Diana Coole talk on May 20th, NUI Galway – on the ‘Population Question’


We are delighted to announce the second guest speaker of the Power, Conflict & Ideologies Cluster (School of Political Science & Sociology) this year is Prof Diana Coole of Birkbeck  University of London. The talk, based on the ‘Population Question’ (specifics below), will take place at 3pm on 20th May in the SAC Room/CA110, Cairnes Building (St. Anthony’s, ground floor)  NUI Galway. All are welcome.

The title of the paper will be ‘From Population Control to Behaviour Modification: Liberty, Coercion and Behaviour Modification in Pursuit of Sustainable Wellbeing’. The abstract is below, but a useful introduction to these issues and Coole’s perspective on the population question in general may be found in her 2013 paper ‘Too Many Bodies? The Return and Disavowal of the Population Question’, which is currently open access (as one of Routledge’s ‘most popular’ politics papers of 2013).

The abstract for the Galway talk, and the speaker’s bio, are below the fold.


`From Population Control to Behaviour Modification: Liberty, Coercion and Behaviour Modification in Pursuit of Sustainable Wellbeing.’
As world population surges past 7 billion towards the 11 billion projected by the UN for the end of this century, demography is re-emerging as a significant factor in deteriorating environmental trends and in challenges posed by food, water and energy insecurity. Even in many post-transitional societies like the US, UK and Australia, a surge in numbers is expected by mid-century. For this talk I take as a given the maxim that environmental problems are easier to resolve with fewer people and focus on the means that could be used to stabilise or reduce populations (especially in those affluent societies whose inhabitants have larger ecological footprints), were there a political will to do so. I start by asking whether it is legitimate for liberal governments to intervene in reproductive behaviour, especially given connections between population control and coercion. I suggest that sometimes it is and I plot a spectrum of feasible means. At the opposite pole from coercion I place reproductive autonomy. I claim, however, that it is illusory to believe that without population policies women are free to choose their fertility careers: economic and cultural pressures severely circumscribe their choices. I designate this a `technicolour zone’ of constraints. But most measures fall in the middle region of my spectrum: a `grey zone’ where interventions manifest a mix of freedom and coercion that I regard as typical of liberal governmentality. Here I argue that social engineering and biopower provide numerous mechanisms for modifying behaviour and that these are in fact routinely used: both for pronatalist purposes and in order to ration consumption of scarce resources. I conclude that were governments convinced of the merits of smaller populations, they already have at their disposal a range of policy instruments that are no more coercive than the standard repertoire of liberal governance. I thus challenge a widespread view that social efforts to lower the birthrate are inherently unethical and suggest that the collective benefits of such policies warrant renewed public debate.
Speaker Bio:
Prof Diana Coole’s broad area of research is modern and contemporary political and social theory. Her work here has focused primarily on the critical theory of the early Frankfurt School and its influences (Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Weber), existential phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty in particular), poststructuralism (especially Foucault) and feminism. Within this broad field she has recently become more interested in developing a flexible critical theory (that includes genealogy, deconstruction, the phenomenology of everyday – and visceral–
life, interpretive public policy, discourse analysis, ideology critique and radical political economy) and applying it to current social and political issues. During 2010-13 she held a Senior Leverhulme research fellowship to investigate a project called `Too many bodies? The Politics and Ethics of the World Population Question’.

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