To Vanquish the Hydra

Author(s): Betsy Hartmann
Date Published: July 15, 2006
Source: Political Environments #1, Spring 1994

In the United States the end of the century is beginning to have eerie parallels with the beginning. We are witnessing aresurgence of elite fear which seeks biological explanations and solutions for deep-rooted social and economic distress. The multi-headed Hydra is rearing its ugly heads. Slash one off and two more seem to grow back in its place.

In the first decades of the century the shift from laissez-faire capitalism to managed capitalism, incorporating a new generation of planners, took place against a backdrop of economic instability, labor unrest, and rapid cultural transformation. A new pseudo-science of society -- eugenics -- developed in this period. As biologist Garland Allen notes:

"To those with economic and social power, and imbued with the new spirit of scientific planning, eugenicists appeared to be taking an eminently rational approach to society by purporting to treat social problems at their roots. If ills such as unemployment, feeblemindedness, or nomadism were genetic in origin, then the rational and efficient way to eliminate these problems would be to prevent people with such hereditary defects from breeding." (Allen, G.E., "Eugenics and American socialhistory, 1880-1950," Genome, 31:886).

Eugenics infected the nascent birth control movement, steering it away from feminism toward what would later become population control of the poor. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant sentiment mounted, and white middle and upper class women were encouraged to have more children to keep the racial stock intact. The horrors of German fascism discredited the worst kinds of eugenics, but the underlying impetus did not die.

Today, in the New World Disorder, national hegemony over capital is swiftly giving way to free trade and globalization. As the dams break, fear runs high and many politicians and technocrats seek scapegoats in the body politic, in the bodies of the poor, particularly poor women of color. The Hydra's old heads have grown back in new form. Among the negative forces activists must confront are:

1) Population control to protect the environment and national security.

The speed at which the Clinton administration has embracedpopulation control is testimony to the power of the population/environment lobby and its tight ties to the liberal corporate establishment. The U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) new 'Sustainable Development' strategy identifies population growth as a key "strategic threat" which "consumes all other economic gains, drives environmental damage,exacerbates poverty, and impedes democratic governance." (USAID Strategy Papers, LPA Revision 5 Oct. l993, p. 7) Population control is one of USAID's four main areas of concentration, andthe administration is requesting $585 million in FY 1995 for population programs, up from $502 million the year before. The goal is to provide "birth control to every woman in the developing world who wants it by the end of the decade." (S.Greenhouse, "U.S. to spend more on birth control", New YorkTimes, 1/23/94.)

The essential economic logic underlying this position is that if globalization and the free market are good, then population growth perforce has to be bad, for there is no way advanced capitalism can deliver all the goods to all the people and 'sustain' both the natural environment and the present grossly inequitable distribution of wealth. The best way to shrink the numbers of the poor (and the labor supply) is to limit their births. Never mind that population growth rates are coming down in virtually every area of the globe already -- they must come down even faster through the aggressive promotion of modern contraception for women.

The political logic generally runs this way: More than any other factor, rapid population growth threatens the environment. In the South struggles over scarce environmental resources will likely erupt into ethnic and regional wars; hence, population control is a national security imperative.

The foreign policy establishment is generating a whole alarmist literature on the subject. For example, in a widely publicized article in Scientific American (Feb. 1993), Thomas Homer-Dixon, Jeffrey Boutwell and George Rathjens identify rapidly expanding populations as a major factor in growing resource scarcities which are "contributing to violent conflicts in many parts of the developing world." This position has been sensationalized in a blatantly racist article, "The Coming Anarchy," by Robert Kaplan in the February 1994 Atlantic Monthly. (See Nalini Visvanathan's critique in this newsletter.)

In another twist on the issue, Nicholas Eberstadt (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1991) warns that the hegemony of Western values is in jeopardy because the population of today's industrial democracies is declining relative to the rest of the world. These values, which include "respect for individual rights" and "adherence to genuine rule of law," have ostensibly guided the exercise of American military power. The world is likely to become a more dangerous place since these values "are not necessarily shared.by the states presiding over the great majority of the world's population."

