Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children, the Guardian advised its readers in July. Similarly, the pioneer of cyborg-feminist theory, Donna Haraway, tells readers to “Make Kin Not Babies!” in her latest book, Staying with the Trouble. She is imagining a time in a few hundred years where “the human people of this planet can again be numbered 2 or 3 billion or so.” She acknowledges that many on the Left “hear neo-imperialism, neoliberalism, misogyny, and racism (who can blame them?)” in the slogan and recognizes that revisiting the population question feels “like going over to the dark side.” Still, she avers, “denial will not serve us.” The specter of climate catastrophe haunts the earth and so, some say, the population question must be back on the agenda.
But did it ever leave? Fears of a “population explosion” tied to stark warnings of mass starvation, social upheaval, and resource depletion in the 1960s and 1970s helped make family planning a central component of development aid to the Global South. There it remained: In 2012, the Gates Foundation and U.N. Population Fund convened the London Family Planning Summit, which committed to help 380 million women “delay, space or limit their births” by 2020. This past July, the Summit reconvened and proudly declared that as a result of modern contraception in the “world’s poorest countries,” “82 million births . . . are averted annually.” Still, the Summit statement insisted, this is not nearly enough.
Although calls for renewed attention to population are now justified on the basis of carbon footprints and newly pressing resource scarcity, population has been on the agenda for centuries, beginning with Thomas Malthus’s dour prediction that human numbers would always outpace the food supply. But the politics of population took a decidedly different turn in the 20th century. Economics, as an emergent discipline, could newly measure and value such aggregate human numbers. Starting in the 1950s, a host of experts became intensely concerned with the valuation of human life, centering their anxieties on the questions: Who matters? How much are they worth? Economists and demographers made a new conjecture: Rising population wasn’t just bad for the fortunes of the poor—it was bad for all of us.
Feminist science-studies scholar Michelle Murphy's new book, The Economization of Life (Duke, 2017), explores this history, a history both of the experts obsessed with quantifying and econometric approaches to human life and of the marginal populations targeted by their interventions. Other histories have explored neo-Malthusian fears about the “population bomb,” locating its intellectual origins in the long shadow of eugenics or documenting its abuses—including systematic, involuntary sterilization—in the control measures brought about in much of the developing world. Murphy tells a different story, one that shows how the scientific ideal of “population” as an undifferentiated and abstract human mass, entirely free of freighted notions like race or nation, has always been an illusion. The reality, she writes, is that population and other “figures of massified life, in the forms of multitudes, crowds, and overpopulation, have been persistently racializing figures.”
Yet we urgently need new ways of thinking about collectivity that keep the bigger picture of planetary survival, human and otherwise, in mind. Is there a place for a radically egalitarian answer to these questions, one liberated from the long shadow of population control?
In the postwar period, state planners and development experts used the concepts of both population and economy to quantify and aggregate human life. Unlike Malthus’s picture of runaway human numbers endlessly driven by lust, biologists like Raymond Pearl posited that population had a clear pattern that responded to environmental inputs. Pearl sought to demonstrate that the population of all living creatures responded rationally to factors like food supply and space, comparing smooth S-curve graphs of census data from colonial Algeria to the population of his own fruit-fly colonies. This idea, Murphy argues, was “rife with possibilities of management.” It wasn’t long until the idea of a demographic transition, claiming a link between economic development and low population growth, became paradigmatic in demography in the 1940s and 1950s — although it wasn’t clear if lower birth rates followed prosperity or the other way around.
Crossing these modern concepts of population and economy, Murphy suggests, made possible a new way to value—and devalue—human life. Stripped explicitly of older eugenic goals of racial improvement through engineering, population was tethered instead to the economic future. The metric of gross national product, first calculated in 1942, presented “the economy” as measurable and manageable, and by midcentury GDP per capita had become the dominant measure of quality of life. From this vantage point sharp increases in population looked like dangerous threats to prosperity in developing countries, and population control was just as valid as a tool of economic management as interest rates. The noted demographer Frank Notestein declared outright in 1959 that “there is a conflict between qualitative and quantitative abundance of life.” Cost-benefit analyses were cited to prove the economic value of so-called averted births, achieved through judicious family planning. A new host of development experts argued that targeted population control could effectively kick-start the transition to consumer abundance, as fewer mouths to feed left more for everyone else. Michel Foucault once claimed that modern racism boiled down to the idea that some must die so that others may live. Murphy argues that the economization of life reconfigured this logic: “Some must not be born so that future others might live more abundantly.”
The economic value of averted births, far from any commitment to reproductive justice, became the driving motivation of family-planning campaigns across the developing world, and drove much of U.S. development aid in the Cold War. Planning for these interventions required increasingly sophisticated calculations. Murphy describes the absurd logic by which averted births were measured:
To arrive at the number . . . one had to estimate the counterfactual number of births that would have occurred without any family planning intervention. This counterfactual calculation, in turn, relied on estimates of the average “foetal wastage” of miscarriages and anticipated infertility of women due to age, as well as estimates of the average time spent married, of time spent pregnant leading to a live birth, which was distinct from the also required estimates of time spent pregnant leading to a still birth, which was different again from the estimate of average time pregnant leading to a miscarriage.”
