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Climate Change, Crack, and the Dream of “Population Engineering”

Want to do your part to fight climate change? Don’t reproduce. If you’re American, each kid you don’t have will save the world from 9,441 metric tons of carbon emissions.1

This is the argument of a recent paper (soon-to-be book) gaining steam around the internet: “Population Engineering and the Fight Against Climate Change.” I first saw the article while researching the discourse around the babies of women who used illicit drugs. In the 1990s, “population engineering” measures were proposed to limit the reproduction of women who used crack. These proposals were not entirely similar to those proposed by climate change philosophers, but they are worth comparing. Both depend on quantifying the worth of a person, a difficult and ultimately problematic practice.

The Principle of Population

A "Ding" Darling cartoon originally published in 1945 about population growth and limited resources. (Courtesy of the Jay N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society/University of Iowa Digital Library| All rights reserved)
A “Ding” Darling cartoon originally published in 1945 about population growth and limited resources. (Courtesy of the Jay N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society/University of Iowa Digital Library| All rights reserved)

A useful starting point in the recent population-engineering story is Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968). The book both reflected and amplified concerns about human overpopulation leading to resource overuse and disaster and became a foundational text of the environmental movement.

The book inspired the group Zero Population Growth, as well as offshoots like The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. (The acronym is VHEMT, pronounced “vehement.” This group advertises that new members may join simply by vowing not to reproduce.) Many of these groups, like Ellen Peck’s National Organization for Non-Parents, and The Population Bomb itself, made racist assumptions about who mattered when it came to conserving resources.

Avoiding danger to future generations is not the only recent motivation for population engineering. Fear of those future generations has inspired such proposals as well. In the 1980s and 1990s, panic over crack cocaine motivated efforts to control the reproduction of women who used crack.

Because most drug-using mothers lacked income and insurance, the argument went, taxpayers would pay for their care through higher hospital bills, insurance premiums, and taxes. Such constructions expanded the problem of the crack baby from an emotional issue to an economic one.

Media, government, and medicine portrayed crack use during pregnancy as prelude to catastrophe. On September 11, 1985, Dan Rather told CBS viewers about the unborn children of cocaine-addicted mothers: “the government said it will cost five billion dollars a year to care for such babies and money doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.” A chief neonatologist in St. Louis warned that the city faced not “a crack baby problem,” but a “70-year problem.” In Missouri, estimates placed the cost of each exposed child for the education system alone at an additional $15,000 a year.2

May 13, 1991, cover of Time magazine. Portrayals of ruined and potentially dangerous people born to users of crack were common from 1985 to the mid-1990s. (TIME)
May 13, 1991, cover of Time magazine. Portrayals of ruined and potentially dangerous people born to users of crack were common from 1985 to the mid-1990s. (TIME)

Philosopher George Schedler proposed a bold solution in 1991. Because alcohol and drug abuse during pregnancy “has severe and possibly irreversible effects on the child’s health and behavior,” the state should force drug-using pregnant women into treatment or to undergo mandatory abortions.3

Philosophers muse. Reformers take action. In 1997, Los Angeles mother Barbara Harris founded the nonprofit Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity. CRACK offered women who used drugs $200 for proof that they had been fitted with long-term contraceptives or $300 for proof of permanent sterilization. CRACK advertised exclusively in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles before branching out to poor neighborhoods across the country.4 CRACK was renamed Project Prevention and now operates across the US and UK.

Behind the Average

Calculations of the financial cost of crack pregnancies and the carbon cost of an additional American both rely on average values. Those used by the philosophers fighting climate change calculate a future person’s carbon dioxide emissions by multiplying genetic units (a value based on how many descendants of a person are likely to live) by the per capita rate of CO2 emissions.5

Per capita rates lump together the highest emitters in a nation with the lowest. The average hides disparities between heavy resource users and those who live off the grid. Most emissions averages, like the widely used Global Footprint Network’s calculator include emissions from infrastructure development and national militaries. The Global Footprint Network is upfront about including a nation’s infrastructure costs as shared by that nation’s citizens, but the recommendations made are typically just to recycle more or fly less. This redirects reform to personal responsibility, a separate arena from political and social action.

While not “average” in the same way as the American carbon emitter, Schedler’s crack user still takes an abstracted identity. Her personal circumstances are not portrayed as variable. Her only characteristic is a universal one; she lives a life “filled with degradation …” so “[for her] an involuntary abortion would be the experience of lesser moment.”6

The average financial cost of a crack baby also hid relevant information. Using data from publicly-funded urban hospitals, the “Congressional Watchdog” General Accounting Office (GAO) attempted to investigate the costs and scale of the problem. Longer stays, intensive care, and prematurity meant hospital fees for drug-exposed infants were as much as four times higher than for non-exposed infants. And they were mostly paid for through transfer-payments like Medicaid.

