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Review: Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population
J. Hughes   Jun 9, 2008   Times Higher Education  

Most observers of social movements, even their participants, underestimate their diversity and complexity. Every social movement is a constantly roiling mass of uneasy fractions, tendencies and subtendencies, tenuously and temporarily allying, with shifting meanings for core terms and goals, from “the Enlightenment”, to “anarchism” to “conservatism” to “environmentalism”. This is the problem that Columbia historian Matthew Connelly seeks to correct in Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population.

Connelly decisively confronts the historical baggage of reproductive rights by detailing the confluence of social Darwinists, Malthusians, racist eugenicists, public health advocates and feminists who coalesced around the century-long effort to control world population.

Like Betsy Hartman’s pioneering critique Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, Connelly’s principal narrative is the tension between those who focused on women’s empowerment through birth control and those who wanted to control the fertility of populations with financial incentives and coercion. “The great tragedy of population control, the fatal misconception,” Connelly says, “was to think that one could know other people’s interests better than they knew it themselves.”

The narrative starts in the 19th century with the rising concern in the UK and US about the higher fertility rates of the developing world, sure to produce a flood of non-Anglos across borders and the decline of Anglo hegemony. Racial eugenicists emerged in many countries, determined to increase the birth rate of worthy whites in the affluent North and to control the fertility of the rest.

Connelly describes the rise of the global population control movement, from Delhi and Beijing to London, Geneva and New York, with astonishing breadth. In his account, population control reached its final act in the 1970s and 1980s when Club of Rome pessimism about the “population bomb” coincided with massive sterilisations in India and the imposition of the one-child regime in China. By the mid-1980s population control had been tarnished politically by these excesses, while dramatic declines of fertility worldwide had demonstrated that government coercion has only a marginal influence on childbearing compared with improving women’s education and employment prospects.

Although the book details the ubiquitous influence of racialism and coercive eugenics, it avoids the conspiratorial mindset often used to tar all family planning. The often-vilified Margaret Sanger is examined as a tragic and heroic figure, a passionate activist using every ally at hand to further the cause of women’s empowerment through birth control, then finding herself in league with racialists and patriarchal authoritarian Malthusians. By structuring the story around central figures such as Sanger, Annie Besant and William Draper, Connelly helps the reader weather a mind-numbing parade of characters, organisations and acronyms.

The lingering misanthropy of population control can be seen in how few people are still willing to entertain the idea today that population growth in itself is a good thing. All things being equal, the more people the merrier, black, brown or pink. All things aren’t equal of course, and today this misanthropy is cloaked in ecological concern. But Connelly notes that a population’s ecological footprint is as much a product of the sustainability of its technologies and resource use as of its size.

One conclusion Connelly drew from this project is that “international and nongovernmental organizations had taken up the unfinished work of empires and created new forms of unaccountable power - in this case, controlling populations rather than territory”. This is an unfortunate if understandable product of his having focused on agencies such as the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, instead of an agency with a more attractive mission. While many population controllers were militant internationalists, it seems that at least as many were also fervent nationalists.

Connelly’s pessimism that international institutions can ever be as accountable as national governments is hopefully unwarranted. It seems likely that transnational bodies will be increasingly important in ensuring the health and wellbeing of the nine or ten billion people the planet will soon hold.

Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population
By Matthew Connelly. Harvard University Press, 544pp, £22.95. \
ISBN 9780674024236. Published 4 March 2008

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


I wish I could share your optimism about accountable international orgs. While global democracy is certainly possible in principle we certainly don’t want any of the current organisations to be the seed of one.

No need to comment much on the UN I guess. They have no power which is why they generally behave nicely. But they are about as undemocratic as it can get. And accountable to who?

Look at the EU. There is a caricature of a parliament, but the commission is running the show. Commissioners are appointed in an opaque and completely non-democratic way. The commission is doing a decent job right now but I guess this is IMO only because their position is not yet unchallengable.

Slowly the EU is morphing itself to a bureaucracy monster. If we citizens can’t stop it we’ll have an oligarchy on top of it within a few decades that is as detached from the people as it can get. And we won’t stop it - most EU citizens aren’t even aware of the problem. At the end, the national parliaments might follow suit with the EU parliament an be just be what Kaiser Wilhelm II called the Reichstag in 1900: Schwatzbude.


Both the author and J. Hughes in his review, fail to mention how closely the modern manifestations of concern over world population levels stems from, and are connected to, the other main environmental concerns of today: global warming, and “peak oil”.  These concerns have very little baggage connnecting them to the history of the organisations covered in A Fatal Misconception, but Matthew Connelly appears to take it as a given that they do, without further need to enquire.

The oft repeated argument that innovation and new technology has, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, kept pace with population growth loses its power when science is predicting the need to reduce by 80% the use of the fuel that has powered that revolution.  Whether one thinks this is true or not, it is a very different concern, and has resulted in a very different analysis of population growth as a problem, from that covered by the book.  It is rather as if a history of transport had stopped at the point the steam locomotive was scrapped, without mentioning what replaced it.

Chris Padley

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