Jade Sasser’s On Infertile Ground presents a concise and troubling account of the conjunction of population, reproductive rights, and environmental movements. Grounded in political ecology and feminist studies, the book argues that populationism – the attribution of social and ecological problems to population numbers, while upholding human rights and international development solutions (p. 3) – is growing in popularity thanks to strategic alliances with science, climate change interventions, and “social justice” concerns that appeal to young people. There is a lot to be troubled here, including the racism embedded in populationism and international development, and the parasitic use of the term “social justice” by groups that, as Sasser shows, do not understand it. Also troubling is the recurrent distraction: as readers of Society and Space know, climate change and environmental degradation are primarily problems of consumption, not population growth. Yet population-based arguments continue to command international resources and attention. On Infertile Ground analyzes the actors, networks, and campaigns advocating for populationism today, and reminds us of the inherently racialized, classed, and gendered implications that go along with population-based arguments.  

The first two chapters provide historical context to understand the origins of populationism and raise a recurrent theme: the idea that population-environment arguments are “common sense” and “taboo.” Given that populationism seems to persistently distract from the real causes of environmental decline (consumption, industrial production), understanding its staying power is important. Indeed, this argument even echoes amongst natural and environmental scientists; I was partially moved to write this review after reading a recent diagnosis of environmental degradation in Chile. Scientists at the University of Chile argue that population and poverty are the two main obstacles to environmental sustainability there (Universidad de Chile, 2016: p. 29, 31). The notion that “too many poor people” translates into a degraded environment is thus seemingly entrenched even among those who have quantified and modelled the impacts of mining, industrial agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions, and other industry- and consumption-driven elements. For anyone concerned with climate and environmental justice, these kinds of beliefs must be dismantled; unfortunately, as Sasser shows, organizing towards this goal presents conundrums that are too easily brushed aside in the rush to make things happen. In the U.S. context, this brushing aside is typically done by privileged (and usually white) activists.

In the first chapter Sasser recounts the Cold War and recent history of concern with population growth, culminating with how these long-standing fears play into more recent “apocalyptic” climate change narratives. Using “crisis narratives” to discuss population goes back at least to 18th century English cleric Thomas Malthus, whose ideas have inspired successive generations of populationists. In this chapter and the next, Sasser weaves between the U.S. and international policy arenas, describing some of the linkages between them. Sasser rightly focuses on the importance of affect for understanding the staying-power of these ideas, particularly fear. Fear of global South countries with “excessively” young populations, and fear of environmental collapse, perhaps coupled with a sense that childbirth is something those in power can control, help explain the ongoing appeal of these ideas among U.S. publics.

The next chapter charts the coupling of population growth and environmental decline, an association that persists despite the absence of any scientific evidence attributing environmental degradation solely (or even primarily) to population growth. Sasser applies a critical feminist perspective to highlight the racist and eugenicist commitments of early 20th century advocates of this coupling, then superseded by modernization ideals in which societies transition through stages from “high-fertility, high-mortality” to the opposite. It is worth re-stating for the record: fertility (birth rates) have been falling worldwide for decades, irrespective of industrialization or economic growth. Scientists have, on the contrary, “discovered abundant historical evidence to refute the empirical basis and analytic value of the demographic transition” (p. 61). Sasser argues this association persists because of how demography was institutionalized as both an applied science and a field of advocacy, as exemplified by concepts like “carrying capacity.” By the 1960s, support for coercive forms of population control were numerous: from forced sterilization to linking food aid to population control, often promoted by individuals who were openly racist or anti-immigrant.

Sasser’s narrative both draws out the underlying fear of “others” felt by the scientists and writers she analyzes and their contradictions; for example, of Paul Ehrlich she writes, “[he] was a complicated figure – just as he emphasized the ‘frightening’ growth of poor, racialized populations overseas, he also turned the lens back on the white middle and upper classes in the U.S.” (p. 74). Prominent populationist William Vogt directed Planned Parenthood for years, and others, like Garrett Hardin and Erhlich, respectively advised and co-founded the organization Zero Population Growth. Her analysis invites the reader to engage with the conundrums posed by the influence of such racist, elitist ideas on high-profile U.S. organizations, such as the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood.

This is one of many moments in the book that open space up for discussion, rather than close it down with easy moral judgements or clear-cut examples. This book is therefore important for emerging activists and young people, be it inside undergraduate and masters-level classrooms or among community and activist groups grappling with the racist and elitist legacies of movements they today want to join. The next three chapters focus on contemporary population-environment activism, based on interviews and participant-observation. Sasser shares with the reader direct quotes and dialogue with various activists – young and older, white and of color – that draw the reader into the interviewees’ efforts to think through what they find troubling. This is effective because the book as a whole provides readers with the historical and political context needed to engage meaningfully with these troubles.

