Ecofascism Is Infilitrating the Conversation Around Reproductive Rights

Blaming the climate crisis on overpopulation lets wealthy countries off the hook.

by Annabel Sowemimo

18 February 2022

Illustration by Pietro Garrone and Max Ryan for Novara Media.

Ecofascism – the belief that the deterioration of the environment is due to overpopulation and can be curtailed using the most extreme measures – is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. As the effects of climate change intensify, ecology is playing a bigger role in fascist ideology. The combination of increasing media coverage of climate change and populist leaders peddling the idea that there is a migrant crisis has created a perfect storm for ecofascism to flourish. 

Today, the far right is embracing the ideology. There are a growing number of threads devoted to environmental concerns on far-right platforms, along with the increasing use of hashtags like “#EFDS” – meaning ecofascist death squad. 

Recent terrorist incidents, including the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand and the El Paso shootings in the United States, have highlighted the growing threat posed by the ideology. In both incidents, the gunmen cited concerns of overpopulation as the reason for carrying out their attacks; while, the El Paso shooter explicitly identified himself as an “ethno-nationalist eco-fascist”

These concerning displays of ecofascist ideology are now worming their way into mainstream discussions around global health, with both environmental and sexual health and reproduction organisations increasingly parroting the argument that overpopulation is to blame for the climate crisis. Against this backdrop, reproductive rights are becoming a key battleground for environmentalists today.

Overpopulation theory is violent and racist. 

In order to make sense of ecofascism’s rising popularity, it is first helpful to understand the early development of ideas around overpopulation. This means looking at the work of Thomas Malthus, an 18th century economist who theorised that unsustainable population growth would eventually outstrip the world’s resources, and that steps would need to be taken to protect against this. His ideas have been used to help justify colonialism and the need to amass resources, with Malthus arguing that there simply are not enough resources to be evenly shared. 

His work was drawn upon by some of the earliest proponents of family planning, like Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, to increase support for the cause. Sanger’s agenda included an exclusionary immigration policy, preventing mentally unwell people from accessing free birth control methods and having full autonomy over family planning, as well as the compulsory segregation or sterilisation of those she termed the “profoundly retarded”. “We [do not] believe that the community could or should send to the lethal chamber the defective progeny resulting from irresponsible and unintelligent breeding,” she wrote.

Eugenicists, particularly those in the US, relied on Sanger’s work to develop both anti-natalist and pro-natalist policies, which were aimed at boosting the white population. In the 1960s and 1970s, as many as one in four Indigenous American women were sterilised by the government without their knowledge or consent, as part of the state’s misguided efforts at public healthcare, informed by the racist assumption that these people were not mentally capable of managing their own reproduction.

Overpopulation arguments have gone mainstream.

Whilst organisations like Planned Parenthood have far more admirable aims today, the scapegoating of poor, marginalised groups for their reproductive choices continues – only now, it is happening in the context of the climate crisis.

One of the world’s leading environmental charities, Population Matters, which counts David Attenborough among its trustees, recently came under fire for distributing leaflets entitled: “We need to talk about population”. The controversial flyer, which featured an image of Asian girls, alongside text proclaiming: “Our planet is struggling to cope with our numbers”, played into the neocolonial idea that the reproductive choices of emerging economies, like China and India, are driving the current climate crisis. 

This isn’t the group’s only brush with controversy. A Guardian column written by George Monbiot in 2020 criticised the organisation for its emphasis on “population panic”, which he argued lets “rich people off the hook” for the climate crisis they are disproportionately fuelling. 

Despite Monbiot’s clear-headed critique, the dangerous rhetoric peddled by groups like Population Matters is only becoming more accepted in the mainstream. Prince William recently stoked controversy when he suggested that population growth was responsible for the endangerment of wildlife in Africa

In response, Survival International, a charity that focuses on improving the lives of local tribespeople, produced a video in which Kenyan ecologist Dr Mordecai Ogada criticises the narrative around overpopulation, highlighting “the very light [carbon] footprint of the people [on the African continent].”

The same, of course, cannot be said for the UK, a country in which package holidays to Europe and weekly food shops containing produce flown in from hundreds of thousands of miles away has become the norm. The royals are particularly guilty in this respect, with the Independent reporting last year that they “flew enough air miles to get them to the moon and back.”

And whilst it is true that several countries, like Uganda and Ghana, have much higher unmet needs for contraception compared to wealthier countries like the US, the idea that distributing contraception is the best way to reduce the damage humans are inflicting on the planet is reductive and unhelpful. Such arguments ignore the socio-cultural context specific to many people in the Global South and, at times, the socio-religious importance of having large families. 

The scapegoating needs to stop. 

At the same time as environmental organisations are embracing arguments around overpopulation, conversationist rhetoric is creeping into the family planning sector. Rather than supplying contraception on a rights-based basis to improve the lives of women, sexual and reproductive charities are increasingly framing its allocation in environmental terms. The Margaret Pyke Trust, a UK-based charity, which also completes work in “low and middle-income countries”, says on its website that it is a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an organisation that advocates for contraception to reduce environmental pressures.  

Whilst we should be doing everything in our power to fight climate change, sexual health organisations propagating the idea that rising populations, mostly in the Global South, are the biggest drivers of the climate crisis, is only going to cause an upsurge in racism. 

These arguments also obscure the fact that the unsustainable consumption habits of the far wealthier Global North have a much greater part to play in climate change. A report by the Lancet Planetary Health confirmed as much, finding that the Global North is responsible for a staggering 92% of excess global carbon emissions. What’s more, the only reason the region was able to develop so rapidy was because of its violent extraction of labour and resources from poorer, formerly colonised countries, mostly in the Global South.

Such facts are routinely missing from the mainstream conversation around reproductive rights and climate change – often because those most affected by the introduction of climate measures and interventions aren’t given a seat at the table, despite bearing the brunt of climate change.

This exclusion has a direct impact on international climate policy, which routinely privileges countries in the Global North. During the COP26 Summit in Glasgow, key observers from the Global South were repeatedly barred from negotiations – a move that Sebastian Duyck, a senior attorney at the Center for International Law, condemned as “the least inclusive beginning of a conference of parties since over the last decade.”

We must challenge these neocolonial narratives. 

A number of climate justice and reproductive justice organisations have been working hard to challenge the double standard in arguments to do with overpopulation. Josina Castille, co-founder of the climate justice collective Land In Our Names (LION), says that for far too long these kinds of “dangerous narratives” have been peddled by “often upper-class environmentalists”. 

“I have rarely seen any discussion on the number of children that Prince William has or even Boris Johnson,” she says. “There is a consistent history of Black women being blamed for having too many children.” 

Aside from the evident neocolonialism of a few wealthy countries continuing to dictate the reproductive policy of some of the world’s poorest; the idea that we must curtail population growth because of insufficient resources is a blatant denial of the real state of things. The resources have rarely been the issue; it’s about who consumes them and how. 

If we are to curtail the harmful rise of ecofascism, it is vital we challenge the discourse around population growth and climate change. This means understanding and acknowledging who the real victims, and culprits, of the climate crisis really are.

For too long, the Global North has scapegoated poorer countries for its environmental crimes. We must work to challenge its neocolonial narratives and reframe the conversation, acknowledging that the consumption habits of wealthier countries are disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis, and ensuring that poorer countries have a legitimate stake in shaping climate policy, and with it, the future of the planet.

Annabel Sowemimo is a community sexual and reproductive health doctor.

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