A compelling case for action. But was it caused by crack? Public hospital administrators noted that many of their neonatal expenses, like “boarder babies” abandoned by parents in the hospital, were not entirely traceable to drugs. Administrators from hospitals that did not accept Medicaid, meaning that they avoided very low-income patients, did not seem concerned about drug-dependent pregnancies, according to the GAO report. Many did not have drug-testing policies, and their patient records were not accessible to investigators. The extent of drug use among the rich and insured remained unknown.7 While reports claimed to measure the expense incurred by drug use in pregnancy, they may have just measured the cost of being poor and without access to enough food or prenatal care.

Estimates of crack babies’ financial impact did not include the money spent on the costs of prolonged international drug wars, emergency hospitalization for women denied access to early care, or militarized policing. Estimates of these costs suggest systemic reforms, rather than blaming vulnerable women as the source of the problem.

There are people who see potential reproductive shaming coming from climate change activism as well. Conceivable Future, a group also mentioned in the NPR piece, opposes population engineering, and advocates reproductive self-determination.

Conceivable Future’s position on reproduction is consistent with a broader understanding of the problem. They write that “focus on consumer/personal choices … misdirect[s] environmental activists from reaching the big levers of industry, infrastructure and policy.” So instead, Conceivable Future is trying to end fossil fuel subsidies.

Mid-20th century population control programs often targeted people in poverty and other marginalized groups. ("The Population Bomb," 1954 pamphlet)
Mid-20th century population control programs often targeted people in poverty and other marginalized groups. (“The Population Bomb,” 1954 pamphlet)

A Life in Numbers

In fairness to the climate population-engineers, their proposal is not the same as Schedler’s “drug-treatment or abort” solution to crack pregnancies. They make explicit that population engineering has historically been problematic. They cite examples of coercive family planning programs that targeted the poor, “often members of despised minority groups.”

To address this risk, they advise “policymakers to be responsive to factors such as local cultural norms and intergroup power dynamics when designing incentivizing interventions.’8 The magic of philosophy is to propose ideas without having to worry about implementation.

And the trick in economics is to hide subjective judgments in quantitative (“objective’) terms.9 Use of the word “engineering” implies that the world’s problems can be solved through technical expertise, without entering thorny arenas of politics. Estimates of how much a person (or potential person) costs, whether in tons of carbon dioxide or taxpayer cash, hide other ways to measure or value life.

These calculations are perhaps a necessary evil. And as the measurement of crack’s impact showed, they carry assumptions about responsibility and blame. They should not be taken as given.


  1. Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax, “Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals,” Global Environmental Change 19 (2009): 17-18. Return to text.
  2. Jimmie Lynn Reeves and Richard Campbell, Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine Crusade, and the Reagan Legacy (Duke University Press, 1994), and Martha Shirk, “Disaster in Making: Crack Babies Start to Grow Up,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, September 18, 1990. Return to text.
  3. George Schedler, “Does Society Have the Right to Force Pregnant Drug Addicts to Abort Their Fetuses?” Social Theory and Practice 17 (1991): 369-384. Return to text.
  4. Erika Derkas, “The Organization Formerly Known as Crack: Project Prevention and the Privatized Assault on Reproductive Wellbeing,” Race, Gender & Class 19:3/4 (2012): 179–95. By this time the doctors who advanced the crack baby hypothesis had distanced themselves from earlier remarks. Published studies showed that drug use during pregnancy was more widespread than previously believed; it was just that poor women (poor black women in particular) were tested more often. Return to text.
  5. Murtaugh and Schlax, 17-18. Return to text.
  6. Schedler, 376. Return to text.
  7. “Drug-Exposed Infants: A Generation at Risk” (Washington, DC: General Accounting Office, 1990), 28, 43. Return to text.
  8. They recommend “carrots for the poor, sticks for the rich”: governments in poorer countries should provide free birth control and media campaigns to encourage smaller family sizes, while governments in rich countries should eliminate tax breaks for families and possibly apply a penalty (a kind of carbon tax) to those who choose to have children. Colin Hickey, Travis Rieder, and Jake Earl, “Population Engineering and the Fight against Climate Change,” Uncorrected proof, 25. Return to text.
  9. For an idea of how racist ideas became embedded in the discipline of economics see explanations of time preference, human capital, and conservation in Mark Aldrich, “Capital Theory and Racism: From Laissez-Faire to the Eugenics Movement in the Career of Irving Fisher,” Review of Radical Political Economics (1975): 35-39. Return to text.

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