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Playing God: The Global Population Control Movement

Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population by Matthew Connelly

october 4, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly28book reviewPlaying God: The Global Population Control MovementMohan Rao This is a truly extraordinary book that I cannot recommend too highly, not just to the small com-munity of historians working in the area of health and population, but for public health workers, demographers, scholars in gender studies, feminist and health activists and, indeed, even the occasional policymaker who reads. The book has been reviewed favourably in extremely unlikely places, including the New York Timesand the Economist. Both point out that the author is born in a Catholic fam-ily, with many children, implying this would explain the critique of the global population control movement that this book is. Both reviews did not point out that some of the harshest criticism in the book is reserved for the Catholic church’s stand on contraception and abortion. Reviewers in both places seem to think ideas underlying population control is a thing of the past, like political incorrect-ness. And here, they have some misguided support from the author himself, but more on this later.Here is a scholar who had infamously written in the Atlantic Monthly, with that Cold Warrior Paul Kennedy, that popula-tion growth in the third world, along with growing economic inequalities and migration, portended nothing less than a clash of civilisations, in a familiar replay of neo-Malthusian tropes. Here he is several years later, with extensive research under his belt, prepared not only to critique his own earlier position, but examine what factors lead to that position itself. This self-questioning, self-doubt, is truly catholic – with a small c – and indeed a conversion. Hopefully, reading this book will take others through the same journey of discovery. Being politically correct, influential people in policymaking circles in the first world no longer talk of the yellow peril, or use phrases such as population explosion, or metaphors like the population bomb. Nevertheless, neo-Malthusian thinking – that population growth is the cause of a host of problems, of hunger and poverty, or indeed famines, and today, genocide and global warming – frames other policy discourses, that on immigration and the environment being prominent ones. “Most Americans Want Immigration Drastically Reduced” reads a full-page advertisement inHarper’s, put forth by Negative Popula-tion Growth. It goes on to argue about the “catastrophic effect of overpopulation on our environment, resources and standard of living” (Harper’s 2004:19).1 Neo- Malthusian underpinnings are evident in some of the security discourses on refu-gees. The ghastly Rwandan tragedy was seen as an inevitable consequence of population growth, not the politics of geno-cide (Mamdani 2001).2 Hum do hamare do, who paanch, unke pachees (“The two of us have two, the five of them have 25”), was a slogan that won an infamous elec-tion in Gujarat after the genocide of Mus-lims in 2002 (Rao 2007).3 We only need to remember that as soon as the last elections were announced in the UK, immigration became an issue, not just for the Conserva-tives but for the New Labour of Tony Blair as well. Both Italy and France have recently elected right wing presidents on an explicit anti-immigration platform.FundamentalismAt the same time, a sub-discipline of “stra-tegic demography” has emerged, that seeks to locate the growth of Islamic “fundamentalism”4 in the “youth bulge theory”. This fanciful theory argues that population growth in Islamic countries, characterised by a high proportion of youth, leads to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, spelling political dan-ger, not just to democracy in these countries but to the so-called free world (Hendrixson 2004).5 This search for biological metaphors to political and economic problems does not, for instance, explain the rise to political dominance of Protestant fundamentalism in the United States, which has of course no youth bulge, nor indeed significant population growth. But such matters of truth or rigour rarely troubled demo-graphic discourses in the past, and obvi-ously do not, today. In other words, the population growth argument remains compelling, and truly protean, explaining just about everything, and thus of course explaining nothing.Here is a remarkable book, of solid scholarship (although rather overbur-dened with more than a 100 pages of notes and references. Another quick paperback edition is called for without this, cheaper, and thus accessible to more people). Along with a host of secondary materials, the author has extensively tracked government and UN reports, and, most extraordinarily, been granted per-mission to go through the records of organisations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Population Council and so on – the prime players, or villains, in the population drama. Does this mean they have come to terms with their pasts? Or does it mean they do not really care? Whatever it is, we must salute these organisations for the unusual courage they have displayed. Fatal Misconception abjures rhetoric and conspiracy theories, indicating the con-catenation of ideas, institutions and the contingencies of global politics to, to use current jargon, deconstruct neo-Malthu-sian assumptions that lie at the heart of population policies. It shows with meticu-lous attention to details of ideas, person-alities and funding, how the global popu-lation control movement was created, tracing the extraordinary unfolding of Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Populationby Matthew Connelly;Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2008; pp 384 plus, price not mentioned (hardcover).


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