There’s a great scene in the book _Cheaper By the Dozen_ (which had almost nothing to do with the recent movie Steve Martin was in, although there’s a fairly good old one) in which Lillian Moller Gilbraith, mother of 12 (11 surviving) is offered by a joking friend as the ideal host for a Planned Parenthood organizational meeting. The PP representative, who has been told that Gilbraith is a model organizer, a professional woman and a leader in her community – but not that she has 11 kids. “Within 15 Miles of Organizational Headquarters!” announces the representative of Planned Parenthood in despair!
I felt a little bit like Gilbraith when I was asked to participate this year in the Global Population Speak Out. I wanted to make sure this wasn’t a joke – and there’s some measure in which it looks like one. Yes, even in the Peak Oil and Climate Change movement, right in the midst of things, is someone with more than two kids! (Actually, there’s a bunch of someones, but I’m still waiting for Rob Hopkins and a few others to pony up and share the load ).
And yet, I was also glad – because the reality is that population is an issue that is spoken about mostly from extremes – the voices either come from those who argue in favor of no limits on the right or those, mostly men, mostly affluent white older men, who make absolute statements about reproduction, and who will never have a device inserted in their body, or an abortion, or give birth or go through pregnancy. I’ve been in the environmental movement long enough now to have watched a lot of white men sitting there talking about what women’s bodies should be doing to save the planet for them.
But if we’re ever to have an honest and productive conversation about limits, including reproductive limits, the middle, the people who don’t want to talk about population because they are afraid they will be reproached for having children, the people who are tired of the same old extreme arguments stay away. I’m glad that the imperfect thoughts of a woman with four children were actually solicited – despite the fact that my comments section is going to be extremely annoying for a while .
As my long time readers will know, Population is a major issue for me – my doctoral work focused on issues of demographics in the 16th and 17th century, and I feel very strongly that we have to address population issues. There’s a full chapter on the subject in each _Depletion and Abundance_ and _A Nation of Farmers_., and I’ve written a number of articles and done interviews on gender, reproduction and the politics of population. At the same time, I get tired of the subject devolving into my personal reproduction – which is inevitably the result of any discussion. I have four biological children, not as many as the mother in the story, but enough that my personal reproductive habits are the subject of considerable scrutiny, given the issues I engage with. It isn’t even that I mind, it is that I mind saying the same thing over and over and over again .
What I say is simply this – like most people, I’ve done a lot of things that aren’t environmentally responsible over the years – flown for pleasure, driven miles I didn’t have to, consumed irresponsibly, and I’ve also got more children than represents a biological fair share. In a perfect world I’d have always lived the life that is most ethical and rightest, but like everyone else I start where I do. That said, impact is consumption multiplied by population – my family of six (hopefully soon to be augmented by additional children, by adoptiong) consumes, as a whole, about 1/5 the resources of an ordinary American household. The average American household is 2.6 people. That doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for my actions, just population is not a single factor – it doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the few places where I’m no one’s role model – but that’s how it is.
We do have to talk about population – we have to talk about it honestly and clearly, and with an eye to the real complexities of the issue. We have to put it on the table and stop being afraid of it. We have to have these conversations even when they are difficult, personal, emotional and when they are hard.
At the same time, I’m not prepared to make some of the claims made by my fellow science blogger, Martin Rundkvist over at Aardvarchaeology - I don’t think it is unethical to have more than two children, at least among the world’s poor. You can reasonably say that a middle class woman in the Global North like me doesn’t have these justifications, but the reality is that in a whole host of ways, population is simply tied up with too many other issues to make such a bald statement, particularly for the world’s poor. The fact is that we can address population honestly only when we address the issues that are tied up in our reproduction – and those are extraordinarily complicated. It would be easier to just say “no one should have X number of babies” – but also less truthful.
Consider the fact that a woman in rural India has to have 5 children during her lifetime in order to be sure that one of them will survive to adulthood to support her in her old age – and that there are few measures of other support for poor Indian women, or that a child in Nigeria, born to a desperately poor family begins to produce more than he eats by the age of six and brings in as much food as an adult by 12. In cultures that lack support networks of any kind, children are the only form of wealth and security available to the poor. The answer to their problems is certainly to enable the demographic transition by enabling them to have fewer kids – but also by supporting at every stage the networks of social supports that enable that. If our support for them not having babies isn’t matched by our support for elderly Indian women or for enabling the world’s hungry feed themselves, we are the ones suffering from ethical challenges.
Reproduction is one of those things that is both simple and complicated even in the Global North. Consider a little of my own experiences as a parent of a severely disabled child is the observation that social supports even in our own society are tremendously lacking – I didn’t have my children to provide support in adulthood for my disabled oldest – by the time he was diagnosed I had already had most of them. But I do sometimes ask what kind of future my son would have after my husband and I are gone without his brothers?
