Questions of age, generation and population: a look into FPE Dialogues – Netherlands

The Dutch edition of our Feminist Political Ecology Dialogues happened on May 17th 2022, in Wageningen, focusing on age, generation and population. Organized by and based on the interests and research of three WEGO PhDs candidates –  Constance Dupuis (ISS), Milja Fenger (ISS) and Nanako Nakamura (WU) – the event wanted to bring  different, but equally essential, discourses around life-making into the Feminist discussions about care, everyday practices, climate discussions, and social reproduction.

In part, it did so by showing the researcher’s cases and approaches, while evoking questions and discussions from the participants. The PhDs shared a similar standpoint of critical view on normativity, inspired by situated own notions and experiences. 

The first session, “Stories of Aging”, conducted by Constance and Nanako, centered on FPE’s intersectional thinking and the resistance against simple binary to see gendered and aging practices as relational construction of social differences. Both Nanako and Constance used socionatural understandings of the people/place intersection though the meanings presented in Japan and Uruguay.

The second session, “Exploring Controversies Around Population”, by Milja, paid attention to the everyday, to the embodied, to emotions. Milja focused on how FPE methodologies do not recognise the written text as the only or primary means of conducting knowledge production – and how FPE is able to be “performed” in multiple ways including through experimentation with art and creativity.

Despite sharing the understanding and FPE’s perspective, the three PhD researches are distinctive in terms of context, methodology, and research question. The multiplicity in FPE application contributes to diversifying the approach and the theoretical grounds of the Dialogues. 

Questions and reflections

Why and how questions of justice in later stages of life intersect with questions of environmental justice were briefly touched during the event. Both Nanako’s and Constance’s work suggested that aging concerns should feature in environmental justice research, with elderly being key actors in the struggles for environmental justice, as well as important knowledge holders. 

The Dutch edition laid out key concepts around human and non-human life. Environment can be diverse, beyond the natural environment, relationally shaped by a social-ecological political process. The discussions teased out some of those relational processes suggesting that any specific environment entails experiences of human and non-human interactions that make life continue in various ways. 

Photo by Sharmini Bissessar

With this notion in mind, WEGO-ITN PhDs can start looking at what makes a new way of living, unraveled not through relying on the popular notion of anti-aging or regeneration of the population, but through relating to different bodily experiences as an ethical approach (Nanako’s work).

In the second session, the FPE dialogue complicated questions by looking into the relationship between art and research and how methodologies from the former can be used in the latter. Milja Fender suggested that research on environmental justice would do well following the developments in wider academia around the use of creative methodologies in research, but that careful thought around what counts as research outputs are necessary.

The Dialogues were open to everyone interested in joining, so as to invite more people to conversations about FPE, and our interests around age and population. The organizers used mailing lists, personal contacts, and social media, e.g. Twitter and Facebook, to share the event announcement.

Exploring population controversies: emotional responses to Donna Haraway

Donna Haraway is no stranger to controversy. In her long and successful career of feminist provocation she perhaps has never shocked so many people as when she engaged in  in the topic of population these last 5 years.

In 2015, Haraway sparked renewed controversy in the population debate by publishing Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin in which she laid her proposal for  ‘Make Kin Not Babies’One of the key points in the article – mostly worked out in an extensive endnote – is that for the sake of the future of life on the planet, Haraway argues that human numbers should wind down to around two to maximum three billion people through a voluntary reduction in birthrates, especially among the rich. She notes that few ‘on the left or whatever name we can still use without apoplexy’ can deal with any discussion of population at all because of the ‘neo-imperialism, neoliberalism, misogyny and racism its history contains’ (Haraway 2015). Haraway is firm; ‘But denial will not serve us … Blaming capitalism, imperialism, neoliberalism, modernisation, or some other “not us” for ongoing destruction webbed with human numbers will not work’ (Haraway 2015). She is not wanting coercive means to reduce the population but to institute kin making along with new and just societal structures (including policy) which would require such kin making (for people to make non biological kin, and even more-than-human kin) to happen.

While she shows concern for the undoubtedly problematic genealogy of her claims and their dubious relation to reproductive justice, Haraway’s entry into the population debate has stirred up a lot of flack. In a follow-up book Make Kin Not Population by Prickly Paradigm published in 2018 (edited together with Adele Clarke  based on a 2015 conference panel) Haraway writes:

‘I have been screamed at after lectures by my feminist colleagues of many years, told that I can no longer call myself a feminist (…) for arguing in public that the weight of human numbers on a global scale, however broken down by analysis of structured inequalities, opposition to ongoing racist population control programs, and many other important things, is an outrage.’

In fact, Make Kin Not babies has found the most resistance by the very people she seeks to address. 

In preliminary fieldwork in the UK, during which I participated in reading groups discussing the Make Kin Not Population book, I saw the amount of anger, and disappointment expressed by feminist scholar to the text.  Sophie Lewis dedicated a London based journal the Feminist Review article to her own disappointment with Haraway as a thinker where she argues that Haraway takes ‘a decisive turn towards a primitivism-tinged, misanthropic populationism’ and ‘trafficking irresponsibly in racist narratives’. Haraway’s attempt to bring new life into the population debates – because, as she describes it ‘the weight of human numbers’ is important – has sent ripples in academic and activist environments. 

One of the themes of my PhD work is to follow these ripples over the coming years in order to address a wider question of how emotion and communication is affecting 21st century academic population debates and how these responses are impacting on global family planning policy.

As part of my PhD training I co-organised along with other WEGO members based in The Netherlands, an open discussion on the 13th of May 2020at IHE Delft for people who had seen the film ‘Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival’ by Fabrizio Terranova. The 30 people attending the discussion had a lively debate about the role of feminist theory and the link to science and social science scholarship and their real-life implications.