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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Population and Patriarchy

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with Patricia Hynes, author of Taking Population Out of the Equation. Hynes, who is a Visiting Professor of Environmental Policy at Tufts University, argues that solving the problems which lead to unsustainable population growth will require more than meeting the unmet needs of women — it will also require reining in the excessive power of men.


CURWOOD: If conservative religions represent a key part of the right wing of the population debate, feminists represent an important part of the left. For years, feminist scholars have criticized coercive efforts to control population growth in the absence of better education, economic opportunity, and comprehensive health care for women. Patricia Hynes, a visiting professor of environmental policy at Tufts University, takes that view a step further. In her book, Taking Population Out of the Equation, Professor Hynes argues that solving the problems which lead to unsustainable population growth will require more than meeting the unmet needs of women. It will also require, she says, reigning in the excessive power of men.

HYNES: Patriarchy is at the root of the population problem for a number of reasons. The lack of availability of birth control and abortion for women throughout the world. Who does not make these available? Who does not want women to have access to birth control and abortion? Often it starts in the home with the husband. Then it extends out to male politicians and to the local priest or the local sort of religious hierarchy. Secondly, in countries where women have to have a son or more than one sons and will have children until they do, this son preference, which this is called, is another signal of the devaluation of women and girls. And this is another example of patriarchy.

CURWOOD: I want to ask you, though, isn't the process for the Cairo meeting saying just that? That we should promote full education, health, and free opportunities for women? Make sure they have reproductive choice and autonomy?

HYNES: The rhetoric going in to Cairo is much improved. That has been a victory, but it's not enough. It's as if this is a women's problem, as if women caused it, and as if you fix it by working with women. And I am saying that men are in this as much as women but differently from women. They are much more powerful with respect to pregnancy and birth than women are. And therefore, if we're going to address population, we should be addressing the power of men in relationship to women in the family, in the church, in society. And therefore, we need a program of educating men, not just women.

CURWOOD: Let me just ask you here, though. How much do numbers matter to you? Do they have any relevance to your discussion of population issues?

HYNES: Numbers have always had relevance to feminists. I don't think that they belong in the population debate in the way the populationists have brought them in. First of all, populationists take an approach that every human being added to the earth is causing a crisis, and equilibrate among all those human beings as if first of all, all are causing the same kind of an effect. Secondly, their analysis treats all human beings as having only and solely a negative effect upon the earth. To my mind, it is what people do, not how many children they have, that we need to look at first. And that typically means not only the consumption of the rich, but we can also look at the institutions of the industrialized countries, and I'll give an example.


HYNES: We'll take the institution of the military. Studies have shown, have estimated that up to 20% of global environmental pollution and degradation is due to the effects of the military. The small number of people who constitute the decision makers in the military are much more serious polluters than are the huge numbers of poor people on this earth.

CURWOOD: What about the idea of carrying capacity? I mean, can the earth keep having more and more and more and more people without a problem?

HYNES: No. I suspect that it cannot. I mean there are people who say that it can. I don't see it that way. The goal is not to fill every square foot with another human being. I think one of our goals is to teach ecological literacy. And by that, I mean the type of knowledge and understanding that motivates changes in behavior so that people are aware of the impacts that they have, and people in fact make decisions about the number of children that they feel they can not only afford to have but the Earth can afford.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for joining me. Patricia Hynes is visiting professor of environmental policy at Tufts University. Her new book is called Taking Population Out of the Equation. Thank you.

HYNES: Thank you.



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