Indeed, my niece, who is the same age as Eli but was adopted by a relative who is the same age now as my parents, has severe disabilities. Someday, my husband and I will be her guardians, and after us, my sons – because she has no siblings. My sons will eventually inherit responsibility for two seriously disabled family members. The thought of passing that responsibility on to my one other child, had I only had the “ethical” two is something that would have weighed with me when we chose to accept the guardianship of my niece. And yet, who would care for her when her parents were gone if we had said no? In a culture that doesn’t nurture strong extended families, and encourages smaller ones, where do the disabled and the elderly get their care? How can we create the kind of social systems that enable people with disabled children to have fewer children and be sure that they will be cared for well and equitably?
What does a culture of population limitation do to the idea of a woman’s right to choose? Does it change it only into the right to have an abortion? What strategies and pressures do we place on women, like me, who see birth control fail? Do we pressure them into abortion? Is that compatible with a belief that reproduction is truly a matter of women’s choice? What happens when women choose more children? How do we respond as a culture?
We know that educating women makes them more likely to have fewer children – but how does it change our story if we are educating women *in order to* reduce the number of children they have? What culture emerges if the education and political empowerment of women becomes a means to a reproductive end, rather than a good in itself?
My husband is an only child – and like many baby boomer parents, his are divorced, as our mine. We have 7 parents between us – my responsibilities will be spread over my two sisters and myself, his will fall entirely on him. How do we create societies that are growing poorer, using less energy, consuming less – and still providing social supports to its aging population?
None of this is an argument against population limitation. It is merely an argument against a conversation about population limitation that begins from the assumption that the issues are simple and can be addressed shallowly.
When you tell women “it is ok to have only one or two children” because your children will survive to adulthood, how do we ensure this by access to health care? What is the obligation of a state or a people who demand that women and men choose fewer children – what do they have to do to make this possible? Do we allow states to take our surviving offspring away from us to fight wars? What is the relationship of a state that wants less reproduction to a people who fear the loss of their sons and daughters on the altar of foreign policy?
The late, great Donella Meadows of _The Limits to Growth_ and many other articles offered, I think one of the clearest ways of starting to talk about population in a way that takes ordinary people into account in her essay “Who Causes Environmental Problems” She wrote:
The IPAT formula has great appeal in international debates, because it spreads environmental responsibility around. The poor account for 90 percent of global population increase — so they’d better get to work on P. Rich consumers need to control their hedonistic A. The former Soviets with their polluting factories, cars, and buildings obviously should concentrate on T.
I didn’t realize how politically correct this formula had become, until a few months ago when I watched a panel of five women challenge it and enrage an auditorium full of environmentalists, including me.
IPAT is a bloodless, misleading, cop-out explanation for the world’s ills, they said. It points the finger of blame at all the wrong places. It leads one to hold poor women responsible for population growth without asking who is putting what pressures on those women to cause them to have so many babies. It lays a guilt trip on Western consumers, while ignoring the forces that whip up their desire for ever more consumption. It implies that the people of the East, who were oppressed by totalitarian leaders for generations, now somehow have to clean up those leaders’ messes.
As I listened to this argument, I got mad. IPAT was the lens through which I saw the environmental situation. It’s neat and simple. I didn’t want to see any other way.
IPAT is just what you would expect from physical scientists said one of the critics, Patricia Hynes of the Institute on Women and Technology in North Amherst, Massachusetts. It counts what is countable. It makes rational sense. But it ignores the manipulation, the oppression, the profits. It ignores a factor that scientists have a hard time quantifying and therefore don’t like to talk about: economic and political POWER. IPAT may be physically indisputable. But it is politically naive.
I was shifting uneasily in my seat.
There are no AGENTS in the IPAT equation, said Patricia Hynes, no identifiable ACTORS, no genders, colors, motivations. Population growth and consumption and technology don’t just happen. Particular people make them happen, people who shape and respond to rewards and punishments, people who may be acting out of desperation or love or greed or ambition or fear.
Unfortunately, I said to myself, I agree with this.
Suppose we wrote the environmental impact equation a different way, said the annoying panel at the front of the auditorium. Suppose, for example, we put in a term for the military sector, which, though its Population is not high, commands a lot of Affluence and Technology. Military reactors generate 97 percent of the high-level nuclear waste of the U.S. Global military operations are estimated to cause 20 percent of all environmental degradation. The Worldwatch Institute says that “the world’s armed forces are quite likely the single largest polluter on earth.”
Suppose we added another term for the 200 largest corporations, which employ only 0.5 percent of all workers but generate 25 percent of the Gross World Product — and something like 25 percent of the pollution. Perhaps, if we had the statistics, we would find that small businesses, where most of the jobs are, produce far less than their share of environmental impact.
Suppose we separate government consumption from household consumption, and distinguish between household consumption for subsistence and for luxury, for show, for making us feel better about ourselves. If we had reliable numbers, which we don’t, we might be able to calculate how much of the damage we do to the earth comes from necessity, and how much from vanity.
So ok, let’s put population on the table. Let’s start talking. But let’s have real conversations worth having.