Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population

May 29, 2008

Most observers of social movements, even their participants, underestimate their diversity and complexity. Every social movement is a constantly roiling mass of uneasy fractions, tendencies and subtendencies, tenuously and temporarily allying, with shifting meanings for core terms and goals, from "the Enlightenment", to "anarchism" to "conservatism" to "environmentalism". This is the problem that Columbia historian Matthew Connelly seeks to correct in Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. Connelly decisively confronts the historical baggage of reproductive rights by detailing the confluence of social Darwinists, Malthusians, racist eugenicists, public health advocates and feminists who coalesced around the century-long effort to control world population.

Like Betsy Hartman's pioneering critique Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, Connelly's principal narrative is the tension between those who focused on women's empowerment through birth control and those who wanted to control the fertility of populations with financial incentives and coercion. "The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception," Connelly says, "was to think that one could know other people's interests better than they knew it themselves."

The narrative starts in the 19th century with the rising concern in the UK and US about the higher fertility rates of the developing world, sure to produce a flood of non-Anglos across borders and the decline of Anglo hegemony. Racial eugenicists emerged in many countries, determined to increase the birth rate of worthy whites in the affluent North and to control the fertility of the rest.

Connelly describes the rise of the global population control movement, from Delhi and Beijing to London, Geneva and New York, with astonishing breadth. In his account, population control reached its final act in the 1970s and 1980s when Club of Rome pessimism about the "population bomb" coincided with massive sterilisations in India and the imposition of the one-child regime in China. By the mid-1980s population control had been tarnished politically by these excesses, while dramatic declines of fertility worldwide had demonstrated that government coercion has only a marginal influence on childbearing compared with improving women's education and employment prospects.

Although the book details the ubiquitous influence of racialism and coercive eugenics, it avoids the conspiratorial mindset often used to tar all family planning. The often-vilified Margaret Sanger is examined as a tragic and heroic figure, a passionate activist using every ally at hand to further the cause of women's empowerment through birth control, then finding herself in league with racialists and patriarchal authoritarian Malthusians. By structuring the story around central figures such as Sanger, Annie Besant and William Draper, Connelly helps the reader weather a mind-numbing parade of characters, organisations and acronyms.

The lingering misanthropy of population control can be seen in how few people are still willing to entertain the idea today that population growth in itself is a good thing. All things being equal, the more people the merrier, black, brown or pink. All things aren't equal of course, and today this misanthropy is cloaked in ecological concern. But Connelly notes that a population's ecological footprint is as much a product of the sustainability of its technologies and resource use as of its size.

One conclusion Connelly drew from this project is that "international and nongovernmental organizations had taken up the unfinished work of empires and created new forms of unaccountable power - in this case, controlling populations rather than territory". This is an unfortunate if understandable product of his having focused on agencies such as the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, instead of an agency with a more attractive mission. While many population controllers were militant internationalists, it seems that at least as many were also fervent nationalists.

Connelly's pessimism that international institutions can ever be as accountable as national governments is hopefully unwarranted. It seems likely that transnational bodies will be increasingly important in ensuring the health and wellbeing of the nine or ten billion people the planet will soon hold.

Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population

By Matthew Connelly. Harvard University Press, 544pp, £22.95. ISBN 9780674024236. Published 4 March 2008

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