The scare-mongering of security analysts is complemented by the population propaganda of mainstream population and environmental organizations, which have become ever more closely allied. In advance of the UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), to be held in Cairo in September 1994, there has been a concerted effort to create a grand 'consensus' on the need for population control. Within this consensus feminists have had some influence promoting a broad range of women's rights, but the bottom line is family planning as top budget priority. (See Asoka Bandarage's article in this newsletter for an analysis of the consensus.)

What is particularly troubling about this 'consensus' is the way it has been carefully orchestrated and financed by a small group of actors: the Pew Charitable Trusts Global Stewardship Initiative; the U.S. State Department through the office of Timothy Wirth, Undersecretary for Global Affairs; the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA); and Ted Turner of the powerful Turner Broadcasting System, producer of CNN. The 'consensus' is a classic example of "manufacturing consent" and creating that nebulous thing known as "public opinion."

Although the Pew Initiative's 'White Paper' lists"population growth and unsustainable patterns of consumption" asits two challenges, population growth is by far its major concern. Moreover, Pew appears to assign equal weight to the environmental destruction caused by affluence and that caused by poverty. (See H. Patricia Hyne's article in this newsletter which challenges this logic.) Two of Pew's explicit goals are to "forge consensus" and "to increase public understanding of, and commitment to act on, population and consumption challenges." Its three targeted constituencies in the U.S. are environmental organizations, religious communities, and international affairs and foreign policy specialists.

Thanks to millions of dollars in funding from Pew, the population/environment lobby is producing massive amounts of campaigning material in advance of the Cairo conference. The Pew Initiative itself hired three opinion research firms to gauge public understanding of the connections between population, environment and consumption so as to "mobilize Americans" on these issues.

The researchers found that the public generally did not feel strongly about population growth or see it as a "personal threat." Their conclusion: an "emotional component" is needed to kindle population paranoia. Those interviewed complained that they had already been over-exposed to "images of stark misery, such as starving children." Although the study notes that these images may in fact "work", it recommends finding "more current,targeted visual devices." One strategy is to build on people's pessimism about the future: "For women, particularly, relating the problems of excess population growth to children's future offers possibilities." (Report of Findings from Focus Groups on Population, Consumption and the Environment, conducted for the Pew Charitable Trusts Global Stewardship Initiative by R/S/M, Mellman Lazarus Lake, and Beldon & Russonello, July 1993, pp. 73-74.)

Pew and the Turner Foundation have also sponsored "high visibility" town meetings on population around the country, featuring Timothy Wirth of the State Department and organized through the U.S. Network for Cairo, a broad coalition of non-governmental organizations. While critics of U.S. policy have participated in town meeting planning and have spoken on panels and from the audience, the main aim of the meetings is to build an even broader constituency for population and immigration control, and in particular to draw in the African-American community. "The choice of site of the mid-Atlantic meeting, Morgan State University, a historic black college, may have provided some encouragement to minority participation," reports Pew's Global Stewardship newsletter (vol. 1, no. 2, Feb. 1994).

Opening with footage of starving children in Africa, CNN coverage of the Atlanta town meeting made short shrift of critics while devoting generous air time to Malthusian alarmists including Ted Turner's wife Jane Fonda, who is also UNFPA's 'Goodwill Ambassador.' Fonda attributed the collapse of two ancient Native American communities to overpopulation, Hollywood at its very worst.

Other media efforts under way are the ICPD Global Media Project, with the backing of Jimmy Carter, which will air television ads about the Cairo conference on CNN International and other networks, and a National Wildlife Federation "Peopleand the Planet" teleconference on April 14, featuring Al Gore,Timothy Wirth, UNFPA Director Nafis Sadik, and Jane Fonda, among others.

I am not arguing here against progressives participating in events such as the 'town meetings' (without critical voices, the 'consensus' would appear more solid than it actually is), but it does raise the question of whether it is possible to ensure accurate press coverage. Clearly, the production of alternative media and messages is absolutely essential in the fight against these slick, multi-million dollar 'public opinion' campaigns.