Alternatives to plagues, fires, and floods

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Back in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was developing an environmental consciousness, and also breasts, there were five big themes being bandied about: rainforests, smog, the ozone layer, overpopulation, and recycling.

Now in the year 2010, those themes have largely been subsumed by one big theme, global warming, and its pals. Climate change, carbon footprints, local foods, and arctic melting are the buzzwords. Though we’re still hacking down rainforests and polluting the air, nowadays the buzz focuses on reducing carbon emissions. I’m glad that global warming is making an impact on public consciousness, but we seem to have forgotten about the dangers from twenty years ago.

I’ll concede that the push to recycle has been steady. I even noticed a poster in a McDonald’s window boasting that they recycle. This hardly mitigates the social, environmental, economic, and medical damage they do to our society, but it’s a start. Though while I’m on the topic: Um, society? Hello, it’s Jessica here, the voice of reason. Would you please stop eating at fast food chains? Please? McDonald’s only inflicts damage because you keep asking it to.

Of the various ecological concerns that have waned in popularity, what puzzles me most is overpopulation. This was a big deal when I was growing up. Right? Someone tell me I’m not misremembering this. I remember the trepidation I felt as we approached a global population of six billion. Then it came, it went, and people stopped talking about it.

This strikes me as a dumb idea. All of the ecological problems we have can be traced to one root problem: we’ve got too many people. Every single environmental threat you can think of, from agribusiness to mountaintop removal mining (a big issue in West Virginia right now, as I heard on NPR the other day) to toxic metallic sludge in the Danube (a big issue in Hungary right now, as I heard on NPR the other day), would be drastically reduced if the global human population were drastically reduced.

Widespread death could achieve that goal. Genocide would do the trick, or if you don’t feel like targeting specific ethnic populations, you could have a plain old war. For those who are squeamish about actively inducing violence, you could sit about and wait for plagues, famines, floods, and other cataclysms described in the Christian Bible and elsewhere.

Pardon me for being disagreeable, but I have to lodge a protest with all of those methods. Though they can be amazingly efficient, they are all predicated on the concept of people dying, one of whom might be me. I therefore propose another means for slowing population growth: stop having so many babies.

Some disclaimers, before I go further: If you have a child, or are planning to have a child, I am not personally attacking you. (Hi, Mom!) I am speaking about worldwide attitudes toward population growth. I do not want to become a parent, but I recognize that most people do have that inclination, and that for many people, having children brings the greatest joys in life. (Right, Mom? Right?). Having children is a human right. Everyone who wants a child, or children, should be able to exercise that right, unless there is a compelling reason against it.

It’s at this point in the discussion where try really, really hard to distance myself from Hitler. My thoughts on reproduction do not discriminate based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, nationality, or… or anything, really, except that people who are not fit to have children should not be allowed to be parents. People who abuse or neglect children give up their human right to be parents. This raises a host of questions– who defines abuse and neglect? Who enforces it?– but I am going to skirt the practical points by cowering behind theory. This is an abstract discussion, not an instruction manual. This is one of those rare times when I do not want my thoughts to automatically become universal law.

Where were we? Let’s take it as a given that, except for people who are unfit for parenting, everyone has a natural right to have children. Let’s also take it as a given that the world cannot sustain the growing human population. To reconcile those two conditions, we must either kill off a lot of people, or we must stop creating so many people.

Humans already have a nice long history of killing each other off, so I’m afraid I don’t have anything to add to that discussion. Besides, I’m not keen on killing people. I am a big old softie like that.

So! Reproductive control!

There will always be accidents, but whenever possible, pregnancies should be planned. (“We weren’t exactly trying, but we knew we’d be happy if we got pregnant” is acceptable.) Starting before puberty hits, children need to learn how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. If their parents want them to abstain entirely from intercourse, fine– but they still need to have the knowledge. Knowing how to prevent a pregnancy should be part of everyone’s knowledge of basic health, like how to treat cold symptoms and how to brush your teeth.

Affordable, reliable birth control needs to be universal, and it needs to be available to men as well as women. (Darn good thing this is a theoretical discussion, because I have no practical idea how to make that happen in real life.)

Next: planned pregnancies should be actively desired. Lots of people enter adulthood assuming they’ll have kids. That is one hell of an assumption: “Oh, I’ll create a new human life and assume responsibility for it just, y’know, because that’s what people do.” Children should not be created casually. They should be created deliberately, because the intended parents actively want to become parents. No lesser reason is sufficient.

Here I must tread lightly. What I have said heretofore is basically inoffensive. Actually, that’s not true. There are a lot of folks who are offended at the idea of educating everyone about birth control. Let me rephrase: What I have said heretofore is basically inoffensive, notably excepting those who hold conservative religious views on sex and sexuality, and perhaps excepting some others I’m not thinking of right now. The next paragraph is where I start sounding radical. Bear with me.

Reproduction is an ecological issue. Every human, no matter how environmentally responsible he or she tries to be, taxes the earth. Humans, especially in industrialized nations, consume a lot. We consume food, energy, space, and habitat, and we pollute while we do it. We compete against everything else on the planet for resources, and we usually win. Collectively, we are taking more than our fair share. We are not good for the environment.

