Saturday, July 28, 2007

Talking Population With the Old Men

By Sharon Astyk
Casaubon's Book

Thursday 19 July 2007

Today is World Population Day, and again, the laments from my fellows on the ecological left are singing out in semi-unison "But no one is talking about population." I always smile when I hear this, because if you are a woman in the environmental movement with four kids, it does tend to seem as though we *are* talking about population, and not just on World Population Day. About 1/4 of my mail is about population - mostly about my personal contribution to it. And every time this subject comes up on the blog I get my ass toasted by all the flames ;-)

Fortunately, I'm a pale sort and the only way I can get decent color for a bathing suit is to get my heinie roasted now again, so it serves a purpose. Heck, let's do it again.

And frankly, I think it is really important that I talk about population - which is why I bring it up so much, heat or no (although I really wouldn't hate it if I had a little company among the similarly imperfect - I keep hoping for Rob Hopkins to jump in ;-). Because if those of us who have kids, even too many kids, don't participate in this discussion, the population debate will go on without us. Up to now, most of the loudest voices in this discussion have been men, mostly old men - Albert Bartlett, Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, and, of course, the grand old man of the subject, Thomas Malthus. And I admire and respect these voices and think much of what they say is true - not all of it, but a good deal. But if all of us, who do speak from a different experience, especially (but not exclusively) those women whose bodies any policies will play out in don't talk, don't speak from our perspective, we're in big trouble.

So I write about this, knowing that my position is suspect, my limitations visible, and with the pitter patter of little ecological footprints running about, but also knowing that because of this, when I say "let's talk about population" at least a few people might just pause and think that we can have this conversation. That some of the people who think that a conversation about population is just going to be a long screed about how they or their religion or their gender or their politics is wrong might know that at least one voice isn't going there. Or at least they might feel like there's someone else there to take the heat.

At least, I hope that's what will happen. And I have the hope that people might think that if I came to the table, the table might seem less a place for two hostile sides to bang their heads against each other, but for voices from the ambiguous middle to start to find a ground to speak on. Perhaps I flatter myself. I want to see population on the agenda everywhere, and after I point out to the ZPG folks that I'm something of fraught advocate, I'm very firm on the fact that I will work with them to get the discussion to the table.

But if I bring this to the table, I'm also going to bring a perspective that begins from the premise that we have to respect and trust the people most affected - women. I think that not only because I am one, but because I'm truly aware of the limitations of statistics and science, and why this isn't just a conversation about demography. I write from the perspective of someone whose physical body has experienced almost everything that can happen to someone in their childbearing years. I've written the next paragraph about 50 times and deleted it, because frankly, this is more than I want people to know about me. But I'm going to include them anyway because I think there's some real urgency to knowing where we speak from. And I think my personal desire for privacy may be less important than that we talk honestly about this.

I've gotten pregnant by intent and by accident, wept with frustration when I wasn't pregnant and with panic when I was unexpectedly. I've gotten pregnant in a secure marriage and been pregnant by a man who told me he'd leave me if I had the baby. I've gotten pregnant using every form of birth control known to man, often in combination, including those that aren't supposed to have a meaningful margin of error. I've endured side effects from birth control and miserable pregnancies as well. I've miscarried multiple times, and wished desperately for the continuance of a pregnancy. I've had an abortion, been grateful for my freedom to do so, and also regretted beyond measure having had it. I've given birth to four beautiful, wonderful children. I've had health scares and nearly lost an infant, had a premature baby and one that wouldn't come out even more than 2 weeks late. I've been angry and ambivalent and sad, and wracked with joy and delight and love.

I've breastfed and struggled to breastfeed. I've had a disabled child and non-disabled ones. I am now, in my mid-30s, done (barring any other weird miracles of fertility) with childbearing, although we hope someday to adopt. And there are plenty of experiences out there, thank G-d, that I've never had. But within those limits, I have lived in my body a significant part of the material reality of our childbearing, our medical system, and motherhood. Now that's not all there is to say about population, but I flatter myself that that means that I've got something to say that the old men might not.

I'm a pretty blunt person, and writing the above was difficult for me. I can understand, then, why even people who admit we have to talk about population struggle to speak about it. And for women, this can be particularly difficult, because in the abstract conversations about bodies, we bang hard into our real bodies, and our real fears about what can be applied to them. When people speak of abortion, as a solution, I think about my own, about the physical pain and deep grief it caused me - about the idea that someone would have a right to order me to act surgically. When we talk about one child policies, I look at my autistic, disabled son and ask "If I had had only one child, what would be his hope of survival and success in a depleted world? Who would care for him when I am gone? Who would love him and ensure his survival?" When we talk about birth control, I think about getting pregnant while breastfeeding, using condoms and the pill - and yes, I know that's statistically unlikely. But I'm here as the voice of the statistically unlikely - the real woman into whose body devices must be inserted. When we talk about abstinence, I wonder what the price of the failure of abstinence will be - will others pay a price I didn't? I wonder whether other women will always have the power to say no freely.

And of course, there's the blurring of personal history. When I talk about my implication in the population issue, I am necessarily talking about my real, here, present children who I love. It is one thing to acknowledge moral failure, and another to imply in any sense that I regret my children (nothing could be further from the truth, obviously). I met a woman at the Community Solutions Conference who told me that she worked for years for various environmental organizations, and never talked about her six children - children born before most of those organizations were founded. I've said this before, but ultimately, a movement that wants people to feel ashamed of the children they do have is bound to fail. So too is one that forgets that population is not a subject that comes up in isolation - that people have children for complicated reasons, and that things like money and power and military policy and medical care are mixed into this mess - if we try to talk about population without talking about the world around it, we will fail to change anything.

