What’s good yall? I went to a very interesting and challenging panel yesterday sponsored by ACTS, the Oberlin chapter of SYRF (Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom). The panel was on the intersections of spiritual thinking with the issues of reproductive justice and environmental justice. I’m obviously on a bit of an EJ kick lately, but the issue of reproductive justice and population has always intrigued and kind of scared me. Population is definitely one of the most touchy subjects within environmental circles and conversations, and I was interested to see how they’d field it.
The panel was made up of three speakers: Unitarian Universalist Reverend Greg McGonigle, the Director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Professor Carl McDaniel, a biologist and professor of environmental studies, and Rabbi Shimon Brand, the campus’ Jewish Chaplain.
Reverend McGonigle spoke first, providing some background on UU and then outlining the two fundamental values that help explain a UU perspective (acknowledging that UU is far from monolithic) on reproductive and environmental justice: interdependence and the inherent worth and dignity of every person. These values, while not conflicting, necessarily inform and clarify each other. We are individuals with choice, freedom, and differing abilities and privileges, but we are not defined only by our individuality. We are members of human and biotic communities, and must recognize that our actions and choices have impacts far beyond our individual existences. This has ramifications both for our consumption and our consideration of how many children we want to bring into a community, be it our towns, our countries, or our planet. Unitarian Universalists thus typically advocate for comprehensive, justice-oriented sexual education. Choices and options require education, health, and security, and the freedom to choose knowing the consequences and benefits. He ended his remarks by talking explicitly about global population. I thought he did a good job of respectfully acknowledging his privileged position as a white, middle class male, while maintaining that population must be considered as a topic for discussion while acknowledging that population control is not a viable solution for the issue. He ended with an example of interdependence by making the connections between greater population growth, which necessitates greater consumption of resources, which initiates more polluting industries, which has further effects on reproductive health by affecting womens’ hormones and internal chemistry.
Next came Carl McDaniel, who started off with a much more urgent call to resolve the population-consumption issue. While there were times I seriously disagreed with him, I thought that the use of the term population-consumption (rather than simply population) was valuable. We often have arguments about whether population or consumption per capita is more of a contributing factor to environmental degradation, but it’s important to remember the intimate connection between the two, and I think to avoid isolating them from each other. From his biologist perspective, he described how we humans have a very ‘expandable niche-breadth,’ which I take to mean that we can survive in a lot of environments rather than a narrow set, partially explaining our global range. He then brought up the mildly disturbing population statistic that the human species is as much as 100x more densely distributed than populations for any other organism of our size. Our degree of population and resource consumption is unprecedented, and it doesn’t bode well for our prosperity. He then detailed the historical example of the Polynesian society of Tikopia. Tikopia was close to approaching major ecological catastrophe, but according to Professor McDaniel managed to reorient its cultural values away from unfettered individualism to a more community-centric model. Forest resource use, marine harvesting, and most importantly, population growth were strictly regulated. With such restraint and understanding for how individual choices affect the community, Tikopia managed to maintain a reasonable standard of living sustainably. While accounts of Tikopia and its meaning as a historical experiment (when compared to a case like Easter Island, an unmitigated ecological disaster) are not unanimous, the message was clear: some kind of regulation, whether legal, cultural, or otherwise, is necessary to maintain sustainability and group prosperity.
Finally, it was Rabbi Shimon Brand’s turn. He began by qualifying his voice and perspective, pointing out Judaism’s relatively minimal global influence on policy and the environment (there are only about 12 million of us), and our dual insider-outsider status on the West, allowing us to understand intimately but also comment semi-objectively on Western philosophy and policy. He laid out three distressing predictions: 1) As long as our worldview remains essentially anthropocentric, we’re headed for trouble 2) As long as we believe that this physical world is only a precursor for a greater afterlife, we’re headed for trouble, and 3) As long as we overvalue constant expansion (whether through conquest, conversion, unlimited population growth, or consumption), we’re headed for trouble. This last one is obviously pretty well-understood by ecologists and environmentalists, but I found the historical perspective very interesting. Christianity and Islam are arguably the two most militantly proselytizing religions, such that the mission impulse (which I might point out, is central to what the ‘think one person can change the world’ motto was originally all about,) and the strong proscriptions against contraception both make major contributions to a worldview that is inherently competitive, antagonistic, and self-centered.
