Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Empower Women, Save the Planet? Science, Strategy, and Population-Environment Advocacy


This dissertation is about the problems of global population and women's fertility as constructed, circulated and contested among a network of American environmental actors. The first decade of the new millennium witnessed an upsurge in environmentalist attention to population trends, particularly in the context of widespread attention to climate change. Using ethnographic research conducted among a network of U.S. foreign aid donors, environmental, population and family planning NGO managers, and college youth activists, this dissertation asks the questions: What- and who- is driving the renewed focus on population growth as a driver of ecological crisis? What strategies are being used to drive a linked population-environment development agenda forward, and what effects do these strategies have on population science, policy, and political debates? I argue that, rather than reprise familiar neo-Malthusian arguments, these actors draw on scientific knowledge and social justice frameworks, to position population-environment advocacy in the realm of progressive politics. At the same time, population advocates increasingly enroll young activists as the newest cadre of international population advocates, through contradictory and contentious approaches to framings of race, gender and justice politics. This multi-sited project is highly interdisciplinary, drawing on conceptual approaches from the fields of political ecology, science and technology studies and medical anthropology to interrogate questions the uses of scientific knowledge production, political messaging, and racialized and gendered body politics in international population-environment advocacy.

In chapter 2, I explore the historical processes of articulation which have come together and fractured apart at particular historical conjunctural moments. It focuses on how the population `problem' and its potential solutions have been constructed scientifically and politically over time, crystallizing in the 20th century as hegemonic paradigms within international development. Chapter 3 centers on the micropractices through which college youth are trained in population-environment messaging and other advocacy strategies, focused on the strategic use of social justice discourses, technology-based advocacy, and selective use of ecological and climate science data. In this chapter, I argue that these practices are constitutive of the process of making development actors from afar. Chapter 4 analyzes the changing role of racial politics in population-environment advocacy over time, charting the ways race has moved from a zone of heated controversy to providing an opening for new representational strategies. In chapter 5, I explore the behind the scenes role of private donors whose creative financing of population projects manifests over time as a powerful form of advocacy. Chapter 6 focuses on recent developments in scientific knowledge linking population growth with climate change, arguing that the projections these data represent are productive of both novel forms of thinking about the future, as well as anticipatory interventions that help shape it. The conclusion explores the possible futures of population-environment advocacy, raising questions about the transformative potential of transnational youth organizing predicated on a radical rupture from the past.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View