The human population was set to hit the 7 billion mark on Halloween this week, and for many, the timing is appropriately spooky. Demographers are projecting the world population will level off by the 21st century, but in the meantime, 2 billion people will join us on the planet. The media has long been equating population growth with apocalypse — employing the logic that more people means resource scarcity which means conflict. And, until recently, I had more or less been drinking that Kool-Aid.
The “slice of the pie” metaphor is a captivating one: In a world of finite resources, it makes sense that more resource users would deplete the metaphorical pie, which would lead to fighting over the scraps. What’s the solution? Women, of course! If women have fewer babies, there will be fewer pie gobblers and more scraps to go peacefully around. Right?
Well, not quite. The metaphor is superficially logical but, as I will explain, fundamentally flawed. Though women are indeed key to preventing population chaos, it’s for an entirely different reason than you might assume.
Let’s tear down the equation piece by piece. First, stating more people leads to resource scarcity ignores the reality of per capita consumption. According to the New York Times, Americans consume 32 times more than those living in the developing world. Also, as geographer William Moseley points out, the conception of people as a drain on resources ignores much of the truth on the ground. In Machakos, Kenya, agriculture has flourished rather than perished as population density increases, since more people are working the land. The same is true in many other parts of the world.
As for the second part of the equation — resource scarcity leads to conflict — real world examples indicate that resource abundance leads to conflict just as often as resource scarcity does. Oil conflict in Nigeria didn’t exist until the oil started flowing. In many cases, it is the production of resources that channels violence. The cancer that runs rampant in 48217, the zip code in Michigan home of a Marathon oil refinery, among other polluting industries, is an example of resource production leading to slow but brutal suffering. As is the recent earthquake in Japan, which released radiation in the landscape.
So, despite its glaring flaws, why is the assumed equation still so hypnotizing? Perhaps it’s because the other option — more rich people leads to resource overproduction/overconsumption leads to conflict — hits too close to home.
When it comes to driving conflict, how people produce and consume resources is a lot more important than how many people there are, which is where women come back in. Conflict — whether driven by resource scarcity, abundance or production — is often perpetuated by men and endured by women. As the United Nations’ 2010 State of the World’s Population reports, “Women rarely wage war, but they too often suffer the worst of its consequences,” from rape to economic hardship to the inability to go to school.
A recent study by political scientists Mary Caprioli and Mark Boyer found that nations with greater domestic gender equality were less likely to resort to violence in an international crisis. And women’s organizations — though often excluded from formal negotiations — have been critical in peace-building processes both post and during conflict, according to the Peace Research Institute.
When I think of female peacekeepers, I think of Silvia Ventancourt, the woman I lived with this summer in Íntag, Ecuador. Silvia is one of 10 children; her partner José is one of nine. They have a single child, Mattías, and plans for exactly two more. Following the trajectory of many developing countries, Ecuador’s fertility rate has declined significantly in recent decades, and many parents are finding themselves in nuclear families a fraction of the size of the ones they grew up in.
But Silvia’s peacekeeping power is not derived from her skillful family planning. It comes from her prominent role in her community. She is a leader in Mujer y Medioambiente, a women’s group that makes handbags out of a local Andean plant and sells them to international markets.
There are several women’s groups in Íntag, all of which work on creating alternative economies to mining — an industry that has caused contamination and conflict in their subtropical forest home. As one man admitted to me, while the men are busy plundering nonrenewable resources, the women of Íntag “are more interested in having water for their children.” Putting women like Silvia at the helm will lead to savvier resource use and mitigated violence on an increasingly populated planet.
Women are still a pivotal variable in the conflict equation, but because of their value as people, rather than vessels for population growth. We should all keep this in mind when deciding to lament — or celebrate—the 7 billion milestone.
Allie Goldstein is a first-year Rackham student.