Poster at Santa Barbara's March for Science, April 2017 (Barandiaran)

Sasser thus raises numerous questions activists should be asking themselves, such as: What impacts could my activism have for historically marginalized and vulnerable populations, at home and abroad? Are global experiences or perspectives necessary to advocate for a global issue? Are essentializing narratives ever allowed (and why not)? For activists working internationally, there are even more difficult questions to reflect on: Can one really represent the interests of people whose life conditions are deeply unknown to them? What, if any, authority and responsibilities does one’s expertise confer? What histories do activists need to know before they engage a topic or movement? Throughout, Sasser cautions emerging and young activists: take the time to reflect on your actions, and resist the urge to allow “the quest for leadership and action [to] outweigh other concerns” (p. 105).

Activism in the U.S. has surged in the last few years. Mass mobilizations happened in 2017 for science on Earth Day and for the historic Women’s March on Washington. This year, spurred by the police murder of George Floyd and led by Black Lives Matter activists, protests erupted around the world – albeit with a concentration in the U.S. —to oppose racism and police brutality against Black communities. For all the questions Sasser raises for burgeoning activists to discuss, on one issue she is crystal clear: the need for movements to engage in genuine intersectional politics and for individuals and organizations to choose their allies carefully. The analysis presented in chapters 3, 4 and 5 powerfully caution that the injustices of the past will not be overcome without recognizing intersecting injustices rooted in race, class, and geography, nor without changing who participates in movement leadership. Sasser shows this with the case of populationist organizations that co-opt “reproductive justice” discourse without understanding how their opportunistic efforts to link reproductive justice to climate change, pursued to attract funding, actually undercuts the leadership of women of color who spent years organizing under the banner of reproductive justice. Such injustices are likely common in other movements too.

What kinds of alliances have populationist organizations pursued and on what terms? Sasser’s analysis includes some dedicated organizations, like Zero Population Growth and Population Action International, and the Sierra Club’s (now defunct) Global Population Environment Program. They all pursued alliances with science, youth, and the U.S. Reproductive Justice movement, an American social movement initiated in the 1990s and led by feminists of color (chapters 3-5). What stands out is that all of them have at best symbolic value for the populationist organizations Sasser studied. In other words, these are not alliances built on trust and mutual understanding. Rather, they reflect what donors, foundations, and organizational leaders believe is needed to confer legitimacy for their ideas. Thus, donors search for scientists who are “friendly” with their cause to produce evidence that they can construe as helpful to their cause. They search out young people who see their voices as crucial to global climate change and development politics.

In discussing the role of youth and the co-optation of reproductive justice, Sasser argues that efforts to discuss global population will lead to advancing population control because population has always been political and cultural, not just biological. In today’s ideological landscape, populationist arguments resonate with Wendy Brown’s neoliberal subject, an entrepreneur who manages their own human capital, deciding where to invest and taking responsibility for any failures (Brown, 2015). Sasser calls the populationist’s neoliberal subject a sexual steward, “a moral agent who manages her fertility and the environment responsibly for the greater good” (p. 4). On Infertile Ground can also be productively read alongside volumes by Kari Norgaard, Jesse Goldstein, and others analyzing the motivations of climate deniers and of misguided climate do-gooders. The populationist organizations Sasser analyzes use similar tactics to those used by other neoliberal organizations, but the book provides few clues on whether they are part of existing networks of religious groups, fossil fuel money, and right-wing think tanks (Mayer, 2016; Mirowski, 2019).

The book’s take-aways for reproductive rights and access to family planning are sobering. Right now, racial biases in maternal health are appalling and growing in the U.S., while some in the political establishment are bent on closing Planned Parenthood clinics and rolling back abortion access. In Latin America, where abortion is mostly banned and in some places even criminalized, women’s movements demanding access to safe abortion have had limited success so far and only recently have societies began grappling with painful experiences of forced sterilization. The injustices in reproductive rights and access to family planning at the heart of this book thus continue, at home and abroad, and with them the need for international advocacy and funding for these issues. Yet it is hard to trust the organizations doing this work given the account laid out in On Infertile Ground. Sasser’s work therefore makes a timely contribution that could help revitalize intersectional organizing around reproductive and environmental justice.

Works Cited

Brown W (2015) Undoing the Demos. New York: Zone Books.
Mayer J (2016) Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. New York: Penguin Books.
Mirowski P (2019) Hell Is Truth Seen Too Late. boundary 2 46(1): 1–53. DOI: 10.1215/01903659-7271327.
Universidad de Chile (2016) Informe País: Estado del medio ambiente en Chile. Comparación 1999-2015. Santiago, Chile: Centro de Análisis de Políticas Públicas.

Javiera Barandiaran is Associate Professor in Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her work explores the intersection of science, environment, and development in Latin America.