I agreed to some degree with his first two points, but felt they could use some qualifying. First of all, ‘biocentricity’ smacks of an overweening sense of authority, as though a select group (say, white male ecologists) know what’s best for the biosphere, and ought to be entrusted with its management (because nature is fairly inevitably managed). A degree of anthropocentrism is inevitable, and it seems to me to make more sense to acknowledge that and recognize that that doesn’t preclude enormous respect for limits and the worth of the biosphere whether it helps us or not. For the second point, I felt like the intention was in the right place, but that the greater point relies on our recognizing the external effects of our behavior. Most ecological degradation is, I would imagine, attributable to individuals with quite a high regard for this world’s physical properties. It’s just that their wealth happens to be based on destruction, pollution, and degradation far from their own homes. We need a greater recognition for the Earth as home, not just our own clean, healthy environments, prosperous at the expense of others. When global problems catch up with them they’ll learn better, but the issue isn’t heaven so much as the hells we create far from our consumer economies, our gated communities, and our unreal sense of security.
Though I had to go to get to lab (gotta love the vernal pools), I stuck around for a couple questions and statements. The one I found most challenging addressed the age old issue of whether or not population is really an environmental issue. The speaker suggested it was not, arguing that global north consumption and affluence is far more heavily implicated than global south population growth, and implying (I don’t remember if she said it outright) that it was problematic for us, especially given the spectre and history of colonialism, to mandate third world, poor, people of color reproductive choices. Though I disagree that population is not a valid environmental concern, I do think it’s important to raise this point. Womens’ bodies, especially in communities of color, have undeniably served as battlegrounds not only in colonialism but in apartheid, within-community patriarchal oppression, and also in violent conflict in general (one has only to look at Darfur, the Congo, Afghanistan, or any other number of particularly violent zones.) Under no circumstances can I believe that population and reproduction ought to be controlled. Nor do I believe that third world communities ought to be condemned for their population patterns.
However, that does not suggest to me that population is not a concern. In the first place, overpopulation (while understood in the context of cultural values, lack of comprehensive sexual education, rural economic choices, and poverty) typically does not, in a global south context, bring prosperity to the countries in which it is most severe. There are major correlations between poverty, hunger, disease, violent conflict, and lack of education, and they are both caused, and are a cause of overpopulation. The way to deal with overpopulation is providing people with things we ought to want to provide them with anyway: education, health, and security. It’s a fairly self-reinforcing cycle. In the end, while population control must be off the table, dealing with population by dealing with development is a different matter. Obviously, this necessitates that affluence be less resource intensive than it is (and can no longer continue to be) in America, but the fact is that almost entirely across the board, when women make more money, go to school more, and live more secure lives, they don’t have as many children because it makes more sense to them not to. This has been the trend in South Asia, Latin America, East Asia (one-child policy notwithstanding) and of course Europe. It is only the world’s failure to cooperate and coordinate for African development that keeps their population growth so high. Population has been often characterized as a matter of choice, and in the context of abortion rights it’s understandable. But in the developing world it seems that most women have spoken; they want less children, more education, more health care, and more contraception. Whether or not we believe that the decision to have children does not impact the wider community, we must surely be able to unite around the goal of poverty reduction.
All in all, while it was only about 45 minutes, I was glad to have the opportunity to engage with these issues. I know these are sensitive issues; I hope that no one is offended by the views I’ve chosen to voice, and that if anyone does have a problem with them they feel free to say that and bring it up. I’d love for this blog to become a place of real dialog.
Peace yall, off to real work.