It is not my place to tell people whether they should have children, nor how many children they should have. It it not my place, nor the place of any government, nor the place of parents yearning to become grandparents. Those decisions should only be made by the intended mother and father (or, in less traditional circumstances, by the intended single parent. Which is a discussion for another day.)

All I can ask is that people be aware that reproduction is an environmental issue. That awareness is largely missing when people think about having kids. I want it to be one of the factors that people consider.

And, for my denouement, I present my trump card. It is a favorite argument of mine, an old standby I keep returning to, because it is elegant and simple. I’m talking about adoption. Adoption is usually considered as a last resort, when couples cannot conceive on their own, and as it stands now, it is a difficult procedure: it is very expensive, and it is a bureaucratic nightmare. I have no idea how to change that. Don’t look at me.

But adoption is such a lovely solution. It gives adults the change to become parents; it gives a home to a child who needs parents; and it it does this without increasing the world population. (It also provides an alternative to abortion, a topic I ha
ve purposely avoided discussing here today.)

Theories. That’s all I’m good for. I have no idea how to turn any of this into practice, except on a very small scale, i.e., I myself am choosing not to reproduce. There are well over six billion other people whom I am not influencing. On the bright side, that gives me a very easy standard to beat: all I need to do, to improve my ecological activism, is to find something, anything, that is actually meaningful. Maybe I’ll start recycling!*

*That was a joke. I already recycle. Everyone knows that, right? I recycle– and not just material from my older posts. Ba-da-boom!


9 responses »

  1. Thank you for having the guts to post something I have been thinking of for a VERY long time.

  2. One of the problems with societies that have favored negative population growth (China, I'm looking at you) is that cultural mores mean selecting for boys. Gyno-infanticide aside, the issue arises that when this herd of boys grows up and starts looking for mates – there are none, or so few that competition is extreme. Same thing in super-strict patriarchal societies like many Muslim ones – the competition is so severe for mates, that the masses of young boys effectively have nothing to aspire to. Hence we get a lot of religious zealotry and violence that way. I guess that achieves your goal of reducing population, but I bet you would agree that you don't want to reduce the population by reverting us all to neolithic conditions and culture.I think, also, that if you looked at some statistics you'd see population growth is pretty small in most industrialized countries. Most of Europe, Japan, China for example people are having babies older (because they can choose not to have them at a young age) and less children per genome pair (duck-speak for parents). Having 2 children per couple is, net, zero population growth. Having 1 child is negative.Oh, and of course you know I think adoption is pretty keen.

  3. Kathy– Thanks! Didn't take guts for me to say, though– but it did take more tact than normal.

  4. Ianaly: Notice how my appeal was to individuals, not to governments. Infanticide and gendercide result when governments force people to limit reproduction. People need to decide on their own terms what limits to set for themselves.As to your point about industrialized nations: well, so? People elsewhere are having bushels and bushels of children. My concern is about net growth on a global scale, not about growth in particular nations or states. Honesty? The planet needs some population decline. Even holding steady would be too much.

  5. I'm a member of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (for real). I think you are completely right on this and you said it well. I'm just not so sure that having a baby should be a right – you need a license to drive a car, but anyone can get pregnant? I admit to be a little cynical on this if only because when I was in high school so many girls were getting pregnant. Some by accident, some because they wanted a good reason to drop out, others to keep boyfriends, others so that they could get better welfare benefits (seriously).

  6. Jessica: Even people who probably shouldn't be having kids have a right to do so. It's part of that larger human right, the right to be stupid. Even if reproduction weren't a fundamental freedom, there would be no ethical way for governments to curtail it. When governments start deciding who does and does not get to reproduce, bad things happen.

  7. eleemosenary archivist

    Back in the mid-60's making a living (por moi) required traveling; on one occasion to India for several months. as Liason with GOI(Gov't of India) for a group of NY City doctors. c.600 millions were 'ruled' from Dehli then. We were briefed on every possible permutation of birth control &/or socio-economic solution that had been considered anywhere on the planet in modern times.Yep GOI agencies had even examined the National Socialist insanity. Consensus was, if mankind is going to self-extinguish, so be it. 'We' constitute a small fragment of a much greater universe.Yikes, where is this going?? Hope for a meteorite,I reckon. Anyhow, Jess, I hope you're feeling better today. ps: amongst the doctors in the group were several holocoust survivors. Made for some Veddy interesting discussion at the bar after dinner

  8. E. archivist: So which is it: we don't matter in the great scheme of the universe, or there is great providence in the fall of a sparrow? Probably choice A, but it's nice to pretend we matter.If humankind is going to kill itself off, fine (though I'm not wholly comfortable with that, since I am one of its numbers)– but until that happens, I'd prefer if humans stopped doing quite so much damage to the planet.

  9. From what I remember from biology long ago, populations crash when they reach a point that the ecosystem can no longer support them. Deer populations in the US are a prime example. Natural predators are killed off to provide increased populations for human hunters to kill, but the natural balance (and the deer that would have been prey to natural predators ignored by human hunters and "trophies" taken instead affecting the gene pool and the environment) no longer exists. There is a die off, the population is less healthy and there are periodic die offs with no "natural" balance in place – other than disease and starvation and predation of some sort. Kind of wonder when that will happen to humans and how that will play out when the crash happens. Not that I want to be around when it occurs…


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