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Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population Hardcover – March 25, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Passionate and troubling, this study by Columbia University historian Connelly (A Diplomatic Revolution) tells the story of the 20th-century international movement to control population, which he sees as an oppressive movement that failed to deliver the promised economic and environmental results. According to Connelly, some proponents of the movement thought it was the key to women's health and well-being; others saw it as a way to eliminate the poor population; still others believed it would protect the environment. But Connelly also shows how larger economic and social contexts shaped the movement. For example, during the 1930s international Depression, ordinary people increasingly felt that couples planning families should focus on financial considerations; at the same time, as the state offered increased economic aid, it became acceptable to believe the state should also have a role in regulating reproduction. Far from disinterested, Connelly challenges many of the population control movement's claims: to those who argue that the slowed population growth in Asia has helped save the planet, Connelly notes tartly that 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. Ambitious, exhaustively researched and clearly written, this is a highly important book. 22 b&w illus. (Mar.)
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Passionate and troubling...Connelly tells the story of the 20th-century international movement to control population, which he sees as an oppressive movement that failed to deliver the promised economic and environmental results...Ambitious, exhaustively researched and clearly written, this is a highly important book. (Publishers Weekly (starred review) 2008-01-14)
[A] disturbing and compelling global history of population control programs...Drawing from records in more than 50 archives in seven countries, including those from Planned Parenthood and the more recently opened Vatican Secret Archives, Connelly provides extensive examples of movements to adjust populations...The world population growth is slowing and the age of population control appears to be over for the moment, but Connelly writes that his book is not just about history: It is a cautionary tale about the future. (Lori Valigra Christian Science Monitor 2008-03-25)
[A] voluminous history of global population policy. (Elizabeth Pisani New Statesman 2008-05-05)
Highlight[s] the importance of knowing who speaks for whom...Fatal Misconception describes a historic clash of opposed interest groups wrestling to impose their own population policies on the developing world. (Michael Sargent Nature 2008-05-15)
Connelly's book is an excellent work of reference on the history of the population-control movement...It gives important insights into the emergence and the workings of the population-control lobby. (Frank Furedi Spiked Review of Books 2008-05-30)
The shocking theme of Connelly's book is how Western governments--and most especially successive U.S. administrations--supported a policy which would have appalled them if it had been imposed on their own families. (Dominic Lawson The Independent 2008-05-20)
A devastating account of the population-control movement; he demonstrates, detail by shocking detail, how a movement that believed it was acting from the highest humanitarian ideals became responsible for callous abuses of human rights on a global scale, ruining millions of lives in a grotesque eugenic experiment. (Dominic Lawson Sunday Times 2008-05-18)
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. (James J. Hughes Times Higher Education Supplement 2008-05-29)
Mr. Connelly's story is a global one, partly because so many of the groups seeking to influence the reproduction of others were transnational, but also because often it was those in one country who wished those in another to have fewer children...Mr. Connelly's most devastating critique of population control is not that it destroyed lives, or was based on imperialist or eugenic ideas, but that it did not work. (The Economist 2008-05-24)
Though painful to read, [Fatal Misconception] contain[s] many valuable lessons for anyone who cares about making development programs work, both technically and politically. (Helen Epstein The New York Review of Books 2008-08-14)
This book provides the best historical record yet of how our culture was shaped by the acceptance of birth control. (Patrick Carroll Catholic Herald 2008-10-17)
The subject of population control--perhaps the most ambitious social engineering project of the 20th century--has been somewhat neglected by historians...Fatal Misconception is a welcome contribution to the field, original and thought-provoking. (Clive Cookson Financial Times 2008-06-02)
[This] brilliant new history of the population control movement is useful not simply on its theme but for the light it sheds on the political corruption that inevitably accompanies these world-saving enthusiasms...As Connelly lays out in painstaking detail, population control programs, aimed chiefly at developing nations, proliferated despite clear human rights abuses and, more importantly, new data and information that called into question many of the fundamental assumptions of the crisis mongers. (Steven F. Hayward Claremont Review of Books 2008-12-01)
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As Connelly writes, "The idea of population control is at least as ancient as Plato's Republic, which described how a 'Guardian class' could be bred to rule, the unfit left to die, and everyone sold the same myth that political inequality reflected the natural order of things."
This harsh sentiment is reflected in policies ranging from today's One Child policy in China to the eugenics movements in the United States and Western Europe in the 1930s that attempted to limit the reproduction of the 'unfit.'
Of course, today many of the countries that attempted to limit population growth in the past are now desperately trying to foster it. Pro-natal policies abound in North America and Europe, with former president Vladimir Putin's offer to pay Russian women $10,000 for each baby being the most extreme example. In words that echo Phillip Longman (see THE EMPTY CRADLE: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity And What to Do About It), Connelly writes,
"Some have now declared a new population crisis...and we are told that we should fear too many elderly rather than too many children. Now most pronounced in Europe and Japan, the 'aging' of populations may proceed much and more rapidly in countries where fertility fell the fastest, such as China and Mexico, this time without the benefit of a societal safety net."
The world is now facing a slow-motion demographic crisis unlike any before in history. Past crises--be they plagues, wars, famines, etc.--tended to affect the population across the age spectrum equally, or perhaps hit the older and weaker harder. In the unfolding crisis, the elderly are the survivors. We are truly entering a brave new world.
The third (and most important) problem is that it gets overly bogged down in the details of who said what to whom, bureaucratic squabbles, power struggles, etc. What gets lost in all these details are the grander historical contexts. For example, in the few decades after World War II, we entered the age of what I like to call "high modernism." The manifestations of this age ramified in music, art, architecture, and social/political theory. In the latter sphere we saw "modernization theory," "development economics," welfare state mixed economies, structuralism, and a general predilection toward management, planning, systems approaches, global governance, the sanctity of science, utopianism, and what would later be referred to as "metanarratives." Population control was one manifestation of this intellectual, political, and artistic movement, but the extent to which this context matters seems to escape Connelly's account. Is it a coincidence that the hey-day of population control was also the hey-day of Robert Moses and Le Corbusier?
The post-modernism of the 80s and 90s was characterized by skepticism about modernist metanarratives, and many of the grand theories of the previous decades began to be viewed as dangerously naive. The 1994 World Population Conference may have been a "Waterloo" of population control (a point that Connelly overstates), but the demise of population control had a far broader intellectual context that, again, Connelly does not sufficiently develop.
Is population control dead? Perhaps for now. But fatal misconceptions about human social life come and go. We may not see this one again, but our children and grandchildren very well might.
A better, much better book needs to be written on this subject, until then buy it if you must but approach with caution.
Exceptionally well-written (does not read like a typical university press history book), superbly researched (solid and extensive archival research), and poignantly (and passionately) argued.
the general public, politicians, family planning officials, the Board of Immigration Appeals
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