Why there’s no room for population arguments in our radical public health analysis

Medact is very proud to have worked with the People’s Health Movement and a host of other partners as part of the Global Health Watch project since its inception as a radical alternative world health report over a decade ago.

The latest, sixth edition is another excellent resource for the health justice movement, integrating rigorous analysis of the social, economic, political and environmental determinants of health with stories of struggle and hope for radical transformation. We are particularly proud of the contributions by Medact staff and members of the Medact Research Network, and we are looking forward to hosting the UK launch event this coming Monday 30th May at 7pm.

But we would also like to take this opportunity to share our serious concerns about a couple of lines in Global Health Watch 6 that we feel hover at the edge of a dangerous discourse.

The book’s introduction (page 4) summarises Chapter A3 as “a look at the provocative concept of ‘de-growth’ – a managed downscaling in aggregate human consumption by putting the Global North (and elites in the Global South) on a strict diet and ensuring that population size does not exceed what can be sustained within the planet’s ecological limits”. Chapter A3 itself contains one, albeit brief, reference to the need to “[e]nsure that the human population does not continue growing to an ecologically unsustainable size”. A footnote attributes this perspective to William Rees, who is referenced several other times and who has an association with Population Matters, an organisation which has advocated such deeply regressive policies as banning Syrian refugees from Britain and scrapping child benefits.

At Medact, we believe it is problematic to refer to population size, even in the context of living within ecosystem limits. As a footnote in the chapter itself acknowledges, there is a deeply troubling “colonial and neocolonial legacy of racist population control policies”. Historically, such arguments have been used to target racially minoritised and economically disadvantaged communities, and to hijack provision of contraception—which should be based on feminist principles of women’s freedom to exercise control over their own fertility, not population control ideology. We believe that any kind of population control argument risks being destined to target these groups in oppressive and deeply coercive ways.

Population growth is not the cause of the climate crisis and population control is not the answer. To refer to population size in the context of climate change can distract from the real issue, which the chapter argues for: the urgent need for a just transition to a zero carbon economy. A more detailed elaboration on these points can be found in Global Health Watch 3, in a chapter called “Challenging the population climate connection”, which calls out organisations promoting these ideas, including the Optimum Population Trust (as Population Matters was formerly known).

We are grateful to the Medact member who initially raised these concerns with us, and to the editors of the volume for the positive and constructive meeting we had to discuss the issue. We feel confident that raising this issue has generated collective reflection and learning and this statement has been agreed collaboratively.

Long term, we hope to deepen our relationship with the People’s Health Movement and work together to develop the role of the many partners in the Global Health Watch project in the editorial process for producing future editions.

In the immediate term, we look forward to hosting the UK launch event on Monday 30th May at 7pm, with a great lineup of speakers, including several contributors to the book. Please do join us for this if you can!