The danger of such cost-benefit analyses was not their erasure of the texture of lived lives — all aggregated numbers abstract away from detail—but that they tempted policymakers to take the quick fix over structural reform. Poverty became a raw numbers game for development experts, rather than a set of social relations.
By the time human-capital theory, seeking to value each individual’s marketable skills, had seeped into development programs in the 1990s, calls to invest in girls' education in the Global South were everywhere. But their appeal to funding agencies turned not on the benefits of education as such but quite explicitly on the indirect economic benefits of population reduction.
Campaigns like Nike’s Girl Effect, launched in 2004, positioned the Third World Girl as the “iconic vessel of human capital.” A reliable return on investment, her education would be handsomely paid back in the effects of reduced births on GDP per capita. In one campaign video, a voice-over speaks as the nameless Girl, directly to donors: “Invest in me. It makes sense. Start when I am very young. Watch your investment grow, as I do.” Another video spelled out the cascade of beneficial outcomes: “Girl→School→Cow→$→Business→Clean H20→Social Change→Stronger Economy→Better World.” In the human-capital ideal, economic value displaces not just social goods but the value of life itself. As the logics of surplus life return to the metropole, judicious family planning becomes “managed migration.” We see it manifest in “points-based” immigration systems in which human capital—degrees, professional skills—becomes the only measure of fitness for admission.
But the point for Murphy is that to think of these issues through the terms of population is always to conceive of unwanted or surplus life—and thus of disposable life. Population control could hardly be said to “harm” the unborn: Rather, it made the poor across the developing world surplus by definition.
Perhaps, as Murphy suggests in the book’s coda, we should do away with the concept of population altogether. “Population has become for me an intolerable concept,” Murphy admits. It is always “profoundly entangled with designations of surplus life, of life unworthy, of life contained, of life open to destruction.” Moreover, she adds, it makes a crucial analytical mistake: It “points the finger at masses rather than distributions and accumulations, at people rather than economy.”
How else could we think about aggregate life? And would any new concepts fare better to describe and politicize human density? Population is so embedded in our thinking (and so useful to social science) that it’s difficult to even begin to think outside of it.
Murphy wants to talk of distributed reproduction. Reproduction is, after all, about more than just having children—Murphy describes it as “the struggle for collective conditions for sustaining life and persisting over time amid life-negating structural forces.” To speak of distributed reproduction, then, would be to flip the question from who reproduces “to what distributions of life chances and what kinds of infrastructures get reproduced.” In other words, what we collectively reproduce—people, things, societies, nature—and how. Instead of starting with raw human numbers stripped of social context, we might start with reproductive justice and broaden it outward to reproducing, sustaining, maintaining our entire social and natural worlds. But it remains a programmatic suggestion. Murphy ends with a bracing invitation, but the realization of her call to arms is left to others.
In the meantime, the “population question” continues to loom. Nearly all future population growth, expected to peak at 10 billion in 2050, will occur in the burgeoning megacities of the developing world, where already over a billion people eke out a precarious or wageless living. Observers have revived an old Marxist term to describe those global capitalism no longer appears to need: “surplus populations.” Automation and deindustrialization reproduce the same divides in the Global North. Surplus populations in rich countries are endemically policed, incarcerated, and killed. Refugees escaping their conditions are brutally repelled from fortress Europe and North America by barbed wire and armed guards — and soon, perhaps, a “big beautiful wall” on the Mexican border—though of course one exists already. Thousands die each year in the Mediterranean and the Rio Grande Valley, and many times that are deported, jailed, or housed in camps and detention centers from Calais to Nauru. In this context, as Haraway rightly points out, policies to encourage more babies in rich countries to mitigate “demographic decline” (i.e. aging) are dangerous fantasies of racial purity, nothing short of scandalous as millions of migrants are violently excluded.
With climate change accelerating, migration numbers are set to explode. The question once eagerly posed by demographers and economists—how much is life worth?—now receives its tragic reply in the cruel disposability of surplus life across the globe. Already our media and politicians speak of “floods” and “swarms” of migrants “pouring in” or looming at our shores. They are dying every day, so that we may live more abundantly. Murphy argues that race was always the subtext of population: That subtext is becoming text, written by the victors of an eco-apartheid, where militarized enclaves of wealth and safety are sealed off from flows of desperate climate refugees.
Scarcity poses a genuine challenge for the collective reproduction of the planet, and human density contributes to it. But neo-Malthusianism is no answer at all. Speculations about the earth in several hundred years aside, what does a renewed emphasis on population produce in the politics of the here and now? Which ends are served when increasing numbers of human beings are spoken of in the same abstraction as rising sea levels? When carbon emissions per capita in the United States are 40 times those of Bangladesh? Population points to babies rather than borders and systemic inequality as culprits for poverty. Free movement, not capital. Plan utopias, not people. Make Kin, Not Borders!