Demographers historically talk about population in terms of the I=PAT formulation, invented by Paul Erlich, famous for the book "The Population Bomb." I is total impact here, and it is the product of Population, times Affluence (consumption) and Technology (Technology here implies pollution, but it is interesting to me that this acknowledges that pollution and technology are so deeply intertwined). But feminist critics of the I=PAT formulation such as T. Patricia Hynes, in her book "Taking Population Out of the Equation" have pointed out that the I=PAT formula leaves all actors out of the equation - it is simply passive. That means it conceals power relationships - for example, the way that western consumption influences patterns of reproduction in the third world. That is, the way our need for endless stuff creates an incentive to have more kids to move into the factories. It conceals the realities that the ability to avoid pregnancy is often about power, access to medicine and war - a woman who knows her children are going to be impressed into service in the military, for example, has only one path of resistance if she wishes to have her children live - to have many children.

Donnella Meadows, one of the authors of "The Limits of Growth" writes about her own experiences of seeing Hynes and others complicate the I=PAT formula here: Meadows was initially resistant, but then says, she began to reconsider her equation when she began to think about how the disproportionate impact of things like the military and corporate power affect the equation,

"An equation was beginning to form in my head:

Impact equals Military plus Large Business plus Small Business plus Government plus Luxury Consumption plus Subsistence Consumption

Each of those term has its own P and A and T. Very messy. Probably some double counting and some terms left out. But no more right or wrong, really, than IPAT.

Use a different lens and you see different things, you ask different questions, you find different answers. What you see through any lens is in fact there, though it is never all that is there. It's important to remember, whatever lens you use, that it lets you see some things, but it prevents you from seeing others."

This is my experience as well - the way we phrase the discussion now is going to shape whether we are able to talk about population, and how, and whether we actually get anywhere. What we include and what exclude, how we think about religion, politics, war, justice, sex and everything else has to come with us to the table. That doesn't mean we can't narrow things down for the purpose of discussion - we'll have to. But how we narrow it, and who we bring to the table matters here. "Talking about Population" from environmentalists cannot be a code term for "Let's all agree that we shouldn't be having babies." I don't think it is for most people, but sometimes when I hear people lamenting that we can't talk about population, I think the problem may be the terms we're talking in.

Here are some things I think we have to talk about. If we're talking about voluntary limitations, do we mean really voluntary, or the kind of voluntary where you'll intimidate me if I don't comply? Can we offer financial and political incentives for people to choose fewer children without discriminating against minority groups who choose to pay the price? How do we deal with power disparities, like women who are victims of violence and the poor who may have limited control of their own fertility? Will we be improving the medical system so that someone's one child gets to live to a reasonable old age?

What will we do for the disabled? If I'd only had Eli, what assurance would there be that after my husband and I are gone, there will be someone to care for him? How about elderly parents? My husband and I have 7 parents between us and he's an only child. Will we form low-energy, low cost, human powered and humane ways to help us with this? What about women in India, who have to have 6 children in order to be certain one will live long enough to care for their parents in their old age. How will we make sure that a woman in India who has only one or two children does not starve to death when she gets old? Is it better to put our resources into discouraging her from having kids, or ensuring the ones who are born get to live?

What about war? Will the state be allowed to take my single child away and sacrifice him or her on the altar of resource wars? If someone voluntarily sacrifices their right to more children, must they also sacrifice those children's lives?

What about accidents? If we had a population policy, how would you treat someone who becomes pregnant by accident, or an abusive marriage, or by rape? Will we be requiring abortions? Pressuring girls into accepting birth control devices? Mandating sterilization? Offering it? Subsidizing it?

How will we empower women to control their own fertility? Will we grant universal health care? What do we tell women in poor nations who need children to grow food - go hungry for the good of the world? What will we do to prevent rape, to prevent domestic violence, to make sure women don't have to become prostitutes or sell themselves into marriage to eat?

How will we treat the religious, those who honestly believe that G-d requires something different from them? How will we bring religious communities respectfully into this discussion and listen to their voices? How will we bring poor women to the table to speak as equals with the old men?

What will we teach our sons and daughters about sex, love and family in a world with less energy, less access to birth control and medical care for many? What kind of family structures will substitute for the work and emotional needs now made up by aunts and uncles and cousins, nephew and nieces? How will the voluntarily childless get access to family life, ensure security in their old age?

I don't claim we have to have perfect solutions in place before we have this conversation, but we cannot simply speak in isolation of "how do we get the population down" - this is a messy, cluttered question. As Meadows put it, the equation is imperfect, complicated, troubling - and that may be the only way we can talk about this. Nor do I expect to like the answers I get in many cases - and that too is real. The real test of how committed we are to preventing disaster will be how we act when confronted with unpleasant truths that hurt us - whether, in the blur of our hurt, we can look past our personal feelings to the consequences of others, whether we can recognize that we don't want to know or acknowledge all truths, but that we have to begin in honesty, even if in pain.

So I join my voice with those who say today, on World Population Day, we *must* talk about population. We have to begin now, and bring everyone to the table. We have to begin going gently to a policy that will stabilize the world's population. But to get there, we have to decide how to shape the lens and the conversation so that it opens up as much view as possible, and doesn't close it off.

This is going to be a hard conversation - as hard as the hardest we're going to have. It will hurt - it already does. But I think the only possible answer is for all of us to try and take the broadest possible view, with the greatest possible courage and integrity. I don't know if I can do that - this issue has tested my integrity before, but I'd like to try, and I'd like the rest of us to try to begin.


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