment. Never mentioned are the real causes of these problems: exploitative economic and political systems, inappropriate technologies, disproportionate consumption patterns, and hyper-militarization.

Abuse and human rights violations related to population control have continued unabated, countering the optimism after the emergence of the much-celebrated document at the ICPD in Cairo. These include sterilization abuses among indigenous peoples in Peru; mandatory pregnancy testing in US companies in Mexico; unethical testing of contraceptive and sterilization methods (Quinacrine is a prime example); and the continued development and aggressive promotion of long-acting, provider-controlled, and hazardous contraceptives such as Norplant all over the world. Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to resist demographically driven population control messages and analyses, which inevitably undermine health and rights. CWPE opposes the current “Day of 6 Billion” media blitz that clearly reverts to a demographic rationale in its representation of global problems.