Review of On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change. Jade E. Sasser, New York: NYU Press, 2018, 189 pp.

Reviewed Book

On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change. Jade E. Sasser, New York: NYU Press, 2018, 189 pp.

The prevailing assumption that limiting fertility in the Global South will prevent planetary collapse has inspired a new generation of environmental activists. But these young leaders, Jade E. Sasser argues, are merely one node in a network of actors rekindling overpopulation anxieties to revive a shrinking international development sector.

On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change contributes a much-needed analysis on the enduring legacy of neo-Malthusianism in environmental advocacy. Drawing from archival material and ethnographic interviews, Sasser reveals that neo-Malthusianism didn’t end in the postwar period. Rather, scientists, private donors, and NGOs reimagined neo-Malthusian discourse in the 21st century on the promise of women’s empowerment in the Global South—vis-à-vis her womb—to slow overpopulation and reverse rising temperatures and habitat destruction.

A scholar of environmental science, gender, and sexuality studies, Sasser argues that international development leaders and young activists envisioned an idealized subject in the Global South—the sexual steward—to recommit enthusiasm for technological reproductive interventions. The sexual steward is a monolithic neoliberal, heterosexual woman endowed with choice whose moral reproductive commitments—voluntary contraception—will save our planet. While the sexual steward is a responsible family planner, youth activists on the other side of the world must help her realize her agency and remove obstacles to her reproductive freedom, improving women’s social status, so that she may “solve problems for the entire world” (p. 4).

Sasser introduces three arguments to investigate the rise of sexual stewardship. First, Sasser argues that science advances populationist advocacy by legitimizing the connections between population growth and climate change while minimizing controversy. Second, Sasser argues that activist models focused on individualism appeal to young environmentalists who are responsible for the renewed popularity of populationism. Third, Sasser argues that NGOs have destabilized the meaning of “justice” and “empowerment” undermining their radical potential.

The book’s organization follows the argument’s sequence. In the Introduction, Sasser sets her terms and dismisses population control as a legitimate enterprise. Tracing a vast body of scholarship, Sasser establishes that capitalism, not population, drives climate change. Nations with the highest fertility rates contribute the lowest emissions (Ethiopia, Nigeria), and global fertility rates are in decline. The first two chapters construct a history of population control, its relationship to environmental movements, and the political production of scientific knowledge. Sasser maps the construction of population as an object of inquiry to the creation of demography, a field of study that informed the theory of carrying capacity—or the fraught scientific concept of Earth’s limits to sustain human life. Here, Sasser takes care to examine the historical feminist critiques, of and for the Global South, against populationism. The third chapter follows the money. Sasser details how populationists finance scientific research to enable population control policies. The last chapters reveal how NGOs use youth leaders to circulate populationist data. College-aged people, Sasser claims, believe they’re uniquely positioned to fight climate change: “This is our civil rights movement” (p. 103).

Sasser substantiates her claims with interdisciplinary sources. Media reports on climate change, participant observations at conferences and on Capitol Hill, correspondence with donors, and in-depth interviews with students at the Sierra Club’s now defunct Global Population and Environment Program portray the nervous system of population control advocacy in the 21st century. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Sasser maintains a reflexive positionality about the ethnographic project she organized to navigate the production of sexual stewardship.

Reproductive justice is a subtheme of the book. Loretta Ross is a founding member of Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, the grassroots organization responsible for naming reproductive justice. Ross argues reproductive justice is an intersectional framework for the bodily self-determination of women of color faced with reproductive oppressions (see Ross 2017). However, Sasser shows how NGOs “water down” the term and use it as a development buzzword (p. 136).

For example, in U.S. youth trainings on climate change and family planning in the Global South, the Sierra Club inserts “reproductive justice” to signal progressive values, to distance themselves from the “dark past” of population control, and to evade critiques of racism and classism. The term, however, is purely decorative. According to Sasser’s interviews, the Sierra Club’s predominately White youth leaders believe the connection between voluntary birth control and environmental protection is innovative and grounded in social justice. But at a youth reception, Sasser describes essentializing photographs of pregnant, dark-skinned women from the Global South used to “get people in the door” (p. 106). At another meeting, a White woman in her 50s walks out, saying, “I’m not into this stuff, telling poor women they shouldn’t have children. … We used to hear it all the time in the seventies. I can’t believe they’re still trotting these ideas out today” (pp. 133–34). Building on previous chapters, Sasser illustrates the cooptation of feminist language to promote retrograde policies under the mantle of women’s empowerment.

A broader reading of reproductive justice could further enrich Sasser’s study on reproductive politics and the environment. Developed by Black women before the 1994 Cairo Conference, reproductive justice is a theoretical and organizing framework that both offers a sharp relief to Sasser’s sexual steward and hinges on a human rights–based framework. Reproductive justice calls for the right to raise children in safe and sustainable environments. Thus, movement leaders have actively participated in advocacy against climate disaster, following the tradition of women in the Global South by rejecting population control and targeting capitalist consumption patterns. An extended genealogy of these counter-movements could help readers visualize the long arc of neo-Malthusianism, a principle goal of Sasser’s work. Moreover, given the prominence of the Cairo Conference in her study, readers might have benefited from a deeper integration of the corresponding reproductive justice movement, not just the term, throughout the book.

Overall, Sasser presents a compelling project that informs readers about the operational mechanics of neo-Malthusianism—from back-door donors to predetermined scientific outcomes used to legitimize population–climate advocacy to the unwitting youth leaders at NGOs seduced to promote population control. Faced with the conditions of a new Trump presidency, Sasser argues the stakes of her project are high. While Sasser cautions against eugenics cloaked in environmentalism, she names the dangers of revoked international family planning funding, the reinforced Global Gag Rule, and the U.S.’s exit from the Paris Agreement. But the book has unanticipated lessons for those of us making sense of life in the age of COVID-19 too, such as the rhetoric of population cleansing and revelations of forced sterilizations in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement centers. Furthermore, Sasser’s scrutiny of misappropriated radical language prepares readers to interrogate corporate “anti-racist” platforms in the wake of the Minneapolis uprising sparked by the May 25, 2020 murder of George Floyd.

On Infertile Ground is a welcome and necessary addition to medical anthropology. It is especially fruitful for scholars interested in reproductive politics, climate disaster, international development, and histories of population control. Sasser’s historical retelling of Malthusianism provides an entry point for students and junior scholars as well as a blueprint for future studies of global network actors. Those more familiar with population control will find satisfaction in Sasser’s thorough exploration of knowledge production and youth leadership in environmental advocacy. The book’s attention to sexual stewardship—Sasser’s principal contribution—serves as a guidepost to help scholars and activists untangle the social ontology of neoliberal rights during the mounting climate disaster.

Reference Cited

Ross, L. 2017. Trust Black Women: Reproductive Justice and Eugenics. In Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundations, Theory, Practice, Critique, edited by L. Ross, L. Roberts, E. Derkas, W. Peoples, and P. Bridgewater Toure, 62. New York: Feminist Press.