Fatal Misconception

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Matthew Connelly. Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2008. Pp. xiv, 521. $35.00.



Introduction: How Biology Became History

1: Populations out of Control

2: To Inherit the Earth

3: Populations at War

4: Birth of the Third World

5: The Population Establishment

6: Controlling Nations

7: Beyond Family Planning

8: A System

Matthew Connelly’s Fatal Misconception charts the attempts to control population from Malthusian and eugenic advocacy to present day ambivalence. His narrative identifies multiple intersecting discourses and locates the individual sources of agency, such as Margaret Sangar and William Draper, as well as resistors, such as Mahatma Gandhi. He argues that, “nativism, eugenics, pro-natalism, and coercive or manipulative forms of ‘family planning share a common history, one that can help us understand how they developed, how they diverged and how the cause of reproductive rights was finally redeemed” [xii]. His conclusion is that while “population stabilization is more important than ever” [371], the claims that “population controllers … raised Asia out of poverty and helped keep our planet habitable” have proven hollow. Instead, he argues that the best mechanism for stabilization is female literacy and education. In other words, allowing women to exercise their own agency, rather than imposing it from above is central to future efforts and to why past programs have left a legacy of failure and unintended consequences.

Key to Connelly’s narrative is “a transnational network of population experts” [9]. These experts often represented a form of imperialism that would “substitute ‘governmentality’ for state sovereignty” [379]. By guiding reproductive policy, the experts could allow western nations to be far more subversive of [former colonial] sovereignty than restoring a state’s capacity to control its own territory” [380]. These “massive social engineering experiments” [379] resulted in a wide range of outcomes, though almost always in ways unintended by the experts. The Asian efforts have fueled a society that is indeed more consumer driven in a western sense, but as Connelly repeatedly notes, “if Asians have 2.1 children, but also air conditioning and automobiles, they will have a much greater impact on the global ecosystem than a billion more subsistence farmers” [372].


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